- Associated Press - Thursday, November 6, 2014

NEW TOWN, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota’s oil-rich Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation members said they hope that a new leader will start to undo some of the negative effects of the energy boom and end corruption in government.

Former tribal tax director Mark Fox narrowly defeated tribal attorney Damon Williams in Tuesday’s elections with a margin of less than 150 votes.

Wearing a war bonnet, Fox was sworn in at a ceremony in New Town Wednesday afternoon to applause and ululations. His inauguration marks the end of the administration of Tex Hall, the three-time chairman who lost a September primary. Hall faced increased criticism from tribe members recently over his personal business dealings, alleged conflicts of interests, how his administration spent money earned from oil and a lack of transparency in government.

There’s a “great sense of relief knowing that we have a new leader now,” said tribal member Vanessa Price. Like the majority of the tribes’ members, Price lives off the reservation.

“Now it’s like we’re pulling together and people are waking up and realizing how important their vote really is,” she added.

Before the boom, the economic situation on Fort Berthold Indian Reservation was grim: Unemployment was as high as 70 percent and tribal government was more than $100 million in debt. At one point, the tribal government considered dismissing half of its staff to afford payroll.

Today things are different. There are so many jobs open with the tribes that they have to recruit from other reservations and non-natives.

The reservation currently produces in excess of 330,000 barrels of oil a day - a third of North Dakota’s total output and almost as much as Oklahoma’s total daily production.

That brings in tens-of-millions of dollars to the tribes every month in tax revenue alone, but many have questioned how that money has been spent and say it has fostered a culture of corruption and mismanagement.

“They just spend whatever,” said attorney and former tribal judge Vance Gillette. “The people are just fed up because they don’t know what’s going on.”

Tribal members expressed hope that Fox can better deal with the problems that the oil boom has brought to the reservation: Pollution, rising crime, an inadequate road system and a rise in drug abuse.

“The number one thing I see is that the tribe is not dealing with these oil impacts,” said Gillette. “They just haven’t had a comprehensive plan.”

Native Americans consider the earth sacred and concern about the environment is visibly higher than in other areas of North Dakota’s oil patch. Fox said he will not shy away from slowing down development if environmental concerns cannot be guaranteed. North Dakota’s top oil regulator, Lynn Helms, has said that the oil industry was “deeply concerned” about the outcome of the tribal elections as both Fox and Damon were “less friendly” to oil than Hall.

Fox has promised additional transparency and said that from now on meetings of the Tribal Business Council - the tribes’ small elected body - will be broadcast over the reservation’s radio station.

A report from Dentons law firm released to the public the day before the September primary accused Hall of abusing his position to give lucrative oil field contracts to business partners and of trying to extort other companies trying to do business on the reservation. The report was commissioned by the tribes but discussed behind closed doors by their elected body. To many tribal members, the report underscored the lack of transparency in tribal government.

Fox said there may be changes but the tribes need to heal.

“They talk big,” said Gillette of tribal elected officials promising to deal with the oil impacts. “But we’ll see.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide