Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 13: Us Against the World | Part 2)
I SUSPECTED MARK was referring to someone in particular—to the casino manager, Spencer Wilkinson, Jr., who had leased a third of the reservation for fifty dollars an acre before flipping his acres to a larger oil company for two hundred times that amount. But I also knew Mark was speaking generally about the way colonization works. After the massacres, the boarding schools, the outright stealing of land, what lasted was the violence that got under a person’s skin, inside a person’s head. Shame became violence toward oneself and then violence toward one’s own community. I don’t give a fuck about the tribe. Greed was human nature, but it was hard not to see the taking advantage that went on within the tribe during the boom as the legacy of a centuries-old design.
Most efforts to separate Native people from their land have been elaborate and overt—the breaking of treaties by executive order, the sale of acreage to homesteaders, the taking of children from their families—while others have been subtler. Among the oldest strategies to acquire land and resources in America was marriage to Native people. In Oklahoma, where the Chickasaw Nation resettled after it was forcibly removed from the Southeast, it was so common for white men to marry Native women and for these men to then abandon their wives that the tribe passed laws revoking a white person’s access to land and annuities if that person sought a divorce. In 1876, the tribe tightened its laws, requiring white suitors to reside within its boundaries for two years before marrying a tribal citizen. Still, the laws hardly dispelled the rumor that Native women and land were for the taking. “I understand that your tribe offered an inducement in money and land to good moral white men that would marry your young maidens,” a preacher wrote to a leader of the Choctaw Nation, another tribe forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. Meanwhile, a Texas rancher wrote to the Chickasaw council that he “wanted to marry an Indian girl so he wouldn’t have to pay the permit on a large herd of cattle.” More infamously, in the 1920s, white men married into the Osage Nation and conspired to kill scores of tribal citizens who were beneficiaries of a vast oil fortune.
On the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, many of the largest tribal families bear the names of the first white men who gained property in the region. These men were fur traders, interpreters, farmers, gold diggers, cattle rustlers, ranchers, and Indian agents assigned by the government to oversee the reservation. In the twentieth century, after Congress divided most Indian land into allotments, ranching became the sole industry on reservations across the Great Plains. Landowners leased their allotments to white ranchers if they could not afford the cattle to use the land themselves, so even most land belonging to tribal members was, in function, under white control. There were some exceptions—reservation families who managed not just to use their land but to acquire more of it. On Fort Berthold, it became a matter of conflict that families who fared better economically tended to be “mixed-blood” and have positions in government. As control of the land conferred on these families more wealth and political influence, it stratified the tribe. Before the oil kings of Fort Berthold, there had been cattle kings—descendants both of America’s first people and of its first capitalists.
If colonization had begun the stratification of the reservation, the oil boom was finishing it. Many tribal members I spoke with lamented the widening gap between rich and poor and the sense that most money being earned from the boom was leaving the reservation. The consequences had remained local, while the benefits had dispersed. Corporations were earning the most money; then the men and women who serviced drillers, most of whom would leave when the boom was over. Tex Hall embodied both dilemmas in the eyes of his constituents: He had allowed non-Indians access to Indian resources in the interest of becoming rich himself.
Few seemed to recall that Tex had resisted the boom in its beginning for these very same reasons. I could think of one man who would remember, and that was Steve Kelly, the former lawyer for the tribe who facilitated a majority of the initial leases on the reservation before founding Trustland Oilfield Services, the company for which Kristopher Clarke, James Henrikson, and Sarah Creveling first worked. In the middle of October, I met Steve at his shop on the edge of New Town. The building, though relatively new, appeared to be falling apart. There was a faint smell of diesel inside, the hiss of a welder’s torch. I made my way through a windowless corridor and climbed a set of metal stairs, emerging in a room decorated with three garish paintings—a bear, an eagle, and two white men on horseback pointing over a prairie. Steve was seated at a mission-style desk and offered me a leather chair. He was a corpulent man, with pale skin and a shrill, breathy voice. A television was on, muted.
I had not spoken to Steve since he called me about the story I had written more than a year ago, when he offered to explain the politics of the reservation. Now I wanted to understand how Tex had gone from once standing up to a Canadian oil company to willfully opening the reservation to outside interests.
When Steve took the job with the tribe in 2002, he said, “There was nothing going on” on Fort Berthold. “You could have shot a cannon down Main Street and not hit anything.” So when oil companies approached the tribe in 2005 with offers to lease land, Steve encouraged Tex to make a deal. Tex had not been interested. He wanted the tribe to drill oil itself and keep more of the profit, as one tribe, the Southern Ute, in Colorado had done. Steve warned Tex against this. “I told him, ‘If the tribe’s going to run something, we’re going to screw it up.’ ” When Steve negotiated the tribe’s first oil deal, “Tex was pissed. Really pissed. I asked him, ‘Tex, what’s the big deal? We needed the money.’
“It’s socialism versus capitalism,” Steve told me. Tex wanted, essentially, to nationalize tribal resources, while Steve thought that by allowing corporations to compete for rights to drill on the reservation, landowners would earn higher bonuses and royalties and other tribal members would have more opportunities to own businesses. Steve believed in the free market. He also distrusted Tex. “Tex wanted control,” Steve said. “You know, ‘If you vote for me, I’ll give you some oil wells. I’ll make you a rich man, but you’ve got to stand behind me.’ ”
When James Henrikson called Steve in the early summer of 2011, Steve had been working privately in the oil fields for more than four years. By that time, Trustland was the most successful business on the reservation in that it employed the most people and ran the most trucks, but Steve insisted it was far from the wealthiest. The companies earning the most money, he said, were those acting as shells, hiring other companies to do the work for them as Maheshu would do with Blackstone. Not long after James and Sarah began working for Trustland, Steve suspected they were going behind his back, arranging work for themselves. Steve ended their contract, and after they joined Maheshu, he considered submitting a complaint against Tex to the Tribal Employment Rights Office but decided against it: “I got to thinking, I know how James is, and I know how Tex is. I’m not going to do anything to break that relationship up. I’ll let those two do each other in.”
Steve had been twirling a paper clip between his thumbs as we spoke. Now he set it down and gulped from a mug of cold coffee. I still did not understand what changed in Tex. Had money corrupted him? I asked.
“No,” Steve said, reaching again for the paper clip. “He was already that way. There’s a saying: Money doesn’t define who you are. It reveals who you are. Listen. I don’t want to personalize this. On the reservation, there wasn’t anything here four years ago before the boom. The jobs, everything, came through the tribe. So you kept your mouth shut if you wanted a job. People didn’t have the financial independence that they do today. They couldn’t afford to speak their mind. Now, people can afford to speak.”
Had Steve forgotten that a majority of tribal members earned no royalties at all?
He continued. “The thing is, on the rez, you have two very strong personalities—Tex Hall and Spencer Wilkinson. People are mad at Spencer because he got all these leases from the tribe, and he ended up flipping them. Everybody thinks he made a billion dollars. Well, he didn’t make a billion, because he had to split that with his partners, but I’m sure he made a pretty handsome sum, in the neighborhood of twenty or thirty million. And people are mad. I understand that, but people had the same opportunity that he did. I think these same people that are bitching, if they would have done it, you wouldn’t hear them bitching. I might be wrong about that, but I doubt it.”
I had tried to interview Spencer over the years, but he eluded me. Once, I had spotted him at the casino—tall with short, slick hair. He gave me his card and said to call him, so I did. He chatted like he was eager to talk, and then, midsentence, he hung up. He never answered another call, but I found a full-page advertisement he had purchased in the New Town News in 2008, before he sold Dakota-3, in which he stated that no one on the tribal council was an owner of his company, that Dakota-3 “did not resell tribal acreage for a profit,” and that his offer to the tribe had been “the best economic package” and was “approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.” He added, “Free Enterprise is an opportunity that exists for all individuals on and off the reservation.”
I mentioned an ongoing lawsuit landowners had filed against Spencer, as well as against the United States for failing to fulfill its trust responsibility.
“Here’s what gets me,” Steve said. “They really want to go after Spencer, but they’re not doing shit about Tex. You have people in Tex’s camp that hate Spencer, and Spencer hates Tex’s camp. Thing is, everyone has good qualities. Tex is a very hard worker and very intelligent. He’s a good advocate. A strong advocate—sometimes too strong. And Spencer is probably the most politically astute person on the rez.”
“Really?” I said.
Steve chuckled. “That guy covers his bases like no other. He was casino manager here for fourteen years, which is unheard of. You know how many different bosses he’s had in fourteen years? You’ve got to keep the council happy, which is hard. And he does. He’s kept them happy.”
“How does he do that?”
“You’ll have to ask Spencer that one. All I can say is, they haven’t fired him. Not even Tex fired him.”
“That is the question, isn’t it. Especially when he promised everybody he would.” Steve chuckled again. “I’m not being coy, here. I’ve always wondered.”
STEVE WAS NOT the only one who saw the politics of the reservation as a struggle between Spencer and Tex or the election as a culmination of this struggle. Mark had told me he believed Spencer was funding Damon. “This is an economic war between Spencer’s people and Tex’s people,” he had said, holding his hands as if palming two basketballs. “I’m the guy coming up in the middle who has no oil business of my own. I’m the guy they need to get rid of.”
Damon, meanwhile, was suggesting that Tex had funded Mark. “He’s smearing me hard out there,” Damon said of Mark one night while eating dinner with supporters at a Mexican restaurant in Parshall. Damon’s grandmother was a Wilkinson, but “I didn’t even meet Spencer until I went to work for the tribe,” Damon said.
“You can say that, right, if Mark challenges you on it, that you’re not taking any oil money?” a man asked. Damon assured the man he was not.
A few days later, I met Damon at a hotel in Bismarck. The lobby was carpeted, quiet. Morning light filtered through the slats of closed shutters. Damon had woken with a cold but looked sharp, in dark jeans and lime-green sneakers, clasping a new Moleskine notebook.
“Mark is Tex’s candidate,” Damon said. “He didn’t say boo to anything Tex did for four years, and now he wants to claim credit, but all he’s done is take one step over the goal line and make the play.” I asked how he knew Tex supported Mark. “That’s who Tex has to support,” Damon said. “That’s who his people have to support. Mark was part of Tex’s team, so everyone is worried that if it shifts the other way, they’re out in the cold. The people working in appointee jobs have to go with Mark because they’ll keep their jobs.”
Damon had grown up in Parshall like Mark but was eight years younger. In 2007, he had been negotiating water rights and gaming deals for the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas when he called a cousin on the council to ask if the MHA Nation was hiring. As soon as Damon arrived on Fort Berthold, he arranged leases of remaining tribal minerals. “We had reached the bottom of our borrowing at that point,” he told me. Once, he and the tribe’s energy director sold leases just to make payroll. “We were on the road, and we negotiated an up-front payment. That scattered acreage was the only thing we had.”
The trouble with the tribe, Damon explained, was that after having lost power to the federal government, it had tried to reassert its sovereignty by controlling all aspects of reservation life. He believed this was what set him apart from Mark. “People like Mark—they want the tribe to own everything because the tribe has given them everything they have, and while that’s good, providing for your people, we’re just continuing this level of dependence. We have to create more independence while still recognizing that we’re part of this tribe. I recognize the authority of the tribe to regulate within its own province, but you have to give the tribal members a remedy if you wrong them. It’s a dictatorship. I can kick you out of your house if you’re renting from the tribe, and you have no recourse. I’ve seen that every election.” The argument echoed Steve Kelly with one exception: Damon was not wooed by the capitalist promises of the boom. “We were always forward thinking, progressive, highly educated, and when we were flooded out, we lost a lot of that,” he continued. “Money has really changed us. We’ve got people aspiring to be on the council who have probably never really made any money in their lives, and all of a sudden, they’re making a salary of a hundred and some thousand dollars. Everybody in the country who wants to do business with the tribe is coming and putting them on a pedestal, wining and dining them.” I suggested this was not so different from times prior to the boom, when white ranchers courted Indian landowners for access to their pastures. It was similar, Damon acknowledged, but the stakes were higher now. “It’s not about hay bales and range units anymore,” he said. The difference was millions of dollars.
That evening, I drove to White Shield to attend a debate. I had not been to the segment since my ride with the tribal officer, but I recognized the steep roof of the community complex and the powwow grounds, now quiet, just beyond it. The complex smelled clean inside, like a cafeteria in the morning. A line had formed for the buffet, and at tables and along the walls, men and women ate from paper plates.
The crowd hushed when a man flipped a coin. Damon began. Earlier that day, he had seemed confident, even cocky, but now his words stiffened, calcified by repetition. He had told me he believed his weakness was that voters perceived him to be an outsider, and as I watched Damon, I saw what he meant. He was more polished than Mark in his manner and dress, but he spoke at a knowing distance, like an ambassador from another country. When asked to define sovereignty, his answer was dense and cerebral, the stuff of academic texts, and when he explained why poverty persisted and addiction worsened in spite of the boom, he was reluctant to blame the drug dealers for their opportunism, the tribal council for its lack of support, or the federal government for the trauma it had long inflicted. Instead, he implied the problem was cultural: “Why are the drugs coming in? Because mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa have more money now. We have to get away from this enabling that’s so awesome about Indian people. We protect our own, but we have to move past that.” The argument sounded dangerously simple. I glanced around the room. Everyone was still.
When Mark stood to speak, he moved like a preacher, throwing open his hands, bending his knees, rocking on his toes. “The corruption on our council is rampant,” he declared. “If you think the fact that we just had a primary election in which the former chairman’s no longer going to be in power ends corruption and self-dealing, you’re living in a fairyland. The problem that we have is that we’ve relied on the federal government to come back and save us, when they’re the ones that made us to be unhealthy by taking away our economy, our way of living, putting us on commodities, isolating us, pushing us into unhealthy lifestyles, subjugating us through federal policy. But if you think at some point in time the federal government’s going to say, ‘Darn, we shouldn’t have done that to those Indian people, let’s get in there and fix it, make it the way it was, again, you’re living in a fairy world. The federal government will never live up to its obligations of what it did to us, what it took away from us. The only ones that are going to live up to that obligation is us.”
WHEN I WASN’T attending campaign events or searching for Tex Hall, I sometimes joined a tribal member, Jason Morsette, on drives around the reservation. Jason did not own a car, so I would pick him up in New Town. He was forty years old and had no oil income of his own. He worked in the tribal tourism office, drumming and singing at dances and funerals, accompanying industry men and various dignitaries to the earth lodges on the edge of town. The lodges were replicas, made with cedar instead of cottonwood, but they were large and left an impression. Jason earned eighteen dollars an hour. He rented a trailer in a park north of New Town, beside other trailers where oil workers lived. He was proud of the place—“It’s nice,” he said, when he showed it to me—and indeed it was cozy, with wood paneling and heaps of blankets in all the rooms. Jason shared it with four cousins. He paid the bills, and though he complained about their tussles with sobriety, he would never throw his relatives out. Jason was “traditional,” he said—family meant everything.
He was from the segment of the reservation called Twin Buttes, separated from the rest of Fort Berthold by the lake, so that to reach it one had to leave the reservation, drive south and east again. Twin Buttes felt different from other segments, quieter and more remote, although it had not been spared by the boom. Toward the shore of the lake, the land broke into canyons and narrow clay ridges and plateaus pricked with oil wells. One afternoon, Jason and I drove across several dry creek beds and then got out to walk. The day was warm and bright. We could see a bend in the lake where the bottomland village of Elbowoods had been, and in a canyon below, a porcupine clung to a cottonwood tree. “Anyone told you how to pluck its quills?” Jason said. “You get a tire iron, knock it on the head—not too hard—and when you’re done you make sure it wakes up.”
Jason often seemed intent on teaching me a lesson, and so it was hard to tell when he was bullshitting me. Earlier that day, as we were leaving New Town, we had passed four men from another tribe whom Jason knew from powwows. “Those are my relatives!” he had cried and told me to turn around. The men ran at us, opened the doors, crammed themselves in the back. Only then had they noticed me, a white woman driving, but Jason acted as if nothing were odd. The men were on their way to a powwow in Minneapolis and thankful for the ride. By the time we dropped them off back in New Town, Jason was beaming. “What do you think of that?” he said. “White people are always in a rush, but us Natives have time for our relatives.”
Now we were on our way to visit Jason’s uncle, Roy Morsette, who lived in Twin Buttes in a house perched on stilts. The house was small and clean, furnished with oak cabinets and upholstered chairs. Roy had worked for thirty-two years as a janitor at the local school. He had never worked for the tribe. “If you have a tribal job, you can’t speak up,” he told me. The councilmen were “putting money in their own pockets,” he believed, “trying to make themselves millionaires.” Roy did not think highly of Tex, whom he called “a thief.”
Before the flood, the Morsette family owned property in the bottomlands, in the village of Beaver Creek. They had worked for other farmers, chopping wood to make fence posts. Roy was six when the flood came and the family left their house for the site where he and his wife now lived. They moved their furniture by wagon; Roy rode on the shoulders of a horse. “Whatever you couldn’t get, you lost it down the river,” he told me. Among the things the Morsettes lost were their mineral rights. The government returned these rights to the tribe eventually, but the tribe never gave the rights back to the original allottees. Roy would vote for whichever candidate returned his minerals. What would he do with the money? I asked. “Spend it on things I never had before,” he said.
That evening, at a campaign dinner in Twin Buttes, Mark won over the Morsette family. As Roy explained his predicament, Mark listened carefully and promised to bring the issue to the council. He looked tired but buoyant. Since 2008, Mark explained to the crowd, the tribe had earned a billion dollars and given $20 million directly to tribal members. “Does anyone think they’ve gotten $980 million worth of services from the tribe?” he said. The Morsettes laughed. “With what’s going on in the world market right now, this boom could bust,” Mark continued. “That’s why this is so important.” On a sheet of paper, he scribbled “R-O-I.”—“Return on investment. We don’t know that term yet, because every dime we get, we spend.”
As we returned to New Town that night, Jason called a cousin who’d attended the dinner. “It’s good, right?” he repeated into the phone. He was pleased with what Mark told his uncle, and he took it as a sign that Mark might grant him another favor: A real estate broker Jason knew through the tourism office had promised Jason a cut if he could convince the council to permit a new hotel. It was the first time I had heard of the hotel, and when Jason hung up, I asked about it. He told me he hoped the project would earn him a lot of money. I was confused. Just that morning, we had passed a large, new house belonging to a councilman’s brother, and Jason had remarked bitterly, “What’s he going to do with that when he dies?” Now I saw that the boom had sowed in him, as it had in his uncle, both a disdain for wealth and a desire for it.
We made our way through Mandaree, and Jason pointed to a rig in a field behind the house where Tex had grown up. The house was in shadow, lit by a solitary streetlight, but beyond it, the rig glowed like a cluster of stars. “Look at that,” Jason said in awe. “Now you think he’s getting some money for that?”
“Do you know him?” I said.
“He’s my relative.”
“You don’t feel betrayed by him?”
“Why would I feel betrayed? He didn’t do nothing to me. Not like Spencer. Spencer stole money. It’s a fact. The murder—it’s just allegations.”
“I’m looking for Tex,” I said.
Jason nodded, serious. “Well, if you find him, tell him from me, it’s been a good run.”