Across Lake Sakakawea from New Town, there is a museum in the tribe's casino parking lot, choked now with trucks and campers, but open, still, to anyone curious about reservation history. Visitors will learn that the museum is a relic of a boom come and past -- its posthumous benefactor, Helen Gough, owned rights to the first oil drilled on the reservation in 1951. They will also learn of the betrayals that fomented Fort Berthold's privation. The first treaty that established its boundaries in 1851 at the Missouri and Powder Rivers was broken for Montana's statehood and again for the railroad. Congress whittled down the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara territories, allotting farmland to Indian families along the Missouri's fertile banks. Then, the government drew plans to dam the river. The tribal council protested, writing, "We have been, and now are, as nearly self-supporting as the average white community ... the lands which will be flooded are practically all the lands which are of any use or value." In 1954, Garrison Dam was completed, and Lake Sakakawea, named for the Shoshone-Hidatsa woman who guided Lewis and Clark, filled in behind it. By then, the people had dug up their dead and moved to higher ground.
"All these years, we didn't see any value in the land," Bird Bear, 65, told me one morning last May, at her house in Mandaree. She wore red-rimmed glasses and faint makeup around her eyes. Through her kitchen window, past a yard strung with clotheslines, a yellowing field stretched to a long horizon. The land here is dry; come late spring, grass can catch fire with a single match. "Nobody knew there were billions of dollars under Fort Berthold. How do you believe that if you've been poor all your life?"
Besides, the historical record was discouraging: After Gough's well, Fort Berthold produced little oil. Even in the 1970s, when another boom hit North Dakota, companies hardly ventured onto the reservation. On Indian trust land, which includes collectively held "tribal land" and individually owned "allottee land," companies had to go through four federal agencies and 49 steps to acquire a permit to drill; off trust land, they dealt with only four steps. Furthermore, a company needed the consent of every person who owned a share of a parcel's minerals. Indian land is fractionated by inheritance -- one parcel may have scores of owners -- and convincing all to agree was maddening, if not impossible.
In 1999, North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan amended the law specifically for Fort Berthold: The Interior Department could approve any lease involving Indian mineral owners if a simple majority agreed to the terms. That same year, an Interior Department geologist released the first impressive Bakken estimates, and by 2005, North Dakota was heading assuredly toward another boom. "Workers needed immediately in North Dakota's oil patch," the Associated Press reported; roughnecks started at $25 an hour. Bonus offers to private landowners climbed from tens, to hundreds, to thousands of dollars an acre. But as oil rigs appeared around the reservation edge, Fort Berthold remained quiet. One tribal administrator told me that he had worried Fort Berthold's oil might vanish, siphoned away by pumpjacks at its edge. In 2004, BIA petroleum engineer Jeff Hunt, who commutes between Denver and New Town, took a tribal councilman to the North American Prospect Expo in Houston, Texas, to promote the reservation. "Rather than wait for a company to walk through your doors," Hunt reasoned, "why not go to them?"
The first buyer was an obscure outfit called Black Rock Oil & Gas, which in 2005 proposed to lease 10,000 tribal acres for 16 percent royalties and a $35-per-acre bonus. The tribal council jumped at the offer; the BIA signed off as well. "For years, we had always wanted an oil and gas lease," said Councilwoman Judy Brugh. "We took the first offers because we didn't know how long they would last." Meanwhile, Black Rock hired several tribal members to help acquire leases from individuals, including Beverly Hall, who worked at the tribal college. In the spring of 2006, her cousin, Ron Brugh, told her that a company wanted to lease her 160 acres under the same terms they had offered the council. "It looked like a lot of money," Beverly told me. "And Ron -- I trusted him. He was a close relative." She signed the lease and took Brugh to see her brother, who leased his acres as well.
By the fall of 2008, nearly all of Fort Berthold had been leased. The tribe settled for royalties between 16 and 18 percent and bonuses no higher than $110-per-acre; individuals did slightly better. But the most fortunate was a young tribal member, Spencer Wilkinson Jr., who was general manager of the tribe's casino and a friend of Tribal Chairman Marcus Levings, who defeated Tex Hall in 2006. (Hall was re-elected in 2010.) In January 2008, the council leased Wilkinson 42,000 tribal acres for 18 percent royalties and a $50-per-acre bonus. He acquired an equal number of allottee acres under the same terms. Then in December 2010, after drilling several wells, he sold his leases to the Oklahoma-based Williams energy company for $925 million, and turned his company, Dakota 3, into a subsidiary.
Flipping, as it is called, is a common industry practice, and all four of the companies that first acquired tribal mineral rights, including Black Rock, engaged in it. But the enormity of Wilkinson's profit -- and on land that earned its owners very little in comparison -- enraged many tribal members. That the BIA had signed off on the transactions without their consent seemed a blatant violation of its duty to protect their economic interests. When Houston-based Marathon Oil Company acquired Beverly Hall's leases in January 2008, the BIA informed her by letter. "I felt really ashamed that I had been taken like that," said Hall. She knew the council had encouraged the original deals, but why had the BIA never advised her to negotiate for better terms, and why had they approved the flips without her knowing?
"Mineral owners got the price of the day," Jeff Hunt countered when I asked the same question. "Drilling was still a big risk, and so it made sense that offers were low in the beginning." When an individual signs a lease form, the company sends it to the reservation BIA office to check calculations and certify that the owner's interests are being met. Then the superintendent based on Fort Berthold adds his signature. (Neither the superintendent nor BIA spokesperson responded to repeated requests for an interview.) On a few occasions, said Hunt, the BIA advised mineral owners to reject low offers, but he could not recall any examples and said the information was privileged. The lease document, meanwhile, did not require the agency to consult with owners before permitting companies to flip. Had the BIA approved deals too readily? Hunt didn't answer, and instead insisted, "This was the driving force behind it: We had companies in the office. We had councilmen and mineral owners in the office -- hundreds each day -- and everyone saying, 'We want our money now. We want our leases now.' I think if we had said, 'Let's wait a while,' people would've strung us up.' "
On Fort Berthold, distrust of the federal government has become a cynical expectation: The Interior Department has rarely acted in Indian peoples' favor, so why would it do so now? Over the past century, its mistakes and misdeeds -- lost records, outstanding royalties -- have amounted to billions of dollars owed to tribes and individuals nationwide. In 1996, Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet director of a nonprofit Native American bank, filed a class action suit on behalf of hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs alleging that the U.S. government had mishandled $47 billion belonging to Indian landowners. Cobell died last October, but the case is nearing settlement for $3.4 billion, pending appeals.
Last summer, Fort Berthold mineral owners filed their own suit, accusing the U.S. of failing to protect tribal members' economic interests. Among the evidence are Dakota 3 lease forms rubberstamped with the words, "This lease is in the best interest of the Indian mineral owner." A letter to the BIA from the Elders Organization states, "The BIA is allowing these lucrative agreements between oil companies ... knowing that (the original agreement) was not market value." According to the organization, the BIA never responded. Nor did the reservation superintendent answer Beverly Hall's inquiries; Bird Bear also said she was frequently ignored. "People were learning they were going to have to manage on their own," she told me.
After the Black Rock deal, landowners' associations proliferated on the reservation as tribal members turned to their neighbors for guidance. One of the most active began in Kara and Ken Hall's one-story ranch house in New Town. "We realized that if we wanted to maximize our minerals, we couldn't rely on the BIA to negotiate for us," Ken Hall told me in November. Ken, who is Tex Hall's nephew, works in the tribal energy department; Kara is an indigenous rights consultant and ran Tex's re-election campaign. In 2007, Peak Energy Resources, a small company based in Durango, Colo., contacted Ken to discuss a lease. They decided on 22.5 percent royalties and $1,000 an acre -- the same deal Bird Bear received from Peak. "Leases off the reservation were going for substantially more than on," company CEO, Jack Vaughn, later told me. "We believed that the geology wasn't any different -- actually, the prospects on the reservation were much better." Still, the bureaucratic wrangling required to operate on Indian land was discouraging. "At every step, you had the potential for delay," said Vaughn. "It might take the BIA a month to get one piece of paper done. Environmental assessments were taking months." With added fees, Vaughn estimates that it costs a half-million dollars more to drill a well on Indian land than off.
Vaughn developed a close working relationship with the Halls and met with other tribal members to explain how leasing worked. Then, in the spring of 2008, the company organized mineral owners, led by Tex Hall, to lobby in Washington, D.C. Their request: Turn the Fort Berthold BIA office into a "one-stop-shop" by packing it with experts from every federal entity involved in the permitting process. This, they hoped, would ensure that drilling applications turned over quickly, landowners earned royalties sooner, and that tribal members could meet directly with officials to negotiate terms, ask questions, and locate lost records. "Experts" was the key word, Tex told Dorgan when they met in the Senator's office. "We do not want recycled rejects."
Dorgan liked the idea and wrote a bill to extend the one-stop-shop throughout Indian Country. Though Dorgan's bill died in 2011 when he left office, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, introduced the Native American Energy Act with similar intent this year. The BIA, meanwhile, struggled to find qualified people willing to move to Fort Berthold. Ken Hall joked that the one-stop-shop turned into a "one-man-show," run by the BIA's Hunt. The agency added a few employees, but it hardly eased mineral owners' frustrations. "Due to significant mistakes, errors in judgment, and lack of trained staff by the BIA," Tribal Chairman Marcus Levings told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in April 2008, "the Fort Berthold Reservation may very well miss out on the economic boom that the rest of North Dakota appears to be enjoying." Shortly thereafter, Levings struck a deal with the state to reduce the taxes industry had to pay to North Dakota and the tribe for producing on Indian land. Some credit this last, hasty attempt with setting the boom in motion. That spring, Marathon drilled the first well on a Black Rock lease and named it Myrmidon, after the ruthless Greek warriors in the Trojan War.