The Kerr Dam in Montana is now known as the Salish-Kootenai Dam. Photo: Bill Barrett

Montana tribe takes control of dam within reservation boundary

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana took ownership of a dam within reservation boundaries over the weekend after a federal judge rejected a last-minute attempt to scuttle the deal.

The historic acquisition of the Kerr Dam -- now known as Salish-Kootenai Dam -- was decades in the making. The tribe paid $18.3 million for the facility and is now the first in Indian Country to own and operate a major hydroelectric generating project.

“The tribes have remained focused on owning Kerr because our community made great sacrifices for the dam to exist,” Brian Lipscomb, the chief executive officer for Energy Keepers, the tribal entity that will operate the dam, said in a press release.

Opponents, however, claimed the United States was the one sacrificing its security. Two Montana Republicans sued the Obama administration last Thursday, just two days before the tribe officially took ownership of the project.

Leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes at the Kerr Dam after it was completed in 1938. Photo from CSKT

Sen. Bob Keenan (R) and former Sen. Verdell Jackson (R) believe the dam represents a way for the "Islamic Government" of Turkey to get closer to the nation's infrastructure. They asked a judge to prevent the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from finalizing the tribe's acquisition on Saturday.

Top officials from Turkey have indeed reached out to Indian Country in hopes of developing trade opportunities. But the tribe and Energy Keepers have no ties at all to the foreign nation and there was no evidence to back up the allegations made by the Republican plaintiffs.

"Plaintiffs make general allegations regarding the natural security importance of the Kerr project, as well as somewhat perplexing arguments regarding the Turkish government’s involvement with Native Americans," Judge Rudolph Contreras wrote on Friday as he denied a motion to stop the deal.

"However, to the extent such injuries are cognizable, nowhere are those allegations substantiated in the record," Contreras continued. "Indeed, at hearing, counsel for plaintiffs conceded that no such evidence has been submitted relating to the plaintiffs’ alleged economic harm."

Leaders of the Warm Springs Tribes in Oregon presented a gift to the representatives of the Turkish government during a reception at the residence of the Turkish ambassador to the United States in November 2013. Photo: Turkish Coalition of America

Despite the lack of evidence in the case, Turkey's entreaties in Indian Country have generated controversy in political circles. In 2012, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) suffered a major setback when his bill to promote economic opportunities between tribes and all members of the World Trade Organization was defeated on the House floor.

"There's a deep interest in Turkey in American Indians -- there has been for many hundreds of years. This goes back a long way," Cole said at the time. "They’re the only country that's actually sent a national delegation to an Indian economic development conference; there are scholarships for Native American students at the Istanbul Technical Institute; there's a constant movement of tribal citizens going back and forth."

Opponents typically point to Turkey's human rights record, which includes the denial of the genocide of the Armenian people. But writers in the conservative media have more recently argued that Islamic "extremists" are using Indian Country to gain a foothold in the U.S., a claim that doesn't come with much direct evidence either.

Since the Montana suit was filed at the last minute, FERC has not had time to file a response. But government attorneys contend there is no need to move quickly because the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are already operating the dam.

"Because the transfer sought to be enjoined has now taken place, and because the tribes are operating the dam as envisioned in the 1985 FERC license, there is no emergent need to resolve plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction to stop that transfer," the Department of Justice wrote in a filing on Tuesday.

In 1985, after decades of talks, the tribe secured an option to acquire the license for the dam, which was built in the 1930s against the wishes of many on the Flathead Reservation. The facility was built on land along the Flathead River held sacred by the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai peoples. Fourteen tribal members died while working on the project, according to Energy Keepers.

The firm will now oversee the dam for the remaining 20 years of a 50-year license that was issued by FERC in 1985. The facility produces enough power to supply 100,000 to 110,000 homes annually and the power can be worth as much as $60 million on the open market.

“Our work has involved intensive preparations to get to this point,” Lipscomb of Energy Keepers said. “We have covered our bases, and understand that the world is watching us as the first tribes in the nation."

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the case, Keenan v. Bay.

Related Stories:
Opinion: Islamic extremists are making inroads on reservations (8/31)
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes set to purchase dam (3/6)
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes set to manage dam (3/24)

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