This is where tribal members see the BIA playing a valuable role. Many told me that they trusted the agency more than the council to protect their interests -- at least the BIA has a mandate to do so. Even Chairman Hall admitted that the tribe cannot manage the boom alone. "We don't want to get rid of the BIA," he told me. The agency is bound by treaty to protect the tribe. "If something goes wrong, we need the government to take responsibility, to safeguard our land and water."
I repeated this exchange to Fox one morning in his office. He is a wired, matter-of-fact man, clean-cut and often dressed as though headed to a company retreat. He smiled and shook his head. "When has the federal government ever protected us?" he said. "They took our land, they flooded us out, they put us in housing units and then said, 'Live.' " But, he conceded, "They were not ready for what was going to happen here. The tribe and the people were not ready. The only ones that were ready -- that knew exactly what they were doing and have been doing it since -- were the oil companies."
The rain fell so hard on Fort Berthold one night that trucks rested on roadsides and brittle grass softened and flattened onto fields. At an intersection of asphalt and dirt, a horse hung its head over a barbed-wire fence. A pumpjack nodded with steady complacency, and a flare burned without a hiss. Potholes filled with mud, and scoria roads dampened to a deeper, bluer red, like veins popping beneath the skin.
I went to dinner at the Scenic, north of Highway 23 with a view of the reservoir. Roughnecks smoked beneath the eaves, each with a foot propped against the siding and a knee protruding into the storm. Inside, I was seated near an elderly man who eyed me with curious distrust before inviting me to join him. "The thing you must know," he said, without introduction, "is that this was our big chance and we missed it."
It is true that there are many things the tribe cannot undo. Several leaders told me that they wished the council had followed the model of Colorado's Southern Utes, who rejected outside offers, formed an energy company and drilled their land themselves. One tribal member, David Williams, recently founded a company to do just that. But the leases left are mostly table scraps, small tracts with poor prospects. Meanwhile, last year, Marcus Levings' tax deal earned North Dakota $20 million more than the tribe in production taxes on Fort Berthold's oil. When a state legislator proposed amending the deal in the tribe's favor, it was voted down nearly unanimously.
The best the tribe can do now is to invest its profits in future security. Chairman Hall talks about a "People's Fund," where oil revenue could be saved for the benefit of tribal members who aren't receiving royalties. The tribe also has made some regulatory strides: A new transportation department mandates that subcontractors pay to register their vehicles and is working to install weight limits on the roads. A tribal environmental code will fine illegal dumping. In February, the council hosted an "energy summit," inviting mineral owners, industry representatives, and BIA officials to discuss the boom. Dorgan was the keynote speaker. "You could tell there was a shift going on," said Kara Hall, who helped organize the summit. "There was a sense that the oil play belonged to everybody, and people were feeling empowered." Bird Bear, on the contrary, referred to the event as decidedly "pro-development." Recently, when the Environmental Protection Agency approved a permit for the tribe to build an oil refinery on the reservation, she appealed the decision.
One afternoon, I drove to Mandaree after Bird Bear called about a grass fire. Two roustabouts had lit a rag soaked in gasoline and flung it across a gas vent to make a flare, but the wind dropped it in the adjacent field. The district had no fire service, and by the time trucks arrived with hoses, the hillside was charred up to the back deck of a small ranch house. From a distance, it looked as if a raincloud had cast a vast, black shadow on the prairie. Bird Bear came to the door smelling of grass smoke. We sat on her couch, and she said that Enerplus, a Canadian company that bought Peak's leases, was trying, again, to lease the minerals under her house. "I kind of feel like I've lost," she said. "I never believed the tribe would look out for us, and I knew the Bureau wouldn't either." Worried that the BIA would allow drilling to proceed, since the acres around her house were already leased, she called Jeff Hunt. Was there any way to keep her oil from being "drained" without her consent? "Lease it," he replied.
"That's the way oil and gas works," said Hunt when I asked about the conversation. "Once the game's begun, you have to join." But Bird Bear had decided not to lease because she feared what fracking might do to her groundwater; was he saying her minerals would be drilled anyway? "Yes, eventually, which is kind of tough on the individual. But she has to think about the people around her. Don't they have a right to their oil?"
I dropped by the tribal employment office last November to see Tony Damian, but a girl snapping bubble gum in the waiting area told me he worked for Williams now, in a trailer by the granary. "If you can't beat them, join them," Damian joked when I found him in his new office. Apart from a desk and portraits of his daughters, the room was empty and echoed when he shut the door. He had been with Tribal Employment only a year, he said, when someone at Williams recruited him. He helps the company stay in compliance with codes by hiring Indian subcontractors and tribal members.
I asked Damian if working in the industry made him think better of the boom. "Not really," he said. "It's like the money hypnotizes you, and the oil companies know that. There's a lot of poverty and stress here, and the money's a quick solution to those issues. I went from living check to check to financial stability. And that means a lot for me and my kids. But is it worth it in the long run?" He shrugged. "I don't know." The day before, he had seen an article about fracking and thought he'd ask a colleague about it. "How do you reverse contaminated water?" Damian asked me. "Can you even do that? And to tell you the truth, I don't think he's going to tell me everything. Because regardless if I'm on his team, I'm Native American, and when this thing is over, I'm the one that will still be here."
Sierra Crane-Murdoch freelances in print, radio, and photography from Colorado's Western Slope. She is a Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a former High Country News intern.