The lands within the reserve predate United States and state government territorial divisions, including the formation of the six state counties that dissect our reserved lands, the formation of the North Dakota state government, and the formation of the colonial US government and its constitution. The US government entered into treaties between two sovereigns: the newly formed US colonial government and the longstanding senior tribal governments of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. While the treaty making policy acknowledged the sovereignty of my tribes, it was an instrument used to dispossess us of at least twelve million acres of our land, which was historically and traditionally our home. As encroachment and railroad expansion ensued, executive orders were issued in 1870 that did not require tribal government consent nor congressional approval, which further reduced our holdings and created the boundaries of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, resulting in further diminishment of our lands to less than one million surface and mineral acres. All these policies, the Homestead Act and the General Allottment Act, were construed to accommodate further intrusion. The General Allottment Act divided up tribal collective lands on the reserve into individual allotments, declaring the rest »excess.« The Allotment Act was a racist assimilationist policy to further dispossess us from our lands and was specifically designed to force change the original producers of foods before colonial times into postcolonial white-thinking farmers. Through this act, our best, most fertile unallotted lands were deemed »excess« lands for sale, and ownership was offered to early European immigrants under another supremacist US policy, the Homestead Act.
A significant characteristic of land holdings on Fort Berthold is that individual Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara persons own their allotted land, and those individual allotted lands represent the majority of the trust lands held, whereas my tribal government owns the smaller share of trust acreage. This is significant because the US government, through the Department of Interior (DOI) and its sub-agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), has a treaty-based, legally mandated trust responsibility to allottees and tribal governments trust lands, and has jurisdictional authority over the allotted lands and tribal government trust lands.
Like this earth, we Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara have endured tremendous US policy pressures to change into something other than what we are meant to become, but like the earth, we endure. My teenage years, when I resided in a boarding school distant from my familiar lands, became a decisive time, a defining apex in my life when I felt the depth of love for the lands I grew up on which are called the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. I was away from home to learn, and for the most part enjoyed that challenging time; homesickness was not an option. My identity to the familiar geography, my culture, and the distance to my family solidified the framework of my bond to the lands of my tribes, the Mandan and Hidatsa. These lands of hills, gentle slopes, oak-lined draws, healing waters, swaying grass, sweet plums, sweet turnips that taste like earth, curious antelope, returning migratory birds, barking coyotes at dusk, grazing deer, and the distant song of the meadowlark were my outdoor retreat to connect to the natural sounds intertwined with quietude which I loved about my land from very early in life. These lands were and remain like a spirit in me, just like the blood of my ancestors, which sustains me and flows life within me. I knew early that our lands on Fort Berthold were owned by my parents and their paternal and maternal parents, and that there would be a day when I would own those lands.
At a 2015 US Senate hearing on the Government Accountability Office Report on Indian Energy Development, North Dakota Republican Senator John Hoeven stated, »I think now that if the Three Affiliated Tribes were an independent state, they would be the ninth largest oil producing state in the nation.« By then the federal DOI BIA Oil & Gas Hydraulic Fracturing Drilling project was well underway, after its first producing trust well in 2007. The North Dakota Department of Minerals reported that a whopping 358,000 barrels a day was being produced on Fort Berthold, which represented 30 percent of all North Dakota oil production, on which the state received tax payments. An internal audit revealed that it was actually 200,500 barrels a day, or 17 percent share of the state’s total oil production. Expediency and haste were the modes of the early years of the BIA frack project, when oil companies hired local tribal members as oil landmen, who fanned out across the lands to seek allottee signatures in exchange for quick bonuses, all while proclaiming allottees would become »millionaires.« Simultaneously, tribal government leaders were quickly forming their own personal oil companies from their tribal council desks, bolstered by industry executives and some tribal landowners to drill without delay, in anticipation of quick royalty payments. Even before the industrialized pressures of underground fracturing were injected into the earth, the surface level pressure had become insurmountable and the BIA reached its own critical collapse point and approved its proposed fracturing project with complete disregard and exclusion of the required National Environmental Policy Act Environmental Impact Study (EIS). A rapid series of five tribal government Indian Mineral Development Act agreements allowed for tribes to enter into oil and gas extraction with greater expediency and less federal liability, at the cost of environmental considerations, as Indian Energy Policy was designed to streamline the process of getting trust lands into leaseholds for the economic benefit of tribes and allottees.