Protecting the Sacred Water Bundle: Educating about Fracking at Turtle Mountain Community College

Volume 28, No. 4 - Summer 2017
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Belcourt Lake near TMCC. Photo by Jacob Laducer

“If we don’t allow the oil companies to frack on the reservation, the companies will come and just sidedrill underneath the reservation!

Why shouldn’t the tribe make money? That money could be used to help the people!” exclaimed a student at Turtle Mountain Community College (TMCC).

“Do you know how much water they use for fracking? They pull water from freshwater sources. From what I have read, it takes a minimum of 2 million gallons of water (2% being fracking chemicals) for each fracking well. Some of those chemicals are proven carcinogens,” I responded, asking, “How long does it take for the water contaminated by fracking to be safe for human use? What about all the social issues brought in with the oil workers and man camps—drugs and human trafficking? Do you think our law enforcement can keep up with all that?”

This was one of the many conversations that I have had with students and community members since oil development took off in North Dakota. In TMCC’s environmental science class, students discuss and learn about what is happening locally, within the state, nationally, and internationally. We start with where we live, and the students are required to have a discussion with an elder. The elders relate how the land has changed from the time before paved roads and plumbing to today’s technological nation. Students share their notes from the elders and we learn of hopes for more family time, less drugs, more jobs, educational opportunities, and clean water.


Driving up to TMCC near the Canadian border, the landscape changes and spans across the horizon. Leaving the plains of North Dakota and entering the hills known as the Turtle Mountains, one becomes surrounded by a deciduous forest, spotted with deer stands, fishing holes, mosquito havens, and secret berry-picking spots. It is here that the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians (TMBCI) reservation is found. Made up of tribal citizens that identify as Ojibwe and/or Metis/Mitchif, all enjoy a good fiddle tune and become emotional when watching the honor guard, veterans, and elders enter the arena during the grand march of a powwow.

Our reservation is two townships, roughly 77,000 acres, which is not the original reservation size that was agreed upon in our treaty. Our ancestors negotiated for 32 townships, but the government used strong-arm tactics and our land-base was reduced to its present size. We were left with the land that was thought to be unfit for farming. The glacial design of the hills may not be fit for big agriculture, but it is ideal for a host of natural resources.

People live all through the hills because of the availability of water. Many tribal members have private wells, while the expansion of rural waterlines moving throughout the reservation provides water to others. The Little Shell Aquifer is the source of drinking water for the Belcourt community and surrounding areas. It is also a resource for area farmers and other Rolette County citizens. It is because of this aquifer that the tribe resolved to ban fracking on the TMBCI reservation.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the process where oil and gas companies drill into the ground to extract oil and gas from the shale rock that lay thousands of feet under the ground. Once the formation is reached, water, sand, and an extensive list of human-made chemicals are injected into the well under high pressure. This process fractures the rock, forcing deposits of shale oil to the surface.


TMCC sits at the edge of beautiful Belcourt Lake, which serves as a reminder that water is life. Photo by Jacob Laducer

Located on the TMBCI reservation, TMCC has provided opportunities for all interested parties to learn about fracking and why the tribe banned it. Fracking has been a hotly debated topic within the TMCC community and has been researched and discussed by students, faculty, staff, and community members. While TMCC offers environmental programs, the college also offers an oil field operations program. Based on job market needs, TMCC has created opportunities for community members to be competitive and knowledgeable in oil field operations while still supporting a ban on fracking on TMBCI lands.

Fracking started in North Dakota in 2006, moving through the landscape of the Bakken Oil Field in western North Dakota. On April 11, 2008, oil recovery was estimated to be 3 to 4.3 billion barrels in western North Dakota and eastern Montana. The TMBCI watched as oil development increased on the Fort Berthold reservation. Community members watched and learned about the oil development on private, state, and federal lands throughout North Dakota, and wondered how soon oil development would be knocking at TMBCI’s door.

“Don’t let oil come through Belcourt. Don’t let them travel Highway 5, because if there is a spill the company will only clean up the surface, the state will help with very little. Don’t let oil come through Belcourt,” asserted the late Dennis Bercier, a North Dakota state senator and TMCC’s institutional developer.

Others in the community echoed Bercier’s sentiments. In the fall of 2011, after learning about fracking, Dr. Carol Davis, tribal elder and former vice president of TMCC, made the decision to take a stand against fracking. In Ojibwe society, the women are responsible for caring for the water. With that teaching in mind, she brought together tribal members. Among them were women who led water ceremonies. Fracking was the topic of conversation and by the end of the first meeting, they all agreed that the Turtle Mountain reservation could not risk water contamination from this dangerous process. Weekly meetings continued, and the group grew to approximately 75 people who attended some or all meetings. They agreed to seek a tribal resolution banning fracking on any land that would threaten the watershed or water sources that charged the tribal aquifer and private wells used by tribal citizens. The tribal council was invited to a meeting.

After learning about fracking and the potential for harm to the environment, Chairman Merle St. Claire invited the group to present their findings to the full tribal council. Word spread, and everyone was invited to attend the tribal council meeting. The response was great. Tribal members who worked at the Sky Dancer Casino, tribal government employees and officials, elders, and many other individuals were in attendance. TMCC faculty brought students to support the fracking ban. On November 18, 2011, Chairman St. Claire and tribal council members listened as Debbie Gourneau, a spiritual teacher, opened the council session by reminding the group of the sacredness of all creation. She was followed by Carol Davis who said, “In our society, women care for the water; men care for the fire. There is a balance—too much fire, the water evaporates, too much water, the fire goes out. Women protect the water; it is our responsibility. But, we need the help of our men. We are here to ask you to ban fracking on tribal lands and in areas that affect our sources of water.” Davis went on to note that tribal teachings tell of one day when the TMBCI may be the only people with water to drink.

After a presentation on the fracking process, the tribal chairman and council members agreed to invite the group to the next open public meeting to present a resolution to ban fracking. Shortly after the meeting ended, Davis and the group of women discovered that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was advertising for bids to lease land for oil and gas exploration on Turtle Mountain tribal land. Hence, language was included in the resolution demanding that the BIA cancel the request for bids. The tribal council passed the resolution unanimously on November 22, 2011.

A few weeks later, the BIA announced that they cancelled the oil and gas bids on 43 parcels of land on the Turtle Mountain reservation to honor the tribal resolution against fracking. To date, the reservation is free from fracking.


Today, the group continues to educate. In 2011, Cedar Gillette created the Facebook page, “No Fracking Way Turtle Mountain Tribe,” to get information out through social media. The site has 3,283 members and continues to provide up-to-date environmental information. “The purpose is to educate our tribal citizens and the public about what will happen to our water if fracking is allowed to be used on or near our reservation to access oil. Please join the effort to keep our Turtle Mountain water free from cancer causing chemicals,” the page proclaims, providing information on tribal, state, national, and international environmental issues, citizen action, government policies and codes, and presentation topics and dates.

Davis and other members of the Tribal Water Commission have also continued to be a source of information for the community and tribal council. Recently, the Tribal Water Commission was invited to a meeting with the tribal council and investors proposing to lease mineral rights for fracking on tribal lands near Trenton, North Dakota. Dr. Davis spoke to the council and investors. “Our nibi (water) is held in common by all of the people. This is stated in the Tribal Water Act, passed in July of 2015,” Davis said, reminding her audience that “the foundation of the Water Act was based on treaties, our inherent sovereignty, the right to clean water, and the Winter’s Doctrine which gives the tribe sovereign authority over the Little Shell Aquifer even though most of it lies off the TMBCI reservation.”

We all have a responsibility to protect the water. “Our women have carried the sacred water bundle for our tribe since we migrated from the east hundreds of years ago,” Davis reminds us. “Our stories and our ceremonies continue to guide our people. While it seems to some that we are being foolish, to others we have purpose.”

Excerpt from TMBCI Tribal Resolution to Ban Fracking, Resolution Number TMBC627-II-II

“WHEREAS, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa is responsible for protecting Mother Earth from any pollutants that may cause harm to its citizens, land, water, and air; and

WHEREAS, the emerging oil industry is expanding throughout the state and will eventually include Rolette County which encompasses the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa reservation and its jurisdictions; and

WHEREAS, the oil industry is using a process called hydraulic fracturing (FRACKING) to extract oil that requires the use of hazardous chemicals that could contaminate water resources that is vital for the tribe’s livelihood and sustainability; and

WHEREAS, the FRACKING process could endanger tribal water resources and the waters of the Shell Valley Aquifer which is the tribe’s main resource for fresh water on the Turtle Mountain reservation; and

WHEREAS, it is critical that Turtle Mountain tribal citizens-at-large are educated on the consequence of oil exploration and any other development that can cause any environmental concerns now and in the future; now

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa prohibits in perpetuity any hydraulic fracturing (FRACKING) or any other process that is toxic on lands adjoining the Shell Valley Aquifer or its tributaries, or flowing water that has the potential to channel to the Shell Valley Aquifer and water resources, lakes, underground springs, and wetlands where tribal citizens reside on or near the Turtle Mountain reservation; and

THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa supports the efforts of tribal citizens to promote a public service campaign to inform our tribal membership of any environmental concerns pertaining to oil development and other initiatives affecting Mother Earth; and

THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa directs the Bureau of Indian Affairs to cancel their advertisement for the sale of oil and gas leases that was posted in the Turtle Mountain Times and other newspapers November 21, 2011, on allotted Indian lands in Rolette County, North Dakota, and ensure that all future bids include the tribal resolution informing the bidders that fracking is immediately banned in accordance with this resolution; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the tribe will work to develop similar laws and agreements with communities who are considering to utilize hydraulic fracturing (FRACKING) or any process that is or may be toxic on lands adjoining the Shell Valley Aquifer or its tributaries or flowing water that has the potential to channel to the Shell Valley Aquifer and water resources, lakes, underground springs, and wetlands where tribal citizens reside on or near the Turtle Mountain reservation.”

Stacie Blue (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) teaches science at Turtle Mountain Community College.

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