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Mandaree, North Dakota - Berthold Indian Reservation—
Awakening to a New Day

—Ted Natt, Community Success Journalist

There are more oil drilling rigs within a few miles of Mandaree on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation than anywhere else in North America, and yet the economy passes the community by.

The Native American community is right in the middle of the Bakken Oil Boom in North Dakota but the people there cannot afford to fix their aging schools at a time when enrollment is growing. Oil companies are paying millions each month in royalties but the community’s roads crumble.

Despite being at the heart of the fastest growing economy in the United States, as many as three families live in small homes built 50 years ago. “We’re making some progress. We just have to overcome these obstacles,” says Lisa Deville, a community volunteer who took it upon herself to conduct a needs assessment earlier this year.
Deville worked with a team of fellow volunteers to conduct a door-to-door survey that served as the basis for a strategic plan developed with the help of Building Communities, an economic development strategic planning firm. “Building Communities has helped us a lot,” Deville says. “They opened our eyes as to why a strategic plan done the right way is important.”

Mandaree wants to be part of a new vision for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, which for the first time is on the path to energy independence. But residents are sacrificing their land, water and air without gaining their economic independence. Instead of complaining, they are convening. Instead of retreating, they are renewing.

Deville decided in early 2011 to take matters into her own hands when an oil flare behind the house of a neighbor turned the snow yellow. “It really concerned me and bothered me for awhile,” she says. Deville soon learned that the local U.S. Post Office was scheduled to be closed and no one could tell her why. So she started a petition in November 2011 to save it.

“I got 120 signatures the first day,” she said. “I even had children sign because it affects their future.” Deville also decided to conduct an impact study. “We heard all the people’s concerns and discouragements, and wrote them all down,” she says.

Deville presented the eight-page report at an oil summit in New Town in February 2012. “We needed to start educating our people about oil and gas and their impact on the water, land and air,” she says. “Nobody knew what to do, but I felt like we needed to do something now. I want so much more for Mandaree.” “We are so impacted by oil but we have nothing.”

Deville met Brian Cole, president and CEO of Building Communities, when he came to Mandaree in August of 2012 to facilitate the strategic planning process. “Native American culture does not typically engage in this type of planning but they came to play ball,” Cole says. “They have literally millions of dollars of investment by the oil companies that they can see from their front doorstep, yet they didn’t feel like they had a path to access their fair share of the royalties. “It’s a very poignant story.”

Royalties paid to the Nation have amassed in a trust fund that has topped $100 million in the past three years. “They’ve got the financial resources to implement their strategic plan,” Cole says. “I believe the plan sets the stage for investment in a way that is smart in the short term and visionary in the long term.” Sixteen economic development strategies were selected, more than anywhere else in North Dakota that Building Communities has worked.

“They bit off a lot,” Cole says. “But if they want to pick that many strategies, our planning process enables them to do so.” The top strategy was tourism development, which came as a surprise to Deville, despite Mandaree’s proximity to Lake Sakakawea, the third largest man-made lake in the United States.

“We do practice our culture, but we don’t have any tourism,” Deville says. “It’s hard to get people to do things here. It’s all new and they don’t understand.” “We had to find solutions and move forward instead of dwelling on the past,” says Deville, who served as plan director. “That’s what our struggle is right now. We need to look outside the box at opportunities such as tourism development. “I’m not complaining. This is our reality.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Building Communities strategic planning process to Deville was educating the people of Mandaree. “I think they saw how the strategic plan will help us prosper,” she says. “I know it’s going to happen but it’s not going to happen overnight.

That’s why the planning process was so crucial. It gave our people something to look forward to and gave them hope.”Hope for better schools to serve future generations. Hope for better roads to serve residents and tourists. Hope for better health care to serve a population that needs healthy food and healthy habits. Hope for a Nation that simply wants to live as its forefathers did – independent and self-sufficient.

“There’s so much we can do for ourselves now and for the future of our children,” Deville says. “This strategic plan is a critical first step in overcoming our circumstances and building a sustainable future.
“We can see a glimpse of a better time ahead."

 

©2017 Building Communities, Inc.