MHA Nation: A Vision for Economic Sovereignty

Mark Fox, Chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation, has a dream for his Tribe’s future.

“I will wake up one day, I hope, many years from now – or at least my son will – and we will look around and we are generating our own power, we’re raising and consuming our own food, we’re exporting our own goods, and we’re creating products that will be sold out so dollars come back in,” Fox told Native Business Magazine.

“Fox: We going to do all these things and we’ll look around and say ‘We don’t depend on the federal government for anything, and in fact, we export goods, and we’re a major part of the economy of the United States.’ That’s the goal.” Click To Tweet

Getting to the point where that is visible on the horizon wasn’t easy, though, and it has taken hard work, vision, and strategic planning to lay the foundation for a future marked by prosperity.

Historically, the MHA Nation arose from an alliance between the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara peoples who were looked at as three separate sovereign nations. In the latter part of the 19th century, Fox says that the federal government began to view the three Tribes collectively as the Three Affiliated Tribes – something that persisted until approximately 20 years ago, when the MHA Nation opted to reemphasize their prior identity as three Tribal nations coming together to form one nation.

“It was important to show that we are a governmental system that has uniqueness, that has three different historical identities, but yet has come together to utilize our services together to maximize and protect what we have remaining as a result of failed U.S. policy,” Fox said. “We are very proud, but we also have three distinct languages and three distinct histories, but yet we remain unified. That’s why we continue to think it’s very important that people understand and know that we’re three Tribal nations coming together to form one nation.”

Mark Fox, Chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. (Courtesy Mark Fox)

The MHA Nation has always been an entrepreneurial Tribe. Thousands of years ago, Fox says, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara were part of an aboriginal trade system and operated one of only two major and significant aboriginal trade centers in North America prior to European interaction.

“We had a very important role in the Indigenous economy that’s often described by anthropologists and historians,” Fox said. “They found, when they would dig up our sites, trading products from the East coast, West coast, Tribes from the Southwest, and even some things that had to originate out of Mexico and Canada all coming together.”

The Missouri River, Fox says, was key to sustaining that pre-historical commerce center. As a semi-nomadic Tribe, the MHA Nation constructed earth lodges which became semi-permanent villages. They were successful in domesticating plants and growing crops, including corn, squash, beans, and watermelons, which created an economy that the more nomadic Tribes relied on – especially during times when food was scarce because of droughts or other issues that limited the food supply. 

“The Three Affiliated Tribes were in a position to grow these things successfully, these domesticated plants and crops,” Fox said. “All the Tribes would come to gather the dried corn and the beans. They would use those things when they went out to the plains and lived their nomadic lifestyles. They had that to sustain themselves when they could not find game. So we became a centralized hub – a trading hub for North America’s Indigenous population.”

Fox sees this history as a key part of the MHA’s future. 

“It talks about where we’re coming from and where we’re trying to go again,” he said. “We want to again reestablish ourselves and Indian country as that hub of economic development. We’ve got it in our blood, we’ve got it in our genes, and we plan to maximize that and promote inter-tribal economic development.”

For Chairman Fox, this is how he plans to rectify the historical injustices that have been visited upon Indian country. He says that when the United States worked through the removal era, and then through treaty periods, and then the reservation era, many Native American nations were devastated as a result of being forced onto limited land, which destroyed their nomadic economies. This economic destruction, Fox says, “created a dependence on the federal government, which we still see today in a worse magnitude.”

For the Three Affiliated Tribes, this meant moving from having roughly 13 million acres of land to less than a million acres. But Fox says that even though the United States forcibly took away land, the MHA Nation managed to retain much of its economy.

“We were still self-sustaining,” Fox said. “We still grew crops. We still had cattle. We had our own sawmill. We had our own hospital. We had our own road infrastructure. We had these things that we see as necessary to civilization and that we had before, so we didn’t depend on the federal government. We grew our own food, we managed our way through, and we were able to do that economically, socially, and politically.”

That all changed in the 1940s and 1950s when the United States government implemented the Pick-Sloan program, constructing a series of dams on the Missouri River. The construction of the Garrison Dam under this program, and the resultant creation of Lake Sakakawea, flooded the area where the MHA Nation planted their crops on the fertile bottom land, forced the Tribe to high ground, and, ultimately, into federal dependence.

Today, under Fox’s leadership, the Tribe is trying to regain what was lost, and that all starts with reducing dependence on the federal and state governments.

“Failed U.S. policy is not going to hold us back from my main goal,” Fox said. “The key to our nations’ thriving again – not just surviving, but thriving – is to lessen that dependence on the federal government, lessen any dependence on the state government, get rid of the intrusions and get rid of the regulations that burden us. Start doing things for ourselves while holding the federal government and the state government’s feet to the fire for what is owed for what was taken away.”

As a modern Tribe, Fox says that the MHA Nation is more progressive than other Tribal nations. He says this comes from a focus on education that has helped the Tribe adapt and evolve. 

“We have a way above average number of doctors, lawyers, businessmen with business degrees and MBAs than most Tribes have,” Fox said. “I think that’s really unique to the Three Affiliated Tribes. Some Tribes think that’s a mechanism for assimilation because it’s accepting a different culture in their minds or accepting a different way that they don’t see any value in. We understand that there are things we want to retain – our culture, our history, and our ways – but to become strong again is to put in place our ability to dictate our own future, and that means you have to have knowledge.”

Through all of the adaptation and evolution that the MHA Nation has had to undergo, Fox says that their entrepreneurial roots and focus on capitalism remain today. 

“We believed in creating products, we believed in creating a system of sale for those products, and then creating a commercial system in which others interact,” he said. “So today we are further ahead in our recovery stage of understanding the needs of that, and so we can better enhance capitalism. Capitalism is how we will rebuild, how we will heal, and how we will repair. Capitalism is the answer.”

After the construction of the Garrison Dam that flooded the MHA Nation’s valuable land, they focused on this capitalism to aid in their recovery. Where they were not farming fertile lands, they began to lease them so they could still see revenue generated. And during the 1970s and 1980s, when economic development was at a low point, the Tribe began to focus on developing opportunities through tourism. 

When the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) was passed in the 1980s, the Tribe developed a casino within four or five years. The casino revenues, combined with a $150 million compensation settlement for the flooded lands and other economic destruction, allowed them to start developing Fort Berthold as a destination resort. In recent years, the Tribe has complemented the casino with a new water park and will soon be opening a new beach and cultural center to entice people to come to MHA Nation lands.

Fox said that his vision is to make Fort Berthold a place where visitors from as far away as Minneapolis, Saskatchewan, New York City, or Sweden want to go because of the opportunities presented by a confluence of culture, tourism, recreation, and economic development. He likens it to the reasons that people visit Hawaii.

“There are reasons to come here other than to pull a slot machine arm,” Fox said. “We have all these things – fishing, hunting, and the culture itself. We’re not trying to limit access to our reservation by outsiders; we’re doing everything to entice outsiders. Come here! Bring your checkbook! Bring your cash! Bring your credit cards! And come and enjoy what we have to offer.”

“That’s how we change our economy,” he said.

In addition to tourism, the MHA Nation has benefited significantly from the oil and gas boom on the Bakken Shale formation. By 2008, when oil and gas came into play, the Three Affiliated Tribes saw a major opportunity to enhance their economic development efforts. Where the Tribe was at first unprepared to fully capitalize on this boom, the drop in price by 2015 allowed them to pause and develop what Fox calls their energy sovereignty model. 

“What happened is that our Tribe lost between 2008 and 2014-2015,” Fox said. “We lost a lot of revenue because we weren’t prepared for this oil and gas boom. When the price of oil went down in 2015, that provided us an opportunity. Even though we had less revenue, it gave us a break to readjust ourselves, to refocus, and reprioritize our economy, to get our regulation in place, and then to begin what we call our energy sovereignty model.”

“We’re not just going to sit back and collect some royalties and taxes,” Fox said. “We’re going to get involved with the development itself – the billions of dollars that is circulating around us and that we’re bombarded by. We’re going to get involved with development – from upstream, midstream, and downstream – and that’s been our focus ever since.”

Today, the MHA Nation has done just that. They are drilling their own wells, which is increasing revenues and helping the Tribe maximize oil for its own benefit.

In addition to the MHA Nation’s work in the oil and gas sector, the Tribe is also looking at a future where their water is viewed as an increasingly precious commodity.

“You will always hear me say before I became chairman, and which you’re going to hear me say now and into the future: water is more valuable than oil and gas,” Fox said. “Water in the future is going to bring us more revenue and lend itself to more economic development than any other asset we’ve got.”

With a 20-million-acre-foot lake and gas that can be compressed and used to heat and light massive greenhouses, Fox says that the water they have ready access to can irrigate these greenhouses and allow the Tribe to start exporting plants to other Native nations as part of a food sovereignty initiative.

“In addition, with the water, we’re already doing industrial sales,” Fox said. “Every time you frack a well, you re-frack that well, and then you have to have water for maintenance. Every well is requiring 12 million to 15 million gallons of water. We have thousands of wells to go, and water plays a critical role in that.”

In the future, the Tribe is looking at commercial sales for water, which Fox says makes sense given the droughts that have hit the Western United States.

“I have no doubt in my mind that if we can figure out the logistics and the engineering, which we are working hard on, we will put ourselves in a position to take the water that is rightfully ours, water that is beyond our current usages for agriculture and domestic consumption, we’re going to push that water to the West.”

“Every gallon that comes out on the other end, we’ll be getting paid for that,” he said.

For Chairman Fox, it’s been a long time coming, but getting the MHA Nation back to their roots and breaking the cycle of federal dependency – that’s the goal.