I spent the night at the Roosevelt Inn. They have a charger so I took full advantage of it. I woke up the next morning and to my surprise found out this hotel was also a hub for construction workers that worked on the pipelines. Anxious to try and have coffee with a couple to see if I could get perspective on the oil situation, I found myself eating eggs with a crew of oil workers. Works for me, I thought.
As I inquired about their feelings on oil/nature/climate change, a consistent theme came about—“No matter how we look at it, the world will always need oil for rocket fuels and plastic,” one worker told me. When asked if they felt guilty for working inside part of the problem, they asked me how much I knew about climate change or oil. “Not very much,” I responded honestly, “but that’s why I was up here, to learn.”
They told me about how before the oil boom, most of the people up here were poor—now the economy is booming. While the rest of the country was going through a recession over the beginning of the decade, these communities were growing and becoming prosperous. It’s not that they supported what was going on, but the only way to stop it was through the courts, which the American Indians were already doing. Until then, there were high paying jobs that someone would take if they didn’t. That was money on the table that they needed. As we already talked about, the rest of the country was still struggling to produce high paying jobs for mildly educated men that had families to feed. With that, I thanked them for their time and headed off to the reservation.
They weren’t entirely wrong, I thought to myself as I drove down the road. What were these people supposed to do, refuse to work and become demonized by the rest of their community as a new demographic comes in and takes those jobs? They already were having an issue with outsiders that had struggles with substance abuse coming up for the high paying work, being housed at “man-camps” and bringing drug dealers and crime up with them. I wanted to be careful of jumping to conclusions as there definitely seemed to be complex layers to this onion.
As the snow covered hills blended into one another, I started to think about the rise and fall of the coal industry. Coal mines brought prosperity to many small towns throughout the midwest, leading to the rise of manufacturing that inevitably brings factories. Yet, years later, as the coal boom died down, so did those economies. Now, driving through those towns brings a sense of despair as everything seems to be falling apart. Most businesses have closed, and in effect the people have been driven out. Those that remain live in poverty and spend their time reminiscing about days long past when everyone wasn’t poor. Is this the result that we are setting the fracking communities up for? I thought to myself. In fifteen years, will these areas have reverted to the poverty that they recently escaped from and in return drive out all the money that has started to flow? That question plagued my mind for the rest of the short drive to Fort Yates, the capital of Standing Rock.
As I drove over the bridge into the town I looked for my next investigative conversation with the locals. City Hall seemed like the best place, so I followed the small signs in that direction. The snow-packed and empty roads were lined with boarded up houses. An empty and desolate feeling would escape no one that embarked on this road I now drove on, and it only grew worse the deeper in I went. As I pulled up to the small building marked City Hall, stationed along the banks of the Missouri River, I realized that this would be a dead end. Taped to the front door was a small hand written note: “If you need to contact the mayor, please call the number below.” I chuckled to myself as it hit me, this community was so small, this was how you talked to the mayor. Not wanting to go down that route quite yet, I decided that the Bureau of Indian Affairs would be the next best place to stop.
As I pulled into the parking lot there wasn’t a single car parked, not a soul in sight. A big red sign commanding “No Loitering” and “No Drinking” stood next to the door. As I entered, all I could hear was the creak of the door and the hum of the electrical system running through the building. I walked through the unending empty hallways, eventually arriving at a closed door revealing voices from the other side. I cautiously knocked, unsure of how inviting my inquiry would be. An older gentleman answered the door with a puzzled gaze, clearly wondering what anyone—especially a foreigner—would be doing in this cold shell of a building. I promptly introduced myself and explained my reason for being in town. “I’m looking for someone to shed some light about the oil spills.” His eyes piqued with interest after I spoke. “I can’t help you,” he reluctantly replied. “As a part of the government,” the old man continued, “we were told to stay out of the entire debacle and we aren’t authorized to comment. What I can do though is give you directions to the Tribal Headquarters in town, and I’m sure you’ll find some people that would love to talk to you.”
I took the old man’s suggestion and headed down the road to the Tribal Headquarters and felt oddly apprehensive as I walked inside. A large security guard sat behind a desk and inquired how he could help me. I explained about wanting to talk with someone about the pipelines/spills, and he grabbed his phone and started making calls. “You can talk to Doug.” Doug is the Head of Water Quality, but he wasn’t answering his phone. After getting directions to his office, I set off into the halls in search of answers.
Navigating around government buildings always seems to be an issue for me. The drab walls are covered in pin boards and flyers. Every turn opens up into another room that looks exactly the same as the last. Cubicles line the walls creating a sense of entrapment. A door may close off an area, but the short wall and open ceiling still defeats any sense of privacy. I wandered around for fifteen minutes before admitting to myself that I was lost. Luckily for me, every face greeted me with a smile and asking for help seemed like the easiest solution. I found an older woman who could direct me and she said it would be easier just to show me. As we walked, she asked why I was there. When I informed her that I was interested in talking about the pipelines, she responded with, “Good. It seems like no one but us even cares.” Suddenly, we were at the Water Quality Office. I said goodbye and sat down to wait for Doug.
Unfortunately, after a couple of hours no one came and I decided to leave. I left the security guard my number and hopelessly asked if he could pass it along. The tone of my voice was bleak, as I couldn’t imagine anyone remembering I existed here. As I drove back up to Bismarck, snow flurries blew across the roads adding to the grim sense of despair that had overcome me earlier. I drove in silence for a couple of hours thinking about how little I could ever really comprehend the plight of the tribes up here. The world was so different from anything I had ever experienced, what was it that I was even trying to understand? Drifting in and out of these thoughts and the endless rhythm of the car, my phone rang, startling me. To my delight, I was surprised to find Doug on the other line. “I heard you were in the office looking for me” he stated abruptly. “Yes I was.” The next thing I knew, I had a meeting scheduled to hear the tribes point of view the next morning.
Standing Rock Level 2 Charger
7932 ND-24, Fort Yates, ND 58538
Roosevelt Inn Level 2 Charger
1405 Skyline Blvd, Bismarck, ND 58503
Ready for Pt 3? Find it here!