Friday, August 19, 2016

Cannonball, The Historical Review Process

DAPL machinery waits on the north bluff of the Cannonball River. 
Íŋyaŋwakaǧapi Wakpá
By Dr. Tom Isern
Fargo, ND - It’s all quiet on the Cannonball. For the moment. This is a good time to reflect on how we got to the point where an out-of-state energy transport company, here operating under the (rather ironic) name Dakota Access, manipulated our sworn officers of the law into confrontation with the native citizens of North Dakota.

Bear with me on this, because it requires some attention span. And there is required reading, too. Begin with a document on this page:

Here’s why I think you should look at this obscure manual of practice. Issued by the Historic Preservation Department of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, it details the requirements for “Cultural Resource Inventory Projects.” Yeah, I know, I think they meant to say “Inventory,” but that’s not the point. The manual codifies the expectations of cultural resource contractors--usually archaeologists--submitting work for review. This includes the studies required parcel to environmental assessments for construction projects, such as the Dakota Access pipeline.

All such work, like any reputable science, begins with a literature review. Now, archaeologists like to do field work. They aren’t so keen about book work. So, the authors of the guidelines spelled out clearly what they expected every research entity to accomplish with the literature review. You can read for yourself in the manual, but I will summarize here the three essential points.

1.    Review the site files and other materials already of record in the historic preservation department.

2.    Make use of the published, textual sources for history and archaeology in the study area.

3.    Interview persons with personal knowledge of the area.

But, really, isn’t archaeology about fieldwork? Why bother with this review-of-literature stuff?

Because, North Dakota is a huge place. Even a defined study area is too large to cover foot-by-foot with pedestrian survey. You need that boots-on-the-ground work, but if you’re just walking around out there, or even working the ground in systematic fashion, you’re going to miss a lot of stuff.

Think of it like this. If I start walking across a 5000-acre pasture looking for sharptail grouse, on my own, I may or may not be lucky enough to stumble across one. But if I start across guided by my trusty retriever, and follow where she leads me, I will find birds just about every time. You have to hunt where the birds are.

Historical sources tell you where to concentrate your survey efforts, so that you actually find stuff. Maybe that’s the problem here. If you want to find stuff, you consult the sources. If you don’t want to find stuff, don’t look at the sources.

Wait a minute, why would a researcher not want to find stuff? I’m a researcher, and I love to find stuff! The answer is, these cultural resource contractors work for the people, like Dakota Access, who want to build things, in ways that do violence to heritage resources, if you’re not careful. When cultural resource surveyors find things, that’s nothing but trouble for the people who pay them.

At this point, if you’re unfamiliar with the system of cultural resource management, you’re wondering how this makes sense. The point is, it does not. We set up a process ostensibly intended to safeguard our heritage resources. To do this, we require that before a party goes ahead with a big project, it has to submit a cultural resource survey and establish that the project will not do unreasonable amounts of damage to historic and archeological resources. Such a study is supposed to identify and locate the resources to be safeguarded. The study is conducted, however, by a contractor hired by the party desiring to do the project, such as the Dakota Access pipeline. Dakota Access pays the bills. Moreover, the companies who do such cultural resource work specialize in it and depend, for their existence and profit, on repeat business. The incentive, therefore, is not to find stuff, to go through the motions, but to bring in a report that satisfies the company which pays the bill.

You can read the environmental assessment for the Dakota Access project here:

I also have seen sections of the cultural resource study that is part of the EA. The cultural resource study is not included in the online posting. It is withheld because if people knew where to find archeological sites, they might loot them for artifacts. Such caution is standard practice, allowed by state statute--although it appears in this case to be redundant, because at least in the section dealing with Morton County, the researchers, surprise, didn’t find anything.

And why didn’t they find anything? Because, far as I can see, there is no evidence the cultural resource contractors even pretended to meet the minimum requirements for documentary research. And because of that failure, they missed known sites of profound significance and importance--some of them, in fact, visible in Google Earth, for Pete’s sake.

It is time for concerned parties to examine the primary text on this matter, the cultural resource study on file in the historic preservation department of the state historical society, and to determine to what degree, if any, it meets requirements for such surveys. I have seen enough to know it is deficient. The only question is, how deficient. Now would be an excellent time for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to organize a qualified investigative team and dispatch it to the heritage center to determine the extent of deficiency. The findings would be important to legal proceedings currently in progress. It appears that all regulatory approvals of the Dakota Access project have been based on faulty intelligence.

There is a final issue I must address, although it pains me. I am a historian, and a sustaining member of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. The cultural resource study for the Dakota Access project came to the historic preservation department of the SHSND for review; the department accepted it, despite its failure to meet requirements; and thus it certified to the North Dakota Public Service Commission and other agencies that the Dakota Access project would do no harm to heritage resources. The statement of the SHSND, in its letter of 26 April 2016, was unequivocal: “No Historic Properties Affected.” That statement was based on demonstrably deficient studies.

How can this happen? There are three possible explanations.

1.    Time constraints - the SHSND simply lacked the staff to exercise due diligence.

2.    Lack of competence - the SHSND dropped the ball.

3.    Conflict of interest - the SHSND averted it gaze.

That third possibility, conflict of interest, is most disturbing. Energy firms are seven-figure donors to the SHSND. In fact, when the legislature only partially funded the new North Dakota Heritage Center, the SHSND made it known that it looked to energy companies as its main reliance for funding. And so it was done.

Let me make this plain: I am not accusing anyone, or any agency, of wrongdoing or bias. I am saying that so long as this conflict of interest exists, the public will view the pronouncements of the SHSND with suspicion.

It is long past time for the SHSND to deal with this problem. It is possible, through a transparent process of recusal by conflicted parties and involvement of unbiased reviewers, to solve it. As a member of the SHSND, I say, let this reform commence immediately.

Dr. Isern heads up the Center For Heritage Renewal at North Dakota State University. Check it out. 


  1. You have some awesome posts here! Thanks! FYI, I tried to access the document linked in the second paragraph and got one of those 404 file not found messages. I think I did find it through a google search using terms from the next paragraph. Just thought I'd let you know. I love blog posts with invitations for deeper research!