Editor’s Note: A protest is being organized by Three Affiliated Tribes Councilwoman Judy Brugh at the request of many concerned tribal citizens. A march is scheduled Saturday, April 14 at noon beginning at the Prairie Winds trailer court in New Town, N.D. Everyone is encouraged to participate in order to help give displaced residents a voice. Of the 45 mobile homes at Prairie Winds, 40 belong to tribal citizens. Read the story below for more details.
NEW TOWN, N.D. — Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation (the Three Affiliated Tribes) sits at the heart of the Bakken oil field, one of the richest oil fields in the country. Located in the western region of North Dakota, the reservation and the surrounding region have been inundated with oil field workers from across the country.
Everyone here knows how short housing is in the entire region with the oil boom going on. No one knows this better than the 90 families living in the 45 mobile homes at Prairie Winds Mobile Home Park, located on the south side of New Town, some with two to three families to a trailer. They are crowded in together because there is no place else for them to go.
Imagine being in that situation and then receiving a notice right before Christmas informing you that the property where your home sits has been sold to a new owner who informs you that the rent is going up immediately and you must remove your home and all your personal property by May. Merry Christmas!
This is exactly what happened to the residents of Prairie Winds. Since then John Reese, the Acting Agent for the buyer, Future Housing, LLC, had to change the date for the raising of the rent because the law requires 30 days written notice before changes can be made in the rental agreement. The higher rent went into effect on March 1, 2012 and notice was given that anyone behind on their rent would be subject to immediate eviction.
The good news was that the date for removal was moved back to August 31, 2012 to allow residents more time to find a place to move to. The reason for the removal was finally revealed in a letter addressed to the tenants dated February 26, 2012: “This property became available and allowed Future Housing, LLC an opportunity to meet future housing needs for United Prairie Cooperative’s growing company.” Residents were informed that they could apply for a job at United Prairie. Anyone accepted as a full-time employee with United Prairie, may then apply for housing there; if they are accepted, they would still have to move out until the new housing is constructed, that is, if their application for housing is accepted.
Although New Town is on the reservation, not all of New Town is tribal land. New Town was established 60 years ago after the Garrison Dam flooded the reservation. It was settled mostly by white farmers and businessmen before the Supreme Court extended the reservation boundary beyond the east side of the Missouri River to take in land that had belonged historically to the tribe and was assigned to them by treaty. Many white people still argue that it is not part of the reservation.
Prairie Winds is not on tribal land. And just because the reservation sits on the Bakken, contrary to what many people think, not all the Indians here own oil wells. Most do not.
Of the 45 mobile homes at Prairie Winds, 40 belong to tribal members, so the vast majority of the residents are tribal members. The Tribal Council is working with the residents to find a solution, to find a place for them to go. Unfortunately, many of the homes are so old that they will probably fall apart if they try to move them. The ones that can be moved, once a place is found to move them to, will cost quite a bit of money to move. One resident got a bid of $10,000 to move his double-wide mobile home. The tribe does own a considerable amount of land, nearly a million acres, but most of that land lacks the infrastructure in place to set up housing. It will take time and money to prepare for moving these people.
That is the situation the residents have faced since December. Wednesday, March 21, the situation deteriorated further. The roads through the mobile home park have not been well maintained and have become impassable. Wednesday morning the Head Start school bus, on its rounds to pick up students, became stuck on a road in the park. John Reese chose to deal with the problem by having locked iron gates installed at the entrances that same day. This was done without prior notice to the residents. Those with their vehicles inside are unable to get them out. Those who were not at home when the gates went up are unable to drive in. They can park outside and walk in, but the biggest issue is one of public safety. The mobile home park, with 90 families living there, is not accessible to emergency vehicles, no police, no fire trucks, no ambulances can enter if needed. There are children and elders living there. It is a serious issue.
When Becky Dechamps, one of the residents, saw John Reese driving by, she complained about the locked gate. His response was, “If you don’t like it, you should leave.” Reese was unavailable for comment, and did not return our calls.
Some of the residents went to New Town Mayor, Dan Uran, who was sympathetic, but said that the mobile home park is private property, and the city cannot do anything about the roads.
Even though the mobile home park is not on tribal land, the tribe has agreed to repair the roads once they dry out. Tribal member Eddie Straus will take in gravel and equipment and try to make repairs for the sake of the tribal members living there.
Snowfall this winter has been very light, and until the Monday after the gates went up, there had been no rain recently. Now it’s raining and there is no telling how long it will take for the roads to dry. Meanwhile, access is denied and it is a disaster waiting to happen.
Many questions arise. Why were the roads not maintained? Is it legal to put locked gates at the entrances without providing keys to the residents? Is Reese deliberately making things so uncomfortable for the residents to try to get them to move before the agreed date? The gates have been locked for over a week and no end in sight. In fact, on March 28, Reese was putting up even more barricades.
Even if the city doesn’t have jurisdiction over the property, the state does. The state has laws to ensure public safety. Why has the states attorney not enforced them? The states attorney in Stanley has not returned our calls either.
The residents will be moving out at the end of August, but until then, they pay rent and they have rights. The issue of private property keeps coming up, but private property or not, the tenants have rights and the landlord has obligations to them.
Another issue is coming up on March 30. In the document dated February 26 that Reese sent to the residents, he informed them that Future Housing, LLC will have a new contract to sign with “new rules and covenants for the mobile home park. These new rules will need to be strictly adhered to. Any failure to not sign the new contract will mean commencement of immediate eviction proceedings.” Yet those new rules and covenants have not been revealed to the residents as of March 28.
Understandably, the residents are nervous about this. What is Reese asking them to sign with the threat of immediate eviction if they don’t agree? However, just as raising the rent without 30 days notice was illegal, so is requiring any new agreement without 30 days notice of the actual terms. Jim Fitzsimmons, Executive Director of North Dakota Legal Services, said that according to both tribal law and state law, Future Housing, LLC cannot evict anyone for failure to sign such an agreement until they have had 30 days to decide. The clock doesn’t start ticking until they receive the details of the agreement.
It is a complicated issue. On the one hand, it’s business, as Reese said when he bought the property and told the residents they would have to move. But on the other hand, many lives are affected by this business transaction. It is estimated that 180 people live in the trailer park, about half of them children. In the case of the locked gates, lives are not only affected, but also put at risk. Is this any way to do business? If this goes unanswered, are we not all at risk?