The legal battle with the Standing Rock road washout

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FORT YATES, N.D. (KXNET) — We’re digging deeper into a lawsuit filed against the Federal Government, specifically the Bureau of Indian Affairs on behalf of the victims who were impacted by the 2019 road wash out on Standing Rock.

KX News’ Nai Remy spoke with the two survivors who are choosing to tell their story publicly for the first time and why they say the BIA should be held responsible.

It was July 2019 when Trudy Peterson and James Vanderwall were killed after a culvert on the Standing Rock Reservation washed out during heavy rains. On their way to and from work before dawn, their cars fell through the opening created by the washout plunging into the water below.

Two others, Evan Thompson and Steven Willard, were seriously injured and had to be rescued as they also crashed into the creek. At this time, the families of the victims, Willard and Thompson, are looking for answers amongst the tribe.

According to The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, it states, “The tribe seeks to contract all road maintenance and related function required to preserve, upkeep, and restore eligible Indian Reservation Roads, including, but not limited to the BIA Road System” which includes BIA Highway 3 where the incident occurred.

“They had all these years to put up the signs,” Evan Thompson exclaimed. “Caution signs, on each side of the roads, or if it was that bad prior to the incident they could have re-routed it, like they did before when they fixed it.”

The lawsuit alleged that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had a responsibility to inspect and maintain the culvert located along BIA Highway 3. The complaint also says the Bureau of Indian Affairs was aware before the washout that the culvert needed to be replaced.

In response, the federal government filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was responsible for maintaining that road under the self-determination contract. But Timothy Purdon, attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that the Bureau of Indian Affairs knew as early as 2014 that the culvert under the road was failing, and filed an appeal. But even then, Judge Daniel Hovland’s decision to dismiss the case was affirmed by judges with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“It was really hard on our children and our other halves,” said Thompson.

Thompson and Willard are both in agreement with needing to be compensated for their injuries and the time lost from work. Both say although they worked for the tribe, the tribe didn’t reach out to see how things were, and instead they were looking for ways to fight the legal battle that they knew was about to begin.

“They didn’t even shake my hand, I didn’t hear anything from them, to be honest,” Willard said in disbelief. “My employer, my boss, she came and see me, one of my supervisors, but that’s immediate people that I work with. But as far as tribal council or anybody that was, I didn’t hear from any of them.”

As far as the victim’s families, they both say Peterson and Vanderwall’s last moments of life were filled with fear and pain as they died alone in Joe Bush Creek. And as of right now, their fight is still not over yet, as they wait for their case to be picked up by the U.S. Supreme Court.

KX News reached out to the Bureau of Indian Affairs several times but did not receive a response.

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