Spirit Lake Nation
Doug Yankton Senior, the Crow Hill District Representative of Spirit Lake Nation and the Tribal Vice Chairman, sits in a conference room at the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices on the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota. He wears an intricately beaded medallion with “Spirit Lake Tribe” written in the center surrounded by the districts of Spirit Lake Nation written in smaller text.
Doug recounts a story his grandmother told him growing up. “She said every year we would have a celebration or a wacipi we called it. The visitors that used to come to Spirit Lake Nation would come with cans or jars and they would come and scoop up some water and take it home with them. When they would have their ceremonies and prayers they would use that water because they understood its sacredness that it provided, the lake is a valuable resource.”
Spirit Lake Reservation is south of Devils Lake, North Dakota. The reservation is 245,240 square acres and borders Devils Lake along the northern part of the reservation.
Spirit Lake Nation was established in 1867 by a treaty between the Sisseton-Wahpeton Bands and the United States government.
Today, Spirit Lake Nation has four districts and 8,001 enrolled members. Approximately 5,500 residents live on the reservation and rely on the Spiritwood Aquifer, located directly below Devils Lake, for drinking water. Spirit Lake Nation should have a say to the rights to the aquifer because a majority of the lake lies within the exterior boundary of the reservation.
Spirit Lake Nation relies heavily on the lake for tourist-generated revenue. Spirit Lake Casino and Resort overlooks Devils Lake. Tourists come to the resort and casino to fish, ski, swim, boat, and casino related activities. Doug notes how in the summer months the waterways are packed with people enjoying the water and even in the winter people are out on the lake ice fishing.
“We recognize the sacredness in the water we are surrounded by.”
In June, Spirit Lake Nation’s livelihood was threatened by permits for a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) just 7.09 miles from the northernmost shore of the reservation. The CAFO is .75 miles from the shores of Devils Lake. If Devils Lake is contaminated by this operation, culverts, spillways, canals and groundwater connecting Devils Lake to Twin Lake, Spring Lake, Round Lake, Sheyenne River and Sweetwater Lake would ultimately impact Spirit Lake Nation.
Spirit Lake Nation was never notified of the permitting process.
Today, the people of Spirit Lake Nation are anxiously awaiting a decision from the North Dakota Health Department to deny or grant the permit.
The Devils Lake operation permit is written for 1,928 sows, 504 gilts and 242 nursery pigs. The proposed site is a multiplier, meaning it would supply pigs to other farrowing operations to produce pigs that would then go off to a finishing barn. Annually, the farm could produce up to 44,000 piglets a year.
A fecal matter holding pit under the barns would house waste. When the holding pit is full, the waste slurry will be mixed with water and spread onto the fields and then pushed into the soil using trucks and tractors.
There are 28 fields that are designated dumpsite locations that would house waste from the operation. Several of these dumpsites are wetlands. Many of these dumpsite locations were completely under the lake in 2011. An engineer from Deehan, Grabs & Associates did a study of the 28 dumpsites and assessed that 12 out of the 28 were at moderate risk for runoff and groundwater seepage.
“Even though it might not happen within the boundaries of our reservation, the effects of what will happen will lead into the boundaries of our reservation,” said Doug.
The CAFO operation was proposed by 23-year-old Taylor Aasmundstad and would be sited on his father, Eric Aasmundstad’s 80 acres. Eric Aasmundstad is a former president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau. Today the Aasmundstads are partnered with Pipestone System, a swine management company. Pipestone System has proposed CAFOs in other locations around North Dakota, including a proposed farrowing operation in Buffalo, three times larger than the Devils Lake barn. Headquartered in Minnesota, Pipestone also operates in Iowa, South Dakota and other neighboring states.
The location of the proposed site is one of the most alarming aspects of the operation. The proposed site area is surrounded by bodies of water. With the unpredictability of water levels in the Devils Lake area, contamination from runoff and flooding is a huge concern.
The unpredictability of lake levels in the area has proven itself. Approximately 70 percent of Pelican Lake Township is still under water due to the lake rising in 2011.
Should any leakage or flooding occur in Pelican Lake Township, the waste from the hog farm will flow from Devils Lake south onto the reservation.
“You can never replace water,” Doug says. “I think there needs to be a change in the application criteria as to how close to major bodies of water or natural bodies of water that these types of farms can be allowed to operate.”
The North Dakota Health Department has conducted studies around the area of Devils Lake but has yet to visit Spirit Lake Nation.
“You know the first and foremost thing that I think that the leaders of the state of North Dakota have to understand. I don’t want to make it a Native and non-Native issue. It’s not. It’s a people issue for the state of North Dakota. But if you’re going to ask what our opinions are, of people of this tribe and who rightfully-so have jurisdiction over the majority of the lake, we do have a say.”
Doug has reached out to the health department, the North Dakota Department of Agriculture and legislators in Bismarck to talk about the location of this site. “People of Spirit Lake have been here long before the city of Devils Lake and the surrounding communities. Long before the state was even named the state. So for them to not consider us and asking us how we feel about bringing in this farm is upsetting.”
Doug has urged the Health Department to have a public forum at Spirit Lake Nation. “The Health Department's answer is they filed for a permit and if it’s approved then it’s approved. I have to disagree with that. Come and do a public meeting with my people, here on Spirit Lake, not anywhere else. Come here and propose to us why they think this would be a good idea. What justifies you giving that organization a permit. That is still in the works and I personally am going to still see to it that I get this public forum, this public hearing here on Spirit Lake. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll have to lean towards other options. Like I said, we have certain rights here on Spirit Lake. We have rights and we have to take advantage of that and use those. A lot of the agreements aren’t with the state of North Dakota, the agreements are with the United States Government. And if we have to hold the United States Government accountable to keep our waterways and our drinking water safe, and use that next step, that’s the route we’ll have to go.”
Doug is focused on protecting his community. “I think that’s something as leaders, is what we need to do to look out for the best interest of all people. And when I say all, I mean everybody here on Spirit Lake, whether they’re native, non-native, enrolled, not enrolled -- they are part of our community. So we have to look out for them too.”
The rise of community concerns with the CAFO has paved the way for dialogues between Doug and concerned citizens from the lake region communities. “If we can unify with the other surrounding members who are opposed to this, I think we would have a stronger voice.”
Doug explains that there is significance in the lake’s native name. “Other people call it Devils Lake; that’s not what we at Spirit Lake Nation call it. For us it’s called 'Mni Wakan,' meaning Spirit Water.”
Doug questions how the owners of the land where the proposed CAFO would be sited could think to pollute such pristine water. He suggests if the Aasmundstad family wants to have a CAFO, they should do it where there will not be such a significant impact on the community and land. “Maybe the landowner who is proposing to do this here needs to trade his land to somebody that knows the value of land. That’s how I feel and a majority of the people here at Spirit Lake Nation feel.”
Doug talks about the importance of passing down stories. He says that we can learn a lot from listening. Listening to people who have knowledge, to people who have been around longer and understand the area and the natural systems, is vital.
“There’s a perspective of things from our side that I don’t think that people on the outside of our reservation know about. So hopefully this story will help.”