The stated intent was to control the flow of the Missouri River, prevent the flooding of valuable farmland downstream and produce cheap electricity, and the project certainly did that. But the true impact of the Garrison Dam project in North Dakota was to rip the heart out of a community and set off a health crisis that continues some 70 years later on the Fort Berthold Reservation.
Before the Garrison Dam was built in the 1950s, there wasn’t a single known case of diabetes on the Reservation, and obesity was almost unheard of. But the project forced the relocation of hundreds of families, decimated their food sources, and subjected the people to a life of poverty. Today, the population suffers diabetes at a rate more than double the national average, and there are extremely high rates of obesity, hypertension and other adverse health conditions related to poor diet. It’s clear that the dam project has had the most dramatic impact on Fort Berthold since the smallpox epidemic of the 1800s nearly wiped out the entire population.
From Prosperity to Despair
In 1803, the United States purchased the rights to govern the Louisiana Territory, an area which spread from the Mississippi River west to the headwaters of the Missouri River. The Lewis and Clark expedition set out to find the headwaters of the Missouri, make contact with the Indians in the region, and report on the economic potential for the new territory. Soon after, the Missouri became the highway for fur traders, explorers, miners, and settlers.
Tribes that had settled in the Missouri River basin grew plentiful crops and hunted bison for sustenance, a healthy way of life that began to change in 1944 when the U.S. Congress approved the Pick-Sloan Plan for flood control on the Missouri. The Plan called for the construction of four dams that would impact 23 Indian reservations and result in the forced relocation of nearly 1,000 families. The destruction of Indian land, rather than that of the settlers, was no accident.
In carrying out the plan, the Army Corps of Engineers negotiated “settlements” with the Indians, ignoring tribal sovereignty, federal law, and treaty rights in the process. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) made no objections to the project while it was debated in Congress and none of the tribes were consulted. When the Corps arrived at Fort Berthold in 1946 to begin construction of the Garrison Dam, the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Reservation – the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara – had no idea they were coming let alone the devastation that would follow.
Construction of the dam would flood every piece of productive land on the Reservation – 156,000 acres of tribal territory in all – and force the relocation of nearly 90 percent of the population. On May 20, 1948, the Three Affiliated Tribes reluctantly signed an agreement that had been forced upon them, one that led to the destruction of the tribal headquarters and medical clinic and destroyed an entire way of life. Even the Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug conceded that, “This contract does not cover what these people have lost and further action is needed.”
The agreement had ignored tribal sovereignty and negotiated treaties while violating the Supreme Court’s ruling on tribal water rights. Looking back on the impact of the dam project, Philleo Nash, Commissioner of BIA during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, said the Pick-Sloan program had “caused more damage to Indian land than any other public works project in America.”
“The loss of agriculturally-rich lands decimated the Indian economy”
The amount of money offered to Indian landowners was well below market value and significantly less than that provided to non-Indians. Today, the Garrison Dam holds back the water of Lake Sakakawea, the second-largest man-made lake in the United States. Turbines there generate more than $40 million worth of hydroelectric power every year.
No longer able to farm, the residents were forced to either leave the area, take on low-paying menial jobs or go on welfare. The loss of agriculturally-rich lands decimated the Indian economy. Drinking water was now sourced from wells that yielded high-alkaline water, which has led to significant long-term health effects. Natural food sources were replaced with unhealthy processed foods. The construction project had triggered long-term unemployment, intense poverty and a decades-long descent into obesity, hypertension, diabetes, alcoholism and drug abuse, all in the name of settler prosperity.
As for the medical clinic that was wiped out, the federal government vowed when the agreement was signed that it would be replaced. The new clinic finally opened in 2012, 60 years after it was promised. The impact of that delay has been devastating and life on the reservation bears the scars of the invasive wound ripped open by the dam project.