In two confrontations involving pepper spray and tear gas, Dakota Access Pipeline protesters faced police at a creek separating the main Oceti Sakowin protest camp from a nearby hill. They said the hill contained burial sites and police were disturbing them by patrolling on the location.
At least three people, including two important Sioux women, were once interred on this hill, known as Turtle Island. It is located on land that was originally part of Cannonball Ranch and now is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Their remains were moved by the corps during the construction of Lake Oahe more than 50 years ago, cemetery records from Sioux and Morton counties show.
Tribal historians say a number of small children are still buried there and were never moved, but this could not be confirmed with a review of historical and cemetery records.
Even if the site is void of bodies, a tribal archaeologist said it remains significant to the Sioux and should not be trampled.
“Different cultures have different beliefs on graveyards,” said Kelly Morgan, Standing Rock Sioux tribal archaeologist. “That’s hallowed ground. Period.”
A bridge between people
The cemetery flashes a bright reminder on the role Cannonball Ranch played in the history of Europeans and Native Americans in the Dakotas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Owned by Henry and Alma Parkin, a white man married to a Sioux woman, the ranch bridged Morton County and the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. A 1913 obituary for Alma Parkin in the Bismarck Tribune called her a “connecting link between the conflicting emotions and desires of the white settlers on the one side and the remnants of the proud Sioux nation on the other.” The large ranch was a frequent stopping place for officials on their way to the reservation.
Alma Parkin was the daughter of Matilda Parkin, called by the Tribune “the most noted Indian woman of all the western Indian nations,” next to Sakakawea. The daughter of a famous chief, she was known for her business savvy and her grace in facilitating treaty negotiations. Louise Van Solen, Alma Parkin’s sister and one of the first schoolteachers on Standing Rock, later inherited the ranch along with niece Lucille Van Solen.
All of the adults known to have been buried at Turtle Island are now interred at St. Peter’s Catholic Cemetery in Fort Yates, having been removed prior to 1962 when the Missouri River was dammed, cemetery records show.
There is still disagreement over who was buried atop the hill, whether all graves were moved, and how much significance the site continues to hold.
The North Dakota State Historical Society maintains cemetery records compiled in walk-throughs of county graveyards and death records gleaned from newspaper notices.
“Conflicting reports of whether these graves had actually been relocated or not led to a tenacious research effort, which definitely established that the Parkins were moved to a well-maintained cemetery in Fort Yates,” according to a 1978 survey of Morton County cemeteries and burial sites.
Cemetery records reference the bodies of Henry and Alma Parkin and Louise and Lucille Van Solen being buried on the ranch and then moved by the corps.
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Standing Rock tribal historian and Sacred Stone Camp founder, confirmed some of that information in an interview last Monday, but she also included Matilda Galpin among those who had been buried on the hill.
In contrast, a scholarly article, citing Matilda Galpin’s grandson, said the esteemed woman was never buried there.
“When she passed away at the Cannonball Ranch, Mother and I went to the funeral. We took the body down to her old house on Porcupine Creek, a few miles north of Fort Yates. We drove our teams down there while the snow was falling fast, and I will never forget that cold ride in the dead of winter. Her body, with that of her husband, Major Galpin, was later moved to the cemetery at Fort Yates,” wrote Galpin’s grandson, Dick Harmon, as quoted by Northwestern University professor John Gray.
Brave Bull Allard, who lives on a ranch nearby, also said there are still 11 infants and a child buried there, explaining that Alma Parkin and two of her sisters had trouble having children, and their babies were buried atop the hill. She said she knows this through contact with Galpin's descendants.
The scholarly article about the family indicates Louise Van Solen lost one child young, but it does not specify a gravesite.
A review of two sets of Morton County cemetery records from the hilltop plot did not name any babies. One cemetery book included an unidentified child — possibly a reference to Louise Van Solen’s child — whose body was listed as also having been moved to Fort Yates. A review of death records did not indicate any dead infant children of Alma and Henry Parkin, though similar records also could be found for other families.
Brave Bull Allard did not respond to text or phone messages for further clarification after the initial interview.
Jon Eagle Sr., Standing Rock's historic preservation officer, also said he thinks there are children still buried atop the hill. He noted that the area is historic and may contain more than inspectors first realize, citing the recent discovery of cairns along the pipeline route that were not speedily reported to the Public Service Commission.
"The whole area, you’ve got to look at it as an archaeological district, from ancient graves to historical graves," he said.
A call to action
On Nov. 2, protesters confronted law enforcement in the creek below Turtle Hill. After knocking down a bridge built by the protesters, police in riot gear used chemicals and rubber bullets to repel the protesters, who were staged in frigid water, back to the opposite shore.
Lisa Brunner, a protester from Minnesota who was interviewed during the demonstration, said she helped build a bridge across the water so people could pray on the burial grounds she believed were on the bluff above.
“All we were trying to do is build a bridge across so we can go pray,” she said.
In a statement released the next day, Brave Bull Allard admonished police for being on the hill, which she suggested continues to be a burial site to adults and children.
“They parked their armored cars on the graves of Matilda (Galpin), Eagle That Looks At Woman, and her daughters Louisa DeGrey Van Solen and Alma (Parkin) who once owned the Cannonball Ranch. Next to her is her husband (Henry Parkin), and 11 babies," she wrote.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said in a statement Saturday that law enforcement has become aware the site is a burial ground and will try to be respectful of the area.
"Morton County law enforcement became aware that the area of Turtle Hill was a possible burial site after the protest event on Nov. 6. We were notified by the USA Corps of Engineers on Nov. 8 and asked that the area be treated respectfully. Once we were made aware of this area, we have complied," Kirchmeier said.
Morton County Sheriff's Department spokesman Rob Keller clarified that law enforcement would still use the hilltop in "emergency situations."
"The (corps) reiterated that the safety of the law enforcement officers and the general public should be considered to be our paramount concern. Response to emergency situations with a vehicle in this area can occur according to (the corps)," Keller wrote in an email.
Morgan, the tribal archaeologist, said she is familiar with the history of the graves atop the hill because of Brave Bull Allard. The only way to tell for sure whether bodies are still buried there would be to use ground-penetrating radar, she said.
"Are there any graves still located there? I can't say that. LaDonna makes that claim. I have no reason to question her research. In order to prove it scientifically — American culture usually requires some kind of scientific evidence — would be best done with GPR testing," she said.
“We as Lakota people do not need scientific, definitive data,” Morgan added. “Even if there were no remains there at all, it is our traditional belief systems, our cultural belief systems that tell us that even when remains are removed from gravesites, there is still an essence imbued in that site, because that was their original resting place.”
A family’s promise
John Sullivan III, whose family owned Cannonball Ranch from 1930 to 1995, said he believes there are no longer any graves atop the hill and does not see the continued significance.
His grandfather obtained the ranch from Lucille Van Solen in return for legal fees owed, and he said the graves were moved during his family's ownership.
"I don’t have any idea why they’re making such a fuss about it. There’s absolutely nothing up there," said Sullivan, who lives in Bismarck.
He said his family was reluctantly involved in the removal of the bodies from the hill. In the early 1960s, the corps insisted on taking the land and moving the graves because of potential flooding and erosion. But his grandmother wanted to preserve the site because of her commitment to the former Sioux proprietors.
"She made a promise that she would do everything she could to make sure those graves would stay where they are under the ownership of us," Sullivan said. "That hill was so high, everybody knew the Oahe would never go so high."
Sullivan still owns the fence that once enclosed the small cemetery, because his grandmother fought to get it back from the corps, he said.
A corps spokeswoman said the contested area is rich in cultural and tribal resources.
“Much of the area surrounding the historic Cannonball Ranch has been utilized by local tribal and non-tribal individuals for a variety of purposes for many years," spokeswoman Eileen Williamson wrote in a statement.
She declined to provide more information on studies the corps had done of the site and the removal of the graves "out of respect for tribal customs and protection of the resources in this area."
Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at firstname.lastname@example.org