Spirit Lake Rising: Living With a Neverending Flood

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As a North Dakota lake destroys entire towns, Native Americans accept the phenomenon, but others fight for their lives

Devils Lake, ND.jpg
[This article is the third in a three-part series about North Dakota's Devils Lake, which has been flooding continuously for 18 years, destroying entire towns in the process. To return to part one, click here, or click here for part two.]

The original inhabitants of the region surrounding North Dakota's Devils Lake are the Dakota, once formally called the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux. Their name for this place and its people is Mni Wakan—source of the more familiar Anglicization "Minnewaukan." Somewhere along the line it was translated to Devil's Lake, but in fact the name means Spirit Lake, a distinction that underscores the difference in attitude toward the water on these shores.

Today roughly 6,200 people, most of them official tribal members, live on a reservation that borders the lake's south shore. Former tribal chairman Skip Longie explained that the tribe's relationship to the lake has always been one of respect and, as I understand it, deference. Their canon involves tales of gods clashing over the waters and a spirit being that inhabits the lake. Children might play around the water's edge, but swimming and boating are mostly unheard of.

Regarding the water's more mundane act of rising these past two decades, people here are blasé. The lake comes up, the lake goes down—that's what it does.

For the past 18 years, the majority of the region's people have focused on finding ways to fight back the water, at a combined cost of $1 billion.

"It's nothing that we're going to get too overly excited about," Skip told me, shrugging his shoulders. "It's something that's going to take place one way or the other. Granted, it will make us uncomfortable for a little bit, maybe for my lifetime. But it'll get better—it's just water. For Indian people—or at least the majority of Indian people who believe in cultural ways—this is just material things that can all be replaced. It's nothing earth-shattering."

Lorraine Grey Bear, a slight, sharp woman who teaches Dakota language and culture at the college, concurs. She explained that before white settlers arrived, the region's Dakota people used Devils Lake as a place to gather for the winter, leaving in spring to spend the rest of the year hunting elsewhere. But after a treaty with the American government in 1867, they were settled here permanently. She acknowledges the inconvenience for those who have had to move their homes, Indian and non-Indian alike, but she doesn't show much sympathy.

"People camped in the lake bottom—I mean, what do you expect? This lake has a history of flooding. It's a prehistoric lake, and every hundred years or so it rises. That's a natural occurrence, and when that happens our people would just move away. And we came back when it came down. It's a matter of living in harmony with nature."

Of course that impermanent relationship to the lake is not an option in the minds of modern North Dakota natives like those in the towns of Churchs Ferry and Minnewaukan, many of whom have had to abandon their homes to the rising waters. Instead, for the past 18 years, the majority of the region's people have focused on finding ways to fight back the water, at a combined cost of $1 billion. (Since the Spirit Lake people have been permanently settled here as well, they don't have the option of transience, either. The tribe has its own set of public works projects to hold back the lake, and have moved forty houses to higher ground since the flooding began.)

In the 1980s, the region's largest municipality, Devils Lake (population 6,700), built an eight-mile dike along the city's shore to the height of 1,445 feet. It has been raised twice since, and is in the process of being raised another six and a half feet to 1,466 feet, at which height the lake will cease rising and instead spill out a natural outlet. The endeavor will require 1 billion yards of dirt. Several hills in the county have already been flattened for this purpose.

By far the most complicated, contentious attempt to combat the lake's rise has been the building of a manmade outlet. This would allow water to be pumped out of the lake and into the Sheyenne River, 14 miles south, which runs into the Red River of the North, and eventually across the Canada border and into Lake Winnipeg. From afar the concept of running a stream of lake water into these increasingly large bodies of water sounds benign, but virtually every stakeholder outside the Devils Lake region is opposed to it. To begin with, people downstream on the Sheyenne and in the Red River Valley have their own seasonal flood problems, which are raging right now; they certainly don't want more water to deal with. What's more, the lake's water is both saline and polluted with agricultural runoff. Many downstream fear the impact that diverting the lake's overflow would have on their water quality and riparian ecology. This and the presence of invasive species of fish have made the outlet a subject of dispute with Canada that has spanned three presidential administrations and invokes the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909.

Even within the Devils Lake region there is opposition, albeit from just a few bold voices. When there was talk of building an outlet that would have run water through the east side of the Spirit Lake reservation, Lorraine Grey Bear spoke out against it for the flooding it would have brought to her people. Today she regrets not speaking out against the outlet in any place or form.

"What is really in my heart is that the lake should be left alone," she told me. "The concept that my people live by is called Mitakuye Owasin. It means basically that we are all related—the bird nation, water nation, star nation, red nation. So we look after each other, we don't harm one another. We don't go out and kill all the bears just because one person had the stupidity to go into bear country and got killed. We let things happen naturally. We practice respect."

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Lisa M. Hamilton is a writer and photographer who focuses on food and agriculture, particularly the stories of farmers. More

Lisa M. Hamilton is a writer and photographer who focuses on food and agriculture, particularly the stories of farmers. Her work has taken her from castration time on a Wyoming sheep ranch to a meeting of radical plant breeders in Iowa; from dairy farms in the highlands of Bavaria to sacred rice paddies along the coast of Japan. A fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation, she is the author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness (Counterpoint, 2009). Her work has also been published in The Nation, Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, Orion, and Gastronomica.
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