In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Angela Parker, an assistant professor at the University of Denver, about oil and gas production on Native American reservations. Parker discusses the history of oil production on Native American lands, the environmental and economic effects of this production, Native American perceptions of the oil and gas industry, and the current state of the industry on Native American lands. Parker and Raimi also talk about the historical exploitation of oil and gas–producing Native nations and the history behind the new film Killers of the Flower Moon.
Listen to the Podcast
- Fracking could expand oil production on tribal lands: “With fracking and with the accessibility of shale plays, tribes that previously weren’t necessarily targeted or weren’t necessarily developing their oil resources have the potential, and there is the likelihood that they will be developing their shale formations in the near future … Overall, I think the last number I saw was that tribal lands are producing about 3 percent of domestic production, but tribes are sitting over the largest untapped reserves of oil.” (9:56)
- Oil production and revenue come with drawbacks: “My guess is that most people who knew Fort Berthold [Indian Reservation] before the Bakken [oil boom] in a lot of ways might miss what we had before, which was being able to see every star in the sky at night and not having to worry about air quality due to flaring or not worrying and wondering about water quality in the Missouri [River] and in the reservoir Lake Sakakawea.” (14:55)
- History of oil wealth and outsider violence in Native nations in the twentieth century: “The basic outline is: Oil boom, rapid rise and shift in the lived environment, and this quick transition of being able to translate the extracted oil into massive, previously unimaginable wealth. With that wealth came a whole host of bad actors who wanted to ensure that they would get ‘their’ cut. They would prey on tribal members who were particularly vulnerable … There was outright murder and violence … but there was also a more insidious institutional violence that was also happening.” (21:42)
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. Today, we talk with Dr. Angela Parker, an assistant professor at the University of Denver. Angela is an enrolled member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and, on her dad's side, is Cree from Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, Montana. Angela is a historian whose forthcoming book covers the history of oil and gas development on Native American reservations.
In today's conversation, she'll share with us the complex impacts that this development has had on communities in North Dakota, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. We'll talk about the present day, and we'll talk about the past, including the new film Killers of the Flower Moon, which depicts a series of murders of Osage people in the early 1900s. Today's conversation is a little longer than usual—but trust me, it's worth every minute. Stay with us.
Angela Parker, from the University of Denver, welcome to Resources Radio.
Angela Parker: Thank you.
Daniel Raimi: We're really pleased to have you, Angela, on the show. I've been meaning to get you on the show ever since I met you almost a year ago in southwestern Colorado at the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. We're really thrilled to have you here. We always ask our guests how they got interested in environmental-and energy-related topics when we have them on the show. So, what inspired you to work on issues related to energy development?
Angela Parker: Sure. I'm sort of notoriously shortsighted, which is weird for a historian. I probably wasn't super focused on environmental issues until the 2000s, and it was when I was in grad school, and I was going home to Fort Berthold as much as possible, and then the Bakken oil boom hit. The process of seeing the entire landscape change as a result of extraction was really dystopian, and it brought home the realities of extraction and the inequities in our energy economy directly to me for the first time. Before that, I'd been sort of this typical American who thought of oil extraction as something that happened elsewhere, outside of the bounds of the United States, or in deepest, darkest Alaska. So, for the first time being confronted with that reality of extraction made me think a lot more deeply than I had before about how we're treating our planet in a visceral way.
Daniel Raimi: That's really interesting. The dystopian landscape, I think, was particularly pronounced in the Bakken early days because of all the flaring that was going on there. At night there was a constant orange haze in the sky, right?
Angela Parker: Yeah, and it's very water intensive. Fracking is very water intensive, so if you don't have a pipeline or easy access to water, you are basically hauling water in on trucks to act as part of the fracking fluid. Then you're hauling wastewater out to take it to someplace else to dispose of it—probably unsafely in the long run. Then, of course, there's just the oil tankers and the oil trucks. The roads and the methods of transportation were clogged. You definitely had the flares and the industrial lights of the derricks. The flares and the derricks are still there, but they've managed different transportation systems for the water, so the trucking isn't as prevalent anymore.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, I remember being in the Bakken, as well, in the early days—and spent less time there than you did, I'm sure—but the truck traffic sticks in my mind, and the number of accidents, too, is still an important issue. I'm sure we could talk about just this one experience of Ford Berthold’s oil extraction for more than half an hour, but we want to talk to you today about a broader scope of energy development and, particularly, oil development on Native American reservations and how it's affected Native American peoples over the years.
I'm guessing that when a lot of people think about Native Americans and oil, some of the first thoughts that come to mind are pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline or Line 3 or Line 5 or other high-profile cases, but oil and gas production is quite significant across a number of Native nations. So, I'm wondering if you can just start us off by giving us a sense of how widespread oil and gas production is across different tribal nations inside of the United States.
Angela Parker: Overall, right now in the United States, there's about 575—or something in that range—federally recognized tribes. Then, some tribes share reservations, so there's about 300 or so reservations. As for the tribes that are currently producing significant oil, there's maybe only a dozen. Some are historically large producers such as Osage. Fort Berthold is really the big mover and the giant among these dozen or so tribes that have significant resources.
The rest of them tend to be scattered across the plains, like Wind River and High Plains tribes, and, I guess, maybe mountainous tribes like the Utes, Blackfeet, and that type of thing. Then, there's a number of tribes in Oklahoma that historically have had and continue to have some level of oil production aside from the Osage, like the Creek, the Cherokee, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho. A lot of times, it's these tribes in particular that have access to these oil resources, because they're over huge formations. The Osage formation is famously rich.
What's happening now is that, with fracking and with the accessibility of shale plays, tribes that previously weren't necessarily targeted or weren't necessarily developing their oil resources have the potential, and there is the likelihood that they will be developing their shale formations in the near future. So, it expands the number of tribes a little bit to be a few more tribes.
Overall, I think the last number I saw was that tribal lands are producing about 3 percent of domestic production, but tribes are sitting over the largest untapped reserves of oil.
Daniel Raimi: That's a really great place to start—just giving us a little bit of sense of scale.
You mentioned earlier some of the downsides of oil and gas development, and they of course are significant, but there are also upsides. Can you talk a little bit about, for the Native nations that host oil and gas development today, what are some of those really big downsides and the upsides that community members in particular might experience?
Angela Parker: Let's start with the upsides. I need to probably start off by saying that, as a historian, I am allergic to generalizations. We are famously very picky about giving the exact context, and it makes us very tiresome dinner guests. But, it really is different every place you go.
If you go to a place like Southern Ute, you are able to see how they've allocated their oil income to creating this beautiful cultural center and museum or this huge casino. You get a sense when you visit Southern Ute that this is a well-resourced community and they're allocating the oil revenues into the things that matter, like education and social services for elders. There's the potential for oil income to be spent to take care of these most urgent community needs. I think that's the benefit. Up at Fort Berthold, now we have a beautiful cultural center, and there's just more resources. I think that's one of the biggest benefits.
The other benefit—and this is much more case by case—is, because of the history of allotment of tribal lands, some people are able to have a huge income off of their oil royalties. These are people who struggled and lived in poverty and worked pretty much every day of their life, but, because of societal forces and the structures of inequity in the United States, were likely never going to be able to even retire in some cases. For elders, in particular, who are able to have a generous income every month, I think most people in most communities are really happy to see these people who were previously excluded from economic privilege being able to access it. I think those are some of the good sides.
I think one of the bigger downsides is that, anytime you have wealth flowing into a community at the level that has happened with the Bakken oil boom or with any per capita disbursements that tribes are able to do, you get people who prey on community members. At Fort Berthold, we've seen a huge increase in the amount of serious, life-threatening drug use. And there have been, in the last 10 to 15 years, some major drug cartels that have been targeted and disrupted, only to have the drug inflow begin yet again.
So, it puts a place that previously was very remote and where nobody really cared about, in the center or the nexus of a lot of dangerous criminal activity. People want Fort Berthold tribal members to be addicted and to stay addicted to really terrible drugs like heroin, fentanyl, and all sorts of opioids, really. As soon as the money flows, in some cases, it's flowing back out in this black-market economy.
Daniel Raimi: We're going to sort of come back to that theme of outsiders preying on the wealth that can be generated when we talk about the Osage in a little bit. But one other question that I'm really curious about—and again, I'm going to ask you to generalize, and you should feel free to reject my request—but what's your sense of, either on the Fort Berthold Reservation or other reservations where you've done work, how community members perceive the presence of the industry? Is there a lot of support for the industry? Is there a lot of opposition? Is there a complex mix of attitudes? What do you observe?
Angela Parker: I would say there's a complex mix. My guess is that most people who knew Fort Berthold before the Bakken boom in a lot of ways might miss what we had before, which was being able to see every star in the sky at night and not having to worry about air quality due to flaring or not worrying and wondering about water quality in the Missouri and in the reservoir Lake Sakakawea. It was an under-resourced community, but it was maybe closer.
I was talking about this with a few people not from Fort Berthold—it was actually a group of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho singers that we were hosting on campus. We were laughing, because there was this moment when I was a kid, and that was—I was born in '76, so this is late '70s, early '80s—where the entire powwow practically felt like it was in Hidatsa, and everyone was talking Hidatsa. As a kid, I was like, "Oh, why do they have to talk Hidatsa? I don't understand what they're saying. I'm so bored." Because, again, I’m notoriously shortsighted.
It's just very different now—like, community gatherings, they're really focused on not necessarily our tribal community, but on being able to welcome guests from a much wider portion of Native America. There is something that was really precious about that moment before money was able to flow in so quickly and so overwhelmingly. It's not gone, but it's just not as prevalent, I would say, in those public spaces and in those community spaces. I am saying all of this as somebody who is more of a visitor to Fort Berthold. I haven't lived at home since I was in my twenties. Someone who lives there is going to have a very different experience, and that's really the experience that we should be centering when we think about these issues.
But I do think, with as much loss, there is a community ethos that we don't judge the decisions that other people make. Nobody is judging people for signing a lease to frack on their land. Nobody is judging people for benefiting from oil royalties or for working in the oil fields, because a lot of young men and women—to make fast money and to make a lot of money—they'll be working in that sector. I think most people are just very careful to respect the decisions that other tribal members are making on a personal level.
I think, on the institutional level, when we think about tribal politics, that may be a little bit different. There's a lot of critique that's aimed at our political leaders. Some of it is warranted, and some of it is mostly emerging from the fact that there might be a lack of information that's being conveyed and not necessarily a critique based in reality. But the lack of transparency in a lot of economies where there is a lot of oil money flowing in can lead to rumor. So, those rumors get bigger and get passed around the community and can make people feel very cynical about tribal government.
Daniel Raimi: That's also interesting. We've been talking for the last few minutes about the current day and primarily about the Fort Berthold Reservation, but I'd love for us to go back in history a little bit and talk about some previous eras of oil development and gas development. Can you talk a little bit about some of the first examples of oil development taking place on reservations and some of the effects that those activities had on community members at that time?
Angela Parker: The project that I'm working on now, as I put my first book project to bed, I guess, is looking at oil extraction in Native American communities over the “long” twentieth century, which basically just means a little bit before and a little bit after the actual twentieth century. My first chapter is focusing on the Creek and the Osage, because these are both communities that had massive oil booms early in the twentieth century. It also came at this time of intense conflict over land use and allotment, as well as this moment when Oklahoma was forcing its way to statehood and really forcing communities in Oklahoma to open up their lands to non-Natives in terms of these land rushes.
It's actually a very similar story to what I was talking about in terms of Fort Berthold. Some of the particulars have changed, but the basic outline is: Oil boom, rapid rise and shift in the lived environment, and this quick transition of being able to translate the extracted oil into massive, previously unimaginable wealth. With that wealth came a whole host of bad actors who wanted to ensure that they would get “their” cut. They would prey on tribal members who were particularly vulnerable. This took a lot of different forms. What I want to sort of emphasize is that there was outright murder and violence, like what happened with the Osage oil murders, but there was also a more insidious institutional violence that was also happening.
The Osage in particular were a very unique case, because, early on, their leadership had advocated for—if allotment was going to be pushed through on their reservation, then the surface rights could be allotted, but the subsurface rights would remain in common.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Angela—sorry to interrupt, but for people who don't know the history of allotment, can you give us a real quick primer on what that term means in this context?
Angela Parker: Sure. At this point in US history, when allotment was first pushed through in the late 1880s, and then it began to unfold over time—over the next three decades in case-by-case situations in Native America—assimilation efforts were seen as the humane alternative to extermination. The United States was exiting this time period in which you had people like John Chivington or Kit Carson or other military leaders attempting to eradicate Native people.
Once the reservation era hit, and once it was clear that territorial expansion was succeeding, the US government and especially politicians and leaders and reformers from out East who wanted to offer assimilation and the eradication of tribal cultures as a viable alternative to killing us all off.
One arm of this was the boarding school system, but another arm—and perhaps the most successful arm of this move towards assimilation—was to break up the tribal land base, the land base that tribes continued to hold in common. And the idea was that, if we parcel out tribal lands to each member of the tribe who was alive at that moment, and allocate out, or allot out, 160 acres or 80 acres at a time, then the move from being a person who understood lands as held in common and negotiated within the tribe under common use to being an individual landowner would help with assimilation and move Native people along the so-called path to civilization. That was the hope.
Honestly, allotment did a huge amount—not necessarily to ensure assimilation, but definitely to ensure further erosion of the tribal land base. From the beginning of allotment to when it officially ended in 1934 with the Indian Reorganization Act, an additional two-thirds of the tribal land base had been lost due to allotment. Some of it was by people selling off their allotments if they were really hard up or in poverty and needed money. But, typically, after allotment happened, and after every tribal member was allotted out under these more individual tribal specific allotment acts, they would then consider the rest of the tribal land base to be available to non-Natives. Then, they would have these mini land rushes, where they would sell tribal land that had been negotiated as reserved for this tribe by treaty. They would open it up to non-Natives at dirt-cheap prices.
Daniel Raimi: And both of those factors lead to very significant loss of land. Angela, before I rudely interrupted, you were saying that, during that allotment process, the tribal leadership ensured that, even if surface parcels were allotted, the mineral estates where the oil wealth existed would remain intact. Is that right?
Angela Parker: Yeah, and this is unique to the Osage. What happened as a result of that is, because the subservice rights were held in common, in order to disseminate or disperse oil royalties that came as a result of extraction among the Osage, they created this system called the headright system. So, each tribal member—I think it was who was on the original roles of the tribe—they were each assigned an equal percentage of any oil revenue that the tribe would be able to get. These headrights could run to the thousands of dollars, but it really started to pick up, though. There was sort of this second boom in the late 1910s, probably as a result of World War I—but these headrights, in today's dollars, could be the equivalent of $500,000 of passive income a year.
What happened among the Osage is, you had these sociopaths essentially deciding that they were going to try to consolidate the headrights through a combination of marriage to one person who could hold headrights, and then murder of family members of that person that was married to a non-Native. It was this huge scheme to try to consolidate as much economic benefit from the Osage as possible.
The same thing was happening amongst other Oklahoma tribes that were experiencing similar oil booms during the same time period. With all of the tribes in Oklahoma, the more administrative or institutional violence would occur through guardianships. During this time period, Native people weren't considered competent to manage their own affairs, especially if they had a higher blood quantum—if they were full blood, or if English was their second language, or if they hadn't gone to boarding school, that type of thing.
So, throughout Oklahoma, there was a system of assigning guardianship to Native people. The guardianship would be assigned to non-Native community members—usually white community members. And those people would have complete control over any of the oil revenue that came in for the tribal individual.
There's a really egregious case where this one woman in Oklahoma, who ended up becoming somewhat of a reformer, was visiting Creek communities, and she found these three children who were essentially living in this hollowed-out log with just no one to care for them. She began to investigate and to try to figure out why nobody was taking care of these children. It turned out they were orphans and had been assigned a non-Native guardian, but the non-Native guardian was essentially letting these children live out in the wild with absolutely no actual care while collecting and using the royalties that were coming into their accounts.
Daniel Raimi: There are many similar stories, I'm sure, that would trouble any right-thinking person, any person with a heart. These are just such powerful stories and troubling stories. I'm really glad that you're sharing them with us.
And I'm really not glad that we're running a little long, so I'm going to need to close us out in just a second.
But before I ask you to recommend something, I do want to ask about the new Martin Scorsese movie, Killers of the Flower Moon, which is about these murders on the Osage reservation that we've briefly talked about. We don't have a lot of time, so I'm hoping you can be really brief with this, but are you planning on seeing the movie? If so, what are you going to be watching for?
Angela Parker: Yeah, I'm definitely planning on seeing it. I will be watching for how Scorsese and DiCaprio handle this humanization of sociopathy, which I think is the most troubling part of it. This is what I'm excited for: I'm excited for this recreation of Osage life right after the turn of the twentieth century. I think that's going to be fascinating and amazing. I think the amount of historical detail that they went into in terms of clothing and physical places is going to be amazing. And for the Native side of the story, I guess, I'm super excited.
Ernest Burkhart was a sociopath, and William Hale was a sociopath, and it is troubling to see these people who were extremely violent and measured in their violence to be the central, tragic, conflicted characters. I think I'm going to have a lot of opinions, but I am looking forward to it. And I think DiCaprio is a great actor. Scorsese is obviously a cultural touchstone, so it'll be a good viewing, I think.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. I've actually already seen it and found it quite powerful. I think there's actually a couple ways to interpret the humanization of these awful men. One way that I thought about it was, as you say, troubling that they're being humanized and portrayed as complex, rich characters. Then the other side that I thought about was, maybe Scorsese is manipulating us and showing us—and by us, I mean a white audience—that by sympathizing with these people who were really monsters, we are illustrating our own complicity in this history of violence. Those were the two ways of thinking about it that I came out of. I don't know which one is right, but neither one is really right, probably. But those are a couple interpretations I had.
Angela Parker: Yeah, I hope it is the second option. I hope Scorsese is that complex.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Who knows?
Anyway, Angela, this has been an amazing conversation. I wish we could talk for longer, and I know that we will in other forums.
But, before we close out, we always ask our guests to recommend something that they think is really great that they think our listeners would enjoy. So, what's at the top of your literal or your metaphorical reading stack?
Angela Parker: I think, if people want to know more about oil and just the long twentieth-century history of oil, there's a super problematic documentary that is available on YouTube, but it gives you the bare bones of what you need to know about oil in the twentieth century and how essential it's been in understanding twentieth-century history. It is, of course, The Prize.
If you just go on YouTube and search for The Prize and watch it, you will get a completely new—and, in my opinion, more accurate—understanding of twentieth-century history than anything that is currently in textbooks. The benefit is that you don't have to read his 800-page book.
It's problematic, because it lionizes industry and lionizes these great movers and shakers, these men of industry. But it still holds up as a really important spine to understand US foreign policy, in particular, but especially among the quote- unquote “developed” world why certain moves were being made at specific times in history. I think that's a super valuable teaching tool.
Other than that, I'm actually bingeing this show on Netflix called Sex Education. It has nothing to do with extraction of our oil, but it has a lot to do with how we treat each other as human beings and around this central idea of sex and intimacy among youth. That's the only media that I'm super excited about watching right now—except for Reservation Dogs. I'm so sad that we are at the end of that journey. The entire series has made me cry and laugh, and it hits you, especially as a Native person, at these moments that you're not really expecting. It's really beautiful, because it forces you to connect with your emotions and connect with some of the trauma that has been circulating in our communities. Those guys did a great job. If anybody has not watched Reservation Dogs, please go watch it. Watch all three seasons. I think it's amazing.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Well, Angela Parker from the University of Denver, this has been an amazing conversation. Thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your work with us. We are really looking forward to seeing your book in the future and learning more from that. We really appreciate you coming on the show.
Angela Parker: Thank you so much for having me.
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