In just a year or so, the attitude and atmosphere of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation has done a total about-face. The reservation, home to the Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara tribes, was established in western North Dakota in the 1800s, long before the federal government or anyone else knew that the land was located right on top of part of the Bakken shale formation, the largest oil deposit ever assessed by the US Geological Survey. In the 1950s, the federal government flooded more than 1/10 of the reservation lands in order to form Lake Sakakawea, which is a 180-mile long water reservoir. There are about 12,000 members of the Three Affiliated Tribes, as the group of tribes is known, and approximately 4,500 of them live on the reservation, which is one of about 300 reservations in the United States.
Richard Rathge, the North Dakota state demographer, said the latest figures available show that 28% of the people living on the reservation were living at the poverty level in 2000. When the casino was opened in the 1990s, it had brought about 200 jobs to the area, but in 2000, 40% of the reservation population still did not have jobs. Many people were forced to move away from the reservation simply to find jobs.
Now things have changed on the reservation. New advanced oil-drilling technologies that allow for horizontal drilling have brought oil companies to the area and they are drilling beneath Lake Sakakawea. Regulatory paperwork to overcome oppressive federal requirements has been completed recently that removed the final obstacle to drilling. And now millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs are changing the landscape in more ways than one.
In the past year, oil companies have erected dozens of drilling rigs on the badlands and remote prairies that have long been home to scattered modular home settlements and small cattle ranches. Other reservations around the country have oil interests that have benefited from new technologies and regulatory clearances, but none of them have ever encountered a windfall like the one being experienced by the Three Affiliated Tribes. The local casino is constantly buzzing; roads are often clogged with tourists and traffic, including expensive cars, trucks, and Hummers. Tribal members who had been forced to move away to find work are now eager to move back to take advantage of the abundant jobs that pay well and offer benefits. There is more opportunity on the reservation than most tribal members have had in their entire lifetimes.
Since the beginning of the oil boom, the tribe has been paid more than $179 million by oil companies to drill on about half of the land owned by the reservation. Millions of dollars more in tax revenue and royalties are also flowing in. The chairman of The Three Tribes says the tribe will use the money to bankroll such projects as health care, roads, and law enforcement, as well as paying off debts. In addition to the oil money, the government pays $60-70 million each year in federal aid. But the money coming in now gives tribal members the opportunity to help themselves just as much or more than the help they are given. With jobs now available on oil rigs, and in support services such as trucking and oil supplies, anyone who wants to work can work. Dozens of oil wells have already been drilled, and within the next five years there could be more than 500 more wells operating.
One tribal member who moved away more than 50 years ago to find a job later returned after retiring, and now earns a nice cushion of income from oil payments. Rose Mandan, who is 80, said that in the 1950s there were no jobs in the area, but now tribal members are returning to the reservation to take advantage of the numerous jobs available. But Mandan worries about how the instant wealth will affect people. People who haven't worked in years are now suddenly driving new vehicles. "It can be good, but only if people know how to use the money," she said. The manager of the casino said that revenue in 2008 was $4.5 million, but jumped sharply to $7.2 million in 2009. He has advised tribal elders to caution members about having fun at the casino but not spending all their money there, and instead invest in their houses, their families, and their future.