Tribal rights to river need to be honored

Tribal rights to river need to be honored


North Dakota should stop its efforts to reverse a long-held federal government opinion on tribal rights to the original Missouri River bed.

It’s extremely important to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, because it involves millions of dollars in mineral rights.

There have been a number of federal actions since the 1820s confirming the tribes’ ownership of the river. A 1936 opinion by the Interior Department awarded the tribes ownership of a Missouri River island, and in 1979 the Interior Board of Land Appeals ruled the entire bed of the river within the reservation didn’t fall under North Dakota’s control when it was granted statehood. The state didn’t appeal the ruling.

However, the state intervened when a memo was issued in 2017 by the outgoing administration of President Barack Obama affirming that the mineral rights under the original Missouri River belong to the MHA Nation. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem asked the Interior Department to withdraw or suspend the opinion. It was suspended.

It appears the change of heart by the state was prompted by ability to retrieve oil from the riverbed. “They obviously didn’t care that much before. Now that there might be $100 million there, all of a sudden the state really cares, right?” Mark Fox, tribal chairman, told The Associated Press.

Stenehjem has suggested the state might be open to sharing some of the royalties with the tribes. He added these talks would have to go through the governor’s office.

This smacks of extortion. Give us part of the royalties or we will take you to court or get the Interior Department to reverse past action. It’s unbecoming of state officials.

The Tribune editorial board believes the state has made misguided decisions in its pursuit of oil money. After oil prices plummeted and the state was forced to make budget cuts, it was apparent how reliant North Dakota was on oil revenue. Recent state actions indicate increasing oil production takes priority over other issues.

The combined efforts of the oil industry and the state to reduce flaring has taken a back seat. The recently concluded legislative session took away landowners’ rights for payments for the use of pore space.

The state and the MHA Nation did reach an agreement during the legislative session on production taxes that’s expected to benefit both sides.

Overall, the state seems intent on doing anything that increases oil production and satisfies the industry. That’s unfortunate.

During Dakota Access Pipeline protests, tribes across the country cited broken treaties and promises by the federal government. If the state tries to overturn previous opinions on riverbed ownership, it will just be like the government breaking a treaty.

Gov. Doug Burgum’s office danced around the ownership issue when asked for comment. We believe the governor should support tribal ownership of the original riverbed. We also believe if the issue goes to court, the tribes will win.

The MHA Nation has done many positive projects with its oil revenue. The state shouldn’t try to take any of it away. The state shouldn’t be blinded by oil revenue, it should do what’s right.



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