A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Endangered sites along the Missouri
Nearly 200 years after Lewis and Clark set out on their three-year journey to explore the West, the Missouri River is again making news. This time, however, it is not the vastness of the territory the river drains (one-sixth of the United States), or its length--2,341 miles from its headwaters at Three Forks, Montana, to its confluence with the Mississippi River at St. Louis, Missouri--but dramatic changes along the river itself.
Today, rather than meandering across its floodplain, as it did in the past, the river has been altered by a series of reservoirs and levees. No longer does the Missouri, often called the "Big Muddy," carry huge amounts of sediment that once provided the seasonal habitats for the fish and wildlife of the region.
Such problems have been exacerbated by a drought that has lasted for nearly four years along many sections of the Missouri. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the river is from nine to 15 feet below its average depth. Barge operators on the lower parts of the river argue that more water must be released from the reservoirs to maintain their $7 million-a-year industry. Environmentalists prefer a pulsed pattern of water release that would mimic the natural system in place before the dams were constructed. Those who rely on the river for recreation insist that water levels in the reservoirs must be kept high to maintain boating and fishing facilities that have grown since the river was dammed. In South Dakota alone, recreation along the river brings in $85 million per year.
The one voice not being heard is that of the Native Americans who live within the Missouri River basin, represented by 28 tribes in ten states. On June 4, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, chaired by Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), began hearings to investigate how the activities of various federal agencies affect Native American sacred places. Much of the testimony has focused on the destruction of sites along the Missouri River. Erosion along reservoirs and riverbanks has destroyed or exposed many ancient sites, and looting has become rampant. Tribal requests for funds to protect such sites have gone unheeded.
The concerns of Native Americans should be as important as those of the barge operators, environmentalists, and sport fishermen, if we are to preserve the rich cultural and archaeological heritage of those who first inhabited the Missouri River basin.
Nancy C. Wilkie is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.