The weather wasn’t particularly cooperative, but that didn’t prevent the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association (GPIGA) Annual Conference and Trade Show from another successful run.
GPIGA, which held its show March 31-April 2 at the Mystic Lake Conference Center in Minnesota, is a regional organization serving tribes with gaming compacts in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa. The member tribal nations have jurisdiction over approximately 15 million trust acres and approximately 250,000 tribal members. This year, due to the change in date of the annual National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) large conference and trade show to May in San Diego, GPIGA moved its annual date to earlier in the year. Unfortunately, the lingering winter in the Great Plains caused a number of attendees, especially if they were traveling from the South Dakota and North Dakota regions, to become snowed in and be unable to attend. But even with the snow challenges the attendance was solid, the topics and workshops relevant and focused.
KlasRobinson Q.E.D., a Minnesota-based hospitality consulting firm and NIGA associate member, is a longtime exhibitor, sponsor and supporter of the GPIGA and its conference and trade show. Matt Robinson, co-founder of KlasRobinson Q.E.D., said the GPIGA show had the right mix of business and social events. “It was an insightful conference and well-attended trade show. In addition, GPIGA held its inaugural Mystic Crawling Pub Extravaganza, which included stops at several new bar and lounge venues at Mystic Lake, culminating in a fun-filled evening of karaoke-ing, dancing and mingling of tribes, attendees and vendors.”
According to Robinson, “The important role that the GPIGA plays on behalf of its member tribes in relation to the relevant and timely issues of the region is why KlasRobinson Q.E.D. is and will continue to be a major sponsor of GPIGA.”
Kurt Luger and Kaeleen McGuire head the GPIGA conference planning and adhere to the mission of setting an agenda for the event that “draws upon the unique status of those within the Great Plains Indian Nations who have Treaties between themselves and the United States in order to influence and shape national legislation as well as issues affecting Tribal Economic Development.”
I was intrigued to find a conference track nestled among the usual topics such as gaming branding, social media, management and finance that clearly stood out as a regionally unique subject matter—the track covered the Bakken Oil industry and how it may affect tribal gaming operations in the area.
Robinson presented a workshop addressing the demographics of the Bakken Boom and the possible impact for tribes in the area. Some interesting facts from his presentation:
• In the U.S., the Bakken Shale area includes only Montana and North Dakota (some stretches into Canada as well);
• In 2013, the Bakken oil production rose to an all-time high of over 1,000 barrels per day;
• Employment levels have increased about 50 percent since 2009 in the Bakken area;
• Unemployment in the Bakken area of North Dakota is down to a historic low of two percent;
• Weekly wages for jobs are up 25 percent;
• In March 2014, 3,672 oil producing wells were operating in the North Dakota Bakken area;
• In the next 20 years the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources expects 20,000 new wells to be drilled;
• New business establishments have grown by about one-third in the Bakken area;
• New construction has risen sharply in the area.
If the above facts can be considered the good news for tribes in the form of new jobs, economic growth and potential new customers for tribal gaming facilities in the area, the next topics covered both in the KlasRobinson presentation and the conference tracks in general seem to speak to potentially bad, or at least concerning, news:
• Hydraulic fracturing—the methodology used—is highly controversial;
• Negative environmental effects such as contamination of ground water and air pollution could be long-lasting and irreversible;
• Employment could experience a bust once the fields go into production phase; experts predict as much as 90 percent of the jobs could be eliminated;
• Crime has risen 32 percent in the area, and the local sheriff has had to release some criminals as the jails are too full.
Two other sessions offered at GPIGA within the Bakken track focused on augmented background checks for new employees and protecting against human trafficking—seeming to indicate serious issues alongside any new opportunities.
Fascinated by the Bakken topic, I dug a little deeper and found an organized protest struggling to be heard, led by a tribe in Minnesota and related to the Bakken Oil. At first it didn’t connect for me logically that Minnesotans would be protesting oil drilling in North Dakota and Montana—until I had a chance to sit down with White Earth Band of Ojibwe Tribal Council Member Robert Durant. Durant explained that the large oil company, Enbridge, is proposing a pipeline called the Sandpiper that will carry the oil drilled in the Bakken area to refineries all over the United States. The current plans call for the underground pipeline to be constructed underneath the pristine headwaters and sacred rice fields of the tribe’s lands in Minnesota. Durant and others believe tribal treaty rights will be compromised if the oil company is allowed to proceed. So far the tribe and concerned citizens have not been given much of a chance to weigh in on the topic with government officials or the oil company. Although Enbridge has reportedly filed for a pipeline permit in North Dakota, there appears to be little available publicly regarding any environmental reports related to the Minnesota areas. The tribe and other environmentally concerned citizens are dedicated to preserving the environment and finding another transportation solution or alternate routes.
Honor the Earth is an environmental non-profit organization located on the White Earth reservation. On its website, the organization outlines its concerns regarding the proposed pipeline:
We live in the north. This is the only land that the Anishinaabe know, and we know that this land is good land, and this water is our life-blood. One-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water supply lies here, and it is worth protecting. Our wild rice beds, lakes and rivers are precious—and our regional fisheries generate $7.2 billion annually and support 49,000 jobs. The tourism economy of northern Minnesota represents $ll.9 billion in gross sales (or 240,000 jobs). All of this is threatened by the proposed Sandpiper pipeline—and for us, on the White Earth reservation in northwestern Minnesota, it is the Sandpiper which threatens our community and our way of life. The Sandpiper line of fracked oil will cross pristine ecosystems, and facilitate the creation of a national sacrifice area in western North Dakota. This land and this water are precious and they are endangered. The Enbridge Sandpiper line hopes to bring up to 375,000 barrels of fracked Bakken oil through a route in northern Minnesota. Fracked oil from the Bakken poses a serious risk to the North Country—particularly in light of the recent 800,000-gallon oil spill in a remote area of North Dakota. That spill, on a six-inch Tesoro line, went unmitigated for almost a week due to an understaffed Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), and all figures presently released come from Tesoro, the owner of the pipeline. The Sandpiper would carry that same oil, which has proven to be very volatile. In northern Minnesota a lot of our towns are 15-20 miles apart, with fire departments and rescue squads being even further apart. Response times are not quick and sometimes oil spills go days before discovered. In fact, less than 20 percent of pipeline spills are found by the company, despite their equipment. Most pipeline spill first responders are local citizens, who are not equipped to stop spills. A spill is likely given the 800-plus spills of the Enbridge Corporation in the past decade and the response will still be long. The Enbridge Kalamazoo Spill continued for 17 hours, and cleanup has not been completed.
The White Earth Nation, Friends of the Headwaters and other community members gathered on Earth Day for a unique celebration at Itasca State Park at the headwaters of the Mississippi. Tribal member or not, many came to observe Earth Day and to support the fight to stop the Sandpiper Pipeline project, which they contend will ruin Northern Minnesota’s natural resources. The ceremony started with a symbolic procession of veterans and children holding signs. Tribal leaders and representatives of Friends of the Headwaters and Honor the Earth spoke on the importance of protecting the environment for generations to come. Tribal leaders say they understand the country’s need for oil, and they’re not trying to stop the pipeline. However, they would like more environmental studies completed and a different route explored so it’s not going through some of the cleanest waters in Minnesota and their sacred rice paddies.
“We’d like to see a route that’s safer for everyone in Minnesota, all the while knowing it’s a necessity for society,” said Jerome Lhotka, executive director of the White Earth Nation.
“We want to make sure that the oil companies, big business, politics on a national and state level understand we have to stand together and protect what we have,” Durant noted. “We are standing in the center of the world; we have a circle around us. Winter, spring, summer and fall…we are not going to break that circle.”
The fight to protect the environment is similar to the fight our tribes have had for all their rights—gaming, land, water, timber—ultimately sovereignty in general. I came to Minnesota to report on a tribal gaming conference and left with a deep concern about the environment, our water, our future and the need for awareness.
Thank you to GPIGA organizers Luger and McGuire for including such a relevant topic as the Bakken at the gaming conference. Tribal gaming can only continue to flourish if our tribal sovereignty thrives as well. When Durant says we must “protect what we have,” that statement carries a much deeper meaning and far broader scope than any one single concern. Historically once sovereignty is compromised, the effects are generational and vast.
To read more about the Sandpiper Pipeline issues, please visit the following websites: