A site where thousands of American Indians once gathered to trade along the Missouri River is eroding fast. And legislators are looking to cut funding needed to fix it.

Facing budget shortfalls, the House voted to yank a $1.25 million loan authorized last session to repair the Double Ditch Indian Village Historic Site. 

“With our current budget situation, that is not what we consider a priority now,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood. “We’d much rather have the money go to vulnerable adults, K-12 funding, protection and public safety.”

The issue is now before the Senate Appropriations Committee, which may revise the bill to reinstate the funds.

The news has alarmed some historians, Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara members and local residents.

“This is one of the most important historic sites in the American West,” said Elizabeth Fenn, a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People."

"I’d make an argument it should be a UNESCO World Heritage Site," she said.

Due to erosion, at least 16 graves have been exposed. Last fall, members of the MHA nation reburied them.

“I’d seen a skull of my ancestor among the bones. That was the first time I’d seen a complete skull,” said MHA nation tribal historic preservation officer Calvin Grinnell. “It really impressed upon me that this is definitely a place that needs to be preserved."

"We ask and are asking that our human remains are respected," he said.

Double Ditch

The earthlodge village located 7 miles north of Bismarck was home to thousands of Mandan people from about 1490 to 1785. This village and others at the Heart River confluence were the centers of commerce and social life on the Northern Plains, Fenn said. The women were noted corn farmers, and the village was a trading point for many different tribes. People would come and camp for one to two weeks and trade agricultural and bison products. The Mandan people ultimately abandoned the town as smallpox devastated their population.

The state has owned the site since 1936, having bought it from private owners over an 18-year period, according to Fern Swenson, director of the archaeology and historic preservation division at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Due to its age, size and relative preservation, Double Ditch is a goldmine for archaeologists learning about native civilizations and the movement of Europeans, Africans and disease into the area. 

Fenn said study and understanding of the site is “barely beginning.”

Erosion

The site began seriously eroding during the floods of 2011, which washed out the "clay toe," a stable clay base at the bottom of the bluff, Swenson said. Soon, the hill started sliding into the river, causing cracks that have widened and exposed burials. Most recently, a new and threatening crack 75 feet from the river has emerged. 

A $3.5 million plan to stop the erosion involves building a rock trench to stabilize the bottom and placing pipe pilings along the side to stop the dirt from falling out, Swenson said. About $700,000 of that money has been spent already on Kansas-based Atwell Engineering firm. The project is a few weeks away from going out to bid and could be completed by fall.

Swenson said she worries that waiting on the project would lead to more damage at the site, requiring new engineering designs and more fees.

Funding

During the 2015 Legislature, the state historical society was promised the full $3.5 million in the form of $250,000 from the general fund, $2 million from the state disaster relief fund and authorization for a $1.25 million loan from the Bank of North Dakota.

The House Appropriations Committee decided last month to no longer authorize the loan and recommend the state historical society not take one out. If it does, the state would not follow its standard procedure and pay it back. The House approved HB1018 by an 80-11 vote.

The bill is now before the Senate Appropriations Committee, who heard testimony from supporters during a hearing earlier in the month, and it is possible there will be a different result. 

Sen. Karen Krebsbach, R-Minot, who will chair the subcommittee reviewing the issue, said she believes there is a "strong desire" in the committee to "see that the project is taken care of as we had planned in the previous session."

Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr, and Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, also are on the subcommittee. 

Krebsbach suggested a solution could involve reauthorizing the loan or, less likely, scrounging for funds. If they decide to reinstate funding, the issue would need to be reconciled with the House.

"It’s just not something we like to have hanging over us as a state," Krebsbach said. "That we’re not attending to (the site)."

A two-year delay

The central irony in the situation at Double Ditch is that, would the project have been completed already, the site would no longer be eroding and there would be no funding problem.

The holdup was around an earlier engineering plan that involved placing bendway weirs in the Missouri River to divert the water away from the historic site. As the plan would influence the waterway, it required special permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The historical society applied for this permission in February 2016.

As supporters of the project see it, the corps put unnecessary roadblocks in front of the plan they believed was unlikely to affect people downstream. 

“The Army corps has been stonewalling us, delaying us up to this time,” said Grinnell, who was involved in the planning process. “They’ve had their so-called reviews and hearings. They bear some responsibility.”

“We kept having to provide more and more information,” said Swenson, who believes the weirs would have made the least impact on the site and little impact on the water. “It became pretty obvious we couldn’t get the permit we needed from the corps of engineers.”

Swenson said the current plan was a second choice. 

But from the corps' perspective, the weirs were a complicated project, very likely to affect others downstream, because of changes in water flow and sediment deposits. Toni Erhardt, project manager at the corps office in Bismarck, said she warned members of the historical society about problems a year before the application was submitted, and they were slow to provide information.

“It really was somebody having a set design in mind and absolutely refusing to admit it would do anything at all,” Erhardt said. “Maybe it’s something we could’ve worked with, but they didn’t acknowledge anything would happen.”

The plan went out for comment in August, and the corps received questions from landowners and state agencies, including the health department and water commission. After the historical society responded to the comments in September, the corps began its evaluation. The historical society withdrew its application last month due to its new plan, which begins above the high-water mark.

Other funding sources

If funding is cut for the site, it raises a question of where else money could be obtained to restore it. Delzer argued in an interview that the historical society should look for private donations.

“Then they should put some money for it,” he said of people advocating around saving the site. “That’s their opinion if they feel that way.”

But Swenson argues the need is too urgent, and that more damage will occur at the site while fundraising is undertaken.

“The main problem is we need to move forward with the project, and I don’t know how long fundraising would take,” she said.

It's also a state-owned site, Grinnell pointed out, arguing the state, not the tribe, has a duty to maintain it. It's a popular tourist destination near Bismarck, he added.

“It’s not tribal land … it’s state property,” he said.

Local support

As the issue is debated in the Legislature, a group of concerned citizens in Bismarck is working to draw attention to it.

Emily Sakariassen, a Bismarck native and architectural historian with MetCalf, hosted a gathering at the site on Saturday that drew about 40 supporters in the snow.  

She said many locals don’t realize that erosion of the site is still an issue. They assume construction was completed already.

“People don’t know it’s a problem,” she said. “I think it would be an embarrassment if we turned a blind eye to it and lost this site to the world.”

Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at caroline.grueskin@bismarcktribune.com

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