Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 3: Oil Kings)
WHEN I THINK NOW OF the day I first arrived on the reservation in April 2011, ten months before Kristopher Clarke went missing, I think of how muted the place looked, how a late winter storm had flattened the deadened grass, how the snow had withered into dusty patches and the sloughs were still hardened with ice, how the only forests to speak of were the gray brushes of cottonwoods filling the canyons and junipers dotting the clay cliffs, and how all of it blended and washed out, faded into a low, gray sky. I drove from the south on a two-lane road through a border town called Killdeer, dropping into the valley of the Little Missouri River fifteen miles west of the confluence with the Missouri. There, on the far bank of the tributary, a sign marked an entrance to the reservation. Then the road cut through cliffs and emerged on a prairie where houses appeared—lone bunkers battered by the wind—and Mandaree Village, its homes of all the same size and shape, and a water tower standing garishly at odds with the flatness of the landscape. The road straightened. To the west rose Thunder Butte and the Killdeer Mountains, and then I turned east and glimpsed the Missouri, feeding from the north through a narrow passage and widening toward the south.
The 4 Bears Casino & Lodge is on a spit of land that forms the west bank of this passage. I arrived after dark and parked between two pickup trucks. A sign blinked the dates of a wrestling match already past, and lit the insides of cars with its fluorescence. The lodge was full, I soon found out, so I continued over the bridge into New Town, where I knocked on the door of a motel. The proprietor didn’t answer. I returned to the casino and waited in the lobby in a leather chair until the receptionist took pity on me, called an oilman who had booked a room but not shown, and learned he would not be coming for another week.
I had been sent to Fort Berthold by High Country News, a small magazine where I had just begun to work, my first job out of college. Five years earlier, in May 2006, a company from Texas had drilled an exploratory oil well in the northeast corner of the reservation, near the town of Parshall. The oilmen used a new technique called horizontal drilling: Rather than bore straight into the ground, they maneuvered their drill bit downward and then across, needling through a deep layer of shale. Into the well, they pumped a mixture of chemicals, sand, and water, the pressure of which fractured, or “fracked,” the shale. The well gushed oil, outdoing the company’s expectations, and it was not long afterward that men and women began appearing at the doors of reservation homes with offers of bonuses and royalties.
The formation the company had tapped was called the Bakken, a miles-deep shale layer extending from western North Dakota into eastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan. It contained, by conservative estimates, four billion barrels of recoverable oil, enough to supply the nation for six and a half months. Geologists had known about the Bakken for years, but it was the advent of new techniques—hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling—that made the formation accessible. In the summer of 2010, after the boom had already overtaken western North Dakota, it arrived on Fort Berthold, as well: the tearing up of sod and blasting of rock, the setting of culverts, the molding of embankments, the piling, compacting, and surfacing of roads, the laying of track, of rails and ballasts, the filling of water depots like giant backyard swimming pools, the digging of trenches and fitting of pipe, the drilling—switchboards, generators, tanks, mud pumps, masts lifted and set erect, wells bored and cased—the hauling of fresh water, of used water, the injecting of sludge into old wells, the assembling of pump jacks and lighting of flares, the building of man camps where workers slept—engineers, operators, surveyors, scaffolders, welders, mechanics, riggers, supervisors, dispatchers, janitors, electricians, pipe fitters, carpenters, journeymen, tool pushers, drillers, mud men, floor hands, derrickmen, motormen, and roustabouts.
On the heels of the Great Recession and the highest national unemployment rate in three decades, North Dakota’s population grew faster than any other state’s. Fort Berthold—located in the center of the Bakken—was no exception. By the time I arrived to write about the oil boom, the reservation population had doubled with non-Native workers. In the course of a month the summer prior to my arrival, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation had earned more than $1.5 million in taxes and royalties, while its members who owned land earned, collectively, $2,781,670. It was estimated the reservation contained a third of the oil in North Dakota, more than most nations in the world. In a matter of five years, one billion dollars would land in tribal coffers, placing it among the wealthiest tribes in the United States.
During my first days on Fort Berthold, I spent a lot of time at the casino. It had been built in the early nineties not long after the U.S. Congress passed a law allowing gaming on reservations nationwide in a rare effort to foster economic development among tribes whose poverty seemed intractable. You could visit almost any reservation in the country and find a casino of the same vintage and similar design. The 4 Bears had two entrances—one that led to the game room, a dim, smoky parlor crammed with slot machines, poker tables, a dance floor, and a small bar; and the second into the lobby, a round room with a vaulted ceiling, sparsely furnished with pinball machines and the leather chair where I had waited that first night. When I had nowhere else to be, I often sat in the leather chair and observed the goings-on of the lobby. It did not take me long to realize the casino was at the center of a constellation of transactions. I saw fishermen come to fish the lake; a woman looking for a job; elders cracking crab legs at the casino buffet—one of two restaurants on the reservation that served breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and a steady flow of men in suits. One morning, I watched a tour bus disgorge a hundred elderly passengers and learned they had come from a senior center in Bismarck. They were among the few patrons I saw come solely for the slots. The other gamblers were oil workers and tribal members, many of whom lived in the lodge. I would learn that around four hundred tribal families had inadequate or no housing—a number that had risen as workers competed for shelter—and for all its capitalist ambition, the casino was in certain ways an equalizer of wealth. A portion of its revenue went back to the tribe, helping to pay for salaries and houses and medical bills, among other reservation services.
It was at the casino that I began to note signs of the oil boom: “No vacancies for 5 weeks,” I wrote, and, “Oil worker surprised at $400/mo camping fee, says it was 300 only last month.” Beyond the casino, the most obvious sign was the number of trucks. All day and night, semis groaned on the bridge over the lake, hauling fresh water to drilling sites, used water to evaporation pits, oil to storage facilities, and modular homes, tanks, pipe, and concrete among all the other materials that assembled into a boom. One day, in the course of twenty-four hours, deputies stationed at an intersection north of New Town counted twenty-nine thousand vehicles headed for the reservation, 60 percent of them large trucks. Roads had been crushed under the weight of these trucks, pounded back to dirt, and new gravel tracks had sprouted all over, sending up plumes of red scoria dust in the wakes of speeding semis. There were frequent accidents. Months earlier, an oil hauler had strayed into oncoming traffic and killed a family of four. On the way from Mandaree to New Town, roadside ditches were littered with deer carcasses and plastic flowers memorializing the dead. One morning, I dropped by the health clinic, where I was told that ambulances were in short supply and, due to the traffic, trauma victims had died before paramedics could reach them. I continued on to the fitness center, in a building in New Town called Northern Lights, where I spoke to a receptionist who said she often caught oilmen walking on treadmills in their mud-caked work boots.
I began to feel like a doctor recording the early symptoms of an illness—the oil boom, like an illness, was all anyone wanted to talk about. Yet I also detected in my conversations with tribal members a sense of awe that their fortune had so suddenly reversed. The boom had just begun. Fewer than a hundred wells had been drilled on Fort Berthold; companies were waiting on permits to drill hundreds more. While I waited in a lobby to meet with a tribal official one day, I came across a brochure titled MANDAN HIDATSA ARIKARA: KEEPERS OF THE BAKKEN, and in smaller lettering, SOVEREIGNTY BY THE BARREL. It opened to a letter from the chairman, Tex Hall:
We are a sovereign nation, recognized by treaty with the government of the United States. Our sovereignty can be maximized by the number of barrels of oil taken from our Mother Earth. We call it sovereignty by the barrel. The potential is here to obtain financial independence for our nation, education for our youth, sustenance for our elders, maintenance of our culture, and above all to set the people of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation on the road to independence.
OVER THE LAST two centuries, the sovereignty of tribes—that is, tribes’ inherent authority to govern their own territories and affairs—has been upheld by treaties, courts, and the U.S. Constitution amid avid efforts to dismantle it. So it seemed a reversal of policy when, in 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, halting the division of Indian land into allotments and the sale of land to white homesteaders. In the fifty years prior, tribes nationwide had lost two-thirds of their land base. The IRA allowed tribes to form governments to replace the traditional institutions colonization had suppressed, and in 1936, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara elected a council and adopted a constitution. Prior to the IRA, the three tribes had relied on a ten-member body to consult traditional leaders and lobby federal agencies, but the IRA restored more of the tribes’ authority. The new council set about acquiring land it had lost and regulating use of its pastures, which the Bureau of Indian Affairs had long allowed ranchers to overgraze. Later acts of Congress permitted tribes to charter companies and manage schools, courts, police departments, and social services, and while federal agencies retained some major responsibilities, such as criminal jurisdiction and management of the Indian Health Service, the tribe largely became the entity on which its citizens depended, around which most aspects of reservation life revolved.
On the morning I was to interview the chairman, Tex Hall, I arrived at the tribal headquarters, a single-story brick building next to the 4 Bears Casino & Lodge, and found it empty. Nearly everyone, including the chairman, had gone to a funeral.
I waited in a lobby beside a glass case containing portraits of Hall. In all of them, he was wearing either a warbonnet or a cowboy hat. He had shiny cheeks, a long, firm nose, and thick, dark eyebrows shaped like upside-down birds. “Isn’t he handsome?” his press secretary plied when she saw me studying the photographs. The last journalist to write about Hall had described him as possessing “a John Wayne swagger” and “a Clint Eastwood squint,” she said.
Our appointment had been for eleven o’clock. At noon, the secretary led me into an office where I was greeted by a tall man with a ponytail and a crushing handshake. He offered me a seat beside his desk and then leaned back in his own chair as if we were about to watch a football game.
I had known before I met Hall that he was among the most influential politicians in Indian Country. He was fifty-four years old, born to cattle ranchers in Mandaree. When his segment elected him to the council in 1996, he had been a superintendent of the Mandaree schools. Hall quickly ascended political ranks, becoming chairman in 1998 and, three years later, president of the National Congress of American Indians, an assembly of tribes that lobbies federal agencies. Hall was a fixture at congressional hearings. He befriended the Clintons and members of Congress and often appeared at White House parties in his warbonnet or cowboy hat. It was rumored he would run for governor, but in November 2010, he was elected to his third term as chairman. In the five months since, it had become clear this term would be unlike any other he had served. Presiding over a cache of minerals worth billions of dollars, Hall’s influence in Washington, D.C., had grown. Recently, he had testified before a Senate committee, requesting that it force the Interior Department to speed the approval of drilling permits. “This boom should create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our tribe,” Hall told me. “The curse of it is that we have a very aggressive industry that wants the oil, and the price is right now, and they don’t like the bureaucratic red tape.”
The “red tape” Hall spoke of was the process through which companies gained access to Indian land. The allotment era had made a mess of this land—divided it into a checkerboard of plots, each with its own kind of ownership. There was “allotted land” that belonged to individual Indian landowners but that the federal government managed in trust; “tribal land,” which the tribe had reacquired after losing it to allotment, but which the government also managed in trust; and “fee land,” held privately and taxed by the state, which had been sold a century earlier to white homesteaders. To drill on fee land, companies approached landowners directly, offering an up-front payment—the “bonus”—and a percentage of their profits to be paid later in royalties. But on “trust land” the process was more complicated. Companies could approach Indian landowners directly with offers, but they had to deal with four federal agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which approved leases, and the Bureau of Land Management, which issued drilling permits. The process, Hall said, was too cumbersome. The BLM had a backlog of applications to drill, and some companies had been waiting on permits for months. The price of oil was the highest it had been in decades. Hall worried that if the permits were not granted soon, the boom would pass the tribe over.
I glanced around his office. It was bright, lit by a window and decorated with old photographs. In one of the photographs, fourteen men in suits gathered around a desk where a white man was signing a document. Beside him stood a Native American man who had taken off his glasses and was weeping into his hand.
I would learn that the photograph had been taken on May 20, 1948; that the white man was J. A. Krug, the secretary of the interior at the time; that the weeping man was George Gillette, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes; and that the document was the contract with which the tribe relinquished the bottomlands of the Missouri after the United States had claimed them by eminent domain for the construction of the Garrison Dam. This was after the tribe had fought the proposal for years. In 1945, four councilmen had met with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to present a resolution:
Whereas construction of the proposed Garrison Dam…would inundate 200,000 acres of the best irrigable land of our reservation; and Whereas this will force approximately 200 families to move from their permanent homes…; Whereas it will flood or cause them to be useless, all Government buildings and improvements at Elbowoods, Nishu, Shell Creek, Independence, Beaver Creek, Lucky Mound, Charging Eagle, and Red Butte, including the hospital, school buildings, total value over $1,000,000…; and Whereas cause to be either cut and removed all timber now growing along the bottoms, thus destroying natural shelter for the cattle and taking away the continual fuel supply of our people, and source of income from sale of timber, fence post, lumber, and firewood…; Whereas the cemeteries of our forefathers will be destroyed, and with it all our memories and kind remembrances of these burial places that have been held sacred for all; and Whereas this large body of water will separate the reservation…; and Whereas the various treaties and Executive orders have given the people of this reservation promise of a perpetual use of this land…; Whereas we have permanently located on these lands, and our forefathers also have lived on these grounds, and it is the hopes and plans to have our children and their children to occupy this land continuously forever; and money or exchange for other land will not compensate us for the land, landmarks, and sentimental attachments…: Now, therefore, be it Resolved by the tribal business council…That we oppose the present plan of constructing a dam at Garrison, or any other plan which will destroy the flood areas of the Missouri Valley.
It was this event, more than any other in the tribe’s history, that had cast on the boom a certain karmic power. “The white man thought they were going to put us on the badlands where nothing would grow,” Hall told me. “Do you think they would have put us here if they had known?” I shook my head. Hall smiled. “Before the dam we were self-sufficient. Then they flooded us and destroyed our economy. If we’ve been blessed with this fuel, here, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try to bring it back, what we lost. If managed right, this development could make our tribe self-sufficient again.”
THE DAY BEFORE I gave up my hotel room to the oilman, I met a tribal historian, a woman, who invited me to stay in a house that had belonged to her late sister. The house was in Parshall, east of New Town, and over the following years, I would stay there whenever I came to the reservation. One day, while perusing a bookshelf, of which the house had many, I found a collection of old newsletters issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The first, dated May 18, 1953, announced the visit of a government “Oil and Gas Supervisor” who met with the tribal council regarding the leasing of land. The Bureau would hold eighteen auctions, through which companies acquired the mineral rights to a third of the reservation. At an auction in December 1953, bonus offers ranged from $5 to $190 an acre, and landowners earned $3.5 million collectively. By the following September, tribal members had earned $6 million, but the figure came with a caveat: “Not all of the Fort Berthold Indians share in this income,” a Bureau agent warned in a newsletter that month. “The truth of the matter is that only 710 individuals have shared in this oil income out of a total enrollment of 2,751, and 105 of these are Indians who reside off the reservation permanently.” Even among those who earned bonuses, the money was unevenly dispersed. Twelve people received more than a million dollars between them, while a majority earned less than five thousand apiece. For a few, the gift was well timed: The Garrison Dam was nearly finished, and tribal members were preparing to move. According to the newsletters, most of the oil income went toward new houses, while “35 individuals purchased 628 head of cattle; 12 individuals repaid their loans in full to the Tribe,” and “approximately 4,196.45 acres” were bought for home sites. Thousands had been spent on “furnishings and equipment, wiring of homes, four barns, sheds, corrals and fencing, and for food and clothing”—all “worthwhile expenditures,” noted the agent, “but the fact remains that for over 2,000 Fort Berthold Indian people, a major job of rehabilitation is still a serious immediate need.”
No one would ever mention this money to me, perhaps because no one on the reservation remembered it. The oil boom that began in 1951, later eulogized in books and plaques and North Dakota school curriculums, hardly arrived on Fort Berthold, where only a few dozen wells were drilled. The first of these wells was on land belonging to an Arikara woman named Helen Gough, who willed her royalties upon her death to build and maintain a museum. The Three Affiliated Tribes Museum, a modest A-frame in the casino parking lot, was the sole relic of the first boom I found on the reservation, as if the memory of the dam had eclipsed the memory of this boom, and what was lost to the dam had lasted while what was gained from the boom had not.
Booms by definition are temporary, strung along by the whims of international markets. In the sixties, the price of oil fell; then, in the seventies, it rose, and the industry flourished again in North Dakota. Even fewer wells were drilled on the reservation this time due to the problem of heirship: Allotments had fractionated among landowners’ progeny, and it was not uncommon for hundreds of owners to share in an allotment. By federal law, to drill on an allotment, a company needed consent from every landowner—nearly an impossible task, since so many had scattered after the flood. Unable to secure enough leases, oil companies considered it hardly worthwhile to drill on the reservation. By the end of the second boom, forty-two oil wells had been drilled on tribal or allotted land, and by 1996, only ten of these wells were still producing.
For decades, the tribe’s entire annual budget came from congressional appropriations. This changed in 1992, when the tribe won a $142.9 million settlement for land it had lost to the flood. The next year, the tribe opened the casino. The settlement and casino gave the tribe leverage it never had before, and as the tribe sought loans, it also sought new sources of income. In 1995, the council drafted a report on their oil and gas potential and sent it to hundreds of companies. Few responded, but those who did were unanimous in their concern that the fractionated heirship of Indian land made leasing prohibitively difficult. Only one company made an offer: For exclusive rights to drill on the reservation, it would pay the tribe 18.25 percent of its profits and a $2 million bonus, on the condition that three-quarters of allottees also agreed to lease their land for 12.5 percent royalties and twenty to thirty-five dollars an acre.
The company, Alenco, based in Alberta, had been connected to the tribe through two white brothers in Williston, North Dakota, who owned Powers Energy Corporation. Alenco agreed to pay Powers 4 percent royalties on all the oil it extracted from the reservation. In 1997, one Powers brother accompanied the tribal chairman to Washington, D.C., where they testified before Congress on a bill that would alter the heirship laws on Fort Berthold, requiring only a simple majority of landowners to agree to lease before their allotment could be drilled. The bill passed.
The first day most tribal members heard of Alenco was March 14, 1997, when the Minot Daily News reported that the tribal council, in a closed session, voted to accept the deal. Only two councilmen had dissented. One of them was Tex Hall.
The reservation erupted in outrage. Tribal landowners demanded a meeting with the Bureau, which they blamed for not informing them of the deal. When the council held a private meeting with Alenco, landowners protested until they were let in. “Will the Council place their interests above that of the private landowners?” one woman wrote in a letter to the Bureau. “Oil development of a vast area of land lends itself to political maneuvering. The request by the oil company to waive a number of Federal regulations was of grave concern to us, and we wondered if allotted lands would be adequately protected.” Letters elicited no response. After months of silence, the Bureau released a report in which it found that the deal was “not in the tribe’s best interest” and suggested Alenco amend it. A year later, the company presented a new deal not all that different from the first. Hall walked out of the vote, followed by two other councilmen. The deal never passed. A year later, Hall was elected chairman.
Nearly every tribal member I interviewed about Alenco shuddered to think what might have happened. The royalties and bonuses Alenco offered were far below federal standards, let alone market value, but perhaps the most terrible aspect of the deal was one that glimmered out in retrospect: The company would have had exclusive access to the reservation for a period of fifteen years. Hall opposed the deal because it was “not a fair price” but also because it would have broken one of the last levers of sovereignty the tribe possessed. He was not opposed to drilling, but he believed that the tribe, rather than give up control of its land to an outside company, should develop the resources itself.
Hall never had this chance. During his first two terms as chairman, the tribe slipped perilously into debt, and in 2005, when a company called Black Rock Resources, with no prior record of oil development, offered to lease twelve thousand acres of tribal land for thirty-five dollars apiece, the council voted, excluding Hall, to accept.
Hall was furious. Among his most vocal detractors was Steve Kelly, the chief counsel for the tribe. Kelly, a pale, portly tribal member who had been raised off the reservation in the oil fields of eastern Montana, believed the tribe was incapable of drilling its own oil and thus better off leaving the job to outside companies. It was Kelly who facilitated the leases with Black Rock and a majority of the tribal leases that followed.
Kelly was not the only one with whom Hall began to spar. In 2006, the manager of the casino, Spencer Wilkinson, Jr., made an offer to the council, proposing that a company he owned called Dakota-3 operate an old oil well that belonged to the tribe. In exchange, Dakota-3 would earn 75 percent of the well’s profits.
Spencer was from White Shield but grew up in Oklahoma and moved to the reservation in 1993, when his uncle, Wilbur Wilkinson, was elected chairman. The casino opened, and Spencer got a job. His uncle’s tenure ended in scandal when Wilbur, with Spencer’s help, embezzled $20,000 from the tribe. Spencer testified against his uncle and kept his job at the casino, while Wilbur was sentenced to twenty-one months in federal prison. In the mid-2000s, Spencer came to own Dakota-3 with several partners. The council accepted his offer to operate the tribal oil well, but before the Bureau of Indian Affairs could approve the deal, Dakota-3 began drawing payments from the tribe. On August 28, 2006, two months prior to the next election for chairman, Hall sent Spencer a letter, reminding him that the Bureau had yet to sign off on the deal. Hall also noted that he had heard Spencer was attempting to lease minerals from the tribe. “I will not process or sign any assignment of the Tribe’s mineral leases,” Hall warned. That fall, he lost the chairmanship after Spencer campaigned for his opponent.
The following year, the tribal council leased 42,842 of its acres to Dakota-3 for fifty dollars each and 18 percent royalties. In March 2008, Spencer posed with the new tribal chairman, holding a giant check addressed to the tribe for $2.1 million. Meanwhile, Spencer went door-to-door, leasing around as many acres at the same rate from Indian landowners. Then, in 2010, an Oklahoma-based company, Williams Oil, purchased Dakota-3 for $925 million, earning Dakota-3 a profit roughly two-hundred times what it originally paid for the leases. Not since Alenco had a deal generated so much outrage on the reservation. Tribal members wondered why the federal government, its trustee, had not held an auction or warned the tribe and landowners that their minerals were worth more than Dakota-3 offered. In November, Hall won reelection on the promise that he would fire Spencer.
Spencer kept his job, and by the time I arrived on Fort Berthold, his clutch on the tribal government had become legend. I often heard members speculate as to how he had enticed the council to lease the tribe’s minerals for such a low price. But what Spencer had done was common practice in the oil industry: Companies often purchased leases for little money before landowners knew what their land was really worth and sold them for enormous profits. Every company that acquired the first leases on the reservation, including Black Rock, “flipped” them to other companies. Spencer’s deal drew more ire because he was related to many of the landowners he fooled. “I felt really ashamed that I had been taken like that,” a cousin of his told me. In a culture where family mattered more than anything, she explained, she had trusted him. Spencer had exploited the tribe’s strength at the same time he exploited its poverty and vulnerability to federal mismanagement. “None of us knew there were billions of dollars under Fort Berthold,” another woman told me. “How do you believe that if you’ve been poor all your life?”
One morning in April 2011, I met with the tribe’s tax director, an energetic man with short, dark hair and an affinity for brash metaphors. “It’s a David and Goliath situation,” he told me. “When you’re worried about how you’re going to pay your electric bill, or you can’t buy your kids school clothes, or you’re an elder on fixed income, and you’re way below poverty level, and somebody throws $30,000 at you, and you don’t understand that it’s worth $300,000, you’ve just made a huge error. That’s what happened to our people. The oil companies have dictated this process. It’s not their first rodeo.”
The director, Mark Fox, was in his late forties and had spent most of his adult life working in tribal government. The tribe was unprepared for the boom, he believed. After centuries of colonization—of federal entities weakening and displacing tribal institutions—it did not have the resources, let alone the expertise or regulatory power, to control the oil industry. It had no environmental agency to monitor leaks or spills; no transportation department to track trucks; and what was more troubling, it had no criminal jurisdiction over the thousands of non-Native men and women who had come to work, since the U.S. Supreme Court had stripped tribes nationwide of the right to criminally prosecute nonmembers.
“It’s like the lottery winners you see on TV,” Fox said. “Their lives get worse, because they’re not ready for it. We’re the same way. My biggest fear is that we end up like other reservations I know—industry comes in, money’s thrown around, everyone celebrates for a while, and when industry leaves, the reservation is in worse shape than before.”
After I left Mark’s office, I thought about what he said. Not everyone had been blindsided. In interviews with landowners, I had begun to recognize the names of individuals who seemed to have gotten ahead of the boom. I heard these names over and over, saw them in court documents. These were the men and women whom oil companies had hired to appear at their relatives’ doors with lease forms in hand. How had they known? the landowners I spoke to wondered. Had they been smarter, wiser? Had they had the gift of foresight? In fact, it appeared they had been chosen to know, plucked up from the casino, from tribal government, from influential families. These “consultants” earned both direct payments for their services and a small percentage of royalties from oil produced on the land they helped lease. Oil companies had found their proselytizers, and after these men and women acquired all the reservation land there was to lease, many had started their own companies servicing the oil fields. For this, they had earned a moniker I would hear often on the reservation: “oil kings.”
Spencer Wilkinson was an oil king, but he was not the only one. There was also Steve Kelly, the lawyer for the tribe who had sparred with Tex Hall over the oil deals. In 2008, Kelly left his tribal position and founded the company Trustland, through which he acquired leases for many of the same companies whose deals he negotiated on the tribe’s behalf. When there were no more leases to acquire, Kelly had expanded his services, and Trustland grew into the largest truck operator on the reservation. That was before the company called Maheshu encroached on Kelly’s business. Maheshu was owned by another oil king—the tribal chairman, Tex Hall.
ONE EVENING THAT April during my first visit to the reservation, rain fell so hard that trucks idled on roadsides and potholes roiled with mud. I drove east from New Town on Route 23, paused at a crossing of asphalt and dirt where a horse had slung its head over a barbed-wire fence and a pump jack nodded relentlessly. When the rain let up, I went on to the Scenic, a restaurant perched on a rise with a view of Lake Sakakawea. Three roughnecks smoked beneath the eaves, their dirty boots propped against the siding, knees protruding into the storm. A waitress seated me near an elderly man who caught my eye when I came in. He wore glasses and a nylon jacket, his hair thin and wispy. He invited me to eat with him. “The thing you must know,” he said once I had joined him, “is that this was our big chance, and we missed it.”
The man’s name was Ed Hall. The chairman was his nephew. Ed had been born in Elbowoods, a town in the Missouri bottomlands, and, in 1953, a year before the flood, left the reservation to join the Marine Corps. Over the next forty-eight years, Ed had lived all over the country: on the Turtle Mountain, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock reservations, where he designed and built tribal roads; in Crow Agency, where he served as Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent; in Washington, D.C., where he advised the assistant secretary of the Bureau; in Albuquerque, where he worked in a Bureau transportation department; until he came home in 2001 to assist with a redesign of the bridge over Lake Sakakawea. All those years in the bowels of the federal-Indian bureaucracy had kindled in Ed a fondness for reports. I would see him often on later visits to the reservation, and whenever I asked how he was doing, he would reply, “I’m working on a new report.”
The evening I met Ed at the Scenic, he told me about a report Tex asked him to write. After regaining the chairmanship in 2010, Tex had assembled a team, including Ed, to investigate corruption in tribal government. Tex meant for the report to remain private, but someone had acquired a copy and posted it online. The findings were troubling—money wildly mismanaged over the four years prior; $1.4 million spent on councilmen’s travel, almost half of that for the former chairman alone; a tribal debt exceeding $100 million; dubious leasing of tribal minerals, such as the sale to Spencer Wilkinson, Jr.; and a system of spoils that made it far too easy for councilmen to buy their constituents’ votes. There was widespread “fear of retaliation if one speaks up to address injustice, fraud or corruption,” according to the report. “This fear of retaliation is not only for the individual, but for one’s entire family. Tribal goods and services, once open freely to all, have been restricted and made available only to those who are politically connected.” Perhaps most troubling was that the oil boom had fueled this corruption. An ethics ordinance held that elected tribal officials could not “own interests in or conduct business with” oil and gas companies, and yet multiple councilmen already had been recruited as partners in oil-field ventures or owned companies themselves. The report did not offer names, but it occurred to me that among the councilmen violating the ordinance was the chairman himself. After Tex lost the election in 2006, he had made the curious transformation of founding Maheshu, through which he acquired leases for outside oil companies, and then entered the trucking business.
After I said goodbye to Ed, I drove to the casino. There, in the parking lot, I came across two white men cooking chicken on a charcoal grill. They were in their forties—mechanics, they said. They wondered if I wanted to sit and offered me the metal steps that folded from the doorway of a camper. The shorter man lived in the camper. He had come from Washington State, where he lost his house to foreclosure and where his wife now lived in a rented apartment. The taller one also lived on Fort Berthold, in a backyard shed with no windows or heat. He paid $300 a month—a good deal, he said—and when I asked how he liked the reservation, he grinned: “It’s crazy. You run a truck for fifty-four hours straight, and no one here will stop you.”
The shorter man nodded. “I got taillights out. I seen guys with no seatbelt, no mud flaps, just rolling through stop signs.”
“Keep your eyes open with toothpicks, and you’re making money.”
“A cup of coffee, you’re making money.”
The taller one laughed, paused. He looked at me, and his eyes widened. “You can do anything you want short of killing somebody,” he said.
I remember thinking that they were nice men and that they needed something to laugh about and so they did.
Eventually I left them and went inside the casino and ordered a drink. The bar was thick with smoke and the singsong of slot machines. Women with their hair pulled in tight, dark buns dealt cards to sunburnt men. A Leonardo DiCaprio movie was playing on the television, and a white woman in a feather boa was flirting with some oil workers. I took my drink and sat beside a man who introduced himself as “Pancho the Bull Rider.” Pancho was from Texas but lived in a man camp twenty-five miles to the north, where “all there is to do is drink,” he said. We talked until the music got too loud. A man and a woman rose to the dance floor, laughing so hard their eyes shut. Then, clasped in each other’s arms, they spun around, and around, and around.