By James MacPherson
New Town, N.D. — An oil boom on American Indian land has brought jobs, millions of dollars and hope to long-impoverished tribal members who have struggled for more than a century on the million-acre Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
In little more than a year, oil companies have put dozens of money-producing rigs on remote rolling prairie and sprawling badlands that are home to small cattle ranches and scattered settlements of modular housing. Although other tribes around the nation have oil interests, industry officials said none has likely experienced a recent windfall of this scale.
The reservation is occupied by the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes, known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, who were placed in west-central North Dakota by the federal government in the 1800s — long before anyone knew of the oil.
“If they knew there was billions of barrels of oil here, they would never have put us here,” said Spencer Wilkinson Jr., general manager of the Four Bears Casino on the reservation.
“There is probably more opportunity here than people have had in their lifetimes,” said Marcus Levings, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes. Roads are now sometimes clogged with traffic, including Hummers and expensive pickup trucks. The local casino is buzzing with free-spending locals. And tribal members who had moved away to find work are now moving back for the abundant good-paying jobs.
Tribal officials said the oil has helped right a wrong done to the tribes in the 1950s, when more than a tenth of the reservation was flooded by the federal government to create Lake Sakakawea, a 180-mile-long reservoir.
Oil companies are now drilling beneath the big lake, using an advanced horizontal drill technique. Recently completed regulatory paperwork removed the last obstacle.
Since the boom began, lease payments of more than $179 million have been paid to the tribes and their members on about half of the reservation land, tribal records show. Millions of dollars more in royalties and tax revenue are also rolling in.
Levings said the tribe will use its money to pay off debt, and bankroll such items as roads, health care and law enforcement.
The reservation contains portions of six counties, covering more than 1,500 square miles. It lies atop a portion the oil-rich Bakken shale formation, which the U.S.
Geological Survey estimates holds 4.3 billion barrels of oil that can be recovered using current technology. The agency said the Bakken was the largest oil deposit it has ever assessed.
In addition to the oil money, the tribes get $60 million to $70 million in federal aid annually from the federal government.
“This is an opportunity for us to help ourselves as much as we get help,” Levings said. About 4,500 of the approximately 12,000 tribal members live on the reservation, one of about 300 in the United States.
The reservation was the last area to be targeted by companies in the state’s oil patch because of onerous federal requirements. But a 2008 tax agreement standardized the rules for oil drilling.
Dozens of wells have been drilled and more than 500 could be operating within five years.
Chuck Hale worked as a roughneck in other states before returning to his home near New Town to take a good-paying oilfield job. “It’s tough work and it’s damn cold,” Hale said. “But it’s worth it.”