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Tribal/State leaders talk common interest over water

BISMARCK (UTN) – Having a common interest is the cause for banding together to protect water rights in the Missouri River as it flows through North Dakota. That was the theme of talks by state and tribal leaders September 5 in Bismarck.

North Dakota U. S. Senator John Hoeven reached-out to tribal leaders attending the United Tribes Summit to fight for unrestricted access to water in the Missouri River. Under discussion is an proposal by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers to charge the state and tribes for use of the water.

“We just can’t allow it,” said Hoeven. “It’s intolerable. It’s ridiculous.”

Hoeven appealed to tribal leaders for help saying, “your ancestors were here taking water out of the river before there was a Corps of Engineers.”

Hoeven recalled the history of sacrifice made 50 and 60 years ago for the Oahe and Garrison Dams that inundated thousands of acres of land of the Standing Rock Tribe and Three Affiliated Tribes respectively. North Dakota and the Tribes gave up their best, most productive lands along the river for the reservoirs that were built to protect against downstream flooding, he said.

“And now the Corps comes and wants to charge us? This is outrageous and cannot stand. We cannot allow it,” he said emphatically. “We, the State of North Dakota and Tribes together, we cannot allow this.”

Hoeven said the state is fighting the idea every way possible, including litigation.

“If they still try to impose it, we’ll sue ‘em. We will not let this stand,” he said.

Hoeven characterized the fight as a battle to protect state and tribal water rights and he urged tribal leaders to use their influence in Washington.

“You have a lot of influence,” he said. “As you talk to the Corps, Department of Interior and the administration…you need to make sure you are raising this issue.”

Agreeing with Hoeven was Chairman Tex G. Hall of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara Nation at the Fort Berthold Reservation, which was bisected by Lake Sakakawea created by the Garrison Dam.

“In my opinion, the Army Corps is simply a water manger. They’re not an owner of the water,” said Hall. “The tribes and the state are owners of the water in the river.”

Hall questioned the authority of the Corps, as a manager, to charge the owners.

“I’ve never heard of that before,” he said, getting a rousing applause from the audience. “I think bureaucracies can get so huge that they assume authority they don’t really have, unless they’re challenged. It’s time for all of us, collectively, to do just that.”

Hall characterized the proposal as “an ongoing issue.” The Corps conducted a public hearing on it in North Dakota in late August. Hall said he met with Corps officials at the Pentagon in Washington to describe the history of how the reservoirs came about.

“We showed that infamous picture of our chairman in 1948. George Gillette was crying when our tribe opposed the construction of the Garrison Dam and it was forced condemnation,” said Hall. “So, you need to familiarize yourself with North Dakota if you’re gonna create policy against us in North Dakota and against our tribe.”

Hall said he came away from the meeting “more positive” that they were willing to learn more and understand how tribes have “primary water rights” and that permission is needed first before owners are charged for use of their water.

Standing Rock Chairman Charles W. Murphy added his support for protection of tribal water rights. Murphy said he believes the “federal government wants to say that they own the water.”

“Our water rights are important,” said Murphy. “Those waters belong to the tribes. And we’re not going to buy our water. It’s unreal the way the federal government is treating tribes when we were here first.”

The discussion about Missouri River water took place during the opening day of the 16th annual United Tribes Tribal Leaders Summit, held in connection with the United Tribes International Powwow. The summit theme was: “Education is Leading the Way to Sustainable Tribal Development.” Other topics were: oil and energy development, law enforcement, health care, and economic development.


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