In the Tribal Employment Rights Office, a dark, brick building in New Town, there is a glossy brochure printed with a message from Chairman Hall:
Our sovereignty can be maximized by the number of barrels of oil taken from our Mother Earth. We call it "sovereignty by the barrel." The potential here is to obtain financial independence for our nation, education for our youth, sustenance for our elders, maintenance of our culture and above all to set the people of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation on the road to independence.
Business on the reservation is better than it has ever been. A diner in New Town is full by noon; grocery store shelves are empty by midweek. The casino, a popular roughneck hangout, has seen its annual revenue rise by millions. There are more jobs than people to fill them, and the unemployment rate has fallen from 40 to 10 percent. Many are living on royalties. Beverly Hall, whose well was drilled in March 2010, retired and bought a house off the reservation. Each month, she earns $10,000, more than her and her husband's former salaries combined.
Last May, when I dropped by the employment office, it was crowded with Native American men seeking work on the rigs. Tony Damian, 30, who has a soft, round face and serious eyes, told me that he reviewed dozens of contractors each week applying to work on the reservation. (Eight months later, he started his own excavating business.) "We have an unbelievable opportunity to train our guys and start companies ourselves," he said. "But we only have a five-to-10 year window to do it." Since the start of the boom, Indian-owned businesses -- trucking, welding, road-building, consulting, general construction -- have increased tenfold. The employment office, meanwhile, has found jobs for more than 200 enrolled members as water haulers, builders, flaggers and roustabouts. A typical starting wage is $20 an hour.
But finding qualified workers is challenging. "When I was in my 20s, and I started to hear this was coming, I thought, 'Yeah, it might be a few wells here and there, but what am I going to do?' " said Damian. "My buddies and I weren't thinking, 'I better not drink and drive so I can get my commercial license when the boom hits.' " Truck drivers are the most in demand, he said, "but we can't get anybody to have a clean record, let alone a license." Contractors pay a small fee, which the tribe uses to train youth in the industry. Still, most workers -- at least 3,000 -- come from off the reservation.
The effect is dramatic: Not long ago, at an intersection north of New Town, 60 percent of the 29,000 vehicles headed toward the reservation in 24 hours were large trucks. Many paved roads have deteriorated to dirt, and on dry days, thick dust clouds settle onto pastures. A short highway stretch in heavy traffic may take hours to travel. Diabetics sometimes arrive late to dialysis. In September, an oil truck strayed into oncoming traffic and killed a family of four. Roadside ditches are littered with deer carcasses and plastic flowers memorializing the dead. New Town's new health clinic has hardly enough staff to treat the living. Ambulances are in short supply, and trauma victims have died before paramedics could reach them. Strippers make more money than in Las Vegas; there's not a vacant motel room, and small trailers rent for more than $2,000 a month. Man-camps sprout with each new rig and men sleep in their truck cabs, foreheads pressed to steering wheels. Women who work the fitness center catch oilmen walking treadmills in work boots, and, in the evening, scrub black residue off the shower tiles.
These are classic symptoms of a boom; north and west of Fort Berthold, it looks much the same. But there is one important difference: The reservation, having long been poor and unaccustomed to rapid development, was wholly unprepared. An estimated 400 Indian families lacked homes before the boom, and that number has only grown. The roads were not built for heavy traffic, nor are there enough to access remote areas. A lack of pipeline infrastructure has meant that natural gas is burned directly at wellheads, in open flares. When the boom began, the tribe had no transportation department and relied on the BIA's and the Bureau of Land Management's regulatory authority in environmental matters. The BIA has no fine structure in place for illegal dumping and has depended on the state, already overburdened, to penalize offenders.
Nor is the tribe, with only 13 police officers patrolling the reservation, able to fully enforce its own laws. Police calls have increased more than two-fold, and often it is an hour before officers respond. "Fires, explosions, gas leaks -- we never had to deal with these things before," Dawn White, a young tribal police officer, told me last May. White, who is short with a tight, gelled bun and military gait, has been an officer for three years. Oil spills and illegal dumping, she says, now occur almost weekly; the BLM, which oversees activity on wellpads, confirms the trend. Drunk driving and hard drug use are rampant, as is sex trafficking, according to a recent Department of Justice report. Just among tribal members, domestic violence incidents have doubled.
The lack of regulatory structure has promoted a culture of lawlessness. One night, a trucker grilling chicken by his RV in the casino parking lot told me, "You can get away with a hell of a lot more" on the reservation than off. In fact, he said, "You can do anything short of killing somebody." He earned $130 an hour overtime hauling water from wellpads to waste pits and once drove 36 hours without stopping. Normally, the U.S. Department of Transportation limits commercial truckers to 11 hours each day, but on Fort Berthold, there are no weigh stations to enforce the rule. "Keep your eyes open with toothpicks and you're making money. Another cup of coffee? You're making money."
To complicate matters, tribal police have no criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Due to a 1978 Supreme Court decision, only the state and the U.S. can prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians on reservations, depending on the transgression's severity. Fort Berthold's officers pass perpetrators on to county law enforcement. On several occasions, when White stopped drunk drivers and called the county, officers never came. At the end of her shift, with two kids at home, she had no choice but to let the offenders go. "It shouldn't be that someone calls for help and you ask, 'Are you enrolled or non-enrolled?' " said White. "Say a woman is assaulted by a worker. It's hard to walk away from that and look at a victim and have them say, 'Aren't you guys going to do anything?' "
It is difficult to take the reins of a boom driven by people over whom the tribe has little authority. And it complicates an old predicament: Tribal members have limited means to govern themselves and a federal government -- with a sordid history of guardianship -- to act as their primary guardian. In recent decades, BIA superintendents have changed frequently as each successive council chairman requests a replacement for the last. But it would be too easy to blame the BIA entirely; the real problem, perhaps, is in the relationship between nation, tribe and tribal member. "When you already have profound distrust, you're bound to have a lack of cooperation and communication, and also a lack of regulation," Paul Joffe, an international indigenous rights lawyer, told me. "And that's a situation that is very easy for corporations to exploit."
If distrust plagued the reservation before, now it is even more palpable. Many residents own little or no mineral rights other than those the tribe holds collectively. "People think that when there's more money floating around, our lives should be better," said tax director Mark Fox. "But the average person hasn't seen that happen." So far, the council has spent the better part of its oil income repairing roads, building houses to ease the shortage, and establishing regulatory structures to keep pace with the boom. Last year, when oil revenue generated a billion-dollar budget surplus in North Dakota, the Three Affiliated Tribes, despite earning $60 million from royalties, bonuses and taxes on oil production, remained $100 million in debt.
The debt is a popular point of rumor on the reservation. Before the boom, the tribe had hardly enough income -- even with $60 million-$70 million in annual federal assistance -- to pay for its projects and services, and it borrowed the difference. But councilmen have also been accused of mishandling funds. The council's spending records are classified, and according to a report commissioned by Tex Hall in 2010, most of its income is pooled into one account, from which councilmen annually draw several hundred thousand dollars apiece to spend on projects and grants at their discretion. Council positions turn over infrequently, and the seven members, including the chairman, have full authority. There are no checks and balances.