A bill to appropriate $250,000 for archaeological and historical surveys in the Killdeer Mountains battlefield area before oil wells are developed drew widespread support Thursday, until the owner of the land testified.
The Senate Government and Veterans Affairs Committee took no action on SB2341 following nearly two hours of testimony.
Sen Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, one of the prime sponsors of the bill, said the area, which was the site of a battle between the U.S. Army and numerous American Indian tribes in July 1864, should be studied before more oil exploration is allowed.
Last month, the North Dakota Industrial Commission approved the drilling of up to eight wells by Hess Corp. within about five miles of the site of the Battle of Killdeer Mountain.
“It has a special place in history,” Wardner said. “When you talk about history and culture, it’s a site than needs to be studied.”
Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, said in 2014, North Dakota will observe its 125th anniversary and it will also be the 150th anniversary of the battle.
Triplett said the state has an obligation to study and understand the history of the area now, citing what she called “imminent encroachment” by the oil industry.
But Bryan Dvirnak, whose family owns the approximately 4,000 acres the battlefield site sits on, told the committee neither his family or other landowners in the area were contacted about the bill and the survey.
Dvirnak, whose family has owned the land since 1928 and recently donated a large collection of artifacts to Dickinson State University, said he’s leery about the ramifications of such a survey.
“We’re skeptical,” he said.
Dvirnak said his family has always welcomed American Indians to the land for ceremonies.
“No one has done more to preserve (the battlefield) than my father,” he said.
But he said his fear, along with other landowners in the area, is about how the information from such a survey might be used.
He said his family has asked the State Historical Society for help in preserving the site, with no luck.
If the bill were approved, the State Historical Society of North Dakota would facilitate the study.
Fern Swenson, director of archaeology, history and preservation for the historical society, said the study area would comprise 17,433 acres with 5,421 acres in the core area.
The core area includes a location known as the Medicine Hole, which is considered a sacred site to American Indians.
Representatives from the the Standing Rock Sioux and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribes spoke in support of the bill.
The Battle of Killdeer Mountain has been characterized as possibly the most important battle between U.S. forces and American Indians in terms of participants and land area involved.
Kimball Banks, a Bismarck archaeologist, said the history of the area has national significance because it set U.S. policy toward American Indians for the following 50 years.
Dvirnak said because there has been no contact with any sponsors of the bill or the Historical Society, there is a lot of apprehension.