Archaeologists from the North Dakota Historical Society have concluded that construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) did not destroy sites sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and that no sacred sites exist within the disputed 1.36-mile corridor located on Cannonball Ranch, recently purchased by Dakota Access LLC. The Morton County Sheriff’s department and the State Historical Society now consider the matter closed.
For the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, however, the matter is far from over.
According to Jon Eagle, Standing Rock Sioux tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO), Historical Society representatives have not dealt honestly with the tribe.
“I was invited to a meeting on September 23 with the Morton County Sheriff, State Historical Society and other members of the task force investigating this issue where I thought we would discuss plans to visit the site,” Eagle said. “At that meeting, I was told [by Morton County Sheriff’s officials] that archaeologists were already at the location and that I would not be allowed access.”
DAPL officials had specified that they would allow an archaeological inspection of the pipeline easement only under the condition that no Standing Rock tribal officials were included.
Tribal leaders insist that the area contains dozens of burials, stone rings, effigies and other culturally significant features. Tim Mentz, former Standing Rock THPO, filed survey papers detailing locations of these features in federal court on September 2. Mentz’s family owns a business that does archaeological and tribal identification survey work; he conducted the survey on the disputed land with permission of the Cannonball Ranch owners weeks before Dakota Access LLC purchased the land on September 20. Prior to that date, the company had purchased use of an easement from the ranch owners in order to conduct construction on the pipeline.
On September 3, the day after the tribe filed papers, including Mentz’s survey, DAPL workers bulldozed piles of earth over the area containing archaeological evidence, according to Eagle.
Eagle said that the corridor should now be considered a crime scene.
Although the Morton Country Sheriff’s Department claims to have encouraged Dakota Access officials to allow tribal access to the site during the archaeological inspection, they consider the matter closed.
“Jon Eagle’s input was incredibly valuable to the taskforce in gaining an understanding of his opinion regarding the area,” said Morton County Sheriff spokesperson Rob Keller. “However, Morton County is relying on the expertise of the State Archeologists who surveyed the property and have made a determination that no human remains or significant sites were found in the pipeline corridor.”
Morton Country Sheriffs are relying on a memo and report issued September 22 by Paul R. Picha, Chief Archaeologist with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, describing a pedestrian inventory (cultural resources survey) in which seven Society archaeologists surveyed the corridor at seven-meter spacing intervals, inspecting the surface and the sides of the soil berms that had been dug out to make a trench for the pipeline. The survey indicates that archaeologists found no evidence of human bones or burials.
Eagle was invited to the sheriff’s office on September 26 to discuss the completed state survey. He insists that the soil berms created by pipeline construction have destroyed and covered the artifacts and other evidence.
North Dakota Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Fern Swenson showed images of the group’s findings during the September 26 meeting that clearly showed how the soil covered half of a stone feature, according to Eagle.
Kim Johndal, spokesperson for the North Dakota State Historical Society, did not respond to ICTMN’s telephone request for information.
These events, however, amount to several good developments for the tribe’s claims that the area is a site of cultural importance.
“We are receiving public support from heavy hitters in the museum, historical and archaeology community,” Eagle said.
The Natural History Museum initiated a sign-on letter campaign asking archaeologists, anthropologists, historians and museum workers to join in calling on the federal government to include proper consultation with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in cultural and environmental surveys and impact statements regarding construction of the pipeline.
“We join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in denouncing the recent destruction of ancient burial sites, places of prayer and other significant cultural artifacts sacred to the Lakota and Dakota people,” the letter states.
So far nearly 1,300 people have signed the appeal, including prominent people such as Richard W. Lariviere, president and chief executive of the Field Museum in Chicago, and Brenda Toineeta Pipestem, chairwoman of the board of the National Museum of the American Indian.
What’s the next move for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe?
“That’s a good question,” Eagle remarked.
As for whether the tribe will allow the findings of the North Dakota Historical Society to go unchallenged, Standing Rock Tribal Archaeologist Kelly Morgan declared, “One would hope not.”