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COLUMNIST DORREEN YELLOW BIRD: Changes continue to jar western N.D.

Dorreen Yellow Bird
Dorreen Yellow Bird

It has been six months since I moved back to the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota. It's not as I expected.

I didn't expect the sky to be so expansive and beautiful. Each day has found me discovering the western Plains all over again.

This year has been unusual because the hills were emerald green with thick grass and a profusion of flowers.

This was a result of the cold winter of '08-'09 that dumped tons of snow in this area, not something that happens every year.

When I moved back in May, there still was snow in the trees and big drifts in the roadside ditches, but the snow was melting and every little dip and valley was filling with rushing water.

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So far this season, the spirits have kept it very dry and warm. So far.

And besides this renewed wonder at the natural world, I also experienced firsthand what it means to live in the middle of the Bakken Formation.

A short distance down state Highway 23, there are about five or six new wells. Around the city of New Town, N.D., there are about four others, too.

The wells and spouting gas fires light up the night. Sometimes, the gas flares reach higher than the telephone wires.

On an assignment, Tony Mandan -- a tribal elder -- and I drove to the Mandaree, N.D., area. Tony was identifying sacred sites, and I was writing the story.

Mandaree or West Segment has changed. It is one of the areas where oil is found easily, making it a prime target for drilling.

As Tony and I drove down the gravel road where -- once upon a time -- we likely would not have seen another car for hours, we passed several 18-wheelers, kicking gravel and rocks as they passed.

The hills or breaks are filled with oil activity. Dirt roads cut across the once-pristine prairie and some of the off-white and ochre buttes.

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We passed the oil activity and drove far into the "breaks." My Toyota, "Ruby," grumbled as she stumbled across the rough undergrowth of the prairie.

We were looking for eagle catches. Many years ago, Tony explained, the Hidatsa dug big holes -- maybe the size of a small car -- usually on a high hill. Then they covered the holes with willows, and topped the cover with a platform on which they would put a dead rabbit to entice an eagle to drop out of the sky.

When the eagle touched down, one of the men would reach up and grab its legs. The others would take as many feathers they could, then let the eagle go unhurt. (Although probably embarrassed without its tail feathers, I thought as Tony told me the story.)

We didn't find the old catches, but we did eventually find a landscape of amazing quiet. From there, we couldn't see any of the derricks, any spouts of fire or any 18-wheelers barreling down the highway.

We saw only the prairie and heard only the wind.

Another change is the traffic. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I hated the massive traffic jams and the bumper-to-bumper cars.

Grand Forks has a lot of cars, too, but the reservation had always been a haven because of its lack of traffic.

That has changed. Traffic is heavy on Highway 23. From the Four Bears Bridge past New Town and on U.S. Highway 83, the traffic actually can be bumper-to-bumper.

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"Going to town," as our trips to Minot and Bismarck are called, can be dicey because the roads now are full of big semis.

And the trucks aren't slow moving.

Just last month, we had an awful accident where three young people were killed on the hill above the bridge.

Last year saw two young women and a child die west of the tribal headquarters.

And only last week, a tribal member was hit by an 18-wheeler on one of those steep and winding Mandaree roads. He was seriously hurt but is recovering.

Our switchboard operator was also in a three-car accident Tuesday that included an 18-wheeler. She walked away with bruises and a good scare.

Stories of near misses are in our conversations constantly.

There is promise of better things to come. The Three Affiliated Tribes' business council is working with companies to put in underground pipe lines. There's a possibility of putting the New Town railroad back in service. The state also is helping with improvements to Highway 23, including longer turn lanes and shoulders for the big trucks.

Of course, while things have changed, I do have to say that the prospect of wealth in the region dulls the inconvenience of the oilfield work.

But there are times when I'd give it all up to bring back the way it was.

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