This story was published in the Fort Peck Journal, Missoula Independent, Indian Country Today and Buffalo’s Fire.
In Poplar, Mont., the Bakken boom is tantalizingly close. It’s much closer than the 71 miles that separate this one-stoplight town on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation from Williston, N.D, the epicenter of the largest oil play in the lower 48. Bakken wells are just over the Missouri River, the reservation’s southern boundary, and across Big Muddy Creek, its eastern boundary. The rigs are there on the Montana and North Dakota prairies every day pumping to the surface thousands of barrels of oil and riches.
Photos by Austin Smith
But the wells are not here. Poplar itself conveys that. The seat of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes remains a reflection of the poverty that’s long pervaded the reservation—a reflection, as some tribal members describe it, of “historical trauma.” Historical but persisting: The unemployment rate among tribal members holds at around 60 percent. On the oil patch near Sidney, Mont., and in western North Dakota, it’s less than 2 percent.
There, the activity of tens of thousands of truckers, roughnecks and flaring natural gas appears in nighttime images from space, a cluster of light suggesting a sprawling metropolis on the northern plains. In Poplar, in March, it’s quiet. Boarded-up homes and businesses line icy streets. There’s no parade of oil-hauling trucks; rez dogs still dare walk the highway.
Nearly three years ago, around the time North Dakota’s monthly oil production hit 10 million barrels for the first time, the people of Poplar were coping with a youth suicide epidemic. Five Poplar Middle School students killed themselves, and 20 more attempted to, during one school year.
The boom isn’t here, but the Bakken is. The reservation sits several thousand feet above what’s thought to be the western edge of the geologic formation, an ancient slab of rock about the size of West Virginia laden with billions of barrels of oil. That reservoir now accounts for more than 10 percent of the country’s total production. To the leaders of the Fort Peck tribes, it promises something more. Continue reading