Atop a natural rise in the gentle rolling hills in Carter County, Montana, looking across the grasslands as far as the eye can see, is a cluster of nearly 40 boulders of varying sizes. Some of them are quite large and covered in brightly colored lichen while others are smaller, nearly hidden under the brush that has grown up around them.
One special rock, however, reveals something sacred — a depression in the stone rubbed smooth from generations of spiritual offerings made there to Mother Earth by American Indians as many as 500 years ago.
That find in 2010 proved important because it ensured the previously unknown site would be protected for hundreds of years to come. It also laid the groundwork for TransCanada’s Native Americans Relations Policy, which recognizes the significance of the land and traditions, and the importance of building relationships based on mutual trust and respect.
“How we separate ourselves is really quite simple — we respect traditional territory.”
— Lou Thompson, manager, U.S. Tribal Relations, TransCanada
The unanticipated discovery was made during the construction of TransCanada’s Bison Pipeline Project, a 303-mile gas pipeline that begins in northeastern Wyoming and travels east through Montana and North Dakota before connecting with Northern Border Pipeline in North Dakota.
A member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe assisting as a tribal monitor knew right away it held cultural significance for his people, who once roamed the land following the buffalo. Called a humblecha, it was a place where his ancestors would have come after days of walking, to fast and pray or possibly complete a spiritual quest.
But there it was, right in the path of the heavy equipment poised to move the earth aside in the permitted grading that was well underway. An exhaustive cultural resource survey had long since been completed, without having turned up the tribal site. The tribal monitor knew it was too late to alter the route and go around the sacred site, leaving few alternatives other than its destruction.
What happened next, however, was unprecedented and created a template of how to address future unanticipated cultural resource discoveries.
“We came up with the idea to GPS the boulders, move them off the right of way (ROW), put in the pipe and then restore the site,” says Bob Hopkins, TransCanada team member and Fort Peck Reservation tribal member, who remembers the dilemma the company faced that day. “And that’s what we did.
“Those involved in the tribal monitoring program were flabbergasted and couldn’t believe we would take the time and resources to do that.”
— Lou Thompson, manager, U.S. Tribal Relations, TransCanada
Indeed, it was no easy — or inexpensive — feat.
Excavation in the area had to be halted. The site was cordoned off and crews were sent on to avoid costly construction delays. Within several days, the site was recorded, photographed and mapped using detailed hand drawings and by data collection with sub-meter accuracy global positioning. The sandstone bedrock boulders and stones were marked with arrows noting their positioning on the ground.
The plan was to move them off the ROW and then put them back exactly as they were when construction was complete.
For two months the area stood idle while the rest of the project was being built and Thompson and others developed the strategy to preserve the tribal site. This included contacting neighboring landowners for permission to move the rocks onto private land until they could be moved back onto the right of way.
“They didn’t even recognize they had a cultural site on their property and they were thrilled to know it was going to be there,” says Hopkins.
On the morning of the move, the project teams gathered at the site. Its significance was briefly described to the group and a prayer and blessing ceremony were performed. Thompson presented the tribal monitors with an offering bundle that included tobacco.
“I was never so impressed by TransCanada — the day we moved the boulders they put all the resources behind it,” says Hopkins, noting a thumb hoe was used to carefully move the rocks instead of a bulldozer because of their fragility. It was tremendous effort. The company really stepped up big time.”
It was November by the time the grading was completed and pipe strung on the ROW. No further finds were turned up during that process and by December, the restoration of the boulders was scheduled.
On Dec. 8, a similar thumb hoe was mobilized to replace the rocks. It took a full day and was done under the supervision of tribal monitors.
As the final boulders were replaced in their original positions, the tribal monitor performed another blessing and prayer.
It was a bittersweet day for Thompson, whose great-grandmother was Mi’kmaq.
“We really pride ourselves on not impacting cultural sites,” says Hopkins.
“To know we were going to have to actually remove those stones … it was hard for me emotionally. But at the end of the day, the best case scenario happened.”
— Bob Hopkins, TransCanada team member
Because of the understanding and collaboration from all sides, the best possible outcome was achieved, he says, adding TransCanada has also kept its commitment to keep the site’s location secret. Only the state’s historic preservation office, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and TransCanada know where it is.
The efforts undertaken back then set the stage for the handling of future unanticipated discoveries – including during the proposed construction of Keystone XL. Based on what happened, there are now best-management practices in place that mandate tribal resource people be involved in cultural resource surveys. Tribal involvement doesn’t equate to project endorsement, but it does mean protection and preservation of American Indian cultural resources.
“There’s no way you can do this job without passion. And the passion comes from letting tribes know that we are committed, that we are protecting cultural resources,” Hopkins adds.
TransCanada strives to protect and preserve the land and communities where we operate, as well as creating opportunities for Aboriginal and Native American communities along our pipeline routes. Last year, we spent more than $50 million in contracting and hiring in Aboriginal and Native American communities across North America.