OVER TWO MONTHS, I’ve been on three pilgrimages through stories of oppression in the U.S., water figuring prominently in each. Leaving the Whitney Plantation and rolling through nearby Louisiana bayous, I imagined African-descended men and women masking themselves in troubled waters from slave catchers. Rolling through the desert between San Antonio and McAllen, Texas, I imagined people of Spanish, African, Aztec, Mayan, and Incan origin scouring barren land in search of water, and flourishing.
Then I spent a week with my friend Ruth Anna Buffalo and her family and friends. Ruth is an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation and the first Native American Democratic woman elected to the North Dakota legislature. Early in our time together, Ruth shared the story of her tribe’s movement north, from present-day Standing Rock. The Mandan settled in the bottomlands of Elbowoods.
From 1949 to 1956, the U.S. Department of the Interior built the Garrison Dam and intentionally flooded the treaty-bound lands of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, along with more than 20 other tribes, to save white communities experiencing natural flooding downriver. They named the human-made reservoir Lake Sakakawea. Elbowoods—the land where Ruth’s family flourished—is now under the water. And whites have claimed the “lakefront” property.