Tribes ask respect when oil encroaches on sacred land

Tribes ask respect when oil encroaches on sacred land

Aug 18

Preservationist observes change on reservation

By Chuck Haga – Forum Communications

FORT BERTHOLD INDIAN RESERVATION – Lee Casey Fox Jr. steps slowly, respectfully, through a patch of fenced ground near the end of a truck-battered dirt road.

It is high ground, with a pleasant prospect of grassy meadow folding into hills and falling toward the Missouri River, now fattened into Lake Sakakawea. A century or more ago, it must have been an appealing, calming site to grieving Native Americans.

Lee Casey Fox Jr. leans on a fence at the site of a burial ground near a well overlooking Lake Sakakawea. Fox is the oilfield monitor with the Three Affiliated Tribes’ Historic Preservation Office in Parshall. Photo by Eric Hylden, Grand Forks Herald

“There are 14 graves here,” Fox said, gesturing toward depressions and small clumps of weathered rocks. “We think they’re from the late 18th, early 19th century. There would have been offerings of food and tobacco.”

A few yards from the enclosure, a natural gas flare dances as a horse head pumper pulls oil from miles beneath the surface. Fox works in historic preservation for the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

“When they got the permit to drill in this area, we walked 10 acres looking for rock effigies, stone markers from vision quests and gravesites,” he said. “The oil companies have to contact us after the Bureau of Indian Affairs gives them a permit, and they have to agree to use proper care in construction of the site and access roads – anything involving the turning of a shovelful of dirt.”

Exploration, drilling, pumping and transport of oil, by the tribe and by private companies leasing land, have transformed much of the sprawling reservation, potentially disturbing many sacred, historical and otherwise important sites once protected by their remoteness.

“Other nomadic tribes came through here, and we protect their sites, too,” Fox said. “We do cultural surveys and identify the geology and botany of a place, and the wildlife, and we make sure the oil companies know when they need to shift pad locations or their gas and water lines.

“They’ve been pretty good, pretty respectful. I haven’t had any problems with them. This site, the company agreed to fence it off and stay away once we identified the graves.”

In this case, the company was Strata Corp. of Grand Forks. President Jim Bradshaw said his people are trained and encouraged to treat such situations with respect.

“We have come across pioneer graves, too,” he said. “When you see something like that, it’s time out. You don’t touch anything like that, out of respect.

“We do care. We’re not there to disrupt or destroy heritage.” Fox, 60, continued to walk slowly through the fragrant sage and tufted prairie grasses, leading the way, pointing out a rock pattern here, a wild turnip there, and there more signs of long-ago people.

“For me as a Native American – I am Hidatsa, but I have all three tribes in me – it’s important that we do this,” he said. “Our ancestors gave us life. They are why we are here. Our young people have to know where they came from, and most of all who they are.

“And we are the wards of this land,” he said. “We must take care of it, because it takes care of us.”

Haga is at chaga@gfherald.com.