The Garrison Dam Agreement Signing, (21 May 1948) Fort Berthold, ND
George Gillette was born October 29, 1902, on the Fort Berthold Reservation. He attended Bismarck Indian School and Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota, as well as the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, where he studied carpentry. After graduating in 1926, he married Evelyn Wilkinson in 1930. They raised nine children at the Beaver Creek tribal lands of North Dakota, where they ranched and farmed.1
Gillette was elected as a tribal leader in 1946 representing the Beaver Creek district. He served as chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes when they negotiated the location of the Garrison Dam with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.2 The Garrison Dam project gained momentum in 1943 when heavy rains caused the Missouri River to flood both Iowa and Nebraska.3 In response, President Franklin Roosevelt tasked Colonel Lewis Pick, the regional director of the Army Corps of Engineers, with finding a solution. Pick recommended “a series of dams on the Upper Missouri, with, at its center, a 200-mile-long reservoir. The new Lake Sakakawea would flood 436 of Fort Berthold’s 531 homes, as well as every square foot of the enviable farmland tilled by the tribes.”4 The plan caused distress among the tribes who were hesitant to face the loss of their property and livelihood.5
George Gillette served as the tribal representative at the signing of the Garrison Dam agreement where the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara/Sahnish Tribes surrendered 152,360 acres of their reservation to the project.6 The Three Affiliated Tribes were united by a history of collective migration. Apart from the joint political representation, their farming and animal rearing practices were also shared on the Fort Berthold Reservation. The area flooded for the Garrison Dam was well known for its fertility and the variety of crops it produced. An agreement was reached after tenacious legal action on the part of the Tribes following the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ attempts to construct the dam without the Tribes’ permission at Fort Berthold in 1946.7 The Tribes protested in Washington and legal action was taken under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, which prevented the government from claiming land without compensating the Tribes.8 They also argued that the dam construction was unnecessary to deal with the flooding from the Missouri River.9
Gillette is famously pictured weeping at the agreement signing, which authorized the construction of the dam on the land of the Three Affiliated Tribes in exchange for $5,105,625.10 Gillette was also a lay minister for the United Church of Christ, a member of the the North Dakota National Guard, and a tribal judge from 1974 to 1982. He died on October 3, 1985 at the age of 82.11
- Michael W. Stevens, “George Gillette,” Biographical Dictionary of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, 2003, http://lib.nhsc.edu/FortBerthold/TATBIO.htm.
- Stevens, “George Gillette.”
- “Iowa Towns Submerged by Missouri Flood,” Washington Post, April 14, 1943, 3.; “Flood Perils Omaha Areas,” Baltimore Sun, April 12, 1943, 15.
- Lisa Jones, “Three Tribes, a Dam and a Diabetes Epidemic,” High Country News, May 23, 2011, https://www.hcn.org/issues/43.8/three-tribes-a-dam-and-a-diabetes-epidemic.; “105 Dams Projected in Pick-Sloan Plan,” Christian Science Monitor, April 5, 1946, 13.
- George Hellickson, “Dakota Indians Angry, Face Loss of Homes on Site of Projected Dam,” Wall Street Journal, July 22, 1946.
- Michael Lawson, “Dammed Indians Revisited: The Continuing History of the Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux,” South Dakota, South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2009, 59.
- Lisa Jones, “Laugh at the Crying Indian All You Want – The Joke’s on Us,” GRIST, October 6, 2011.
- Ron Meyer, The Village Indians of the Upper Missouri: The Madans, Hisatsas and Arikaras (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977), 60.
- Robert Ruth, “Garrison Dam Held Unneeded: Indian Affairs Engineers Oppose Flood Control,” The Sun, June 26, 1946, 4.
- Angela Parker, “Taken Lands: Territory and Sovereignty on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, 1934 – 1960” (doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan, 2011), 207; “960 Indians Sell Out to U.S. for 5 Millions,” Washington Post, May 21, 1948, 1.
- Stevens, “George Gillette.”