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WOSTER: Jandreau had respect for the land, people

Some 15 years ago or more, I rode with Michael Jandreau to the banks of the Missouri River near Lower Brule to see how the shoreline had eroded over the time since the great dams were built to hold the muddy water.

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Some 15 years ago or more, I rode with Michael Jandreau to the banks of the Missouri River near Lower Brule to see how the shoreline had eroded over the time since the great dams were built to hold the muddy water.

On that visit, Jandreau, chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe then and until his death last week, stopped the pickup. We got out and walked closer to the water to look out across the waves that chopped the surface of the river. Jandreau pointed to different spots on the reservoir many yards from shore and described where homes and other buildings had once rested. Much of the old town of Lower Brule, he said, had been flooded by the rising waters behind Big Bend Dam.

I was working for the newspaper that day on a series of stories about changes in the Missouri River in the decades following the construction of the big dams. It remains one of the most rewarding projects I was assigned as a reporter. That was in part because my little brother, Kevin, was the other main reporter on the stories. It was also because I got to visit places along the river that I'd known since I was a kid growing up on a farm in Lyman County just south of the Medicine Butte and the reservation. It was like coming home, seeing familiar things with fresh, adult eyes, guided by people such as Michael Jandreau, who shared my respect and affection for the land and the people in that country.

We talked at some length about the impact of the rising river on those people and that land. He said the damming of the river was, for the people of Lower Brule, almost an act of war.

"They told us, 'Get out, we're flooding your town,' '' he said. "We got out.''

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Jandreau was 71, my age, when he died on Good Friday. Mourners - family, friends, leaders from many other tribes and dignitaries from across the state and nation - filled the Lower Brule Community Center for a final service. Warm words were spoken, and moving drum songs were offered for the man who served the tribe for four decades, most of that time as chairman.

Some of the speakers talked of Michael Jandreau as if he were a giant. In the sense of history, perhaps he was. In real life, although I always addressed him as "chairman,'' he usually acted like "just Mike.'' Unpretentious, dressed in blue jeans and a baseball cap, he was soft-spoken, sometimes nearly whispering as he talked of serious matters.

And he could talk of serious matters. The importance of the Missouri River to his tribe, the history of the river and its relationship to the Lakota people, those things were serious to him.

He angered some folks when he agreed to a transfer of Corps of Engineers-owned and, the so-called "take land,'' along the river from federal control to tribal responsibility.

While others fought the transfer, Jandreau decided to participate. That way, he said, the tribe would have a voice in controlling the erosion that each year tore away huge chunks of shoreline.

That was the practical side of the long-time chairman. He knew the tribe would struggle to do anything meaningful to control erosion, but he also saw that the corps had been unable to take care of the problem. He knew, too, that as the shoreline eroded, important cultural and archeological treasures were being lost into the river year after year.

The inside back cover of the funeral program contains a photograph of a young Michael Jandreau, maybe an early teenager. He has a full head of hair swept into the Elvis Presley style of the day, and the collar of his shirt is flipped up. I vaguely remember that young kid. I won't soon forget the adult that young rock-and-roller grew to be.

Missouri River has been a constant in my home country. So has Chairman Jandreau.

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It's nearly as hard to imagine this place without the chairman as it is to imagine it without the river.

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