It’s a Rez cliché. Drive into a HUD house cluster anywhere in Indian country and within a house or two you’ll see a rust bucket on blocks; a glory of past Detroit beauty that’s been there awhile – a long while – because an old hope someone has for it will not die: “It’ll run again – soon. Just waitin’ on parts.”
Take your drive to the Three Affiliated Tribes’ Four Bears Casino near New Town, North Dakota. Turn right, cruise past the parking lot and then left, down to the bait shop just off the shore of Lake Sakakawea. Rub your eyes at least once or twice: dead ahead is a 96- foot, $2.5 million-dollar yacht dubbed Island Girl. It’s on blocks, actual cinder blocks.
And it’s been there awhile and not because it’s broken.
Tribal officials call it “dry dock,” which has been its regular status the three years since then-Tribal Chairman Tex Hall greenlit its acquisition and plunked it into the water just outside New Town. It was supposed to be used by high-end patrons of the casino to travel around the lake in a mini casino and restaurant.
But, after fits and starts, the would-be floating casino has been barely used. One easily foreseeable but nevertheless overlooked problem: Winters in North Dakota get very cold. The lake often freezes over for months at a time. The other problem: a downturn in the local economy. The yearlong drop in oil prices worldwide means less money is flowing through the hands of oil field workers and local businesses connected to and supporting oil production. The regional fall-off has slashed business at Four Bears Casino up to 60 percent according to casino employees.
Expectations have receded as well. The Citizens of the Three Affiliated Tribes are grappling with the transformations that come with a boom-and-bust economy. A recent trip through their territory also reveals spirits at a low ebb. In interviews and asides, they say they struggle to maintain their culture and community surrounded by energy resource extraction.
Rank and file Three Affiliated Tribes (TAT) tribal members have other names for Island Girl, the epic symbol of their dilemma. Most boil down to a single word: “Embarrassment.” A close second would be: “Wasteful;” several names are not meant for public consumption. One tribal member, a local rancher, suggested that Island Girl “might look better up on blocks behind Tex’s house” in Mandaree.
Questions to tribal members about Island Girl draw near unanimity on a few points: contempt for Hall, the yacht’s perceived champion (and erstwhile commodore), and cynical confirmation that whatever Native values remain in the hearts of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people, they were absent in the Tex Hall government.
Back in July of 2013, near the peak of the oil and gas boom, sunnier days had arrived. The 149 passenger yacht, the first of its kind in North Dakota, received a welcoming ceremony and was boarded by 75 special guests for its maiden voyage. Local “Turtle Island Storyteller” Calvin Grinnell provided “cultural interpretation” as Mandan, Hidatsa and Santee singer and hoop dancer Jackie Bird sang the songs.
During the ceremony, Chairman Hall exclaimed, “We’re back at the river!” a historical reference dear to tribal members but also an unfortunate one—the enthusiastic phrase reminded listeners that the actual river remained buried under billions of gallons of water formed by the Garrison Dam project in the early 1950s. The same Lake Sakakawea waters that floated Island Girl had drowned ancient communities and prime agricultural soil fundamental to Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara culture and identity.
It’s been a five years since Hall fell from the heights of his confident proclamation that his tribe would gain total autonomy and “sovereignty by the barrel.” That plucky and ear-catching phrase fit better when Hall was the popular head (2001-05) of the National Conference of American Indians (NCAI), and later, when he vacationed with his girlfriend and business partners on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii; especially when he became wealthy through his thriving oil and gas services business, begun while he was elected leader of Three Affiliated Tribes.
Amid the social discontent that defined the later Hall years came the final pieces of his political undoing: the murder of two men related to his businesses. Hall, who was never implicated in any wrongdoing, was nevertheless swept up in lurid headlines and even a feature in The New York Times. It didn’t help that the alleged con man who orchestrated the crimes, James Henrickson, was a close business partner of Hall’s, and could be seen smiling happily in an Aloha shirt in a photograph with the chairman on a Honolulu beach in 2012. In September 2014, Hall was defeated in a primary election, the same day Henrickson was indicted. In February of this year, Henrickson was convicted on 11 murder-for-hire counts in federal court in Washington state.
Hall’s replacement, current Tribal Chairman Mark N. Fox, ran on a pledge of standing up to big oil and increased transparency towards tribal decision. Such decisions, involving paid rights of way for access to oil fields, say, or lucrative service contracts, have long been a source of frustration for those citizens not enjoying the riches of the boom. Thus far the reaction to the political change has been mixed. It’s an old story: those tribal members with economic ties to tribal government – jobs, relatives employed or elected, believe there have been some overall improvements. Those on the outside claim not much has changed.
“Our people see these things and they are angry and sad. All this oil and gas money, and no one knows how much is there, or even how it’s being spent,” said Lisa DeVille of Mandaree community. Mandaree is perhaps the area most transformed by the black gold rush of oil and gas development on Fort Berthold Reservation. However, save for the flurry of wells, pumping stations, and plastic pipelines, few signs of “progress” can be seen in the village of Mandaree. It could be any reservation community on any reservation, with or without oil and gas.
Mandaree endures these hardships despite the fact the state of North Dakota has split oil tax revenues with Three Affiliated Tribes each year. (During his time as chairman, Hall successfully negotiated for a 50/50 split; previously, the tribe had received 20 percent of oil tax revenues generated on its territory). Even now, during this enormous plunge in oilfield tax revenue, annual checks continue to exceed $130 million, but the nation must contend with improving its roads, social services and infrastructure to handle the fallout from a messy industry.
DeVille spends very little of her anger on obvious boondoggles like Island Girl. Her main concern is the deleterious impact on the environment the tide of oil and gas has wrought. According to a December 2014 article in The New York Times, from 2007 to 2014, 850 oil-related environmental incidents occurred on MHA lands.
Writing on LastRealIndians.com, Georgianne Nienaber relates a harrowing tale of one such incident: Lunker Federal #2-43-4H. On December 12, 2012, during transition from a drill site to a pumping station, the site experienced a blowout. Situated dangerously up a ravine above Lake Sakakawea, a 40 to 50-foot geyser gushed thousands of gallons of contaminated fracking solution and Bakken oil towards the still pristine lake. Eventually, the 63-thousand-gallon gusher blew the toxic brine 4,100 feet out onto the partially iced over lake.
In 2010, DeVille saw her first gas flare behind her friend’s house. It turned the snow yellow. When she asked about it that winter no one at the tribal offices had any answers. “Not tribal government, not tribal EPA, no one,” she said. “I thought: Man, this is just hitting us so fast.” More recently, DeVille and other concerned MHA tribal members have been finding answers elsewhere, and they are worrisome.
An April Science Daily report states, “A single U.S. shale oil field is responsible for much of the past decade’s increase in global atmospheric levels of ethane, a gas that can damage air quality and impact climate, according to a new study led by the University of Michigan.” The field in question? The Bakken Formation, which the study found emits “roughly 2 percent of the globe’s ethane,” or 250,000 tons annually.
The report goes on to explain that ethane “reacts with sunlight and other molecules in the atmosphere to form ozone, which at the surface can cause respiratory problems, eye irritation and other ailments and damage crops. Surface-level ozone is one of the main pollutants that the national Air Quality Index measures in its effort to let the public know when breathing outside for long periods of time could be harmful.”
More recently, a May 18 Dickinson Press story by reporter Amy Dalrymple indicates DeVille’s yellow snow may just be the tip of the iceberg. Duke University researcher Avner Vengosh, a geochemistry and water quality professor, has studied the effects of hydraulic fracturing since 2010. Vengosh says “the magnitude of spills in North Dakota is unlike what he’s seen in other oil-producing states.”
Vengosh analyzed samples from two of North Dakota’s largest brine spills, including a July 2014 pipeline leak that involved 1 million gallons of brine on the Fort Berthold reservation. “Following the brine spill, there is no vegetation,” Vengosh said. “It’s all dead.” The Duke researcher made his remarks at a community event in New Town, North Dakota, organized by the Dakota Resource Council from nearby Bismarck, North Dakota.
MHA tribal members with serious concerns about the quality of the reservation’s drinking water were there to ask questions. What they heard was disturbing. According to the Dickinson Press, “Compared to produced water–or brine–that Vengosh has studied throughout the U.S., the Bakken-produced water has the highest level of salinity and highest level of ammonium….”
Vengosh told those assembled that it’s unlikely there is an immediate danger to their drinking water, but strict monitoring, particularly for ammonium, salt, and heavy metals is advised. Which leads, ironically, back to the dry-docked Island Girl on Sakakawea, and the dream of a casino floating on a tide of oil and gas. What price, finally, will the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people be forced to pay for the corruption of their land and water?