Our children, grandchildren deserve legacy of ancestral land conservation


I can imagine houses, churches and families being relocated from the Missouri River bottomlands. Most of us have heard stories – others lived through it — about the devastation that accompanied the flooding of ancestral lands on Fort Berthold after Congress passed the Garrison Dam Project in 1944.

Many like me never saw Elbowoods, the nostalgic agency for Fort Berthold, where many of my mother’s generation were born at the tribe’s hospital. The dam flooded cultural sites, drowned garden plots, damaged the economy and forever erased the river landscape, including swaths of Cottonwoods.

In the 1950s, residents of communities to be flooded such as Elbowoods, Sanish, Van Hook had meetings to discuss a new town, their new future. They knew their world was going to change. Today, our land is being changed again, much by outside forces, much is being changed by leaders and by citizens of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation because someone – many people — made a choice to participate in the Bakken shale drilling frenzy.

Those of us living on Fort Berthold and in western North Dakota now live with transformation on a daily basis. Our landscape is quickly changing with 9,786 wells drilled in North Dakota from 2008-2014. Fort Berthold sits in the midst of all this oil related activity. Oil tanks, flares and pump jacks now dot Lake Sakakawea, the Badlands and the prairie.

Communities of the flood prepared for the future because they had to. The question today: What is our tipping point in planning for our future as the landscape is altered before our eyes? Some of our MHA citizens have relocated off the reservation because they don’t like the results that accompany oil development in the Bakken.

We have babies being born today who will grow up accustomed to seeing jack pumps in their backyard, along roads and horizon of the MHA Nation. Some Fort Berthold communities have had minimal oil development, like White Shield. They are fortunate their community remains mostly unsoiled.

But other communities, such as Mandaree, have been dramatically altered by oil production. I have spoke with people who will never return to Fort Berthold because the land, air and water are not the same. Our reality is clear. Our environment will continue to be changed as experts predict upwards of 30 more years of drilling.

I count myself among a group of people who believe we should create a conservation district on Fort Berthold. It is an idea in need of a solid plan as open spaces quickly disappear. Since February 2015, the lakeshore near the Four Bears Bridge and across Highway 23 from the Four Bears Casino has been mined and stripped. The result is a visual atrocity.

I’ve lived in communities in Colorado and Montana where residents take high value in the land, especially land bordering communities. They fight valiantly to preserve what they call open spaces, which serve as a buffer between communities and nearby development.

The Four Bears Economic Development Corporation,a Three Affiliated Tribes non-profit corporation, was established to benefit the Four Bears Segment. A sign on the road announces Lakeview Aggregate as the business that is mining and marketing gravel across Highway 23 from the Four Bears Casino. The land belongs to the Three Affiliated Tribes, but all revenue is being directed to the Four Bears Segment.

I sat in the Natural Resources Committee meeting on Aug. 19 when Tom Wells of the Bureau of Indian Affairs appeared before the committee. He said the BIA needed a letter stating the tribe was pursuing a lease for the gravel operation. If the TAT supplied a letter, said Wells, this would delay the BIA from having to file trespass charges for the mining of gravel and aggregate.

On Sept. 2, Resolution No. 15-149-LKHwas approved 5-0 by the Tribal Business Council calling for the TAT to enter into a lease with the Four Bears Economic Development Corporation. In doing so, the TBC “agrees to waive all rents and royalties from the lease approved pursuant to this Resolution.”

The Four Bears mining operation violates the concept of an open space barrier between a high traffic area of the tribe and development. It also serves as an example about the rush to develop our land and natural resources. As a community, we ought to begin a process of designating areas of Fort Berthold that we can preserve for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. Let’s give our future generations something worth remembering.

Jodi Rave Spotted Bear is a Harvard University Nieman Fellow. She’s the recipient of national awards and honors for news and opinion writing, including the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest, Native American Journalists Association, Montana Newspaper Association, Columbia University School of Journalism and the University of Nebraska. She was also awarded the Paul D. Savanuck Military Print Journalist of the Year Award.