Native Sun News: Tribe in North Dakota puts a hold on oil refinery

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

The Tribal Business Council has earmarked substantial funding for the MHA Nation’s proposed petroleum refinery, but progress is on hold as the new tribal administration reviews its legacy. Photo by Talli Nauman

MHA oil refinery put on hold
Black gold fever strikes many on reservation Story and photo by Talli Nauman Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor


NEW TOWN, N.D. –– “Wishing you a Happy Easter!” the Mandan Hidatsa & Arikara (MHA) Nation said in a March 31 announcement of a $1,000 gift to each enrolled tribal member.

With a total of some 14,000 enrolled members in the Three Affiliated Tribes (TAT), the payout was not exactly a drop in the proverbial basket from the tribal Easter bunny.

Yet it was the second such per-capita disbursement since Tribal Business Council (TBC) Chair Mark Fox took office in December, and just one more in a long line of similar distributions made possible by the oil fracking boom centered in the Bakken Formation on Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation.

While looking forward to the benefits of such largesse, tribal members nonetheless are also looking for answers about the way the oil money is being handled.

In addition to posing scientific questions about the health and environmental impact of the drilling frenzy, they insist on action in the political arena to increase participation in decision making.

Fox, now past his first 100 days in office, is the target of demands raised during the previous three- term administration of Chair Tex “Red-Tipped Arrow” Hall for more transparency and accountability in government.

Skeptical tribal members point out that the Fox Administration has yet to submit to federal investigators the results of an independent inquiry into Hall’s conduct that the giant international Dentons Law Firm carried out last year at the behest of the TBC.

Business council members only released the results when a crowd of protesters stormed their office just before the primary election in September that eliminated incumbent Hall from the running.

Hall was among the council members who unanimously voted for the inquiry led by former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri Stephen H. Hill. However, when it revealed the former chair’s failure to disclose his dealings with criminal business partners in his own private oil enterprise while in office, he called it a “smear campaign.”

He left his office for two months then surfaced to welcome Fox at a ceremony, saying “Chairman-elect Fox worked very hard for me as tax director and also served on the U.S. Energy Department Tribal Board as my designee. I look forward to working with him in the years to come in order to continue to promote common-sense energy development and safeguard the interests of our people and lands.”

The inquiry exposed Chairman Hall’s Mandaree segment oil-and-gas leasing company Maheshu Energy LLC for contracts apparently worth millions of tribal dollars with, among others, convicted felon James Henrikson and his wife Sarah Creveling’s Blackstone LLC trucking services, in disregard of standard billing procedures and the Tribal Enrollment Rights Ordinance (TERO), which provides hiring preference to members of the Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara tribes.

The investigative counsel’s findings showed evidence that the former chairman knowingly violated the tribal Ethics Code with impunity, failed to disclose arrangements that entailed kickbacks, and refused to recuse himself from TBC decision making about private business activities in which he could have bilked the tribe.

Among other findings, the inquiry indicated that Hall illegally stored radioactive fracking socks on his property and used tribal employees to clean up the mess; used his office to influence energy-company decisions; and competed in private enterprise with other tribal members doing business in the oilfields.

In the wake of the findings, tribal members not only want a federal criminal investigation but they want to know more than ever what’s happening at council meetings.

They complain that they don’t know where or how to get documents to address concerns about contamination in the oilfields and the stability of their government’s economic programs in the face of a downturn in world oil prices that has slowed productivity in the Bakken.

The per-capita distributions, part of a total $29 million, along with $12 million for each of the six Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation (FBIR) districts, or segments, account for less than the amount earmarked for Hall’s pet project, the Thunder Butte Refinery.

In the more than $452.4-million fiscal 2015 budget, the Special Projects Category provides for nearly $140 million for Thunder Butte Petroleum Refinery and Refinery Water Line Phase One.

Suggesting that the assignment of funding is arbitrary “self-dealing,” former MHA Chief Judge Vance Gillette said, “We need a new budget law.”

A petition drive is necessary to bring it to a vote of the TAT, he said.

Fox, in a long and arduous bid for popularity, narrowly won over challenger Damon Williams in November general elections. Williams vowed he would not allow the refinery project to proceed unless its paperwork is in order. It is currently stalled.

Both Fox and Williams, an attorney for the TBC, pushed the issue of fiscal and political responsibility in their campaigns.

Williams didn’t know the budget until two weeks before the end of a fiscal year, even though his tribal attorney’s office for 12 years has been “50 feet away from the council chambers,” he said.

“You need to know the budget expenditures, resolutions, and what’s happening in council meetings. That is transparency,” he said. “Transparency is important because we’re talking billions of dollars, and the ability to protect our lands and water,” he said.

“We can’t have dictators of self-interest in that chair. We have to change the way we govern, not who governs,” he noted. “It’s not supposed to be ‘I, I, I’; it’s ‘we, we, we’.”

Williams advocated to “bring faith and credibility back to government. It’s not even Tex Hall,” he said. “He needs our prayers. It’s the system. The Constitution says the powers granted to the council are with the people.”

Not to be outdone on the issue of fiscal management, Fox noted, “I’ve been on the council. We’ve got to end this self- dealing that goes on. There should be no more guessing what the budget is what the line items are.”

He recognized corruption’s root in greed. “Money’s hurting us. So many people who work for the tribe are so greedy they are forgetting what they are there for,” he said. “This boom has done so much to our people that it’s time for us to strategize with a comprehensive plan.”

Government reform is also necessary for the desired change to occur, he said. “The system of government has to change; my goal is to bring this change. Without government reform nothing’s gonna change. Unethical activity is going to continue, I promise you.”

His vision of reform is to increase the size of the seven-member TBC by adding six at-large positions to counterbalance the special interest that each segment councilor inherently has. The councilors would be unpaid, in contrast to their current double-digit salaries. In addition the figure of an elected attorney general would be instituted.

However, council members are not the only ones vulnerable to black gold fever. Ft. Berthold Community College (FBCC) Academic Dean Science Department Chair Kerry Hartman warns it’s permeating society.

“I know multiple families that are now dysfunctional due to money,” he said. “If Gramma gives you a $100-bill now and then, you don’t have an incentive to work; you can have a big vehicle and a lot of money for recreational activities and traveling. A lot of people have left here and bought houses in Bismarck.”

FBCC has lost administrative staff that way. College enrollment is down 50 percent from five years ago when the boom began. “It has very negatively impacted our enrollment, because it’s so hard to find dedicated young people who are more concerned about their future than the income they could be making pushing a broom,” Hartman said.

One of his students in Environmental Science, Lisa DeVille, said she agrees with Fox’s idea of a strategic comprehensive plan to help extricate the tribe from the maelstrom.

“A needs assessment is the critical first step to develop an effective and successful strategic plan,” she said.

DeVille served at the tribe’s pleasure on the elaboration of a Regional Plan for Sustainable Development, representing her segment of Mandaree in the multi-year U.S. Housing and Urban Development project “Vision West: North Dakota,” involving more than 2,000 citizens, including members of the MHA’s Four Bears and Twin Buttes segments impacted by oil development.

The plan calls for oil companies to help achieve mitigation of long-term impacts their industry can have on land and resources. It calls for a greater return of state and tribal oil revenues to local jurisdictions.

It envisions an ongoing planning to assure water and domestic gas heating supplies, as well as pipeline and other infrastructure controls. Economic diversification, strengthening local economies, public health and safety, leadership training and education are among its concerns.

It links to a Legacy Fund to forge proposals into reality, as DeVille discussed recently with Fox. “The non-native towns plan all the time, so their communities prosper,” she said. The same approach could be applied to the $12 million the TBC has allotted to each FBIR segment, she noted.

“We’re losing our way; our way is money now. But if we plan and strategize and our government gets structure, that’s what will help us find our way,” she said.

(Contact Talli Nauman, NSN Health and Environment Editor at

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