Plains Folk

Great River


The Great River of the Great Plains is the Missouri. No other stream carries so much history or so much silt down its channel. It is the river of Lewis & Clark, and before them, great native civilizations who farmed and thrived on its benches. It remains celebrated today in song and in endless television fishing shows, all with the simple plotline, There’s a nice walleye, there’s another one, oh there’s another one. . . .

The Missouri is a river, too, of controversy. Whereas a mighty river might be expected to be a unifying force throughout its valley, the Missouri is the focus of unending dispute. Downstream states want, first, effective flood control, and second, dependable navigation. Upstream states want water retained for irrigation, municipal use, and of course, all those walleyes.

And it is a river of tragedy, much of it emanating from the execution of the Pick-Sloan Plan for big dams and multi-purpose river control. Enacted into law by Congress in 1944, Pick-Sloan was a marriage of convenience between the Bureau of Reclamation, which was mostly concerned with irrigation, and the US Army Corps of Engineers, which was mostly concerned with flood control and navigation.

Years ago I learned one tragic story of Pick-Sloan origin from the work of a master’s student of mine, Jim Genandt, who wrote the history of the Tuttle Puddle, a.k.a. Tuttle Creek Dam & Reservoir, on the Blue River, a tributary of the Missouri, near Manhattan, Kansas. The farmers of the Blue River Valley were so outraged about the inundation of their lands that they generated the only known protest song of the Pick-Sloan project, a song called “The Damming of the Blue.” I was the one, though, who figured out that the angry song was meant to be sung to the tune of “The Wabash Cannonball,” which, not coincidentally, is one of the spirit songs of the Kansas State University Wildcats.

The greatest tragedy, however, lay in store for the Indian peoples who lived alongside the great river. They had been settled by federal officials on reservations in the late 19th century and had rooted in these places of forced resort–only to find themselves redlined in the plans of the Corps of Engineers and uprooted by the aggressive General Pick. Pick and the Corps in several cases proceeded illegally to take land from the tribes by eminent domain, without congressional consent.

The story of the tragedy of the Three Tribes of Fort Berthold, North Dakota–not only their loss of lands, but also the destruction of their homes and towns–was told by Professor Roy Meyer in the state historical journal. The equally sad story of the Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Crow Creek, Rosebud, Yankton, and Santee reservations also attracted a capable historian, Michael L. Lawson. His 1982 book, Dammed Indians, is a classic of Great Plains historical research.

Now the South Dakota State Historical Society has brought out an expanded and updated edition of Lawson’s work under the title, Dammed Indians Revisited. In retrospect it becomes clear that the Corps of Engineers was able to run roughshod over native peoples only because at the time, it was federal policy to attempt to terminate Indian tribes and treaties. As for the white farmers who also were swamped by big dam progress–well, it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

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