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Native Sun News: North Dakota takes on impacts of energy boom

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

Man and best friend enter their “Luxury” lodging at man-camp on Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation.

Risking life and limb for oil
MHA medical officer fears for the worst
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor


NEW TOWN, N.D. –– A golden sunset behind the Killdeer Mountains glows with more luminosity than a Karl Bodmer landscape, tinting the clouds pink in the waning light of a wintery evening.

The splendor of this view from Killdeer Mountain Four Bears Scenic Byway 22 is a reminder of the 19th Century French artist’s paintings, which preserved a superb visual record of traditional Siouan society in the grassy Missouri River breaks and badlands here.

Bodmer’s historic illustrations documented the olden days –– before the 1864 Killdeer Mountain Battle, in which Hunkpapa Holy Man Sitting Bull and thousands of his people engaged ranks of U.S. soldiers in a major clash over treaty violations.

The 1851 Ft. Laramie Treaty guaranteed the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara could keep this area of the Great Sioux Nation homelands, stretching from western Montana through North Dakota to Canada.

However, federal allotment and homestead acts reduced the three tribes’ share of the treaty territory from 12 million acres to less than 3 million.

Perhaps a century later, the U.S. Congress approved the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River, constituting “another assault on the autonomy and cultures of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara,” according to award-winning historian Michael Lawson.

Flooding the fertile river bottomlands reduced the size of Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation by another 25 percent, to 500,000 acres of individual and tribal trust lands.

It wiped out a thousand-year-old agricultural economy, depriving many a family of its self-sufficiency by inundating farms, ranches and towns.

Now, the immense expanse of Lake Sakakawea is a lure to tourists, boaters and sports fishers, but a bittersweet and constant reminder of a cruel fate for the original heirs of this stretch of the northern Missouri Basin’s grandeur.

After years of going to bat for compensation of their losses, the Three Affiliated Tribes (TAT) received a federal award of $9 million less than they deemed the fair market value of land and damages.

The unsatisfactory settlement denied the 14,000 members of the Mandan Hidatsa & Arikara (MHA) Nation the right to use the reservoir shoreline for grazing, hunting, fishing, or other purposes.

The federal government also rejected the tribes’ petition for a share of Garrison Dam rural electricity.

It further refused tribal requests for irrigation development and for royalty rights on all subsurface minerals within the reservoir area.

It then passed legislation specifying that its monetary compensation be distributed on a per capita basis and that no more claims could be filed in the future, as Lawson documents in his book Dammed Indians.

Of the five Missouri River dam-building projects that destroyed more than 550 square miles of tribal land in North and South Dakota and dislocated more than 900 Indian families on different reservations in the mid-20th Century, “The most devastating effects suffered by a single reservation were experienced by the Three Affiliated Tribes, whose lifeways were almost totally destroyed by the Garrison Dam,” Lawson observed.

The government did promise to build a new hospital to replace the one flooded out at the former Ft. Berthold Agency in the village of Elbowoods.

The agency moved to New Town, just north of the current reservation. However, to this day, the nearly 7,000 tribal family members who live on the reservation have no hospital.

Many reminisce over better times gone by. “It was beautiful all along the river; we let our cattle run in the timber all winter,” former Tribal Business Councilor Tom White Eagle recalled. “The bottomland was really nice,” said the 72-year-old who was forced to relocate.

Having once lived close to the hospital in Elbowoods, he now drives himself and his wife of 52 years to Bismarck or Minot when they need a hospital. He recently had to make a run for four pints of blood and five days later another one for a heart attack.

“In Minot, it’s a shame how the non-natives treat the native people,” he said, adding, “If you call 911 in Watford City, they will say, ‘Are you native?’ and if you say, ‘Yes,’ they hang up on you.”

Minot is more than an hour’s drive from his home in White Shield. Bismarck is one-and-a-half hours away. Watford City is two.

The tribes contracted with federal Indian Health Services to run a big, new outpatient clinic in New Town, but the facility is not set up to provide so much as birthing services.

Until this year, even if it were, no housing was available for medical staff responding to widely advertised positions. Interest in clinic employment remains low due to qualms about moving to an oil boomtown and because of competition from other oil patch jobs that pay far more than IHS-approved salaries, according to staff.

The 8-year-old Bakken oil boom is the central hope for the tribal members of the MHA Nation to recover their lost economic luster, yet the rapid speed of industrial development has outstripped capacity to contend with associated social needs.

The nostalgically named Elbowoods Clinic was hard pressed to meet the crying demands of the struggling nation even before the oil boom doubled the population, turned the reservation into a hub of industrial accidents, and a created a magnet for drug and human traffickers.

Now the clinic’s skeleton crew is spread thin, trying to treat the new fallout from substance abuse and related violence, on top of longstanding intergenerational trauma over relocation and the growing ills of diabetes, obesity and influenza.

“As the nation’s Chief Medical Officer, I’m shook up and scared,” said Monica Mayer. “The single most important thing is the safety and survival of our people.”

She recalled ancestral Chief Four Bears’ death in 1837, and the near extinction of the MHA tribes in small-pox epidemics resulting from unprecedented exposure to non-Indian carriers of the infectious viral disease. “Now we are 14,000 strong but our children are not safe,” she said.

CEO and Quality Care Director Kathy Eagle shared the long-term perspective. “We’re still suffering from historical trauma,” she said. Today, she added, “We see a lot more injuries related to alcohol and drug use, and an increase in Hepatitis C, because of drug use.”

A swarm of foreign members of the workforce is filling jails, tripling addiction rates, and adding to domestic abuse, Mayer said.

Kerry Hartman, Environmental Science Department Director at Ft. Berthold Community College in New Town, said alcohol and drugs were problems before the boom, but, “Now it’s 100 percent worse. You take a huge influx of foreigners, a small percent of which are totally criminal, and you have a pretty good size population of criminal elements,” he said.

The day before he said that, New Town experienced its first armed robbery in history. The suspects were caught inside a local pharmacy, allegedly trying to abscond with drugs.

“People die on our roads from being hit by oil trucks. We have crime, violence, people missing, murder, and the fastest moving drug we have on Ft. Berthold is heroin,” acknowledged recently elected TAT Business Council Chair Mark Fox, who assumed the highest office in the MHA Nation in December.

North Dakota Highway Patrol reported the most recent trucking fatality on Jan. 17 in Mandan, where a semi collided with an unidentified pedestrian, according to Bismarck, North Dakota’s KFYR TV 5.

White Shield Tribal Business Councilor Fred Fox won’t let his teenage daughter drive to areas of the reservation where oil industry activity is intense. He and his three children lost their wife and mother in a collision with one of the countless big-rigs the industry requires to operate.

“We have a bad epidemic here with drugs,” added Fox, who was the council’s acting chair for much of 2014, after former Chair Tex “Red-Tipped Arrow” Hall stepped down in the face of a tribal investigation of his ethics.

“We’re trying to defeat this problem of meth and heroin,” he said. “Outsiders bring it in” and push locals to take the risk of selling it, he added. A highly paid workforce is a “prime target,” he said. “Now there are a lot of people I know that are on drugs. It’s disrupting families.”

Lisa Deville, TAT representative to the Vision West Consortium for sustainable development in North Dakota, lamented the “broken homes” left in the rubble of the drug culture.

“We just buried a nephew who was using meth and did heroin and died of heart failure,” she said.

The clinic is distributing full-color, glossy posters from Aberdeen Area Indian Health Service warning “Meth takes your life.”

Councilor Fox said the oilfield is a place in which “you could be the worst criminal but you can still make $100,000 a year.”

Clinic administrator Tiffany Rave said people don’t let their children play in the yard because of the situation. “There’s a lot of crime, and they say it’s gonna get worse,” she said.

Deville noted that 90 percent of the reservation children are obese. In her town of Mandaree, which hosts the lion’s share of the oil output, some 40 children enroll in rural Head Start preschool programs but not a one finishes high school.

“Kids are telling us, ‘I don’t have to be in school; I’ve got oil money’,” she said.

Another thing, she said, “I’m really afraid of these man-camps.” Man-camps, the temporary housing developments for oilfield transients, house hundreds of workers, sometimes without sufficient services, creating concentrated demand for unregulated activities.

National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center Program Specialist Lisa Brunner testified in U.S. Senate hearings that these facilities are correlated with human trafficking.

“Victim advocates responding to calls for service on Fort Berthold said there has been a doubling and tripling of numbers of sexual assaults, domestic violence and human trafficking incidents since 2008,” when the boom began in earnest, Brunner testified. She cited a lack of documentation and monitoring in the camps.

Rave noted that street vendors providing food service to the camp populations are one side-effect. “We are getting these little roach coaches selling on the streets,” she said. To date, neither the state nor the tribe has perfected a way to effectively license the vendors and enforce sanitation rules for the new set of circumstances, she said.

Tribal police can enforce the law against tribal members but not outsiders, who are subject to only state and federal jurisdiction.

Each of the six districts, or segments, of the reservation corresponds to a North Dakota county, but the state government only provides one county law enforcement officer in each segment, “and they don’t have to work with the reservation,” Councilor Fox noted.

Chairman Fox called crime “a situation we have to deal with.”

The activities at the drilling and pumping sites cause a fair share of safety concerns and accidents, as well.

One of the MHA Nation’s biggest private oil companies, Denver-based QEP Resources Inc., recently drew an inspection from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, after a well field fire in Mandaree burned the owner and an employee of Watford City well-field service provider Legendary Field Services. The employee was injured and the owner died, according to The Associated Press.

Mayer said she hopes the new Fox Administration will address these ills as soon as possible.

The accumulation of oil dividends already is going to work for the provision of future cultural revival, health care and social welfare, according to numerous tribal sources.

More than $1 million has been invested in Arikara (Sahnish) language restoration. Each reservation segment will receive another $1 million for pow-wow grounds overhauls.

Mandaree elders gather at the school every Tuesday and Thursday to tell stories and relate traditions. Mandaree is the first of the reservation segments to start an ambulance service, and all of the communities are getting their own new clinics.

Healthcare providers are collaborating with the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board to help tribal members sign up for the insurance benefits of the federal Affordable Care Act. Administrators of the TAT also are working on a plan for the tribe to pay the insurance premiums for members.

The tribe just added $20 million worth of healthcare worker housing, for a total of 40 new homes adjacent to Elbowoods Clinic. Sixty more houses and a state-of-the-art dialysis unit are slated next, Councilor Fox said.

Besides improved treatment, better prevention is on authorities’ minds. Elbowoods has purchased a mobile dental unit. “We’re working on licensure for that to do preventive care,” said Eagle.

In periodic drug awareness week, students in K-12 wear red ribbons and tie-dye t-shirts as part of a teen education program to prevent the repeat of dismal scenes, such as the recent removal of youth from high school on the evidence of drug-sniffing dogs.

One weight-loss program rewards the winner with a trip for two to Las Vegas. New facilities include basketball courts and step machines at recreation centers. At least one Olympic-size indoor swimming pool is slated.

(Contact Talli Nauman Environment and Health Editor for Native Sun News at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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