Hearing that tampering with the environment devastated a local community may not surprise you. On a “smaller scale,” we encounter the impact of the environment on our patients’ health everyday, perhaps even our own health, whether it be asthma, diabetes, etc. Still, I’d like to share with you a little about one of the more recent, overlooked insults to the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara (MHA) Nation/Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation: the circumstances of the Garrison Dam. Even if the overarching theme may seem all too familiar, its details seem to be lesser known, and by no means are they any less significant, especially to the people of New Town, North Dakota. Branches and branches of issues have stemmed from this project. And as eloquently articulated by our co-resident, Dr. Joe Burns in his recently published article on “Land Rights and Health Outcomes in American Indian/Alaskan Native Children,” “relationships to land are closely tied to culture, health, and wellbeing for Indigenous peoples, and because settler colonialism ultimately eliminated self-determination and access to resources, [American Indian] people [have been] predisposed to experience traumas and health disparities.
In 1947, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took on a 6-year project to construct a dam in order to control flooding and to develop hydroelectric power along the Missouri River in central North Dakota. This would take up 152,360 acres.1 Placing a dam created an upstream reservoir, which the U.S. government named Lake Sakakawea.2 Perhaps the most astonishing figure was the loss of 94% of their agricultural land from flooding by the reservoir. Not to mention the deluge lead to the destruction of the towns of Sanish, Elbowoods, Lucky Mound, Shell Creek, Nishu, Charging Eagle, Beaver Creek, Red Butte, Independence, and Van Hook.3 The banks of the Missouri River in this region have been the home to the MHA natives for thousands of years. It defined their cultural practices: their relationships, the food they ate, their ceremonies, and permeated their stories and spiritual life. They were farmers whose earth lodge villages also served as rich trading centers, attracting both native nomadic tribes and foreign European travelers. Over the centuries for various reasons, whether it be smallpox or boarding schools, their way of life has already been chipped away. To make matters worse, the final settlement legislation denied the tribes the right to use the reservoir shoreline for grazing, hunting, fishing, irrigation development, etc. for cultural purposes. It also denied them the royalty rights on all subsurfaces. The residents were relocated to “New Town.” The tribes were ultimately remunerated $7.5 million, but they had little actual say in the matter as it was confiscated under eminent domain, in the context of the 1935 Rural Electrification Act, one of the New Deal proposals from the Great Depression.
Eminent domain is obviously controversial – is there “just compensation” in this context? And where is the data to compare the benefits of this dam, from the cons? At the time of inception, it would have created the second-largest reservoir in the world to collect water for irrigation and regional water needs, supplied jobs and electricity, but not enough effort or attention seems to be paid to measure the biopsychosocial harm to victims of the project. One of the government websites about the dam promotes it without so much a word of its negative impact: “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversees management of the public lands and waters of Lake Sakakawea which provide a variety of benefits to the public which include: recreation, fish and wildlife, flood damage reduction, hydropower production, irrigation, municipal and industrial water intakes, water quality, and navigation.” As healthcare workers, we learn to recognize that this kind of trauma to the community affects its individuals’ mental hand physical health, and that the effects of this trauma can be intergenerational. Altogether they ripple through the healthcare system as well, creating more problems than there are resources. One of the healthcare workers in the community told me there was no accessible public data regarding the prevalence of mental health issues including suicides; but, he said, nearly everyone he knows has known someone who has either attempted or succeeded in committing suicide. The need for mental health providers is glaring, but he wishes he had the data to underline it.
If you visit the Interpretive Center in town, a cultural museum of sorts, you can listen to recordings of some of the displaced persons recalling their lives before the dam was constructed, and you will see on the plaques next to them note they are now living in bigger cities like Bismark, or having moved to South Dakota. The relocation fragmented the community and the stories of crossing the river or farming, are now but scenes to imagine of the past. And if you speak with some of the locals, you will also learn that some feel that losing their farming way of life has definitely impacted the food they eat and the work they do. Unfortunately, all this is not unique to MHA nation. The Indian Relocation Act (1956) forced Native Americans into urban areas, severing connections of many indigenous people to their heritage. This often correlates to subsequent consumption of low-cost processed foods whether by government aid or relocation to food “deserts,” combined with other historical trauma and adverse childhood events, placing individuals at risk to develop obesity and diabetes, among others — diseases already noted to be too prevalent among Native American youth.
If we agree that the environment (natural environment, land rights) is a significant determinant of health in such communities because it can be protective and a source of healing, then we know that this dam plays a role in the decline in health of the MHA nation, and there is an inherited a duty to at least acknowledge and then to work towards healing those harms. And these kinds of issues will continue to compound if we let them: new struggles with land rights and environmental transformation come in the form of the pipelines and the concerns regarding the effect of oil drilling on air and water quality.
Endnotes, other thoughts:
- Unclear to me whether this trimmed the 988,000-acre reservation or the area was determined to be that size thereafter. Of the 988,000 acres of that reservation, only 457,837 acres are owned by the Native Americans. The rest is designated alternatively, for example, as wildlife refuges, etc.
- This turns out to be rather ironic on several levels because these lands were owned by the Three Affiliated Tribes who have inhabited these lands thousands of years before colonizers arrived and did not choose this name. Furthermore, the name is perhaps arguably more significant to colonial American history because she is remembered as a guide of Lewis and Clark. They did use the more “accurate” spelling of her name, as she may have been more commonly known as Sacagewea/Sacajawea.
- If you visit the town library, on a board in one of the side rooms, you can view pictures of the old towns, and a map to envision what the land looked like previously. It’s a small quaint library, and a quiet display, but one not to be missed…
1. Burns J, Angelino AC, Lewis K, Gotcsik ME, Bell RA, Bell J, Empey A. Land Rights and Health Outcomes in American Indian/Alaska Native Children. Pediatrics. 2021 Nov;148(5):e2020041350. doi: 10.1542/peds.2020-041350. Epub 2021 Oct 27. PMID: 34706902.