Tales from the Oil Patch – Part 2
A circle of Indian leaders with knowledge over generations of council-fire sovereignty are tackling the most compelling challenge in today’s booming oil industry, which is taking place in a season of a harvest moon that cast shadows beyond the oil-pumping derricks across the Bakken Field.
Once a serene landscape where historic events happened, with Lewis and Clark wintering here with the Mandan Indians in 1804, where Sakakawea (Sacagawea is federal spelling) as a teenage Indian woman with a baby on her back became a legend from a journey that shaped our country in Jeffersonian times.
Today, potential conflict looms again on the trust land designated by treaty as the Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation (MHA).
Conversely, epic solutions are on the horizon that can gain rightful leadership for American Indians in a global village society.
Last Friday, Ken Hall, MHA Councilman, addressed a conference focused on Indian Education, labeled “H.E.R.O.S” (Higher Education Resource Organization for Students) in Bismarck, while across town, the largest Powwow in the Nation engaged intergenerational Indian families on the campus of the United Tribes Technical College to reconnect through dance and music with their own and other tribal cultures.
He questioned, “How do we as Native peoples, who have never experienced this kind of wealth before that surrounds us today, transition to a major player in a global industry of oil and natural gas?”
In his talk, “Seven Generations of Thinking,” he pointed the way forward for Indian youth in changing times. “With education,” he said, “ youth as students have equality as ‘Shining Stars’ with non-Indians. Now, we are sitting on a wealth of resources. It’s our time to fulfill the prophesy of the 7th Generation.” (The Indigenous prophesy reads, in essence, that seven generations after contact with Europeans, respect for Indian rights will “Mend the Sacred Hoop, restore the Spirit of the Nations and unite all Nations to heal our Mother Earth.”)
As an educator and career coach, “Oil is a game changer,” he said, referring to how roles are played in real life, even on a basketball court, where team play and playbook strategies win the game.
He talked about the immediate needs of families at Ft. Berthold – mainly housing, safety, health, traffic and a laundry list of personal and social issues; however, our Tribal government is faced with cultural issues too, such as stewardship of the land, the environment and sometimes disregard for sacred or historic lands.
His emphasis was on knowledge through education, with awareness of past history, a focus on the future for Indian youth and how we define “wealth” from a cultural perspective.
“We know perseverance. We’re survivors,” he said.
In an interview later, he stood with his family – a wife and two daughters – to talk about quality-of-life in Indian families as society changes. He believes the Native challenge is to preserve Indian culture and our language, beginning at the kitchen table by passing on stories of our elders’ heritage, and using the modern tools of smart phones and social media to keep pace with change, by talking the language of a global society and using the tools of modern communication.
His young daughter chirped in proudly, “I have an iPad too.”
“What is the greatest, single-most challenge facing an Indian family in boom country?” I asked, reflecting back 15 years knowing him as a school coach of a basketball team, named “Eagles.”
“Balance!” was his one word answer. “We must balance our cultural values with economic development, so as not to lose our identity, but to preserve the wellbeing and sovereignty of our citizens.”
He emphasized that as a Tribal Councilman, the grass-root nature of tribal government is to unite its people. “True government is a united one,” Ken said.
He referred to the United Tribes International Powwow as bringing together over 70 tribes, each with some diverse interests and some with old histories of battles, to celebrate the 44th annual weekend with one voice.
U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a strong advocate for a Human Rights Commission as former Attorney General in North Dakota, capped the conference with stories of Indian youth who aspire to “the halls of Congress” and to roles that create equality and leadership at national levels. “We must tell this story again and again, and again and again,” she said.
After a “Handshake Song” by a MHA drum team from Mandaree, the conference ended with the Legion Honor Guard leading Sen. Heitkamp to the entrance, where she and each person to follow turned to greet each attendee in line as they filed from the room, forming a chain of unity where each person was acknowledged face-to-face to every other person with a seal of a handshake.
When opportunities occur with abundant resources for good that is happening in the Oil Patch, it seems that the wisdom gained over seven generations of council fires can be a model for meeting the challenges of change at a grass-root level of democracy within a Tribal Nation.
And the story needs to be told again and again.
This article originally appeared in the September 13, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.