Transparency a focus of North Dakota tribal election

By Josh Wood, Associated Press

NEW TOWN, N.D. (AP) – In just a few years, oil development has transformed North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Indian Reservation from a place where unemployment was rampant to an area where open job listings drone on for minutes on the local radio station between drum songs and public service announcements.

Tribal business council chairman Tex Hall has been at the helm of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, for the bulk of the boom. Hall, also former president of the National Congress of American Indians, previously served as the tribes’ chairman from 1998 to 2006 before being re-elected for a third term in 2010.

On Sept. 16, the tribes will hold a primary election to determine the two candidates who will meet in the Nov. 4 election for chairman. Out of 10 candidates who filed to run, half were disqualified by the election board, though several are appealing those decisions.

The tribe’s spokeswoman did not respond to several requests for an interview with Hall about the election.

Many of his opponents in the chairman’s race, including tribal attorney Damon Williams and tribal business council member Ken Hall, are calling for more openness in tribal government.

“The people are looking for a change in leadership, they really are,” Ken Hall said. “They want transparency, they want to know and they have the right to know.”

Some are wary of the potential environmental impact of rapid oil development and also question the personal business dealings of council members.

Williams said revenue has steadily increased over the past several years, but no one knows where the money’s going.

“I think that’s a question every enrolled member has to ask,” he said.

Fort Berthold produces more than 300,000 barrels of oil a day – nearly one third of North Dakota’s total production and a figure that would rank the reservation among the top oil producers in the nation if it were a state.

Marcus Levings, a former chairman who was defeated by Hall in 2010, is one of the candidates appealing his disqualification from the primary. Though he believes the tribe does need to be more transparent and develop a plan for its newfound wealth, he acknowledged that problems were likely inevitable.

“The council have done, what I believe any council would have done with new money – they purchased and they approved development that came in front of them,” he said. “Now is the time for a long-range plan that we knew how to do and we’ve always done but we had no money.”

Like most of the tribes’ 14,000 or so enrolled members, Charles Hudson lives off the reservation. It is almost impossible to know what is happening on Fort Berthold, he said.

“I’m looking for a tribal chairman and council that takes a more comprehensive approach to the needs of our people: education, health, the environment and economic development, rather than throwing all our eggs into oil development as it appears now,” Hudson said.