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Are diversion opponents really comparing their "plight" to that of Native Americans?

by Mike McFeely

NOTE: This is my column that was printed in this week's edition of The Extra. Check out the online edition of the newspaper at www.thefmextra.com

Are opponents of the Fargo-Moorhead diversion really trying to compare their "plight" -- and I use that word with super-sized quotation marks -- with that of Native Americans? Do they really view themselves as victims on equal with people who had to fight off government-supported genocide in order to survive?

It appears so, judging by parallels they're making and a recent letter to the editor in The Forum.

To use a national tragedy as a campaign ploy against the diversion is offensive to Native Americans (and anybody else with more than a sixth-grade education) and minimizes the shameful and criminal treatment of thousands of human beings.

It's also exposes a bald-faced lie, one of many told by diversion opponents. They want you to believe the so-called "staging area" south of Fargo will be a reservoir, a permanent lake inundating farmland and cemetaries under dozens of feet of water. There is not a shred of truth to it. The staging area will temporarily hold water ranging from less than an inch to several feet only in times of extremely high water. At other times, it will remain dry, usable and farmable.

There will be no "Lake Fargo" when the diversion is built. Ever.

But pitching that lie allows diversion opponents to paint themselves as modern-day Indian tribes, hapless victims of a U.S. government that is gobbling up land without regard to those who live off it.

That's why diversion opponents insist on referring to parts of the project as a "dam" and a "reservoir." Then they can point to Garrison Dam and Lake Sakakawea in western North Dakota and say, "See, that's what they are trying to do to us."

The latest disingenous reference to Garrison and Sakakawea came in a letter to the editor in Sunday's Forum, when a Concordia student named Ross Baumgardner compared the diversion process with the Pick-Sloan Plan of the 1940s and '50s. Young Mr. Baumgardner made multiple mentions of "cultures and lifestyles," a reference to the damage incurred by Indian tribes when Lake Sakakawea inundated their native lands.

So let's see if we have this straight:

Diversion opponents are saying if some of their land is temporarily under a few inches water for a couple weeks every 10 years, a situation for which they'll be handsomely compensated, that equates to Native Americans having their land permanently under 100 feet of water?

Diversion opponents are saying if they are paid easements to have their land used temporarily to store water and they are allowed to continue to own it and farm it even after they are paid easements, all of which can and will happen, that equates to Native Americans permanently losing their land for little or no compensation?

Diversion opponents, many of whom are very comfortable farmers owning thousands of acres of land worth millions of dollars (none of which will change with the building of the diversion; they'll continue to own their land and profit off it), are comparing themselves to poverty-stricken Native Americans who were driven off their land and expected to move hundreds of miles to unfamiliar areas while assimilating into foreign cultures?

This tactic is insulting and anybody supporting it should be embarrassed by its shamelessness.

Diversion opponents have every right to fight its construction. That's been expected every step of the way. There will undoubtedly be some pain. Supporters have acknowledged that and done their best to minimize the impacts.

But to use the tragic story of Native Americans as a cheap ploy for public sympathy is desperate and inexcusable.

Here is a bit of history: In June 1837, a steamboat traveled up the Missouri River from St. Louis to near modern-day Mandan, N.D. Some of its passengers were infected with smallpox, which spread to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes living in the area. It's believed little more than 100 of the 1,600 tribe members survived, effectively destroying the Mandan settlement. There are some who believe the U.S. military gave the Mandans blankets infected with smallpox as part of a genocidal conspiracy, although it's never been proven.

That is human tragedy. The diversion is not. Opponents would be wise to see the difference.

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