‘Unspeakable Poverty of Loss': Intergenerational Trauma and the Bakken Oil Fields

Winona LaDuke


I wanted to write a story about strength and resilience. I wanted to write a story about the singers, the horse people, and the earth lodge builders of the Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara peoples, the squash and corn, the heartland of agricultural wealth in the Northern Plains. That’s the story I have been wanting to write. But that story is next. The story today is about folly, greed, confusion, unspeakable intergenerational trauma and terrifying consequences, all in a moment in time. That time is now.

For me, this story began at Lake Superior, a place that is sacred to the Anishinaabeg, the source of a fifth of the world’s fresh water. I rode my horse with my family, my community and our allies, from that place, Rice Lake Refuge, to Rice Lake, on my own reservation. Those two lakes are the mother lode of the world’s wild rice. Those two lakes—in fact, the entire region—are threatened by a newly proposed pipeline of fracked oil from what is known as the Bakken Oil Fields of North Dakota, from the homeland of those Arikara people. The pipeline proposed is called the Sandpiper. We rode, but we did not stop. Driven to go to the source, we traveled to North Dakota. That is this story.

RELATED:Three Horseback Journeys Trace Paths of Imminent Pipeline Destruction

Video: A Pipeline and a Promise to the Land

Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara territory lies along the northern Missouri River, a land of gentle rolling hills, immense prairie diversity and the memory of 50 million buffalo. It is today called the Ft. Berthold reservation, and it is known as the sweet spot for Bakken crude oil. About 20 percent of North Dakota’s oil production is coming from this reservation, in a state with 19,000 wells. Lynn Helms, ND Director of Mines, speaks from a panel, telling us that there are 193 drilling rigs in North Dakota—one-sixth of them, or 28, on the Ft. Berthold reservation, 14 on trust lands and l4 on fee lands. There are 1,250 active and producing wells on the reservation, with 2,150 leased and ready to drill. Then, Helms explains, these wells will be in the “harvest phase of production,” soon. Everywhere, it is lit up, as if theLord of the Rings’ Eye of Sauron is sweeping its piercing, deadly gaze across the land 

That is what we see. What we also see is that there’s a huge change in wealth on the reservation.In fact, things have been going so well that the tribal council—which five years ago was facing a $200 million debt—is now well into the black. The tribal chairman (who just lost a primary election), Tex “Chief Red Tipped Arrow” Hall, is rumored to be a millionaire. The tribal council purchased a yacht, a 149-passenger yacht. That is a yacht to take Senators like Heidi Heidkamp and oil company executives out and about on the lake that drowned their culture, and to enjoy the beauty and opulence that many oil rich countries are accustomed to. The yacht sits quietly on a dock by the casino. No fanfare today.

So let us talk about poverty and how North Dakota and the U.S. have treated the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people historically.It may be true of all Native people in the region. They were the poorest for many years, an unspeakable poverty of loss… intergenerational trauma and the meanness of America… all manifest during the Indian wars and in the smallpox epidemics that wiped out 90 percent of their people. That was crowned by the deepest of destruction—the 1954 Garrison Diversion project, which submerged a people under Lake Sakakawea, taking 152,000 acres of their best land. The dams drowned their villages, drowned their agricultural wealth, drowned their history and rewrote it in America’s manual of agricultural progress. The sense of despair was in some ways manifest in the landmark Dana Deegan case, in which Deegan abandoned and allowed to die her newborn infant, an unspeakable horror. For this she was sentenced to a decade in prison, in a highly controversial federal court decision. (Similar cases involving non-Native women resulted in supervised probation and reduced sentences.)

“The law needs to be changed, and Indians need to be treated the same as their non-Indian neighbors,” Judge Myron Bright, dissenting judge on the federal appeals court, said of the verdict. Bright pointed to the historic trauma and abuse in the Deegan case as the basis for his dissent (SeeFree Dana Deegan). In the end, there is no grief that I can imagine is deeper. Except perhaps the grief that is to come. That is unimaginable. And that grief could either be prevented by tribal leaders, or inherited by their children.

That is part of the question to be asked here. How much does the tribal leadership know about what is going on? And how much do the people know?

Kandi Mossett, a tribal member, along with many other community members like Theodora and Joletta Birdbear, have been fighting it all. They have been trying to protect their community for a decade from new threats and ongoing destruction. This includes the huge Basin Electric coal generation facilities, burning the dirtiest coal in America, just upwind from their villages; oil refinery proposals that have been accelerated through federal processes (when no new oil refineries have been built for decades in the U.S., but tribal sovereignty could shield this one and expedite its process), and then the fracking, the eye of Sauron. The women’s Facebook page,This is Mandaree, contains a wealth of information. They are not alone, but the MHA tribal council has great influence, and money is power.

Known and Unknown

In the Anishinaabe universe there are eight layers of the world—the world in which we live, and those above and below. Most of us live in the world we can see. What we do, however, may intersect with those other worlds.

Fracking oil is a new technology. Despite industry claims, it is a big experiment, made possible because of a perfect storm: an entire lack of federal, state or tribal regulation, and unlimited access to water and air, into which everything is dumped.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act had something in it called the Halliburton Amendment. That amendment exempted the oil and gas industry from most major environmental laws. This includes special exemptions from: the Superfund Act (CERCLA); the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA, which manages hazardous waste); the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act, which maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters; the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Air Act. For the Clean Air Act, the exemptions involve emissions from any oil or gas exploration or production well (with its associated equipment) and emissions from any pipeline compressor or pump. The exemptions have worked out pretty well for industry and, one might argue, for the short-term leaseholder and for royalties. Not so for those trying to protect the environment.

Fort Berthold Reservation Environmental Director Edmund Baker has been a bit challenged in his regulation of the fracking industry. On July 8, what was known as the Crestwood spill was discovered. About a million gallons of radioactive and highly saline water was found leaking from a pipe and headed to a stream and Lake Sakakawea. Industry officials, joined by Hall, talked about how, fortuitously, all had been saved by three beaver dams.Let’s just say that Leave it to Beavermay be a bit of a simplistic environmental protection plan.

RELATED:A Million Gallons of Salty Wastewater Leaks Near Fort Berthold Water Supply

The spill was found. Always a problem, because when something is found, it has usually gone on for quite a while. (After all, the 800,000 gallon oil spill which occurred last year in the Bakken was discovered about two months after it had started seeping out of a quarter size hole in a pipe.) The Crestwood spill is estimated to be well over a million gallons of highly saline and radioactive water. Environmental Director Edmund Baker has not been able to review any of the spill data. It is held by the Tribal Council.

“My officers had asked if they could get copies of the samples….my officers were denied,” Baker said. “I don’t have the data, I don’t have any solid numbers… I never received anything.”

RELATED:North Dakota Briny Wastewater Spill Questions Still Unanswered a Month Later

Baker’s job is already difficult, seeing as there are 1,200 or so wells on the reservation and twice as many underway, not to mention a pretty substantial waste stream generated by the fracking industry. Those wastes are not just water, or airborne, but are also radioactive.

RELATED:More Briny Wastewater Spills into Fort Berthold Soil

Death by Lethal Injection

Let’s start with the problem of water. Fracking involves the use of immense amounts of water—hundreds of millions of gallons per well. One company (Southwest Energy Resources) told reporters that what’s involved in fracking is basic chemicals you could find in your house. That would be true, it seems, if you were running a meth lab. Water used by fracking companies is laced with more than 600 toxins and carcinogens. Those chemicals are considered trade secrets and are not subject to scrutiny. This has become a bit of a problem. 

Much of that water is being pumped into deep underground caverns, by the trillions of gallons. In Colorado, there is one injection well that holds more than a trillion gallons. Injected. The data from North Dakota are hard to come by, though it is emerging. Colorado’s data, however, has been probed by a host of concerned citizens.

A report released in June by Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica found that “Over the past several decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation’s geology as an invisible dumping ground.”

During its investigation of the EPA’s oversight of the nation’s injection wells, ProPublica found that the agency was unable to provide basic information to its journalists, such as how many disposal wells fail and how often such failures occur. The investigative news organization also reported that the EPA “has not counted the number of cases of waste migration or contamination in more than 20 years,” and that “the agency often accepts reports from state injection regulators that are partly blank, contain conflicting figures or are missing data.”

Shane Davis directs a Colorado organization called Fractivist, and he traveled with us on our trip. Colorado is a few years down the road in fracking. That is, there are 54,000 wells presently in Colorado, and in Weld County, where Shane lived, there were 22,000 wells, some 75 of them within a mile radius from his house. Shane got sick from the wells. At least, he described a set of serious rashes, going blind for a week, serious gastrointestinal problems, and a year and a half of bloody noses. Then he got angry.

“I conducted an investigative study using un-redacted, official COGCC spill/release reports and found that 43 percent of all oil and gas related spills resulted in groundwater contamination with chemicals like benzene, toluene, xylene, ethyl-benzene and many more in Weld County, Colorado,” he said.

Simply stated, once water has been used in fracking, it is no longer living water. It is dead, and it is lethal. A biologist by training, Davis got his findings confirmed by Colorado agencies in 2013.

“Colorado’s largest aquifer was also contaminated by thermogenic methane and toluene in 2009,” he explained to me. “The aquifer was never cleaned, the oil and gas operator was fined $46,200 and the public was never informed by the state about this atrocity. Citizens drank benzene contaminated water, people’s homes have abandoned oil and gas wells in their back yards and they do not know about them, homes have been built on top of abandoned wells which leaked gases that subsequently exploded and sent the occupants to the burn center. Billions and billions of gallons of toxic, endocrine disrupting chemicals have been discharged in Colorado’s rivers, lands and airways for years with no end in sight…”

An interesting question was asked by reporters Joel Dyer and Jefferson Dodge in the Boulder Weekly: “With more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic waste having been injected into the inner Earth, what happens if our belief that what goes down can’t come up is wrong?”

Next:Bakken Gas Flares Away, as Nationwide Propane Shortage Kills With Hypothermia


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