Tribes/First Nations:

Ashley Kelly

(Credit:  Rob Port )

(Credit: Rob Port)


Forth Berthold Indian Reservation is located in western North Dakota and is home to the Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa tribes, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes. Collectively, these tribes are entitled to 457,837 acres of the 988,000 acres of land on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The reservation has long seen lignite coal extraction and conventional oil drilling, but they went bust in the 1980s. Massive projects to hydraulically fracture, or "frack," bedrock beneath reservation land have been underway since the mid-2000s (see Shale Oil). The Bakken Oil Shale Basin extraction has made North Dakota #2 in U.S. oil production, after Texas (see Bakken Oil Shale Basin).

Tribal member Kandi Mossett, organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, has been outspoken against the expansion of the fossil fuel industry. Mossett testified, “Several community members, including myself, are tired of being sick and are tired of seeing everyone, even babies, dying from unprecedented rates of cancer. We are taking a stand and fighting back, not only for our own lives but for the lives of those who cannot speak for themselves, and we will not stop fighting until we have a reached a true level of environmental and climate justice in our Indigenous lands" (Indigenous Environmental Network).

Oil rigs and freshly graded roads near the Fort Berthold Reservation boundary. The reservation sits atop a particularly sweet spot of the Bakken shale formation. (Credit: Jim Wilson/The New York Times )

Oil rigs and freshly graded roads near the Fort Berthold Reservation boundary. The reservation sits atop a particularly sweet spot of the Bakken shale formation.
(Credit:Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

Threat to Ecology and Community Health

A glass of water taken from a residential well after the start of natural gas drilling in Dimock, Pennsylvania, March 7, 2009. (Credit:  Reuters/Tim Shaffer )

A glass of water taken from a residential well after the start of natural gas drilling in Dimock, Pennsylvania, March 7, 2009. (Credit: Reuters/Tim Shaffer)

There are over 600 different toxins used when extracting crude oil, all of which can have a lasting detrimental impact on the environment. Fracking contributes to air pollution, which presents huge environmental and health risks. Another resource that is impacted by fracking is groundwater. One article describes “a pipeline operated by the Houston-based company Crestwood Midstream spilled a million gallons of brine—a hyper-salinated, metal-infused watery byproduct of fracking—into a ravine that flows into a tributary of Lake Sakakawea, the reservation's primary drinking water source. As of today, no fines have been assessed.”

Chemical additives are used in the drilling mud, slurries and fluids required for the fracking process. Each well produces millions of gallons of toxins that contain added chemicals, as well as other naturally occurring radioactive material, liquid hydrocarbons, brine water and heavy metals. Fissures created by the fracking process can also create underground pathways for gases, chemicals and radioactive material. Oil spills happen frequently which contaminates the soil and intrinsically the groundwater. Fracking also increases the risk of earthquakes, landslides, and sinkholes. Disrupting the land in such a way, extracting tons of oil, leaves the land structure weakened and more prone to such disasters. Wastewater spills have contaminated part of the aquifer (Juhasz).

In addition to the toxic contamination, the enormous numbers of trucks carrying chemicals and water to and from the fracking sites have caused vehicle accidents, killing and injuring many tribal members. Truck accidents doubled from 2009 to 2014 (Business Wire). Mossett reports that many of her friends have been affected by either disease or vehicle accidents from fossil fuel development (Climate Change and Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Project).

Oil Refinery Plan

After years and years of red-tape and hoop-jumping, an oil refinery began construction on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in 2011, much to the dismay of many community members. The refinery was met with resistance from tribal members working with the Triad Project and other organizations. A tribal member quoted in one article titled stated “The mentality comes from the state: less regulation, more profit,” said Joletta Bird Bear, a former postmaster. “They’re only concerned about the immediate dollars and not about the long-term costs to our land and the future generations of our people.” While the tribe has profited from this affair, they have also been scammed. Fracking contractors, and other land grabbers brokered low-ball deals that ensured that the tribes would not receive an equitable amount for their land. Once the land had been acquired, it was then flipped, turning an enormous profit. The Fort Berthold Reservation have been shorted over one billion dollars due to several of these instances. 

Money Corrupts

A significant percentage of the tribal membership was seduced by the promise of how the Three Affiliated Tribes could benefit from the money that comes from oil production. Pro-fracking former Chairman Tex Hall has been accused of personally profiting from the oil fracking, and was implicated in violent competition over the profits (Sontag & McDonald). Tribal member Corey Sanders wrote his tribal representative, “Our entire tribal culture and existence is based on the principle that the land equals the people, us; destroy one and you destroy the other. Yes, it’s true our tribe needs money, and it’s nice to get a royalty check every month, but what are we giving up to get it?”Theodora Bird Bear says, “I expect to live here all my life, and I have a commitment to this land that was my folks’ land. I just feel like I have an obligation to protect it, not only for me, but for the families that come after" (Brown).


Associated Press. (2004, March 07). Fort Berthold residents plan meetings to oppose refinery. The Associated Press. 

Brown, Curt (2013, Nov. 29). While North Dakota embraces the oil boom, tribal members ask environmental questions. Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Business Wire (2014, Oct. 17). Fracking Boom Leads to Increase in Fatal Large Truck Accidents.

Chatterjee, Pratap (2012, April 25). North Dakota Oil Boom Displaces Tribal Residents. Corpwatch.

Juhasz, Antonia (2015, Nov. 25). From North Dakota to Paris with Love. Newsweek.

Kiely, K. (2014, December 16). Environmental News: Media Center. Natural Resources Defense Council.

Hoffman, J. (2015, December 7)Potential Health and Environmental Effects of Hydrofracking in the Williston Basin, Montana. NAGT.

Climate Change and Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Project, Indigenous Climate Justice Symposium, The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Wash. (Nov. 5-6, 2015).

Indigenous Environmental Network (2009, Feb. 19). Obama’s Visit to Canada Must Address Dirty Oil from the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta, press release.

Sontag, D., & McDonald, B. (2014, December 30). In North Dakota, a Tale of Oil, Corruption and Death. New York Times. 

Stangler, Cole (2014, Nov. 25). An Oil Boom Is Ravaging an Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Vice.

Lerner, G &  Putzel, C.  (2015, May 16).  We are not equipped' for N.D. oil boom. Al Jazeera America.

Wikipedia. Fort Berthold Indian reservation (2016).