MHA Nation to Fight Interior Removal of its Missouri River Property & Mineral Rights

Research identifies numerous legal and historical events that support the riverbed ownership of the MHA Nation across nearly two centuries. (Photo Courtesy MHA Nation: Our River, Our Home)

“The legal and historical precedent is clear: MHA Nation owns the rights under the riverbed within the boundaries of the Fort Berthold Reservation. The Department’s politically motivated action is nothing more than an illegal taking.” —MHA Nation Chairman Mark N. Fox

The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation will take legal action against an Interior Department opinion that transfers the ownership of lands under the Missouri River, where it runs through the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, from the Tribe to the State of North Dakota. 

Interior Solicitor Daniel Jorjani’s 15-page opinion, issued May 26, overturns three prior Interior decisions recognizing the MHA Nation’s title to the riverbed and rights to the minerals beneath it, including a decision that has stood for 84 years. 

“We demand the DOI immediately withdraw its M-Opinion and abide by the longstanding precedent beginning with its 1936 decision that affirmed the MHA Nation’s rights to the riverbed,” said MHA Nation Chairman Mark N. Fox in a statement

The submerged lands in question are rich with oil and gas reserves and other minerals. An estimated $100 million in oil royalties, plus any future payments, lie in escrow. 

Interior has moved to kill a portion of the Obama-era memo — filed January 2017 by former Interior Solicitor Hilary Tompkins, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation — without consulting the MHA Nation and prior to receiving extensive research from Mike Lawson, a nationally renowned Missouri River historian. Lawson documents the Nation’s centuries-long economic, cultural and spiritual usage and dependence on the Missouri River bed. 

“In doing so, the Department violated the United States obligations under its 1825 treaties with the MHA Nation as well as its fiduciary duty to protect the MHA Nation and its property rights,” said Chairman Fox. “The Department also failed to consult with the MHA Nation before the taking and did not wait for the MHA Nation’s historical report as previously agreed.”

Fox continued, “The Missouri River has been central to our people’s self-sufficient way of life since time immemorial. Our historic holistic relationship with the river is well known and documented — this includes the riverbed minerals and bottomlands we have utilized for our spiritual well-being, our food, agriculture, and trade economy for thousands of years.”

Fox has also spoken to the atrocity of a move to strip the Nation of its own land and mineral rights in the midst of a global crisis.  

“You get that kind of news during a pandemic when we’re struggling so hard anyway because the federal government has dropped the ball in terms of helping us … it would be like somebody telling you when you’re fighting a fire that you have been evicted from your house,” Fox told the Associated Press

Jorjani has advised the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management to take action in compliance with Interior’s decision, including withdrawing “any existing oil and gas permits for extraction in submerged lands beneath the Missouri River.”

The MHA Nation will not back down. “The legal and historical precedent is clear: MHA Nation owns the rights under the riverbed within the boundaries of the Fort Berthold Reservation,” Fox said. “The Department’s politically motivated action is nothing more than an illegal taking.”

READ MORE: Podcast Episode 13: MHA Nation Chairman Mark N. Fox

Chairman Fox: Oil Crisis Threatens to ‘Knockout’ MHA Nation’s Economy 

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