Indian Gaming Now

Oil & Gaming in North Dakota

Feb 24 2010
Here in North Dakota, our economy tends to go up when the U.S. economy is down, and vice versa.  We currently are in an oil boom thanks to the Bakken formation in western North Dakota.  We've got millionaires still driving their beat-up pick up trucks out near Williston (North Dakotans are modest by nature; it's rude to show off one's good fortune, and besides, that old truck still runs most of the time).  And along with Wyoming, our state is lucky enough to have a budget surplus, prompting the executive director of the National Governors Association to say, "We all ought to move to North Dakota."

North Dakota's oil boom economy is shared by tribes in the western part of the state as well.  The Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara) of the Fort Berthold Reservation are reaping the benefits of black gold.  Oil companies have figured out how to drill beneath Lake Sakakawea, opening up access to more oil.  There is some poetic justice to the Lake Sakakawea drilling, as the lake flooded some 150,000 acres of the tribe's reservation when the federal government dammed the Missouri River in the 1950s.  The Garrison Dam project caused the tribe to lose natural resources, population centers, and farms and ranches.  Not to mention, of course, the obvious truth that if nineteenth-century federal and state officials could have foreseen the existence and value of oil in western North Dakota, they never would have put an Indian reservation there.

Like other tribes in North Dakota, the Three Affiliated Tribes continue to struggle with high unemployment and poverty rates.  In 2000, nearly a third of reservation residents lived in poverty, and more than 40% were unemployed.  Yes, the tribe has a casino -- the Four Bears Casino near New Town -- but in the northern plains, tribal casinos are modestly profitable job creators, and no one's getting rich off of gaming.  The casino provides about 200 jobs, which goes a long way toward improving socioeconomic conditions for tribal members, but certainly can't be expected to erase socioeconomic deficits.

Now, though, the oil boom reportedly has created enough jobs so that "anybody who wants to work can work," enticing tribal members to move back to the reservation.  And money in the pocket means more disposable income to spend on leisure activities, like gambling.  Spencer Wilkinson, Jr., the general manager at Four Bears, says he tells patrons "to have fun at the casino but don't spend it all there . . . . invest in something useful, like . . . their house and kids and grandkids, and send them to college."

So, here's a question . . . will the oil boom in North Dakota lead to criticisms that tribal members haven't "earned" the profits of a successful tribal enterprise?  That, of course, is a familiar refrain in the context of Indian gaming.  Or will the fact that some non-Indians have a heck of a lot of money for doing nothing more than leasing their mineral rights make us think twice about what is "earned" in our economy?  Hey, we're just asking . . . .

Read more:

American Indian Reservation Reaping Oil Benefits

Oil Boom Creates Millionaires and Animosity in North Dakota