Environment | National

HCN: Tribe in North Dakota grapples with an energy boom

"Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, a lilting swath of prairie in western North Dakota, was once a quiet place. Though thrice the area of Los Angeles, it had only 5,000 residents. Even New Town, a more populous district east of a reservoir called Lake Sakakawea, looked sparse and ephemeral. There was a granary, a fire station, a Gospel Tabernacle and a Jack & Jill grocery. A brick federal Bureau of Indian Affairs office marked the beginning of town, and the few squat buildings on the main street were largely unoccupied. It was rare, here, to see a stranger, and even rarer to see so many gathered at the civic center one November morning in 2007.

Theodora Bird Bear worked across the street at the New Town News, and knew from a flier that the BIA planned to hold an auction for the reservation's oil and gas rights. That afternoon, she went to investigate. She recognized a few people in the dim, crowded room. BIA officials sat in the front and members of her own Three Affiliated Tribes in the audience. But of the rest she later recalled, "I had never seen a single one of them before, and they already seemed to know everything about Fort Berthold." The land near the reservation's center earned the highest bids. There, in a district called Mandaree, she noticed her own mineral rights were up for lease.

Though the BIA facilitates the leasing of Indian-owned minerals, owners must agree to the terms. After the sale, companies continued to compete for Bird Bear's favor. She ignored them. Even in the spring of 2008, when an old classmate, hired as a broker, approached her with the best offer yet, she hesitated. "People were signing left and right," she said. "I needed the money, but I couldn't bring myself to do it." But when her brother fell sick and she couldn't afford to visit him, she leased 320 of her acres, retaining a small parcel beneath her house. Her brother died before she saw a check. When it came -- a $320,000 bonus -- she paid for his funeral and her credit card bills, bought a car and a couch, and quit her job at the paper."

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