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Native Sun News: North Dakota tribe confronts many challenges

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Chairman Mark Fox took office Dec. 4 on the promise of protecting the environment from oil development threats.

Oil: The good, the bad, and the ugly
MHA Nation under new leadership addresses the many issues
Story and photos by Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

Part 1

NEW TOWN, N.D. –– When Mark Fox took the oath of the highest office in the Mandan Hidatsa & Arikara (MHA) Nation here on Dec. 4, he initiated his first four-year term as chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes’ business council with a pledge to bolster Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation’s economic self-sufficiency.

Echoing that perpetual unifying desire of his 14,000-member tribal community, he recognized that the by-now celebrated 8-year-old Bakken oil boom in the Three Affiliated Tribes’ (TAT) jurisdiction offers a potential basis for prosperity and independence from federal constraints.

At the same, he acknowledged that the precarious position newfound mineral wealth has generated -- with its attendant greed, corruption, social inequality, environmental degradation and health issues -- must be addressed through constitutional reform, governmental transparency and economic diversification.

Referring to the MHA’s documented historical claim as the Great Plains’ primary trade center prior to European migrant contact, he set the scene for his inauguration with his final campaign stump speech on the eve of the Nov. 4 general elections, saying, “We were an economic power, not just on the Northern Plains, but in all North America. We controlled the economy in North America; tribes from all over came to trade with us. Over time that was all lost.”

Now, he said, it’s imperative to hold the federal government to its trust responsibility and to “revitalize our economy. Our children are gonna be proud to know who we are. No more are we gonna be looked down upon,” he added.

Fox and close runner-up Damon Williams, both attorneys and doctors of jurisprudence, snuffed out the hopes of less-educated but more flamboyant three-term incumbent Tex “Red-Tipped Arrow” Hall in Sept. 16 primaries, as the former chairman went down in history with failing marks for accountability in dealings with criminal business partners in his own private oil business while in office.

The challenges that Fox and the MHA Tribal Business Council (TBC) now face are daunting, as they struggle to overcome historical malaise, gain credibility with the electorate, reclaim environmental damage, restore public health and safety, and strengthen oil industry regulations in the midst of a downturn in petro profitability.

“We have a lot of people who are very angry, very negative,” Fox accepted on the campaign trail. “We are not happy about the change that happened when this boom occurred.” He earned rousing applause when he advocated: “Let’s go out to the communities and ask people, “What do you think we should spend the money on?’”

Money there is. No doubt about it. The tribal business council disbursed $1,000 checks to all 14,000 enrolled tribal members just in time for Christmas. The MHA’s oil industry has greased the wheels of many a public infrastructure project and enhanced the household incomes of many a family, enabling prospects unimaginable in the days of yore.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has distributed more than $1.6 billion in oil-and-gas taxes and royalties to the tribe and trust land allottees since 2008, according to Councilor Fred Fox, chairman of the TBC Natural Resource Committee.

Seven staffers at the BIA’s Office of the Trustee dole out two-thirds of that to the allottees and the other one-third -- some $35 million a month – to the tribal government.

This new home at White Shield is one of many being made possible by the TAT’s investment of millions of dollars in oil taxes and royalties.

In 2014, the tribe channeled much of its share into construction projects for pre-schools and schools, community centers, and housing to meet shortages in all six districts, or segments, of the 1-million-acre MHA jurisdiction.

For example, the new chairman’s White Shield segment got $25 million for a school, $15 million for a community center, $6 million for housing, $1.5 million for Head Start, and $1 million for new pow wow grounds.

These projects create jobs and income, not only in temporary construction, but also in permanent administration and staffing, conceived as they are to swell the current ranks of tribal employment beyond its current 900 staff.

The Christmas bonus came from the People’s Fund, an endowment created in 2013, which accrued $100 million in each of 2013 and 2014. “In 2015, we’re looking at putting in another $100 million,” Councilor Fox said.

The tribe’s Economic Development Fund has another $35 million, which the councilor would like to see increased, through the account’s continued use as an instrument of cut-rate financing, providing 5.5-percent interest for reservation business loans and 2.2-percent for home mortgages. “There are a lot of opportunities. You have to use Indian contractors before anyone else” due to the Indian preference rules in the Tribal Employment Rights Ordinance (TERO), he said.

“Right now you see a lot of people coming back. There’s jobs.” The student body count in White Shield’s K-12 schools has blossomed from 110 to 185. The population of Mandaree segment, where oil drilling is most intense, has doubled in size.

With the four top oil producers on the reservation each investing $2.8 billion a year, the payroll for jobs in the oilfield is also having its effect on family economy.

“Thirty percent of the people are gonna say, ‘We’ve never had this opportunity. We grew up without money,’” Councilor Fox said, adding that his mother was one of them. However, she inherited an allotment. “Now she has shares on a lot of wells. She used to drive an old Dodger Caravan. Now she drives a Cadillac Escalade. She got a new home. She can go to Walmart every day and she can do her hair.”

Yet the price paid in human and other resources has been incalculable. Its long-term effects are yet to be fathomed.

“One hundred percent of the people are gonna say, ‘It’s not environmentally safe. We don’t like this oil,’” he noted.

A 24,000-barrel spill of brine and oil from Houston-based Crestwood Midstream Partners’ Arrow Pipeline LLC drew emergency response crews to the site in Mandaree segment on July 8. They discovered a spoiled two-mile long 200-yard-wide swatch of vegetation along a tributary of the Missouri River.

Deploying booms, berms and chemical absorbers, they sought to contain the discharge at the sites of three beaver dams and the mouth of the tributary leading into Lake Sakakawea just upstream from the Mandaree public drinking water intake.

Authorities said they monitored the water and it was safe, but they never released their findings, prompting residents to do their own sampling. A half-year later the scars of the spill were still visible on the scenic bluffs of the treasured tourist recreation area and a citizen investigation was ongoing.

In the wake of widespread reports of illegal dumping of radioactive well field waste, MHA and other members of the statewide grassroots Dakota Resource Council began collecting petition signatures for a “full, independent” audit of the Oil and Gas Division of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources and the North Dakota Department of Health “to prove or disprove unethical decisions made in reference to oil and gas development policy.” The petitioners charged that “some 90 percent of fines have been waived for egregious violations such as spills, illegal dumping, water contamination and other disregard of state law.” They alleged, “lack of ability (or will) to track proper disposal of used filter socks and radioactive waste produced by oil companies.”

Mandaree community activist Joletta Bird Bear took a stand in a Dec. 28 op-ed published in North Dakota’s Grand Forks Herald. “Our regulators are too lenient with the industry now, which results in a lack of trust from the people who already have been dealing with these types of scenarios for the past decade,” she stated. “How many radioactive dumps will we have to have?” she asked.

The sights and smells of gas flaring at well heads vie only with the noise of drill rigs in the oil patch as human irritants, stressors and destroyers of wildlife habitat.

Meanwhile drugs and drug-induced crime levels never before experienced have beset the youth of the MHA nation, taxing the health and educational system.

Can the new Fox Administration rescue the MHA Nation from these ills? The Native Sun News begins the New Year in 2015 with an investigative feature series, examining the community and administration’s efforts in meeting the social, health and environmental challenges posed by the Bakken oil legacy.

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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