While One Tribe Fights Oil, Another Cautiously Embraces It


Lake Sakakawea lies at the heart of the Fort Berthold reservation.

Lake Sakakawea lies at the heart of the Fort Berthold reservation.

Lake Sakakawea lies at the heart of the Fort Berthold reservation.

While North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Tribe makes headlines in protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, oil development is playing out differently for another of the state’s Indian nations.

One hundred fifty miles up the Missouri River from Standing Rock, pipelines and pumpjacks are plenty on the Fort Berthold reservation.

More than 4,000 miles of pipe carrying oil, natural gas and wastewater criss-cross the reservation in the heart of the Bakken oil patch. Fort Berthold is home the Three Affiliated Tribes — the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara — known as MHA Nation.

“We are in this oil play already,” tribal environmental director Edmund Baker said. “We want to be able to do it responsibly. We want to be able to do it competently. We want to show other tribes that it can be done.”

Many people on the reservation have found prosperity in the oil industry.

T.J. Plenty Chief owns Red Road Trucking on Fort Berthold.

T.J. Plenty Chief owns Red Road Trucking on Fort Berthold.

T.J. Plenty Chief, for one, owns three trucks with his Red Road Trucking business he started in 2012. He said truck drivers in the oil fields can make over $90,000 per year. His job pays the bills, helping him support nine children.

“Before the boom, I had to work a lot harder and work in other jobs I didn’t really care for as much, working at the casino or whatever,” he said.

A decade ago there was almost no oil activity on Fort Berthold, but today more than 1,400 wells dot the reservation.

MHA’s own oil company, Missouri River Resources, operates several of those wells.

“We’re trying to create a nation that really sustains itself through economic development and through its own abilities,” CEO Dave Williams said.

He calls this concept of self-sufficiency “economic sovereignty.”

MHA Nation has brought in substantial money from oil production on its lands — $800 million in tax revenue since 2008, according to North Dakota’s tax commissioner’s office. Plus, MHA Chairman Mark Fox says the nation’s collected $800 million in royalties.

“All the high cost of living that the oil boom created? We’re trying to alleviate that,” Fox said.

The nation has built new apartments for residents, established a new health care system and made payments of $1,000 to each tribal member three times a year.

But Fox said the boom caused crime to spike, as well as drugs and human trafficking.

“We have impacts to our environment, constant threat of impacts to our environment, to our air, to our water, to our land,” he said.

One of the largest spills in state history took place on Fort Berthold in 2014. One million gallons of wastewater leaked from a pipe, threatening the reservoir holding the reservation’s drinking water.


Mark Fox is chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes.

The chairman admits oil development poses a risk.

“We sure as hell don’t want to do it in such a way that we taint or diminish the value of our most important asset, which is water,” he said.

That’s why these tribal leaders — like the Standing Rock Sioux to the south — are fighting a pair of new crude and natural gas pipelines slated to cross under the reservoir.

“We are not against all pipelines,” Fox said. “But what we are against is when pipeline (companies) come onto Fort Berthold through other entities and think they are going to develop or utilize pipelines without the approval of our tribe.

MHA Nation has tried to halt construction on the two lines in question with a cease and desist order. But the pipeline company sued in response, and thus far a federal judge allowed construction to continue, saying the company has the necessary permits from the Army Corps of Engineers. The case is still in court.

Williams, head of MHA’s oil company, said with development comes an immense responsibility for the tribe to protect its environment.

“If people don’t take care of their pipelines, their wells, their production, they are going to destroy their land, plain and simple,” he said.

That’s the struggle tribes from MHA to Standing Rock face as they make their own calls about whether the infrastructure’s worth the costs.

What’s Next?

  • Have something to say about the Dakota Access Pipeline? Text PIPELINE to 701-354-4414.
  • Just how frequent — and serious — are pipeline incidents? We dug through the data.
  • Check out the rest of our pipeline coverage here.