NEW TOWN, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota’s oil-rich Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation will have a new leader by the end of the year, according to the results of Tuesday’s primary election on Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
Tribal tax director Mark Fox and tribal attorney Damon Williams were the two top vote-getters, according to unofficial results released by the tribes’ election board. The two will face off in a general election Nov. 4.
With a total tribal enrollment of about 14,000 and just several thousand members living on the reservation, the number of votes cast was small: Fox got 618 votes and Williams 582. But there is a lot at stake as Fort Berthold Indian Reservation currently represents about a third of North Dakota’s more than 1 million barrels of oil produced daily.
Oil has transformed the reservation in short order, nearly eliminating an unemployment rate that has been as high as 70 percent at times and erasing more than $100 million in debt in less than five years. The biggest town on the reservation, New Town, today is dusty from construction and gridlocked truck traffic that stretches more than a mile on most days at its western entrance.
Chairman Tex Hall has been at the helm of the tribes for much of the oil boom. He is the former president of the National Congress of American Indians and served three terms as chairman of the tribes. Garnering 298 votes, Hall did not advance to the general election. Two current Tribal Business Council representatives and a former chairman of the tribes also failed to make the cut.
“It shows that the people are tired of the way we’ve always done things, we wanted a real change,” said Williams. “We can’t keep operating where the government and the chairman dictate everything to everyone.”
Despite the benefits oil money has brought, many here question how the newfound wealth has been spent by those in power and push for more transparency in tribal government. Williams and Fox seized on that in their campaigns.
“The council is not making decisions with everybody in mind,” said voter Amy Hosie, who voted for Williams in the primary. The money generated by oil “will run out one day if they keep spending the way they are” and those candidates who have served in the current administration “have already had a chance,” she said.
While Williams and Fox agreed things like transparency and corruption have always been major issues on the reservation, they said it came to a boiling point in this election due to the newfound wealth at stake.
“Back when we didn’t have that much, years ago when we had limited revenue and resources, people were apathetic,” said Fox. Today “we’re basically sitting on billions of dollars worth of oil - 10 to 12 billion in the next fifteen years.”
The election board will certify the election results in the next three days.
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