The Winters Doctrine and the case of the Oahe Dam

The perception of nature within Indigenous tribes in the United States (US) is unique. For most Indigenous peoples, the relationship with all beings and places begins at birth and continues until death. In fact, at death, all organic substances are broken down into the simple elemental matter of earth. Through the processes of these biogeochemical cycles their ancestors become the wind, water, fire, soil and clouds, and are taken in by all other-than-human beings of our places. These entities, then, by scientific definition and metaphysical understanding, are truly their relatives. Hence, a challenge such as that of the pipeline directly threatens the cultural values of the Indigenous movement.
Even though it is arguable that each tribe has its own perception regarding the natural element, water plays an essential role throughout most of the Indigenous beliefs. Water is perceived as a symbol of life and death, creation and destruction, insofar as it has the power to give life and to take it away. Water is thus revered as an element that has to be treated with respect and humility. Considering the specific importance given to water by Indigenous populations, the Winters doctrine is a significant achievement for the rights thereof. The Winters doctrine is the result of a lawsuit, which involved the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana and their right to use the water of the Milk River. When farmers upstream diverted water from the river, the United States brought an injunction against them, arguing that this maneuver left insufficient water for agriculture on the reservation. The farmers appealed. On January 6, 1908, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the United States and the Native Americans. The Winters Doctrine clarifies the water rights of Indigenous people who reside on reservations and it acknowledges the superior right of Indigenous people to maintain jurisdiction and control of waterways even within a diminished land base as long as the rivers are traveling through original territories. In practice, this means that any governmental agency or private entity has to consult the Indigenous population when implementing policies that may have direct or indirect effects on waterways passing through their territories.

However, this doctrine is hardly ever respected. An example is the case of the Oahe Dam on the Missouri River. The Missouri River passes through 28 indigenous reservations. In order to limit the damage caused by severe drought-flood oscillations and to support growing non-Indigenous human populations, the United States turned its attention to dam building with limited scientific or historical hydrologic and geomorphologic knowledge. As a result, seven dams were built on the Missouri River, which had drastic consequences on the life of the local Indigenous population. The Oahe Dam alone was responsible for flooding over 200,000 acres on the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Reservations. Prime agricultural and grazing lands were flooded, causing the elimination of nearly ninety percent of timber resources and seventy-five percent of wildlife on the reservations, submerging sacred sites and ceremonial grounds and displacing hundreds of Indigenous families from their homes.

By: Elena Ventura

Author: GEN