The North Dakota Oil Fracking Boom Creates Clash of Money and Devastation
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Tribal leaders are determined to make the most out of this oil boom, which they see as the ticket to independence from the federal government. They remember all too well how the tribe missed out on the last oil craze.
In the 1980s, when North Dakota experienced a smaller, more conventional oil boom, the tribe was virtually shut out. Oil companies skipped the reservation because the federal government, which administers Indian lands, required that oil companies go through dozens of steps, taking many months, before granting permits. Outside the reservation, companies received permits within weeks.
To make sure they would not miss out this time, the tribe made two moves. It struck a deal with North Dakota to lower the taxes companies would pay the state and the tribe for leases on tribal land and it lobbied the Bureau of Indian Affairs to set up “one-stop shops” to streamline the permitting process.
Tribal leaders say they are looking out for their own interests, tired of history repeating itself.
Fort Berthold children learn early, in school and at home, that United States policies have betrayed the tribe again and again. The U.S. government broke the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, which set the reservation’s borders, to seize millions of acres of reservation land to establish Montana and expand railroad lines.
Then, in the late 1940s, the federal government decided to damn the Missouri River to create hydroelectric power and Lake Sakakawea. The project flooded river bottomlands that the tribe had so assiduously cultivated and that provided its major source of income. Over one-fourth of the reservation’s total land base was inundated by water. By 1954, nearly 80 percent of the tribe had relocated and almost all of its crop and grazing land, 94 percent, was lost.
The reservation now comprises just under a million acres. Only about half of that is tribal land, either owned by the tribe or tribal members whose families received allotments under an 1887 federal act that sought to privatize Indian lands. The rest of the land is either privately owned, largely by those whose ancestors settled in the Plains when the federal government gave away “unclaimed” Indian lands to homesteaders (beginning with the first Homeststead Act, in 1862) or public land, as in national park land.
Tribal members lucky enough to have mineral rights on their allotments are reaping the oil rush’s bounty. But even some of those members feel cheated. After the first leases were signed, energy companies began to “flip,” or sublease, their leases, at huge profits, with the federal government’s approval but without the allotees’ permission. Since then, tribal landowners have organized their own associations to maximize their interests.
But not everyone is collecting royalty checks. A little over half of the tribal enrolled membership now receives oil checks. The rest: nothing. The new reality is creating a divide in the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribe between the haves and have-nots.
No one blames the have-nots for resenting the unmitigated upheaval they’re enduring while the haves buy new cars and take vacations. Allotees receiving oil checks have formed a development corporation to invest their money in ways that will benefit all tribal members. Tribal leaders say that at some point in the future, they plan to develop a fund to “share the wealth” with all tribal members.
Becky Deschamp, from the Prairie Winds Trailer Park, is one of the have-nots. Her mistrust of government, honed from both distant and recent history, now extends to the tribal government. She is thrilled that the tribe found a place to house the evicted Prairie Winds families but wonders why it took so long.