In a 400-page assessment of the Yellowstone River that is thick with technical findings and scientific terminology, Gerard Baker identified what he thought was missing from the report.
Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa Indian who retired as assistant director of the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., said what was missing was the river’s soul, its spirit. When the river and its plants and animals were created, Baker said, no part of it was inanimate.
“Everything could speak, if you would listen,” he said. “We have forgotten how to listen to that river.”
Baker’s audience Tuesday afternoon was a gathering of 90-some people who came together for a Yellowstone River Symposium marking the release of a Cumulative Effects Assessment of the Yellowstone, 12 years in the making. It is part of the Yellowstone River Comprehensive Study.
If the many dozens of people involved in the assessment neglected to capture the river’s spirit, they could take some consolation in working on what has been hailed as the most comprehensive study of a major river ever conducted.
Earlier in the day, Ken Frazer, fisheries manager for the Billings region of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said there is now “probably more good information on this river than on any river in the world.”
Baker, the first superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National Trail and a former superintendent of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, was the keynote speaker at the two-day symposium, which continues Thursday.
The study was led by the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council, made up of 11 conservation districts bordering the 570-mile main stem of the Yellowstone between Gardiner and the river’s confluence with the Missouri River just inside North Dakota.
Starting at 8:30 Thursday morning at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center, Susan Gilbertz, an environmental studies professor at Montana State University Billings, will lead a discussion about the future structure of the district council and about how to implement the many recommendations that came out of the study.
Last Best News reported on many of the study’s key findings and recommendations when the district council presented a report on a draft of the study in Huntley in October.
Baker, too, talked about the future of the study. He said he read the lengthy assessment three times and was struck by the lack of Native involvement.
“There’s an opportunity on almost every page to involve the tribes,” he said. And while he acknowledged that it can be “extremely difficult” to deal with the tribes, he asked his audience to consider the many good reasons Indians had for being skeptical in their dealings with the dominant culture and the government.
He said he learned that lesson when he tried to sell his ideas for commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition to a gathering of Indian elders. He told them he wanted to focus on Indian life before, during and after the tribes’ encounters with the expedition, and how that experience shaped their futures.
Expecting to be warmly embraced by the elders, he was told by the first person to speak, “I don’t trust you. You’re an Indian bureaucrat with braids.”
He told those elders what he told the gathering on Tuesday, that the best approach would be to make full use of their children, to teach them their history, then let them teach it and carry it on.
He seized on a statement made earlier Tuesday by Bob Hector, the Yellowstone County representative on the district council. Hector said one of the best things about the district’s work was the many river outings, which gave researchers and members of the public a close look at aspects of the river that might otherwise have been abstractions.
Baker said the district council should be taking children, Indian and non-Indian, on similar outings, to give them a deep understanding of the river and to make them its ambassadors.
His parents taught him much about the Missouri River, he said, but that was a very different stream from the undammed Yellowstone. He said his people on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota lost all their bottom lands to the dam that created Lake Sacagawea.
Tribal elders are still “very, very bitter” about losing their lands, Baker said, and they say of the land submerged by the lake, “Our lives are down there. Our culture is down there. Our graves are down there.”
“Don’t let the Yellowstone do that,” Baker said.
People at the symposium also heard from Col. John Henderson, commander of the Omaha District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps has been a partner in the study since the beginning, after it was sued by environmental groups for issuing too many bank stabilization permits (read riprap) in the flood years of 1996 and 1997.
The lawsuit argued that the corps had issued the permits with too little regard for the cumulative effects of intensive riprapping, and a judge ultimately ruled against the corps. Congress then authorized the corps to conduct the comprehensive study, and it entered into a cost-sharing agreement with the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council in 2004.
Henderson, a native of South Dakota who wore his dress uniform Tuesday, said he figured a jacket and tie would be too formal for such a meeting, but added, “I’m a soldier, and soldiers get dressed up for notable events.”
He called the work of the district council “extremely important” and said the study will serve as “a model for watersheds across the country.”
The audience also heard from John Tubbs, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
He said the work of the council was about much more than one report. What mattered most, he said, was that everyone involved in it “developed relationships and partnerships” with water users up and down the river, “and it is the people on this landscape that will take this into the future.”