WASHINGTON — A federal judge has put on hold a Trump administration determination that mineral rights beneath the bed of the Missouri River within the Fort Berthold Reservation belong to the state of North Dakota instead of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.
The Trump decision in May reversed decades of federal policy holding that the tribes owned the riverbed within its borders and violated treaties going back more than a century, the tribes argued in two lawsuits against the federal government.
The reversal in federal policy came after the state of North Dakota asked the Trump administration Department of the Interior, which is responsible for managing trust lands for the tribes, for a reconsideration in 2017.
At stake is more than $200 million in oil and gas royalties the tribes say the federal government failed to collect on their behalf, hundreds of millions of dollars involving the value of the riverbed — now covered by sprawling Lake Sakakawea — and future royalties.
In an order issued Friday, July 31, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that no oil and gas royalties in dispute will be paid until the court resolves the conflict, agreeing with a motion filed by the tribes.
In two federal lawsuits filed earlier this month, the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa Nation argued that the reversal, by Daniel Jorjani, the solicitor for the Department of the Interior, was in error and illegal.
“The MHA Nation is pleased with the court’s order which will prevent DOI from making changes to the ownership of the tribe’s property while the court addresses the merits of the MHA Nation’s claim that the Jorjani opinion is wrong under the governing law.“
In the two lawsuits, the tribes contend North Dakota lobbied the federal government to reverse a series of decisions and legal opinions by the Department of the Interior dating back to 1936 and as recent as 2017.
One Department of the Interior decision determining that the tribes own the riverbed within the reservation came in 1949, when the government took 150,000 acres from the Fort Berthold reservation before the construction of the Garrison Dam, which created Lake Sakakawea, submerging a quarter of the tribes' land base and dislocating 90% of families.
The tribes also assert ownership of the riverbed in treaties. The first treaty, in 1825, recognized the tribes’ “country” and promised payment for property taken. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 set aside vast territory for the tribes south and west of the Missouri River.