Mark N. Fox
Chairman of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation
President-elect Joe Biden has a big job ahead of him. He will inherit a country ravaged by a deadly virus, divided along party lines, and on edge with economic uncertainty. Among his many priorities, a key issue in Indian Country should not be overlooked–the need for the federal government to restore Native lands.
The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation has lived along the Missouri River for thousands of years. Whether growing our gardens on the mineral-rich bottomlands, fishing the river waters, or raising our children along the riverbank, the Missouri is our home.
But the Trump administration decided to ignore precedent and play politics with tribal sovereignty, reversing an opinion by the Department of Interior that reaffirmed our tribes’ rights to the Missouri riverbed and awarding our lands to the State of North Dakota.
The history of MHA Nation’s ownership of the riverbed is well documented. The federal government has said at least ten times that our tribes own the property rights to the Missouri River and its riverbed.
The riverbed was held in trust by the federal government for the MHA Nation before North Dakota became a state and before our original treaties were even signed, and yet, our lands have been held hostage by the federal government in defiance of their own findings that this is our property.
For decades the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) has affirmed that the Missouri riverbed and the minerals beneath it belong to the people of MHA Nation.
In his first days in office, President Joe Biden has the opportunity to right a historical wrong that has persisted for far too long. Under the Obama administration, DOI issued an opinion reaffirming past decisions that the Missouri riverbed and the minerals beneath it within the Fort Berthold reservation belong to the MHA Nation.
But like with so many things, this has become an issue bogged down by politics at our expense.
In spite of overwhelming precedent and affirmations of our ownership of the mineral rights, the state of North Dakota continues its attempts to steal our lands and stake wrongful claims to our mineral rights.
Native peoples have had to fight to keep what was promised to us. We have been forced to sacrifice, against our will, so much of our lands and waters. And we have proudly served our country in the armed services. We are willing to make worthy sacrifices, but this is unacceptable.
Our territory has routinely been diminished to a fraction of our ancestral homelands. The building of the Garrison Dam in 1953 flooded more than a quarter of our remaining reservation, forcing 90 percent of our members to relocate. The federal government literally destroyed the heartland of MHA Nation’s territory. We paid this price even after our ancestors had already paid with their lands, waters, and lives to keep this fraction of the place we have always called home.
Today, we fight legal battles just to get the federal government to keep the promises made to our ancestors. It’s unjust, and another way to keep us from reclaiming the full self-sufficiency we want and that our tribal members deserve.
The acknowledgment that the Missouri riverbed and the mineral rights beneath it are MHA Nation tribal lands, like so many issues of tribal sovereignty, is about justice. Justice not just for our people but for every sovereign nation that has faced the consequences of the federal government’s broken promises.
Recognizing our mineral bed rights to the Missouri is essential to our future and will allow us to diversify our economy. Our people experience poverty at a rate twice the national average. But as history shows, this is by design. We have been marginalized and pushed off our territory, and for more than a century the federal government has attempted to steal what their own experts agree is rightfully ours.
There is a long list of priorities for the incoming administration, restoring Native lands is a simple way to right more than a centuries-long injustice.
Mark N. Fox is the Chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. Fox is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and earned his law degree in 1993 from the University of North Dakota. First elected Chairman in 2014, Fox is currently serving his second term.