Dark Side of Oil Development

Today, many tribes are engaging in mineral extractive industries, and some tribes are now debating whether or not to begin mineral development ventures. Often times, the social and cultural impacts to the communities are not presented to tribal leaders and members. Although the immediate economic results would eliminate the dependence on the United States government, tribes are forced to deal with the secondary social effects of the rapid industrialization. Leaders and communities in Indian Country need to decide if they are ready for the big city social problems that come with the so-called development.


The current Bakken oil boom has brought much economic prosperity to North Dakota and has lowered North Dakota’s unemployment rate to the lowest in the Nation. However, since the approval of the 10,000 oil wells, “man-camps” – compounds of oil workers – have materialized in rural areas. These man-camps consist of transient male workers in the oil industry. There are very few housing options in the small rural towns, so companies put up temporary motor homes in neighborhood-like clusters for their workers.


Additionally, populations of small towns have drastically increased in North Dakota due to the recent oil boom. Small towns’ populations have doubled and in some cases tripled. From 2010 to 2013, the population in North Dakota has grown three times faster than the general United States population. Some town populations have grown from 16,000 to 25,000. Also, the ratio of men to women has greatly changed. The male-to-female ratio is estimated to be 10:1 in some towns and in others 20:1. This oil boom has not only brought economic prosperity, but the boom has brought big city problems of drugs, sex, and violence to these once small communities.


To capitalize on the male dominated market, woman work in the local strip clubs and bars. Since most men live in the man-camps alone, the sex industry is targeted at these men who have no other options for entertainment. This new sex industry combined with the large male population has led to the increase of violence against Native women.


As the oil boom grows, crimes against woman, like sexual assaults and domestic violence have increased as well. In North Dakota, violent crimes have increased 162% from 2002 to 2012. Currently, North Dakota is the state with the eighth highest incidence of rape in the United States.


Sexual violence is not new to Native women. Grace Her Many Horses is a law enforcement officer for the Fort Berthold Reservation. She stated, “Sexual assaults on the female population has increased by 75% [in the Fort Berthold Reservation.]” According to the Department of Justice, one in three Native women has been raped or experienced an attempted rape, and a mere 13 percent of sexual assaults reported by Native women end in an arrest. This astonishingly low arrest rate is a combination of understaffed law enforcement and a convoluted criminal jurisdiction system.


In the Fort Berthold Reservation, the tribal law enforcement is already understaffed. There are only 23 law enforcement officers for the Fort Berthold Reservation. Fort Berthold is larger than the state of Rhode Island. In Fort Berthold, at times, there are only two tribal officers on duty for the entire reservation and a part of the North Dakota Badlands. The Police Chief, Chad Johnson, said the department needs at least 50 more officers. Additionally, police departments are overburdened where often times there are not enough cell spaces.


State officials have also acknowledged this epidemic by hosting summits and hearings regarding human trafficking of Native women. In September 2014, Senator John Tester held a special hearing in Sidney, Montana to address the crime in the Bakken region. Additionally, Senators Heidi Heitkamp and Jon Tester have called attention to the rapid increase of crimes in the Bakken area.


As these man-camps bring more crimes to the area, tribal law enforcement is in desperate need of resources. Ruth Hopkins, a judge for the Spirit Lake Nation and the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, stated, “Tribal law enforcement and courts don’t hold the necessary jurisdiction to keep out, to incarcerate and to punish these outsiders.” Additionally, according to Diane Johnson, Chief Judge for Fort Berthold, there are times when the police have to let non-Indians go, because they do not have criminal jurisdiction.


Everyday, tribes are faced with the dilemma of starting or renewing energy projects in their communities. However, tribes are not presented with the secondary social effects that these projects could have on their communities. Tribes need to begin holding the United States’ government and energy companies accountable for not only the environmental impacts but for the social impacts as well. Like environmental impacts, social impacts have the potential to damage the livelihood of tribal communities.


Like the matter at hand, oil development has begun pumping sexual violence against Native women into the small, rural community of Fort Berthold. Native women are already vulnerable to sexual violence and need to be protected from the invasion of transient male oil workers in the Bakken region. Currently, there are 2,200 new wells awaiting approval in the Fort Berthold. Oil development in Fort Berthold and the Bakken region is not going away anytime soon. Safeguards need to be implemented to protect Native women.


For the full paper, see: http://bit.ly/1ADO1Y0.


Nikke Alex is Diné (Navajo) originally from Dilcon, Arizona (Navajo Nation), USA. She has worked with Indigenous communities around the world to help fight fossil fuel development. Nikke, additionally, has worked with Indigenous youth throughout the world developing leadership pathway programs that value and reflect sustainability. In addition to working on environment issues, Nikke has worked as a sexual health educator in the Navajo Nation to ensure that young Diné received adequate sexual health education. Currently, Nikke is a law student at the University of New Mexico and is a blogger at MissNikke.com.

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