“Water is my life struggle/’ says Phyllis Young, a Lakota woman from the Standing Rock reserve at Fort Yates, North Dakota.
Phyllis Young has been fighting for her tribe’s water rights for the last 20 years. She remembers when she was 10 years old being removed from the Missouri River basin. That January, there were 190 homes in the area that would be flooded in an effort by the U.S. government to control flooding further downstream.
“There was an elder called Red Tomahawk. He was blind and, using his cane, went to a top of a hill. He was blind but he could hear the rush of the water. He started to sing the death song for our people. That’s how he felt—that this meant death for our people. It was how they did it. There was no such thing as an environmental-impact statement in those days. They flooded thousands of acres of Indian lands,” remembers Phyllis, who was in Montreal to attend the Water and Indigenous Peoples Conference. The cradle of the entire Missouri basin was flooded, she said.
“I never knew all the conditions of colonialism,” remarked Phyllis. She soon learned about boarding schools and family members turned to alcoholism and welfare. The Lakotas were given $12 million compensation. About $7 million of that money was earmarked for “rehabilitation”—another name for assimilation because you got money if you were willing to move to a city and integrate into the mainstream life.
Thirty years later the government’s back for more water development. Hearings were held in three cities in the Dakota states. The Lakota and United Sioux tribes went to all hearings in force with the same message: “You took these lands by force. There has not been just compensation. For you to take our water is genocide. You cannot do this to us.”
People were shocked as they didn’t realize that Indian lands had been taken. Congressional hearings resulted and a joint tribal advisory committee was set up to hear the tribes involved. The tribes asked for $365 million and Congress approved $100 million in 1992.
The U.S. negotiators came from the Army Corps of Engineers, which controlled the river systems and the hydroelectric dams. One of the top U.S. negotiators was a Colonel Jones. The Standing Rock Lakota were Sitting Bulls’ Band and they were the ones who lead the charge against General Armstrong Custer. Colonel Jones apparently felt that these Indians were responsible for what happened to Custer and they weren’t going to get anything. He was removed as being not objective.
The Lakotas’ sacred Black Hills are under seige once again, but not just by the government. Homestake Mines, which runs the largest gold mine in the world in the area, would like to expand it into an open-pit mine. Homestake has contaminated the entire system of Spearfish Canyon. When ordered by the government to clean up its act, Homestake just milled the uranium trailings.
With Homestake’s past record, the Lakota don’t want a surface mine that would leave huge scars on the land. The Lakota people are fighting and hope that they will be as successful as they were against Union Carbide, which they have already stopped from coming into the Black Hills.
In 1984, the Lakotas joined with non-Indian ranchers in the area to form the Indians and Cowboys Alliance to prevent the building of a gunnery range in the Black Hills. Phyllis stressed that such alliances and environmental groups have been instrumental in preserving lands such as the Black Hills. She said the people who would see further development on Standing Rock lands take into account the traditional uses of the lands, not the dollars that are trying to buy you out.
More coverage of the Water Conference on page 26.