The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation (MHA Nation) sued the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) today to prohibit the illegal taking of the Nation’s property rights to minerals beneath the Missouri River on its Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota.
An Interior opinion on May 26th transferred ownership of riverbed property and mineral rights from the Tribe to the State of North Dakota, threatening long-standing Tribal trust assets. Interior Solicitor Daniel Jorjani’s ruling overturned three prior legal positions without rationale to revert on the decisions, including one that has stood since 1936.
MHA Nation Chairman Mark N. Fox released a statement on today’s mineral rights suit:
“The Department of Interior violated both its fiduciary duty as the Tribe’s trustee and its treaty obligations when DOI illegally took away the MHA Nation’s rights to the Missouri riverbed and gave these rights to the state of North Dakota in a false M-opinion issued by DOI Solicitor Daniel Jorjani on May 26, 2020. This new M-Opinion purports to overturn over 80 years of existing DOI precedent; two prior DOI M-Opinions and a binding DOI Interior Board of Land Appeals decision, all finding that the Missouri Riverbed was held in trust by the federal government for the MHA Nation before North Dakota statehood.
“This lawsuit in the Court of Federal Claims seeks to hold DOI financially responsible for this illegal taking of our property rights and for the breach of the duties DOI owes to the MHA Nation under its trust responsibilities and our Treaties. MHA Nation will also seek to set aside this wrongfully decided and false Jorjani M-opinion.”
Where the Missouri River flows across the Fort Berthold Reservation, the MHA Nation owns the riverbed beneath it.
As Chairman Fox previously told Native Business, Interior’s reversal on prior decisions is due to the $100 million in unpaid royalties and future payments in escrow that the state seeks to claim. With recent technological advancements to extract oil beneath the waterway — a new, horizontal drilling technique — issues over mineral rights ownership have escalated.
“It’s a land grab. It’s an attack on our trust resources. All for what?” Chairman Fox asked rhetorically. “For money. If there was not $100 million-plus in escrow accounts from unlawful and somewhat quasi-lawful drilling (by outside oil companies) underneath this riverbed, we wouldn’t have any problems; the state wouldn’t care.”
The lawsuit does not specify monetary damages sought.