The environmental damage versus the income producing benefits of locating fossil fuel projects in Indian Country has divided some resource-rich Native American nations — and one North Dakota Hidatsu tribal family in particular.
“I love my tribal homelands to my very core,” says Charles Hudson of Portland, Oregon, of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, where his extended family live in the midst of fracking operations. “All I really have wanted for myself is a place to exercise my hunting and gathering rights. I’ve pondered moving home many times over the years, finally settled on a plan to retire there, then BOOM! Literally. The oil boom turned the place on its head.”
Mainstream media tends to underreport or inaccurately represent these stories — reporting on community divisiveness while glossing over the risks posed to tribal communities by gas flares, explosions, wastewater contamination, or the temporary worker “man camps” that foster crime, sexual trafficking, and violence against Native women.
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A new foundation, the Many Dances Family Fund, aims to reverse that trend.
Hudson, the Fund’s director, says it will support deeply researched investigative journalism that reports on critical issues in Indian Country. This mission became even more relevant after the September 4 announcement by Indian Country Today that it will suspend publishing.
A tragic event is partially responsible for pointing Hudson’s philanthropy in this direction. After fracking of Bakken shale began there 17 years ago, the reservation experienced a dramatic increase in collisions with diesel-belching semis rumbling up and down poorly equipped roads. In 2008, Hudson’s 23-year-old niece, Cassi Dee Rensch, died in a traffic accident involving an oil field fracking truck.
Hudson’s family derives income from the Bakken oil production on their allotments and their ownership of surface and mineral rights. But this event “shook the family to our core,” he says. “My family, like many others, were finding western North Dakota unlivable.”
Hudson says a recent oil payment added enough to his savings that he could, along with his sons, form a charitable organization aimed at improving conditions in Indian Country. The Fund’s first grant has gone to InvestigateWest, an independent nonprofit media organization.
“We are not created to support solely journalism or Indian Country but both areas are — and I believe will remain — part of our core interest areas,” Hudson says.
The fund’s name comes from Hudson’s great-grandmother Many Dances, who was born during one of the last buffalo hunts in 1871 and raised in the traditions of the Hidatsa. When the US government’s Indian reservation system allocated her acreage on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota in 1891, she and her husband, Old Dog, settled into life as farmers. According to Hudson, they became renowned for their benevolence and generosity to the less fortunate.
Their land was farmed until the oil boom in 2000, when a majority of Many Dance’s descendants voted to open the prairie and farms to oil rigs and hydraulic fracturing.
It was a decision Hudson struggled to reconcile.
“I had to do a lot of soul-searching.” He says all the beauty of the place, the solitude, the open spaces were compromised by Halliburton trucks, man camps, and an ideological shift in the state’s politics that collided with his values.
He says the Many Dances Fund is a matter of conscience and responsibility. And he hopes it will be a tangible legacy to give his sons when the soil and water of Fort Berthold may no longer be there for them. Their grant to InvestigateWest “is only a start,” says Hudson.
InvestigateWest uses a nonprofit model that produces investigative and explanatory journalism in partnerships with commercial and public media. The grant is dedicated to InvestigateWest’s Indian Country Initiative, aimed at delivering high-quality, deeply researched articles about Native issues that would otherwise go unreported. An advisory council of primarily Native Americans guides the project.
Their early goal is to develop a network of Native journalists to help the project dig “a little deeper into the cultural and geographic nuances of the work,” says IW Managing Director Lee van der Voo. “But we do need to get our financial footing first, so this support from Many Dances Family Fund is pretty critical to helping us get to where we need to be.”
The Initiative is producing in-depth stories on complex issues for magazine The Nation. Their partnership had included the Indian Country Media Network, until the announcement that they had suspended operations.
“My great hope is that they find new ownership and continue operations in the future,” van der Voo says.
The Fund, Hudson says, honors the legacy of Old Dog and Many Dances, who instilled a set of values that survive and thrive generations later. The 2004 book Coyote Warrior describes the family’s role in fighting against the construction of the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River. They lost, but they took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court.
“There is so much power and strength in Native life, but we get trapped talking about distress,” Hudson says. “It’s time for fresh eyes, hearts, and minds to lead the discussion. I want my sons to be in the middle of the conversation on Native futures.”
This article was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.