The True Cost of Big Oil in Indian Country

Sara Hylton

2017 - Ongoing

It was a hot summer day, in 2018, when Lissa Yellowbird-Chase took her vehicle, with the license plate “SEARCH,” to a bank along Lake Sakakawea, in North Dakota. Yellowbird-Chase had an instinct, and for the second time, she decided to search the river on the edge of Fort Berthold Reservation.

With a boat that could barely start and a set of fishing sonar, Yellowbird-Chase, along with volunteers from her group, the Sahnish Scouts of North Dakota, scoured the lake for clues. It was there, on that day, that the team--created to fill the gaps in how missing persons cases are handled by authorities in Indian country--found Olivia Lonebear’s body, nine months after she was reported missing.

The 32-year-old mother of five was last seen in October, 2017, in her Chevy Silverado pick-up truck in New Town, a small oil-boom city on Fort Berthold Reservation. Lonebear’s death, while more high-profile than others, is not an isolated incident--North Dakota is one of the many areas in North America struggling with a shameful record of abuse, neglect, and indifference toward its Native American and Alaska Native communities.

Women and girls, though, continue to face the brunt of systemic racism prevalent throughout the region. Native American women are sexually assaulted, murdered, and targeted at rates far higher than other American women. They are also vanishing from their homes. But it is unclear just how pervasive the issue is--there is data on missing persons for every other demographic except for Native American women, who, according to the New York Times, are ten times more likely to be murdered than other Americans.

“Nobody cares about a poor Indian being missing or murdered...Indian women are second class citizens” said Mary Eder Cleland, whose adopted daughter, Dawn Eder, went missing five years ago.

Between Montana and North Dakota in the Bakken region, the problem has become particularly acute: transient oil workers take up work and are placed in “man camps” or temporary housing units that house hundreds if not thousands of mostly white men and foreigners, where attacks on Native American women have increased. This phenomenon is being reproduced across the country, and tribal law enforcement has no jurisdiction over these workers.

The harms of extractive industries are often overt: environmental degradation, harm to wildlife, displacement, and half the world’s carbon emissions. The more clandestine damage, though, is mostly wrought on forgotten segments of society--in this case, Native American women.

Why did it take a team of volunteers to locate Lonebear; why is there no data on missing and murdered Native American women; and what does “justice” actually mean for Native American communities? While humanizing the families grieving their daughters, sisters, mothers, and friends, this ongoing work attempts to answer these questions by doing a deep-dive into the relationship between oil extraction and the targeting of Native American women.

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  • An event for missing and murdered Native American women and girls at the Missoula state fair, Montana.

  • A view of the Missouri River near Fort Peck Indian reservation in Northeastern Montana. It is not just Native american women who are vulnerable, Clair Fourstar, of Fort Peck Indian Reservation went missing on June 27th, 2019 south of Wolf Point. His body was recovered from the Missouri River on July 5th, 2019. The family suspects foul play.

  • Prairiedawn Thunderchild, 16, with her sister Tahnee Thunderchild, 14, stand for a portrait at the Wolf Point pow wow on Fort Peck Indian reservation. The sisters were almost abducted a year ago by a vehicle of approximately 6-7 oil workers in Wolf Point. The family has since moved to a safer location. “They chased us around in the car…[they] probably wanted gross things from us” Tahnee said.

  • Kenny Still Smoking, 71, at his home in Browning, on Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Montana. Native American women and girls have long been targeted. Kenny’s daughter, Monica Still Smoking disappeared in 1979 from school and was found frozen to death on a mountain when she was seven years old. Kenny still has no answers as to what happened to his daughter. A medicine man told him that “the man you want isn’t the man you got.” Kenny hears different stories periodically, which he finds confusing: “all I want is something done for her, I’m almost dying, it’s hard to breathe.”

  • Glacier National Park, a highly touristy location that borders Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. This land once belonged to members of the Blackfeet Nation. But like many of the racist land grabs that occurred across the nation in the 19th century, in 1895, Native Americans ceded their rights to Glacier National Park and lost their sacred land to the federal government.

  • Heather Belgrace, 23, near her home in Fort Kipp, on Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Heather lost her best friend, Savannah Greywind to a brutal murder, and her cousin, Olivia Lonebear, was found dead on Fort Berthold Reservation. “I hope one day we can get [them] justice…[they] didn’t deserve to die like should have been more peaceful.”

  • A freight train carrying crude oil travels through Blackfeet Indian reservation.

  • The children of Clarence McNabb play at their home in Browning on Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Western Montana. The children’s father was working in the oil fields in Williston, North Dakota and was found dead on December 21st, 2017. Clarence’s mother, Ruby Young Running Crane, believes her son was murdered, though her suspicions have not been backed by police findings. “Justiceforclarence became a social media hashtag.

  • A symbolic cross on the side of the highway near the Montana-North Dakota state line.

  • A horse grazes near a fracking site close to the North Dakota-Montana state line.

  • An abandoned “man camp” which provides housing to temporary oil workers near Trenton, North Dakota. Oil employees come in the thousands, with disposable income, and are often subjected to difficult working conditions. The Department of Justice state that: “oil industry cmaps may be impacting domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking in the direct and surrounding communities in which they reside.”

  • Joseph Miller, the traditional chief of the Assiniboine tribe, and his partner, Eagle Woman flies Above, at the Fort Peck pow wow. The chief and his partner do a lot of healing work with their community, attending traditional ceremonies and sundances."[Women] are the life givers of our people, they're stronger than me. If they weren't here we wouldn't be here" Mr. Miller said.

  • Heather Belgrace, 23, runs with her dog, Vador, near her home in Fort Kipp, on Fort Peck Indian Reservation.