A Line through History: Corporate Greed on the Killdeer Battlefield

Corporate bribery, corrupt historical societies, government contracts, evil archaeologists, and disregard of American Indian history.  Sounds like a plot for an Indiana Jones movie but it is the reality in one corner of North Dakota.

The location of this story is the Battle of Killdeer Mountain (Also Known as the Tahkahokuty Mountain.)  150 years ago this July, the biggest battle between Native American Tribes and US Army took place.  Accounts of the battle can be found here, and here. The National Park service has stated it is likely eligible to be on the National Register of Historical Places. U.S. Congress proposed it as a national park as early as 1919.

Now Basin Electric wants to build giant high voltage power lines through 8 miles of the battlefield. An upgrade that the fast developing area needs. Whenever a project like this is proposed a cultural resource survey is done.  Archaeologists survey the proposed route and research for any impact on historical significant sites.  A public report is filed along with a recommendation on if the project should go forward or not as is.

Basin Electric hired Metcalf Archaeology to do the survey.  Their survey did not mention the Killdeer battlefield at all.  8 miles of large transmission lines running through the most historical location in North Dakota and it was not mentioned in a cultural survey designed to do just that.

This is a map of Basin Electric’s proposed route overlaid on the battlefield site. Basin Electric’s map, which is published in the Draft EIS and on their website, does not show the battlefield or study area.

The people at Center for Heritage Renewal at North Dakota State University were some of the first to notice this omission and took a deeper look into the situation. They wrote an extensive forty page Critical Review of the project. It documents, among other things, how Basin Electric donated millions of dollars for years to the State Historical Society. Now the Historical Society turns a blind eye to this project.

It also documents the lack of press on this by local news outlets. Even now, after The Fargo Forum, One of North Dakota’s leading papers, wrote an article entitled “Historic value of power-line path knowingly ignored, professor claims” The article now sits behind the newspaper’s paywall while a critical editorial response to the article and attacks on Tom Isern, the NDSU professor named in the article, are not.

The Medicine Hole atop Killdeer Mountain is a crucial part of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribe’s origin stories. Graves of Dakota and Lakota Sioux killed in fighting are there. United Tribes of North Dakota passed a resolution opposing further development that would disturb the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield site. The Fargo Forum also did a poll in which 58.8% said not enough was being done to protect the battlefield. All the and yet it was not mentioned in the cultural survey report.

Basin Electric, in a F.A.Q. on their website answers the question “Why wasn’t the state historic site taken into consideration before now?” States how the current state historical site (A sandstone slab, flagpole, and an unpaved parking lot) is unaffected. The study found no significant cultural sites on the route. While it is true that it does not go through the land of the current State historical marker, National and state agencies have public papers, available online, about the cultural significance of the area that the power line would travel through.

An archaeologist who does these surveys and wishes to remain nameless told me directly. “It is incompetence or negligence to leave such a significant cultural site out of this report.”

Currently the plans have changed to move the proposed substation off the battleground and Basin Electric is going to walk the route and conduct an archaeological survey that would include a magnetometer study for each area where a tower would be constructed.

This is a story as old as the State. A company wants to place something across the land. They work with powerful landowners and the State to set a route. Grease the palms of those who they can and destroy those who they can’t. Nothing must slow the pace of progress. While this line does need to be built it does not need to be this route. Now that this information is reaching the public, the public can do something about it.

The current public comment period has ended but you can let the North Dakota Public Service Commission know how you feel and ask them to open up a new comment period. Looking for other places to show support I found the Killdeer Mountain Alliance Facebook page. I have sent my frustration to the Fargo Forum about their selective paywall. You can contact Basin Electric and Metcalf Archaeology about the study and ask Basin to propose an alternate route. I will continue to follow this project and present updates as warranted.

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