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Three Affiliated Tribes - Contemporary Issues - Economic Development

Sovereignty | Social Issues | Economic Development

Economic Development

Oil and Gas

As tribes across the country accumulate capital because of Indian gaming, non-gaming economic development is receiving more attention. Resource-rich tribes, those that have substantial minerals resources and have chosen to explore and develop their mineral resources, have had approximately 20 years of experience. For example, tribes in the Anadarko Basin in Oklahoma have had considerable more experience with oil and gas exploration, than do the Tribal Nations in North Dakota. Similarly, tribes in Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico have dealt with coal and other precious metal mining industries.

oil derrick
The MHA Nation has within it
a large amount of untapped
energy resources. This oil
rig in Mountrail County
illustrates the importance
of this resource to the area.
(Photo by Neil Howe)

In North Dakota, while there have been several ventures in oil and gas exploration on Indian lands, more recently, tribes have pursued mineral-resource development as a form of economic development.

Most recently, the Three Affiliated Tribes examined various opportunities for a joint venture with an oil and gas company. While faced with numerous jurisdictional issues, the Three Tribes is concerned with such questions of whether or not only one company should lease tribal land and Indian land for extended periods of time, and whether this could affect resources that are available. As tribes struggle with mineral exploration, the need for environmental protection prompts the need for the implementation of stringent regulations.

The Three Affiliated Tribes have almost 600,000 acres of land in the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota open for oil and gas exploration. The reservation lies close to the Nesson Anticline, a large oil producing structure in the southern Williston Basin. The oil recovered from the Fort Berthold region will be a significant benefit to the Three Affiliated Tribes. It is possible that millions of barrels of oil lie beneath reservation lands.

Energy Development

The most recent emphasis on the need to develop new sources of energy resources has provided tribal nations the opportunity to consider the development of untapped natural energy resources.

The MHA Nation has within it a large amount of untapped energy resources, including coal and oil. Under consideration is the potential of exploration of oil and gas deposits on the reservation. The desire to create sustainable resources for the Tribes’ membership is a priority for the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara.


Economic development, derived from gaming, has provided North Dakota tribes with the opportunity to better support the tribal government infrastructure and to create a stable reservation economy. For the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Four Bears Casino at New Town, Twin Buttes Homes at Twin Buttes, and Mandaree Electronics at Mandaree have boosted employment in the local reservation communities. In addition, federal agencies and schools offer employment on the reservation.

With an increasing stability of the local economy, tribes are exploring a number of other mechanisms to create capital for various projects. After decades of predatory lending practices, the tribe has begun to create its own capital generation and lending programs. As greater opportunities arise, the issue of concern for the Three Affiliated Tribes is whether these will offer sufficient job opportunities or new markets that can be tapped and provide for sustainability of the tribal communities.

Tribal casinos have been looked to as the solution for the economic problems of tribal reservations. While casinos have offered some limited success, they have not eliminated poverty and associated problems on the reservation. In his address on the State of Tribal Nations to the 1997 North Dakota Legislative Assembly, Tribal Chairperson Russell Mason said:

“Despite the modest gains we have made with
our casino revenues, we know that our resources
cannot begin to meet the fundamental needs of
our reservations for health care, law enforcement,
drug and alcohol abuse prevention programs, rural
water systems, housing, full employment, roads,
and a host of other long pent up needs. These are
needs that were built up over a long period of time,
and a lot of effort from the federal government,
the state, our local communities, and our tribal
governments are going to be needed to meet
these needs.”

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