September 17, 2010

Review of Waterbuster

Someone sent me a copy of the documentary Waterbuster, so here's my take on it:

Waterbuster (2006)Filmmaker Juan Carlos Peinado returns to his family's former home in North Dakota to honor the death of his grandmother, and uses her story as a backdrop for examining how the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation of Native Americans were driven from their land in the early '50s. At that time, the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota was one of the most successful in the United States, with agricultural projects bringing in a steady and solid income for its people while they were able to retain a firm hold on their native language and traditions. This came to an end when the Army Corps of Engineers were called in to deal with flooding along the Missouri River, which was causing serious problems for North Dakota's farmers. It was determined that a series of dams were needed, which would result in a man-made lake that would stop the flooding; while there were a number of places where the dams could be effectively placed, the ACE chose to build them so that 156,000 acres of the Fort Berthold Reservation would be submerged, effectively destroying the reservation and displacing the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation. While the dam project violated a number of treaties protecting the reservation, the project went through, and what once was a thriving Native American community is now an artificial lake, which thanks to silt problems has lost its appeal as a tourist attraction. ~ Mark Deming, All Movie Guide“Waterbuster”:  Reclaiming a Submerged Legacy Along the Missouri

More on the story

Flood Control Act of 1944The act transferred ownership of large parcels of land from around the Missouri River, more than 20% of which was owned by Native Americans, to the Army Corps of Engineers.

A major outcome of this legislation was to destroy more Native American land than any other public works project in the history of the United States. The Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes lost 202,000 acres (820 km2). The Three Affiliated Tribes, specifically, lost 155,000 acres (630 km2) in their Fort Berthold Reservation due to the building of the Garrison Dam. This project caused more than 1,500 American Indians to relocate from the river bottoms of the Missouri river due to the flooding.
Dam compensation for tribes proposed

S.D. delegation favors review of decades-old claims

By Ledyard King
Much of the flooded land included hunting grounds, agriculturally fertile areas and wooded tracts where timber was harvested, according to the office of Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat and lead sponsor of the measure. Flooding forced thousands of Native Americans to move to the highlands where land was less productive. Homes had to be rebuilt.

The amount of submerged land ranged from 1,000 acres to more than 100,000 acres, all without input or approval from tribes. At the Crow Creek Sioux reservation, more than 1,000 people were flooded out because of Big Bend, which was built from 1959 to 1963.

Not only was land permanently submerged but vital government services, such as health programs and food assistance--once offered on the reservation--were relocated miles away to Pierre, said Duane Big Eagle, chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux.

"Everything was right here," he said. "The economic balance of Indian life, what was created by the older Indians, was all taken away in a heartbeat because nobody was given a chance to be treated fairly."
Tribal flooding addressed in new Senate bill

By Rob CapricciosoA bill has been introduced in the Senate to create a pathway to resolve problems imposed on the seven tribes whose lands were flooded by the infamous Pick-Sloan Program dams.

Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., introduced the Pick-Sloan Tribal Commission Act late July to seek a commission that would hold hearings and study the outstanding issues in order to make final recommendations to Congress and the Obama administration for a comprehensive resolution of the tribal claims.

The Flood Control Act of 1944 authorized the Pick-Sloan Program to stop flooding along the Missouri River as well as other purposes such as navigation and hydroelectric power.

As a part of this plan, five dams were constructed on the Missouri River, which flooded Indian reservation lands, community infrastructure, and prime agricultural and hunting areas. Although the tribes received some compensation for the lands, each tribe was compensated differently, and some promises remain unfulfilled, according to Dorgan’s office.
Rob's review

The Missouri River is the longest river in the US. But it rarely makes into the news, so who knows anything about it? Not me.

Waterbuster (the film is named after a tribal clan) shows us what life on the Missouri was like in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Turns out life was the same as in the rest of the West. Ranching, farming, fishing, Mom and Pop businesses, churches, schools, football games, barbecues, sock hops, horse riding, ice skating, an occasional parade or rodeo or circus, etc. This life was indistinguishable from life in other rural towns--except the residents were brown-skinned Indians.

The first part of Waterbuster could be called "Stereotype Buster" for what it reveals about Indian life. The mini-trailer above shows a representative scene from a home movie. In 1950, how many non-Indians knew that 1) Indians were still alive and 2) teenage Indian girls were performing as football cheerleaders? Maybe one in 100,000?

The articles above don't give the full impact of the situation. The Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara Indians were basically self-sufficient. They had their own banks, police force, phone system, etc.--a fully functioning series of communities.

The land was some of the richest farmland in the country. The Indians had lived and worked it for 50 or 75 years. They knew things like the climate, the soil, and the river intimately.

Then, in a decision similar to the Trail of Tears, the US government forced them to abandon their homes. Communities were smashed; families were broken up; individuals were sent to distant cities such as Los Angeles. The government targeted the Indians while leaving the neighboring communities alone, which made it a prime example of environmental racism. Floods were hurting white people so the solution was to flood Indians instead.

Treaty land?  Too bad

How did the government justify this? The white power of eminent domain trumped Indian treaty rights. I couldn't find a list of the worst eminent domain cases in US history, but in terms of number of acres taken, this may be the worst. (If it isn't, some other theft of Indian land probably is.)

Many of our families have lived in the same city or town for generations. Now imagine if the US government told you that your longtime hometown was going to cease to exist. That your relatives would be relocated to Texas or Florida while you'd be relocated to Canada. That you'd have to find a new job, school, church, etc. in a foreign country without help from anyone.

That's about what Indians faced when the US forced them to move elsewhere. Is it any wonder that this action accelerated the loss of their culture, language, and religion. That some of them turned to drinking or abuse or became depressed or sick?

The Pick-Sloan travesty is the kind of case Americans should know about. The theft of Indian land didn't end in the 19th century. It was still going on when I was born. It's still going on in places today--for instance, the Belo Monte Dam that threatens to flood Brazil's Xingu River basin.

Anyway, Waterbuster is an enlightening documentary. The first half leading up to the dams' construction is the best part. The second half, which focuses on the filmmaker's family members as they struggle to keep going, is less compelling.

If it were me, I probably would've condensed the film or split it in two. Regardless, it's definitely worth watching. If you can find a copy, see it.

Rob's rating:  7.5 of 10.

For more on the subject, see Native Documentaries and News.

Below:  Indian children in happier times (from the Waterbuster DVD).


Stephen Bridenstine said...

I'm glad to see you finally saw Waterbuster. I saw it last Summer and it was definitely an eye-opener!

Up at Fort Berthold, Garrison Dam is practically a curse word.

Now you know why I put it on my top 10 movie list two weeks ago!

dmarks said...

I'd sure love to see this one. I'm quite familiar with the site and situation, having visited the MHA Nation and talked with people there about this sad history....a particular event I'd never heard of before.

The situation has started to improve there some because of casino money.