Missouri River

United States
Report By
Amy Corbin
October 1, 2002
October 1, 2002

The upper Missouri River ran freely through Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota until six massive dam and reservoir projects were built during the second half of the twentieth century. This 1,500-mile stretch of river has long been central to the life and worship of 26 local Native American cultures, including the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Sioux tribes and the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota. In2002 the Missouri River was listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in America. Scott Jones, Cultural Resources Officer for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, said in a Senate hearing on June 4, “The river gave us life and the ability to sustain life. It is still sacred to my people today.”


Since the glaciers receded 12,500 years ago, the Missouri River has been used by generations of Native Americans as a site for settlement, trade, prayer and burial. There are 1,100 archaeological sites eligible for or listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and thousands of ancient, cultural areas blanket the river basin. Some are now buried beneath the water of reservoirs, others have been destroyed by erosion as the artificial water levels rise and fall. Meanwhile, the Missouri River basin continues to be a place of native spiritual practices and burials. The natural flow of the river has long nurtured an ecosystem that is home to buffalo, eagles, wolves, fish, turtles and birds, in addition to a variety of edible and medicinal plants. As noted in the river’s nomination to the National Trust’s list of endangered places, “There is a direct relationship between the environment, traditional worship practices and the continued cultural survival of diverse indigenous groups.”

In 1944, the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act transferred acreage around the river—23% of which was tribal land—to the Army Corps of Engineers for construction of dams and reservoirs. The project destroyed more Indian land than any public works project in U.S. history. Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes lost 202,000 acres. North Dakota’s Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara) lost 155,000 acres of their Fort Berthold Reservation to Garrison Dam (see photo at left) and 1,544 people were forced to relocate.

The tribes were not consulted in these decisions, nor have they received the benefits of irrigation and hydro-electric power that came from the projects. The loss of land resulted in great damage to tribal agriculture projects, destroying economies and stressing local communities.


The flow of the Missouri River is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers through six dams that keep the river flow steady to facilitate the movement of large barges and to control flooding in the lower stretches of the river. The massive alterations in the river’s flow were made to accommodate the interests of a small number of industrial users—at huge cultural expense. The dams created artificial lakes which have flooded many ancestral native sites and erode the shoreline by as much as 30 feet per year. Every year, the interred bodies of indigenous people are found floating in the reservoirs.

In 2000, the drawdown of the reservoir at Yankton resulted in the exposure of a number of human remains, eroding two burial grounds at White Swan. Ancestors were also disturbed at a historic cemetery on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, named after the Mad Bear family, whose relatives are buried there. The tribes were successful in obtaining a restraining order against further drawdowns until the Corps had mitigated the damage at the two sites.

The captured river water is used to support growing populations and farmers, and to generate hydroelectric power. As the area’s population grows, the integrity of the river and its cultural sites are further threatened by recreation, vandalism, looting and urban expansion.

The Pick-Sloan legislation called for the Missouri River to be managed for six purposes: flood control, navigation, hydropower, recreation, water supply and fish and wildlife. Traditionally, the Army Corps has focused on flood control, navigation and hydropower. The Corps has drafted numerous management plans for preserving the area’s resources since the early 1990s, but has yet to implement, fund or follow through on any of them. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation nomination, “The lack of implementation of professional and scientific as well as tribal recommendations, combined with the unrelenting erosion and vandalism make the operation and maintenance of the reservoir projects by the Army Corps of Engineers the single greatest threat to the Endangered Corridor.”

The Army Corps’ efforts to control the river fit a long pattern of attempts to alter naturally flowing rivers in the belief that engineering will make the water work better for human use. A study by the nonprofit conservation organization American Rivers concluded, “The Army Corps is known for its deeply ingrained habit for building and operating water projects that inflict substantial environmental damage on rivers and freshwater habitats.” The Army Corps’ manipulation of river flows has driven two bird species (piping plover and least tern) and one fish species (pallid sturgeon) to the brink of extinction. These threats caused American Rivers to list the Missouri River as the Most Endangered River on their 2002 list of the Ten Most Endangered Rivers in America.

Pemina Yellow Bird of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation says, “The river is our grandfather, and he is sacred to us. This holy being is an endangered river. To me, that’s an oxymoron. How can that be? How can our river be dying? How can it be endangered?”


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the process of revising its Master Water Control Manual, which will dictate how the Corps will operate the system to balance needs called for in the Pick-Sloan legislation. This process of revision is subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It is unlikely that the Army Corps’ water control manual or the NEPA process constitute solutions or pathways to substantive change. The latest revised draft of the Master Manual is weakest in its analysis of the impacts on sacred and cultural places. Data is misleading, incorrect, and inconsistent. Lawsuits or Congressional action will probably be required to save the river, and the cultural sites it nurtures.

Still, the Missouri River Master Water Control Plan needs to be expanded and amended to provide additional guidance for the variety of environmental and cultural resources in the basin. This revised document should identify all the concerned parties, with particular attention to the sovereign indigenous nations of the area, and develop a strategy for extensive consultation and comanagement of the land around the river. The management plan should ensure that all applicable regulations are enforced, that all tribes in the region are consulted at every stage of the process, that cultural resources are protected, and that damage to cultural sites is monitored and prevented whenever possible.

Additional funding is needed for cultural site protection and public education—and it could come from hydropower revenues that now go straight to the federal treasury. For example, in contrast, a percentage of revenues from dams on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest are returned to the Bonneville Power Administration for mitigation of cultural and environmental impacts. The Omaha District of the Army Corps has prepared a $77 million wish list to address cultural resource issues on the Missouri River, such as stabilizing threatened sites, yet only $3 million has actually been allocated. At least $100 million is needed for surveys, stabilization, education and enforcement, according to the tribes whose cultural sites are being destroyed.

Members of Congress should vote against legislative riders attached to unrelated bills which seek to exempt the Army Corps’ management of the Missouri River from the Endangered Species Act or to return land to the states. The concerns of all the Missouri River Basin tribes must be central in determining river management. In the long term, removing the dams would be the most beneficial step for the impacted sites and the ecosystem; however this is unlikely in the foreseeable future given the enormous political opposition it would face.

What You Can Do

Write to Senator Daniel Inouye and ask him to support legislation which:

  • appropriates $100 million to perform cultural resource studies, stabilize sacred sites, support tribal monitoring and law enforcement, and educate the public about the issues (thirty million Lewis and Clark visitors expected soon),
  • requires co-decisional, direct input from Tribes, so that the money is not diverted to other Army Corps’ concerns,
  • requires that the Corps contract with all affected Missouri River tribes to complete cultural resource surveys,
  • requires the Corps to comanage sacred and cultural resources with affected tribes.

For further information, e-mail Scott Jones, Cultural Resources Officer for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, or phone him at 605-473-5399.


National Trust for Historic Preservation

For history and context, read the nomination document written by Lower Brule Cultural Resources Officer Scott Jones, which led to the Missouri River’s listing on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of endangered places.

Mni Sose Intertribal Water Rights Coalition

Conservationists to challenge Missouri River ruling.” American Rivers, July 9, 2004.

The National Academy of Sciences 145-page report exploring prospects for the recovery of the Missouri River—see chapter three, regarding ecological issues.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s biological opinion regarding current management of the river and the Endangered Species Act.