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Their Mud and Bones

by Bill Lambrecht

Tens of thousands of American Indians lived and died along the Missouri River, and many are buried in its banks.

The Four Bears never saw a White Man hungry, but what he gave him to eat, and Drink, and a buffalo skin to sleep on, in time of need. I was always ready to die for them … . I have done everything that a red Skin could do for them, and how have they repaid it! With ingratitude. I have Never called a White Man a Dog, but to day, I do Pronounce them to be a set of Black hearted Dogs.
— Mandan Chief Four Bears, as he approached death from smallpox:  1837, Fort Mandan

There are no trees lining the river any more, any plums turning ripe in July.
— Elizabeth Cook-Lynn:  "The Clearest Blue Day"


I made my way to Indian country to discover the consequences on the Missouri of Lewis and Clark, who opened the way to all that has followed. Change is a human measure, and Indians have borne so much that has happened in two hundred years on their backs.

As I went investigating toxic dumping on tribal lands in the final years of the last century, I consulted Hopi spiritual leader Thomas Banyacya in the Arizona desert. Banyacya was the last of four messengers named by Hopi elders in 1948 to warn the world of impending doom, and before he died in 1999, at age 89, he became a prophet for global peace and for balance in the environment. He told me he was thinking of taking some of the hazardous waste showing up on reservations and spreading it on the White House lawn. Nature, said the elder in his long braid, is difficult to understand because it doesn't talk to us, and neither do the plants and animals we threaten with extinction. We're just as alien to cultures we don't understand. Making his point, he recalled the response of an old Indian told that white people were taking away his land. "Where are they taking it to?" the old man asked.

Now, as I seek to understand what I am seeing along the Missouri River, I have returned to tribal land.



I am a black-hearted dog.

The contempt American Indians feel toward me at this moment might even rival the store they reserve for the Army Corps of Engineers.

I am crawling along the shoreline of the Missouri River, pawing through the detritus of civilizations. In my pocket I have slid fingernail-sized pieces of ceramic pottery and a triangular bit of stone that I call an arrowhead but is rightly known as a bird point. I also have collected a thin, featherweight piece of something that I later learn is an awl, a tool carved from buffalo bone more than a century ago for punching holes in buffalo skins. Just where along the Missouri River I scavenge I will not say.

I am walking on higher ground now, in a weedy stretch that was submerged for years until the drought of the new century. Sumped into the water here is a chunk of earth the size of a Volkswagen Bug. The powdery loess soils hereabouts are no match for pounding waves and the artificial ebb and flow of water running through the Corps-operated dam upstream.

Even in sunglasses, I know the nature of the smooth white curved surface reflecting at my feet. It is bone. A human bone.

I am uneasy, to say the least, because I am trespassing. And that is not the half of it. If I persist in what I am doing, I might well violate the Archeological Resources Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Native American Graves Protection Act and probably something more. Regardless of my excuses — writing a story, conducting research or whatever line I can manage if apprehended — I have no business being here. I was so reminded earlier along a native shoreline where I encountered a confab of rattlesnakes the color of parched grass standing guard in the tall weeds of a known archeological site. When I told them I just wanted to look around, they seemed to listen and scattered in the four directions, like celebrants at a Native American ritual. Except for one unremittingly noisy sentinel, she of eight rattlers.

Where I am now is no certified archeological site, despite the relics it gives up. Nonetheless, having seen one human bone and then another, I know it is time to leave, indeed to flee. In my getaway, I sink calf-deep in silt and fairly dive into my canoe. I push off from a brittle cottonwood limb so hard that it snaps with a crack that echoes off the bank, and I'm certain someone has shot at me. I float sideways downstream, breathing fast and thinking about the human remains I have just seen and the artifacts in my pocket. I decide I must go back.

Just like when I was 16 and my friend, David, and I swiped a chrome oil cap from under the hood of a hot-rod Malibu on a car-lot and then miles away, he tells me to turn around. "I can't do this; I'll have to confess it," he said. I paddle back upstream against the current. It is farther than I recalled, and in the afternoon heat I am dizzy. I worry that I am being seen from the hillocks of the western shore through the binoculars of the sole Army Corps of Engineers ranger assigned some 400 miles of shoreline hereabouts. Perhaps he, tribal police, or a Bureau of Indian Affairs cop will be waiting where I put in. I am sweating, not sure of where I had been. I reach into my pocket and, without disembarking, fling the contents toward the shore. Floating again, I tell myself that — except for disturbing the order in which the relics lay strewn and having trod on the bones of a long-dead Indian — I have done nothing wrong.

But I am deceiving myself, like all the deception that has accompanied the treatment of Indian tribes with the damming of the Missouri River. For later, in my motel room, in my pocket I find that tiny perfect spear point.

Sacred Shores

In my pilgrimage to Indian country, I am not alone. Many thousands of history tourists are converging on the Dakotas, Montana, and Nebraska, following a trail that runs along reservation "hard roads," past Indian casinos that now stand as the centers of civilization in remote tribal lands. Most arrivals come by highway, but some via the Missouri River to, like me, sneak about on the fringes of the rez.

People were arriving in this first decade of the new century to commemorate an event that Indians and European-Americans view much differently: the Bicentennial of the exploration of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. That pair were the most purposeful white people Indians had ever seen, and their journey was even more fateful for American's natives than for the nation they opened to the far ocean.

After the Corps of Discovery came traders, painters, trappers, pioneers, settlers. Now, tribal land is being invaded by a new breed of 21st century explorers, hero-worshippers, re-enactors, roots-seekers, drunken day-trippers, walleye-slayers and, of dubious value to tribes, journalists. The newcomers are trampling inadvertently on sacred Indian sites, of which there are some 5,000 along the Missouri River, according to the best guess of the Army engineers who control shorelines along the river that used to belong to tribes. For other visitors, these sacred sites are destinations. This is the breed of intruder that Indians despise:  looters, vacation archeologists, and die-hard collectors, exploiters one and all, scooping up the sorts of relics that I have just seen, then digging into the banks for more.

Despite all that has happened to Indians, there are more of them in the river basin than most people know:  27 tribes, and those are just the ones recognized by the U.S. government. Tribes have lived along the river throughout history and recent prehistory, long before Europeans arrived. The Missouri River was a magnet for human settlements dating back as far as 9500 B.C. There's evidence of their presence then, and there's reason to believe that tribes were here long before that.

So tens of thousands of American Indians lived and died along the river, and the remains of many are buried in the Missouri River banks. If they and their ancestors are lucky.

All too often, bones wash from the banks; skeletons suddenly jut from the earth as banks wash away, as do funereal objects and other relics of earlier civilizations. They are washed from their graves by the flow of water in the Missouri River and America's newest great lakes:  Fort Peck, Oahe, Francis Case, Sharpe, and Sakakawea — impoundments that turned tribes into dammed Indians.

For American Indian tribes, among the earth's greatest respecters of the dead, that has meant learning of skulls of ancestors carved into ashtrays by modern-day grave-robbers and blood-stained buckskin shirts bringing steep prices in clandestine transactions.

Seeing their dead dislodged from the earth is just one more indignity, but one that cuts deeply.

Floods of Despair

After Lewis and Clark, American Indian tribes endured more disease — like the small-pox epidemic that came by steamboat in 1837 and reduced Four Bears's village from 1,600 Mandans to 130 — and then massacres, deceit, and forced relocations. Indians were confined to some of the poorest, most unforgiving land. Until the 1930s, the official announced aim of the government's assimilation policies was to destroy tribes. After that came the termination policy, and until the 1960s, the government sought to dissolve tribes' legal and cultural identities.

In recent decades, western tribes have lost as much as ten billion dollars in royalties from gas and oil in a government-mismanaged trust fund. Over two years in the early 1990s, I documented in many newspaper stories tribes' exploitation by waste brokers who came negotiating to turn reservations into dumps for chemicals, hospital waste, and even radioactive wastes from across the nation. Not only the environment and public health hung in the balance; the desecration of sacred lands further threatened these fragile cultures.

Amid all of that damage, the flooding of tribal lands along the Missouri River in the middle of the 20th century ranks among the most profound, systematic, and least-remembered violations of indigenous people.

In building the Missouri River dams during the 1950s, the Army inundated over 200,000 acres of Sioux land, forcibly dislodging 580 families. That was just in South Dakota during construction of the Fort Randall and Big Bend dams. In North Dakota, Garrison Dam took 156,000 acres from the Mandans, the Hidatsas, and the Arikaras, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, on the Fort Berthold Reservation. The flooding uprooted 349 families from some of the most felicitous bottomlands in the Dakotas.

The dislocation of Indian tribes is a sad, familiar tale, notorious from the forced relocation of Cherokees from Georgia to Oklahoma in the 1830s in the march that became known as the "Trail of Tears." The flooding of tribes during the dam-building days of the mid-20th century became a modern chapter in that tale.

Throughout Indian Country, tribes say they have not yet recovered. The specter of waters engulfing forever their finest ancestral lands continues to haunt the tribes, who insist that they never have been compensated — neither in money nor in public acknowledgment of the enormity of the insult.

Mice Beans and a Belligerent Brave

Indians still speak poignantly of tribal losses. Ladonna Brave Bull Allard is one of several women from whom I gather details of The Flood and the disconnection after the waters were made to rise.

"We gathered up the kids and sat up on the hill. We had no time to get our chickens and no time to get our horses out of the corral. The water came in and smacked against the corral and broke the horses' legs. They drowned, and the chickens drowned. We sat on the hill and we cried. These are the stories we tell about the river," said Brave Bull Allard. The granddaughter of Chief Brave Bull, she told her story at a Missouri River symposium in Bismarck, North Dakota, in the fall of 2003.

Before The Flood, her Standing Rock Sioux tribe lived in a Garden of Eden, where nature provided for all their needs. "In the summer we would plant huge gardens because the land was fertile," she recalled. "We had all our potatoes and squash. We canned all the berries that grew along the river. Now we don't have the plants and the medicine they used to make."

Her tribe's customs stretched back centuries; their ways were already old when Lewis and Clark documented them in the winter of 1804-1805. Among those old ways was the winter hunt for mice beans. "We would go down to the river and dig there to find mouse holes, where the mice had gathered the sweetest beans," Allard recalled of the then-unbroken continuity of culture. "Of course, we would put corn and beans in the holes because we wouldn't take the beans without leaving something."

The Flood washed that culture away. "Now, we have no more mice," Allard continued. "We have no more beans. I always thought, 'Who gave them the right to kill all the mice?' They fed our people. And huge cottonwoods stood on the shore. There is not one tree left. I tell the Corps of Engineers, 'You owe us two million trees.' We miss our trees. How much our lives have changed since we lost the river."

More than a lament, Allard has a vision for the future. "I keep thinking, do something, do something," she exhorted. "Save this river because it is our lives. It is everybody's responsibility to save the river. It has a life of its own. Maybe one day, it will take revenge on us for what we have done to it. Nature is stronger than us, greater than us, and we can never control it."

Tribes have pushed, with a smattering of success, to be part of negotiations about the river's environment and flow. In Nebraska, Omaha Indians won the promise from Army engineers to reconnect the river to a lake dried long ago when the river was re-engineered for barges. Until then, the Omahas' only river recreation was going to the banks to watch the barges float by, and they didn't come very often, Antione Provost, the Omaha Tribe's environmental director, told me.

Indians are overwhelmed by frustration. Allard's Standing Rock Tribe lost more acreage to The Flood than did the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota. But the impact on the Three Affiliated Tribes may have been more devastating. The Sioux had been largely nomadic tribes who came to farming and grazing later in their histories. But the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara — formally, since the mid-19th century, Three Affiliate Tribes — had settled much earlier into farming. They were descendants of village tribes living in cultural systems that had centuries-deep roots in place and time. They are the same peaceful, trade-loving Mandans who welcomed Lewis and Clark, providing them space, food, and friendship in the frigid first winter of their expedition.

My quest to understand the Three Tribes' loss took me to rural reaches of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Here, the Flood is remembered in Biblical terms as the divide between past harmony and present travail.

Celina Mossett — in her eighth decade when I awaken her at her double-wide mobile home — is still in her nightgown. But after having coffee and giving me some, she is ready to talk.

"Let me tell you a little story," she begins. "First came the cavalry and they took our land. Then they changed their name to the Corps of Engineers, and they still take and they keep taking till this day. And now we have nothing and have lost our way of life."

She and her late husband, Cliff, had their log home in a cottonwood grove along the Missouri. They raised horses and cattle alongside grapevines and orchards with plums and cherries, the remains of which lie at the bottom of the impoundment. Now Mossett lives 110 miles by auto from tribal headquarters and 14 miles from water. Now she must pay to have her water hauled to her by drum in trucks.

"We had everything; we didn't need anything. They took everything we had, and they just keep taking and they always will. I want my children and I want the children in our future generations to know this," she tells me.

Betrayal hangs in the air and wafts over the 178 mile-long, aquamarine blue lake that supplanted the muddy river. The government has since provided reparations, principally a 150 million dollar lump sum that contributes about nine million dollars in interest to the tribal budget every year. But tribal members have received considerably less than the value of land they lost to the lake, which amounted to one quarter of the reservation. They are still waiting for the free electricity they were promised. Nor have they yet succeeded in building the clinic to replace the hospital they lost.

Insult is compounded by the name the Army Engineers gave the betraying lake:  Sakakawea, a form of Sacagawea, the young Shoshone who was the only woman on the explorers' journey. The lady of this lake who the Corps pictures on its brochure is white, blond, and holding a walleye, a fish imported to these waters.

The enmity has deeper roots. In the stories the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras tell, their betrayer has a face and a name:  Lieutenant General Lewis Pick, that ubiquitous figure in the transformation of Big Muddy.

After engineering the Pick-Sloan Plan, Pick rose to head the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1946, he traveled to North Dakota to meet with the Three Tribes, who hoped for a settlement. Pick's attitude spoiled during that meeting, which took place in a reservation classroom, when he was confronted by a traditional Mandan chief, Drags Wolf, in painted face and war bonnet.

"You'll never take me from this land alive," Drags Wolf shouted at Pick.

To Pick, the display was a grievous insult. Labeling the tribes "belligerently uncooperative," he charged forward with a bullying plan that ignored their pleas.

Like other grandmothers, Celina Mossett recalls Lewis Pick, and his memory triggers her last flood of words. "They lie, they steal," she said. "They have never done right by my people. The things they have done to me and my people, I'll take to my grave with me. It has always been like this since Columbus set foot here. But I don't want to talk about this anymore because it makes my blood pressure go up."

Providing drinking water to the reservation would cost some 80 million dollars, I'm told. In 2000, as part of the so-called Dakota Water Resources Act, Congress authorized nearly that much — 70 million dollars — for just such a distribution system. There were celebrations and fulsome praise in editorials for the politicians. Yet the Three Affiliated Tribes remain thirsty — though Indians now know the difference between an authorization and an appropriation.

Everything Is Under Water

Along the Missouri River, The Flood always will be part of the story North Dakota Indians tell. I make that discovery again as I read an obscure Fort Berthold Indian Reservation report entitled Rural Water Supply System Phase II Planning, Volume I:  Needs Assessment."

"Before the Garrison Reservoir, 90 percent of the population of the reservation lived within the Missouri valley," according to the 1997 planning guide, which is also a history of the reservation. "Consequently, relocation required that 90 percent of the total population move their permanent residence to new homes on the highlands. Families were uprooted, shuffled and mixed. Every semblance of organization was destroyed and would have to be reorganized with an entirely different group of members. Relocation changed all aspects of life."

The spiral-bound assessment painstakingly detailed the changes. School ties ended:  "Elbowoods was the agency headquarters and the location of a boarding high school, grade school, and a day school. When Elbowoods disappeared under the Garrison Reservoir, every school child on the reservation had to change schools."

Roads were flooded, and people herded in a roadless wilderness:  "Eighty percent of the road system was within the Missouri valley and the area taken for the reservoir. The people relocated into areas of the reservation that were virtually roadless. To replace the inundated highway system it was necessary to build a system of 230 miles of new highways."

Snatched from a subsistence economy and dropped in a market economy, the relocated Indians found themselves destitute:  "The people of Fort Berthold had lived by a somewhat natural economy in the Missouri valley. There were numerous springs and creeks in the valley for water supply and the Indian people used river water to a considerable extent. Coal beds were available for fuel supply and plenty of wood for the same purpose. The timber in the river bottoms also provided logs for their houses, fence posts for their farms, and a natural cover for wintering their livestock. There were wild fruits and abundant wild game to supplement the food supply.

"The people relocated from the Missouri River valley to a residual highland area of the reservation where, instead of a natural economy, they faced a cash economy. They could no longer go down to the timber to cut logs for houses or fence posts because the inundated timber was lost. The wild fruit was practically all gone and game driven out because it no longer had cover. The livestock required corrals, feed lots, and barns to replace the natural cover of timber. Water must come from wells and fuel has to be bought."

Losses have been so many that tribespeople sometimes don't know where to begin. Many times, they start with The Flood itself, and often the stories have tears in them.

In New Town, North Dakota, Beverly Wilkerson tells me that she was just 11 in 1953, but her father had her drive the truck loaded with the family cattle up from the river bottoms. Afterward, the women in the family gathered at the edge of the rising water and, like the Sioux in the stories of Ladonna Brave Bull Allard, wept.

New Town, which sprang up after The Flood — is home to the Three Affiliated Tribes casino. Named after the great Mandan Chief Four Bears, who died in the apocalyptic smallpox epidemic in the 1830s, the casino is also the tribal cultural center. There I meet Edward Hall, who was a teen-ager in the year of The Flood, working on a crew digging up graves and moving long-buried ancestors to high ground.

"Where they moved us there were no trees, no roads, no electricity, no telephone. It was an economic and social disaster," Hall tells me. He left the reservation for a successful engineering career across the country, and he had recently retired back to tribal land because, he says, this is where he belongs.

At a tribal council meeting at Four Bears Casino, other business is put aside to help me connect the past and present. Councilman Malcolm Wolfe tells me that he was told long ago by an elder to take care of that river or some day he might be paying for what flows there. "Now I'm driving up to the convenience story to buy bottles of water," he says. "Our culture, our belief systems, everything is under water."

Tribal chairman Tex Hall, the pony-tailed leader who soon would have to fend off Wolfe's election challenge, continues the story. "We were fully self-sufficient tribes, with no welfare and no unemployment. But the dam devastated us. There is not enough money to compensate us for the damage that has been done because we haven't yet been made whole. To me, it's a human-rights issue and a discrimination issue," he says.

Later, I would meet up with Hall in Washington, where he reminds United States senators during a congressional inquiry into dam management that tribal members had called the Missouri River "grandfather" because it enabled them to survive for many generations.

I would also visit him again in North Dakota, where he tells me of Indians' desire to play a larger role in brokering the modern negotiations between upstream and downstream states over river management.

"We need to get everyone in the room, lock the door and not come out until we balance the interests of the upstream states, the downstream states, and Mother Earth," he says of modern river politics.

On Hall's office wall in New Town is a photograph taken on May 20, 1948, the day the papers were signed in Washington turning over land for the new lake. The signatories strike a stiff and formal pose except for one — tribal chairman George Gillette, who covers his eyes as he weeps.

"Right now, the future does not look good to us," Chief Gillette said that day.

From Big Muddy Blues, by Bill Lambrecht. Copyright © 2005 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.

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Articles in this Issue

Disappeared Detroit, by Jeff Byles
Flotsam and Jetsam, by Sarah Maria Gonzales
Their Mud and Bones, by Bill Lambrecht
We Were Here, by Donna L. Clovis
Library Privileges, by Andrew Phillips
Computer Science, by Michael Bywater
Anatomy, by Fritz Holznagel and Paul Hehn
Child Psychology, by Tim W. Jackson
Sportsmanship, by Grant McCrea
Nutrition, by Sharman Apt Russell


Bill Lambrecht has been a Washington correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since 1984. His journalism prizes include the Sigma Delta Chi Award and three Raymond Clapper Awards. He is the author of Big Muddy Blues and Dinner at the New Gene Café, and he lives near Annapolis, Maryland.

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