Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 13: Us Against the World | Part 3)
TEX DID NOT attend his last council meeting as chairman. At noon on October 16, a man entered the chambers with a drum and led a round dance to honor Judy Brugh, who was retiring from the council that day. Friends and family clasped her hands and draped star quilts on her shoulders, and when the dancing was through, a squad of secretaries entered with plates of turkey, corn, and mashed potatoes. I stood beside a white man in a red shirt with a logo embroidered on his chest pocket. He sold natural gas compressors. “We’ve lined up the entire supply chain,” he told me excitedly. “We could be pumping tomorrow if the tribe wanted.”
Over the course of the meeting, the council allocated $87,865,000 toward the renovation of the casino and an expansion of Mandaree Village, among other projects. The village expansion would include dozens of homes, new powwow grounds with RV hookups, a community center with a pool and water slide, an indoor basketball court for tournaments and funerals, a clinic with a dialysis unit and a helicopter pad, a twenty-bed veterans’ facility, a wastewater disposal area, and a truck stop with a drive-through restaurant. The council gave $15,000 to a man with a medical emergency and $1 million to each segment to build homes. Then an elder from Twin Buttes asked the council for a grant to repair her house. “We’re kind of tired of waiting,” she said. “We don’t have oil kings down there to help us.” The council allocated another $500,000 to each segment for home repair.
After hours passed like this, a white man with hair slicked behind his ears stood to speak. He introduced himself as Jim Glenn and apologized for interrupting. The price of oil had dropped 25 percent in the past month and was expected to drop more, he said. Companies were waiting on permits to drill, and rights-of-way. Glenn asked the council to urge the federal government to move faster.
What Glenn said was true. After oil prices fell below a hundred dollars a barrel in August 2014, they had gone on falling. By November, the price would be seventy-nine dollars; by February 2015, thirty-five. Economists were blaming the fall on global demand, on faltering economies and the efforts of some nations to abandon oil for other fuels, but the problem was largely a matter of supply. Due in no small part to the drilling of the Bakken, the industry had flooded its own market.
I followed Glenn out when he left the meeting and asked if we could talk. We sat on a bench by the chamber doors. Glenn lived in Denver and represented Halcon Resources, which operated three drilling rigs on the reservation. He wanted to bring in more rigs but was concerned by the falling oil prices. I asked if the election worried him, as well. Recently, the North Dakota director of mineral resources had told a gathering of reporters that oil companies were alarmed by the tribal election, since both candidates were “less friendly to rapid development” than Tex’s administration. Glenn was not concerned. “You saw all that money,” he said. “And what’s funding it? Ninety-nine percent is oil and gas. They have a cash flow commitment that’s funded by oil and gas. The last thing [a new chairman] needs is a drop in production.” I asked again: What Mark Fox said about slowing the boom did not worry him? “No,” Glenn said. “I think some of his constituents may want to hear that, but the ones using that community center aren’t going to want to hear it, and the ones using the roads, and the hotels.”
He stood. “Time for a beer?” he said to a man beside him. The meeting was not over, and Glenn motioned toward the council. “Bottom line is, I think they’re happy that Mother Nature put these rocks here. I don’t care who the chairman is.”
IN THE LAST days of October, a cold rain soaked the reservation. One evening, Tex’s press secretary called. The chairman had agreed to meet with me at his Maheshu office, so, a day before the election, I drove to Mandaree.
I remember the strange emptiness of the shop—the beige metal siding, the near-windowless interior that echoed as if abandoned. The lights were turned off, the furniture reduced to silhouettes. The lobby, a wall away from where Kristopher Clarke had been murdered, contained a play area for a child, with a shag rug, a painting of a peacock feather, and a flat-screen television mounted on the wall. I called out, but no one answered. I followed a hallway to the end of the building, where hundreds of basketball trophies were displayed against a wall. There, propped amid the army of tiny metal bodies, was a photograph of Tex with Hillary Clinton.
Suddenly, Tex appeared in the hallway, grayer than when I had last seen him. He wore a jacket, sweatpants, and a pair of dirty sneakers. His hair was drawn in a loose ponytail, his eyebrows still wild. He led me into an office and offered me a chair made of fur and turquoise leather. His own chair rocked and had a zebra-skin back. There was a wooden desk on which the light from a window illuminated a layer of dust, and on which rested a calculator, a cell phone, an abalone shell containing a small wad of sage, and a dollar bill. In the corner hung a warbonnet, and beside that a crumpled map of the reservation was pinned to the wall.
His manner was as I remembered it, at ease if a little less confident. I wanted to know how he had gone from seeming so wary of the oil boom to embracing it, so I asked him to recall a day in 2007, a year after he lost his bid for a third term as chairman.
That October, he said, several white men in suits appeared at his house in Mandaree. Among these men had been Jack Vaughn, the CEO of Peak Energy, an oil company based in Durango, Colorado. Vaughn had experience leasing Indian land and asked Tex to help him acquire acreage on Fort Berthold. “Jack said, ‘Tex, you were the chairman, and everybody we talk to says you’ve got credibility, and people will listen to you, and we want to get a big footprint,’ ” Tex recalled. Tex told Vaughn he would consider it. “I said, ‘You know, Jack, you don’t know me, and I don’t know you, but I never wore a suit in my life, and I don’t care for guys in empty suits.’ ” Vaughn wore a cowboy hat the next time he visited Tex’s house.
I had interviewed Vaughn three years earlier when I first heard of Tex’s work for Peak. “Tex could talk to anyone,” Vaughn had told me. “Tex could pull the strings.” Now Tex said that he had taken Vaughn’s offer because he needed a job. He had also realized, upon his failed bid for chairman, that it was too late for the tribe to drill its own oil. By the time Vaughn approached Tex, the council had struck a deal with Spencer Wilkinson, Jr., leasing much of its acreage to Dakota-3, and Spencer had made similar offers to individual landowners. The offers were deviously low, Tex thought, and he wondered if he could convince Vaughn to offer more. “I told him, ‘Jack, you’re coming to the game late. You can’t come here with no small offer.’ ” Vaughn offered landowners $500 per acre and 21 percent royalties, the highest rates on the reservation at the time. Tex formed Maheshu Energy to facilitate the leases and helped Vaughn acquire fifty-two thousand acres. He also formed a landowners’ association, through which many reservation families leased their acreage to Peak. The company drilled some wells but eventually flipped the leases for profit, as other companies had done. Tex took no issue with this. He believed Peak, through his cajoling, offered a fair price, while Dakota-3 had swindled people. Tex won the next election. “I saw how things were running away, and so people elected me to rein it in,” he said.
Before he became chairman again in 2010, Tex visited Vaughn in Colorado. He recalled sitting in Peak’s “war room” as Vaughn pointed to a map of the oil fields. “I wanted to know more about the oil play, and so he showed me all the geology,” Tex told me. Vaughn likened the Bakken to a bowl, the reservation hovering on the surface in the center where the vessel was deepest. It occurred to Tex that the tribe would never have a chance like this again. For all his life, the tribe had depended on the federal government, often with dire consequences. “We entered into treaties, and the BIA said as long as the grass grows and the wind blows and the water flows, we’ll provide for your health, education, and welfare,” Tex told me. “We fought from then to make the government fulfill its treaty obligations. And we still need to do that. But if your budget is fifty million, and 90 percent of it is federal money, you’re in trouble. Because when there are cutbacks, where are you going to get that money? Somebody’s going to go hungry. Somebody’s road is not going to get built. Somebody’s house is not going to get renovated. Somebody’s not going to get proper medicine, or some child is not going to have a computer or even a new textbook. Somebody is not going to have a new pair of shoes or a warm winter coat. It makes our people really vulnerable.” The oil, he believed, offered a solution.
If he could not keep oil companies off the reservation, Tex had decided he would try to control them. He forced companies to pay for road repairs, threatened to close roads he deemed unsafe, and pledged to banish drivers he caught dumping wastewater. Some companies were leery of his involvement in their daily affairs but also benefited from this intimacy. Once a month, Tex met with company men to field their questions and address their concerns. He urged federal officials to expedite drilling permits, believing it was his personal responsibility to keep the boom moving without a hitch. The faster the boom grew, the sooner his tribe would be less vulnerable.
We had been talking for several hours when, in a distant room, a door slammed. Tex paused, frowned. “Hello,” he called. Then again: “Hello?” There was no answer.
He rose to his feet, walked stiffly to the door. Perhaps it was a secretary from the tribe, I thought—Tex rarely went to the tribal headquarters anymore, so his assistants delivered his papers to the shop—but the hallway was empty. “Somebody else here?” he called. There was a scuff of feet on linoleum, the static of a television flicked on. It was his daughter, Peyton Martin. Tex settled back into his chair, and then from the hallway came a softer noise, a child padding through the open door.
“Hey, Boo. Hey, baby,” Tex cooed. The boy rose on shaky legs and stumbled toward the chairman. “He’s going to be one year old on the eighth. He sure is.” The boy climbed into his grandfather’s lap and reached for the dollar bill. Then he reached for the phone and handed it to Tex. “Hello!” Tex called, clutching the phone to his ear. “Hello, Boo! Is that you?”
I stared at the boy and then looked away. I thought of the photo I had seen on Facebook of James Henrikson vacationing with Tex in Hawaii. The resemblance was unmistakable; the boy was James’s son.
I had been waiting to ask about James. Now Tex began without my prodding. In November 2011, he said, James had knocked on his door claiming he had run out of gas. “I didn’t even think to ask his name,” Tex recalled. “I said, ‘What do you need?’ He said, ‘I need ten gallons if you got it,’ so I gave him two five-gallon cans. I didn’t think he’d bring them back, but he brought them back the next day, introduced himself, wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing any work with him. I said, ‘Well I don’t know who you are. Are you doing any business here now?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m working with Steve Kelly at Trustland.’ Steve is a tribal member, so I said, ‘Oh, okay. I don’t know. Maybe. Why don’t you write something up, and I’ll look at it.’ The agreement was just that he’d be a subleaser and help haul salt water. That was December and January.”
On January 17, 2012, after James and his crew moved into the Maheshu shop, Tex’s gallbladder burst. Tex spent several months in hospitals, and that February, James brought him a contract to partner with Maheshu. “He said, ‘My company’s called Blackstone.’ I said, ‘Where did you come from?’ ‘Texas.’ I can’t remember who I called, one of my friends, and they said they did a search, and he wasn’t the owner. It was his wife, Sarah. So he come back [to the hospital] and I said, ‘You’re not the owner. Your wife is.’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, well you know, we’re one and the same.’ ” Sarah added her name to the contract, and Tex signed it.
After four months in the hospital, Tex returned to the reservation. He knew something was wrong almost immediately, he said. In bank statements, he noticed names of companies that he supposedly had paid but had never heard of. “Blackstone Crude. Geneva World Investments. I was like, ‘Sarah, who the hell is Geneva World Investments?’ ” Sarah tried to explain, but over the following months, Tex lost trust in both her and James. One day early in 2013, Tex kicked James out of the Maheshu shop. “I said, ‘You’re stealing from me. You get your ass out of this place and never show up again.’ Right out here in the yard, I confronted him.”
“And what did James say?” I asked.
“He was always acting like a tough guy. Always smiling. A real damn con artist. He had a beanie on, short sleeves, a vest. It’d be January, and he’d have short sleeves and that vest on. He liked to lift weights, and he was kind of pumped up. He always drove a great big truck, so he jumped out of the pickup, and I waved him over. Big smile. I told him, ‘I want you to eff off this property.’ He was trying to talk me out of it: ‘Things are going to turn the corner.’ I said, ‘Bullshit. You’re stealing from me.’ I held up my bank statement. Sarah—she was a con artist too. She called me and tried to smooth it over. I said, ‘There’s no explaining.’ So we signed a settlement.”
The boy squirmed in his grandfather’s lap and stumbled to the floor and into the hallway. Tex rocked in the zebra chair. “See, my family were the victims,” he said. “Now these guys say, ‘Oh, Tex stole money. He did wrong.’ And Spencer’s still lurking in the background.”
“Did you try to fire Spencer?” I asked.
“Why weren’t you able to?”
Tex blushed, startled by the question. He looked away. “I was able to get him demoted,” he said. He paused, added, “He needed to keep his health insurance. He still had his kids in school, needed his job.”
“That’s what he told you?”
“Yeah. I knew it was hocus-pocus, but he’s also got votes on that council, so it was a compromise deal. I’m no fan of his. He’s a taker. He got a huge payoff and still draws a full paycheck from the tribe.”
But Spencer was hired, not elected. Wasn’t there a difference between Spencer’s position and that of the chairman?
“I didn’t break an ethics code,” Tex said. “The code didn’t prohibit me from owning a business. I had this business when I was elected. It would be a violation if I did work for the tribal oil company, but I hauled water for Marathon.” All the information contained in the investigative report was just “a smear,” he said. “If I broke the law, why would the feds taint their case by using me as a government witness? They know it was a smear. We were the victims.
“If I hadn’t kept my ranch, kept my cattle, kept this business, I’d have been shit-out-of-luck. If both my feet were with the tribe, I’d have had nothing. The direction our tribe is going is not good. When individual families have wealth because of oil, when their parents die, they’re fighting each other. When the tribe has wealth, and people don’t like the way the chairman or council is doing things, they smear them. There’s no respect at all. There’s no respect for what I’ve done or accomplished. Now they’ll learn. It’s not easy. You can’t say, ‘There was a pipeline spill. It was Tex’s fault.’ ‘The roads department never plowed that elder’s home. It’s Tex’s fault.’ Our people have to take responsibility. The chairman is going to have to say no, because if you say yes to everything, only those that are hanging around the fort will get the money.
“Our people can get really jealous,” Tex continued. “When I became chairman, my dad said, ‘They’re going to be jealous of you, because you’re going to be successful. You’re going to win again, but a lot of people you thought you knew are going to turn on you. So you just have to keep grounded and know in your heart what needs to be done.’ I seen it back in the sixties. He would get a new car and have to hide it. I’d say, ‘Mom, why is he buying a new car, and we’re hiding it in the garage?’ ‘Well, son, your dad’s in politics, and in politics people get jealous, and they won’t vote for him if they’re jealous.’ People are real funny. If they think that you’re higher than them or you’ve got more money, they’re not going to vote for you. I didn’t know that it’d come from my relatives.”
“Do you think the candidates can slow the boom?” I said.
Tex laughed. “How are they going to do that? A lease is a legal contract to drill on your land. If you and I have a lease with Marathon, and it’s a five-year lease, and we’re in year five, how are you going to slow them down? There’s nothing you can do. All these lands are leased, Sierra.” Besides, he said, the boom was over.
He rocked back in his zebra chair. It was five o’clock. We had spoken for five hours, and his secretary had not come.
“My goal was full sovereignty. You grow your own food. You utilize your own energy. You do intertribal trade to help those that are less fortunate. That’s the direction I was going. I grew up with no running water, no electricity, no TV, no telephone. I grew up feeding cows and horses in thirty, forty below. We’d haul our water in cream cans from the spring. This is what it’s all about—good water, a decent home, decent health care. We didn’t ask for the moon. We just wanted a sliver. And then the oil came.”
I noticed in a corner of his office, leaning against the wall, the photograph taken on the day the federal government took the bottomlands, the chairman weeping into his hand. Tex was born two years after the flood, so his earliest memories were colored by its aftermath. He remembered one particular gathering in 1960, when he was five years old. “We were in an old building east of here about fifteen miles, a community center called Water Chief Hall,” he said. “It was brought up from the bottomlands before the flood. It had a potbelly stove, and my grandfather was chairman, and my father was a councilman, and they were standing up in front and talking Indian about the dam. ‘The government hasn’t built us a hospital. They haven’t built us a school.’ It was cold. My grandmother was feeding the people, and the women had scarves and blankets covering them. Kids were playing. I went to go play with the kids, and that’s when my grandfather told me in Indian to come back, sit down, pay attention. ‘Some day you might have to lead your tribe.’ So I grew up listening. ‘Don’t trust the government. Take care of the people, first.’
“That’s why I keep that picture,” Tex said, nodding toward the corner. “In that old, cold building, it was us against the world. It’s sad, in a way, that we seem to have lost where we came from when we had nothing. It’s almost like I wish we had nothing. It was clear, before, what we were fighting for, and it was to make the tribe whole again, and now it’s a fight over money.”
THE DAY OF the election, November 4, 2014, a bitter wind turned the rain to snow. That morning, I dropped by the offices of the tribal newspaper, in the old clapboard house by the lake, to say hello to the editor, who mentioned she had a source for me. The editor offered to arrange an interview that evening. So, as officials delivered ballots to the casino—Mark Fox won—I returned to the newspaper offices and waited, shivering, for Lissa to come.