Pandemic led to 'hell for many of us' on Fort Berthold, tribal chairman says

Elijah Fox, 7, gives Gov. Doug Burgum, right, a thumbs up after the two exchanged an elbow bump before his dad, Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Mark Fox, top, gave the traditional State of the Tribal Nations Address to members of the joint legislative assembly on Tuesday at the state Capitol in Bismarck.

Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Mark Fox described 2020 as “hell for many of us” Tuesday as he addressed a state House chamber full of masked lawmakers, staff and guests.

“The day I feared most was when we begin to get sick and start dying,” he said.

The coronavirus deaths started to tally up on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in September and have continued every month since, he said. Fox noted that the tribe has lost young people and veterans who served in the Gulf War of the early 1990s. He also drew a parallel between the coronavirus and the smallpox epidemic of the 1830s that spread through tribes living in the Great Plains, killing many Indigenous people.

“It was very sad for myself to attend funerals, to go graveside and to see people that have passed on that I know otherwise would still be here, maybe listening to what we’re talking about today,” he said as he delivered the annual State of the Tribal Nations Address given at the beginning of legislative sessions.

The Three Affiliated Tribes and the Spirit Lake Tribe have chosen to work with the state government on vaccine distribution to tribal members rather than go through the federal Indian Health Service as other tribes in North Dakota have elected, according to the state Indian Affairs Commission.

“Our medical staff said we prefer going with the state based upon the testing we did together and based upon our relationship,” Fox said.

The state collaborated with tribes to host mass-testing events on American Indian reservations throughout 2020.

While vaccine distribution began last month on Fort Berthold, it’s not happening fast enough, Fox said.

“There’s a great fear that we’re going to be left behind in that regard too, and that we’re going to continue to suffer death as we’ve been suffering these past few months,” he said.

Fox said tribes are “heavily intertwined” with the rest of the state with regard to the pandemic, and the steps state leaders take to curb the spread of the virus affect reservations too because “we interact on a daily basis.”

The collapse in oil prices last year led to a significant drop in revenue for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, Fox said. Federal relief dollars did not make up the difference, and the gap has been “really devastating,” he said.

Part of Fort Berthold lies in the heart of the Bakken oil patch, where drilling came to a near standstill in 2020 and many wells stopped producing oil temporarily due to poor economics. The tribe collects oil revenue through taxes and royalties.

Fox touched on several energy-related topics during Tuesday’s address, calling upon lawmakers to revisit part of the state’s oil tax agreement with the MHA Nation. He wants the tribe to share in tax revenue from all wells that straddle the boundary of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, including wells that begin off the reservation and extend horizontally across the border. The existing agreement allows for the tribe to collect revenue only for wells that begin on the reservation.

Fox also urged lawmakers to help boost infrastructure development on the reservation to allow for more housing, roads and the capture of excess natural gas from oil wells.

A higher percentage of gas is wastefully flared on Fort Berthold than in the Bakken as a whole due to a lack of pipelines and processing plants.

The situation has improved in recent months amid the oil industry downturn, with 10% of gas produced on the reservation flared compared to 7% for the Bakken as a whole, according to the most recent data available from the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division, which reflects figures from October. At one point in mid-2019, nearly 40% of gas produced on Fort Berthold was flared.

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