Dam Nation on the Missouri

On this July 4th, I’d like to talk to you about irrigation. (No, really.) And I hope at the end of it, you have a better sense of what critical race theory is and why we need it. 

Intrigued? Good. Let’s begin. 

The two largest artificial lakes in the United States, by surface area, are each about 600 square miles. They stretch and snake across the middle of the country in relative obscurity, overshadowed by Lake Powell, Lake Mead, and others. Ultimately, they tell the same story. 

In the 1940s, flooding was a huge problem along the Missouri River. The relatively flat High Plains terrain meant that riverside development was constantly in danger. Bismarck, ND saw a substantial flood every few years: 1884, 1897, 1899, 1917, 1938. 

The Mandan flood of 1943 spurred lawmakers into action. At its highest point, 75 percent of Bismarck was underwater. Over 20 percent of its population was left homeless after the flood. Congress asked the Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a plan, and Chief of Engineers Lewis Pick set to work with a series of proposed dams. 

At the same time, W. Glenn Sloan, a regional director in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, proposed damming the Missouri to irrigate 3.7 million acres of land in the High Plains, creating roughly a New Jersey–sized chunk of newly arable land. 

These two plans were consolidated, and the creatively named Pick-Sloan Plan was enacted as the Flood Control Act of 1944. Within months, construction on five major main-stem dams in the Dakotas had begun. 

Garrison Dam created Lake Sakakawea, the largest reservoir in the United States, when it was completed in 1953. But in order to flood the Lake Sakakawea basin, the federal government had to purchase 155,000 acres of land on the Fort Berthold Reservation, home to the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara). 

While the Fort Berthold reservation was roughly 1 million acres, the riverside land included the two largest towns, Sanish and Van Hook, as well as virtually all (94%) of the arable land contained in the reservation. 

See, the Missouri River, much like the Upper Mississippi, flowed through a valley that previously held larger amounts of glacial meltwater. As a result, the valley floor included not only the river but also frequently flooded (and therefore agriculturally fruitful) land that often housed far more ecological diversity than the endless grasslands above it. 

Native homelands unsurprisingly clustered around the river and made effective use of these “bottomlands.” The Three Affiliated Tribes, in particular, traced their history back through bottomland settlements for at least one thousand years before the Garrison Dam project forced them to vacate those lands. 

The United States government ultimately paid the Three Affiliated Tribes $7.5 million in exchange for the flooded land, but forbade them from using the newly created reservoir shoreline for grazing, hunting, fishing, or private irrigation.

The residents of Sanish and Van Hook were relocated, many forcibly, to New Town, ND, situated halfway between the original town of Sanish and the newly named Van Hook Arm of Lake Sakakawea. 

Similar stories are found downstream. Oahe Dam and Lake Oahe, the second-largest reservoir in the United States, flooded the entire river valley along the Standing Rock (yes, that Standing Rock) and Cheyenne River reservations, including arable bottomlands along many local tributaries. 

The Lower Brulé and Crow Creek reservations, on opposite sides of Lake Sharpe and the Big Bend Dam, both lost over 10 percent of their land, including nearly 100% of their forested land. Every habitat that the Lower Brulé had used to grow medicinal plants was flooded. But the Lower Brulé did not see any compensation until 1998, and even then, legislation only authorized payments of an inflation-adjusted $39.3 million. 

The Crow Creek reservation, itself created for Dakota exiles forced out of Minnesota in 1863 after the Dakota War, saw similar losses. Numerous archeological sites dating from 800 to 1400 were flooded, and Fort Thompson, the largest town in the reservation, had to be relocated.

Further downstream, the Fort Randall Dam and the Gavins Point Dam, along the Yankton and Santee Sioux reservations, have had similar effects. And this is to say nothing about the dams’ effect downstream, starving the Mississippi Delta of the sediment necessary to keep half of Louisiana above water.

Between Williston, ND and Yankton, SD, a river distance of over 700 miles, only two significant portions of the river were spared any flooding: a 60-mile stretch around Bismarck, ND, and a 5-mile stretch near Pierre, SD. In other words, the Pick-Sloan plan preserved the portions of the river where flooding would require the relocation of white developments, which now are the only settlements that get to reap the flood control benefits of the reservoirs that surround them. 

I’m sure that’s just coincidence. 

I’d end there, but it is worth pointing out, in our current cultural moment, that the anti–critical race theory view of the world is built on insisting that this is a coincidence (at least, setting aside those who would deny the facts altogether). Some of those folks know what they would find if they investigated that claim. They know the cruelty that forms the foundation of not only this country’s history, but its current structure. 

But plenty of others don’t know what they would find. Still, they’ve been conditioned to regard it with such fear that even understanding it appears to them to be an admission of defeat. The mere possibility of unraveling the image of an America that can do no wrong is sacrilegious. (I’ll leave the disconnect between this and the bellyaching about “big government” for another day.) 

You can’t have it both ways, though. Either we’ve truly defeated racism, in which case learning about how we got there can’t possibly hurt us, or we’ve got some ways to go, in which case ignoring how we got here will impede our shared goal of eliminating racism. 

Unless, of course, the goal of eliminating racism isn’t shared. 

I’m not the first person to note that critical race theory, which studies how the power structures in this country have evolved to perpetuate racial stratification and anti-Blackness, is entirely consistent with the anti-CRT backlash. The codification of racial fear in order to avoid conversations about racial animus follows a pattern as old as the country itself.

When viewed in this historical lens, the difficulty people have with seeing the anti-Blackness makes sense. Seeing it would require seeing so many other parts of society as potentially suspect. It’s a litany of difficult conversations that seems easier to avoid. 

Of course, even the Black and white view that permeates the current CRT “discourse” is incomplete. Consider how the question of reparations is fundamentally different for Black and Native Americans, for example. As a result, CRT has branched out to account for the experiences of various marginalized groups, and numerous formulations of TribalCrit have been put forward. These largely focus on imperialism, desires for material gain from Native lands, and goals of Native assimilation. 

But assimilation doesn’t just occur through forced stays at boarding schools and thousands of dead Native children. And material gain from Native lands doesn’t just refer to pipelines and oil wells

Sometimes it’s one million acres of flooded bottomlands along the Missouri River, under lakes with Native names. 

Sometimes it’s a Native community with no place to grow the medicinal plants it’s relied on for hundreds of years. 

Sometimes it’s a prohibition on using the lake that flooded your ancestral homeland for any normal lake-related activities.

This is America. And regardless of your opinions on critical race theory and its conclusions, the only way to make America better than its current self is to address its failings head-on. 

Hope you have a contemplative July 4. 

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