The following case study is part of a forthcoming NPS handbook on climate change entitled ”Climate Change and Cultural Resources: Impact Assessments and Case Studies.”  The original author is Caitlin Smith.

Big Hidatsa National Historic Landmark

Big Hidatsa National Historic Landmark, NPS photo

At Knife River Indian Villages Na­tional Historic Site, the relationship between natural and cultural resources is fluid. As such, the effects of climate change on the natural environment will directly affect the condition and inter­pretation of park cultural resources. Cli­mate change is projected to intensify the presence of invasive species, and increase flooding and riverbank erosion which has already begun to alter the appearance and integrity of the cultural landscape.  The Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara people settled and lived in this environment for hundreds of years to take advantage of the unique location and abundant resources along the Missouri River. Therefore, cultural and natural resources in the park are thought of and managed together, in an attempt to protect cultural resources in a landscape that most closely resembles the surround­ings as they were when the Hidatsa and Mandan lived here in the early 1800s (NPCA 2006). Theirs was a landscape of native tallgrass prairie and big sky. When Lewis and Clark visited the area in 1804, an estimated 4,000-5,000 people were living there, dwelling in more than 200 earthlodges. The traditional wood and sod earth lodges have left round depressions in the earth where they once sat: ghosts of the historic past (NPCA 2006).

bank erosion on knife river photo courtesy of John Moeykens NPS photo

Bank erosion on Knife River, photo courtesy of John Moeykens/NPS photo

These symbolic depressions, along with the native prairie communities, will be directly impacted by changes in climate. All precipitation and runoff flows toward Knife River through tributaries in the plains and prairies. Less frequent, but larger and more extreme rain events projected under many climate change scenarios may cause more frequent flooding at 100 year levels (Moeykens 2011, personal communi­cation). Severe flooding erodes the banks of the Knife and Missouri Rivers, and may alter the unique shape and character of the historic landscape (Young 2011, personal communication). The park’s 65 archeological sites and associated resources are also at risk as the riverbanks, and artifacts they contain, erode into the water (NPCA 2006). Increasing annual variability of freeze/thaw cycles and heavy spring rains reg­ularly expose artifacts near the ground surface, including fragments of animal and human bones, pottery shards, stone tools, and beads, presenting both opportunities and curatorial challenges to park archeologists.

flooded banks of the knife river photo courtesy of Rod Skalsky NPS photo

Flooded banks of the Knife River, photo courtesy of Rod Skalsky/NPS photo

Changes in land use also threaten to disrupt the integrity of the cultural landscape. Today, Knife River represents a small protected remnant of historic prairie ecology in a region dominated by intensive agricultural production, growing industries such as mining and oil production, and associated regional residential development. Ad­ditional proposed coal-bed methane development in Wyoming and Montana would significantly increase regional nitrogen oxide emissions, which would likely result in increased nitrogen deposition in the park. Grasslands are particularly sensitive to ni­trogen deposition. Plant community composition could be affected while providing ripe conditions for the expansion of invasive plants (NPCA 2006).

How will the park’s cultural resources be interpreted when the context for their un­derstanding has been so drastically altered? Since Knife River has no historic struc­tures, the landscape tells the story of past peoples and a highly significant culture of agricultural and trading practices among the Plains Village Indians. If the cultural landscape and its features slip away as a result of climate change, the integrity of the site is eroded, leaving artifacts, artwork, and diaries disconnected from their context with no tangible or spiritual connection. Such circumstances put into question the original significance of the site and raise concerns of that future generations may be deprived of the opportunity to experience this special place of world recognition (Young, 2011).

Sources Cited:
1.  Moeykens, John. Law Enforcement Officer and Resource Manager at Knife River Indian Villages NHS, personal communication regarding the impact of recent flooding on archeological sites at the park, July 2011.
2.  National Parks Conservation Association State of the Parks (NPCA): National Parks Along the Lewis and Clark Trail- A Resource Assessment. Chapter 3: Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, September 2006 p. 23-34.
3.  Young, Roberta. Historical Landscape Architect NPS Midwest Regional Of­fice, personal communication regarding the potential changes to Knife River Indian Villages Historic Site resulting from climate change, June 2011.