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Lisa Finley-DeVille is the president of the grassroots organization Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights (Fort Berthold POWER) and a community organizer on the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota. She is also a Representative in the North Dakota Legislative Branch as of 2023.

A Brief History

Lisa grew up as a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara) of Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. As a member of these communities, Lisa explains that her history begins with the history of her people. Although this history is too rich to get into in depth, there were a few key turning points. These tribes have lived along the Missouri River for at least a thousand years, with important dates enshrined in their unique and sacred oral tradition. The Mandan tribe derived a powerful position among their neighbors due to their manufacturing and trade routes, in addition to helping the Hidatsa learn how to build stationary settlements when they moved into the area. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Mandan were decimated by smallpox brought by European colonists, often with intention of driving out the indigenous community. The Arikara took in the remnants of the Mandan society. An alliance formed between the three tribes following the destruction caused by European diseases, leading to more homogeneous settlements. Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, the three tribes were forced from their land through a variety of government orders and policies. They were forced from the land surrounding the Missouri River and onto the Fort Berthold Reservation, where poor soil made it difficult to farm. Forcing the tribes to adopt individual land ownership (through a process called allotments) made it easy for even more of the land to be taken and sold to white settlers instead. For a more detailed history of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, and other nearby tribes, I recommend the history provided on their official website:

Getting Started

It is important to remember that the Three Affiliated Tribes are not historical. They persevere and persist, despite still feeling the impact of colonization. Lisa recalls that in her own childhood, she was taught that everyone is a part of Mother Nature. “Other people might think that as long as they have money, they’ll be okay. But not us,” she said. “I remember picking berries with my grandmother. She told me ‘there’s oil here, but they don’t know how to get to it. If they come and get it, I don’t know what’s going to happen to all of these berries.’” Her grandmother referred to the Bakkan oil field, discovered in the 1950s. Since most of the oil was trapped in shale, oil production could not take off significantly until a method was developed to free the oil from the rock. When Lisa grew up and had children of her own, she began to understand her grandmother’s worry. Lisa is incredibly proud of her five children, two of whom have graduated college with science degrees, one with a liberal arts degree, and two more who are still working on their degrees. She continues to carry on her tribe’s traditions, involving her children in traditional ceremonies. Lisa is from the chicken clan. She speaks with pride of the fact that her tribe is unique in that women wear warbonnets. “When it comes to honoring, you use the father’s clan. My husband is part of the knife clan,” she explained. “At one point there were around 13 clans, but today there are only 7.” Unfortunately, over the past two decades, oil extraction has also become prevalent in the area. In the early 2000s, a modified fracking technique was developed that made accessing oil and gas in shale rock formations economically feasible (Forbes). When extraction ramped up in 2006, Lisa began to see the impacts her grandmother worried about. In the Bakken oil field, much of the extraction is done via this modified fracking, a process that splits crustal rocks to release oil and natural gas. The gas often escapes, creating toxic fumes and large flares. Lisa saw the lack of environmental protections and began to think about getting involved. “I want future generations to understand that I fought for them and tried to protect them,” Lisa explained. “What is going to happen when the oil is gone? There will be no more money, just contamination.” Lisa explained that her community has politics, just like every other community does. And, just like in other communities, particularly ones which have been historically disenfranchised, money talks. Around 2006-2008, oil companies began taking an interest in the vast oil reserves under Fort Berthold. “The oil companies would hire a ‘runner’, who was an indigenous person that they paid to communicate with the tribe. The runner would offer royalties to the elders, who were in charge of signing leases to the oil companies. The elders would get something like $100 per acre, while the oil companies would take in thousands. Nowhere in the agreements was environmental protection mentioned.” Lisa explained that about 70% of the land on the reservation is controlled by this small group. At the beginning, they kept the tribe in the dark about their decisions regarding the oil companies. By 2010, Lisa’s community was feeling the impact of the mostly unregulated oil and natural gas extraction. A woman in her town called Lisa to take a look at the snow behind her house, which had turned a strange yellow. Another community member had their horses die when the water on their property became contaminated with the chemical toluene. The flares from the oil fields could be easily seen at night and both Lisa and her husband developed a respiratory illness almost exclusively seen in gas field workers. Lisa began reaching out, asking natural resource committees and the science department at a local college if they knew what was going on. She went to the tribal leaders as well, but “no one had any answers,” she said. “At first, people were excited about the money coming in. But attitudes started changing when they saw the impact on their communities.” Then, in 2011 or 2012, it was announced that the post office was going to be closed. They would have to drive 30 miles to the next closest post office to pick up their mail. Lisa began a petition with several other community members, in an effort to save the post office. “I started talking to people and hearing about other issues: the post office, dust from the gravel roads, poor water quality, oil and gas spills, etc. I began thinking about how it felt like we were living in a third world country.” Lisa began investigating and found communities in Pennsylvania that had similar issues (Shalefield Stories). She realized that it wasn’t just Fort Berthold that was being polluted. Lisa suspected that wastewater from fracking was getting into the community’s soil and water supply; however, she was wary of reports done by the industry, state, or Tribal offices, all of whom had a stake in oil extraction going forward. She learned that the communities in PA had been able to definitively show that contamination was coming from the oil extraction process by inviting researchers into the area. Lisa agreed to facilitate a similar study with one of the scientists who had worked in PA, but this time close to her own home. The scientist was Dr. Avner Vengosh at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Between 2014 – 2016, his lab was able to determine that the oil and gas wastewater from the Bakken oil field had unique radium and strontium signatures, allowing it to be detected in the environment. They also found that sites with wastewater contamination showed high levels of metal pollution that persisted even after four years since a spill (Thriving Earth Exchange). This finding was particularly alarming, given that just after the study began, 1 million gallons of wastewater spilled into local waterways just a quarter mile from Lisa’s town (Inside Energy).

The Work

Lisa is the president of the Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights (Fort Berthold POWER), formed in 2015 and affiliated with the Dakota Resource Council. Some of their earliest work was on the methane flares that were harming the health of her community. Lisa discovered that only a few laws protect indigenous people from environmental harm, such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. “I needed to help my community and children learn the federal law so that they can learn their rights,” Lisa said. She knew from personal experience and from speaking with her community that the flares were physically damaging: “When you walk next to one, your eyes and throat burn and you feel like you’re suffocating,” she described. But testimonies weren’t enough to convince lawmakers. She decided to collect data on the oldest flare in the area. She took video of the flare and sent samples of the gas off for analysis before bringing her findings to elected officials. “For the first time, people listened to us because it wasn’t just stories anymore.” In 2018 the group sued the Bureau of Land Management when they rolled back a regulation that had been put in place to prevent the kind of flaring that Lisa fought against in 2015. Using a combination of the law suit and testimonials in Washington DC, during which they presented infrared images of methane emissions from wells, Fort Berthold POWER managed to get the regulation reinstated by 2020. They are continuing their work for cleaner air by setting up an air monitoring program with the Dakota Resource Council and Colorado State University. The organization recently installed multiple air quality monitoring devices across the Fort Berthold reservation and are setting up a website so community members can track the results on a live dashboard (KFYR News). Lisa explained that a lot of her work involved educating her community about what spills or leaks look like. “We need passionate people and data to enforce environmental protections,” Lisa said. “My community isn’t educated about these issues. The white workers [the oil companies] bring in just care about their paycheck. They have no emotional investment in the land they work.” Lisa continues to educate herself as well, getting a bachelor’s degree in environmental science in 2015, while tirelessly working on advocating for her community. When I first spoke to Lisa, she had recently lost a race for public office. “I kind of knew I would lose,” Lisa admitted. While she was popular among her own people, it wasn’t enough to sway the rest of the state. “White people tend to vote for white people. I mostly did it so that people would hear our voice and learn about the issues we face.” Lisa said that she believes all reservations should have representation in government, since most people don’t understand the needs of indigenous communities. “People who don’t live in the oil fields just think it’s good for the economy, without having to live with the consequences,” she explained. “I would ask, so if [the Dakota Access Pipeline] breaks, we can reach out to you to get money for cleanup? Obviously people don’t want to think about that.” However, Lisa perseveres. She recently won her second attempt at running for public office, landing her a seat in the North Dakota Legislature. In her reflection on her first session (see full speech below), she mentioned feeling as though she carried an extra burden of being an educator as well as a representative. Most of the state is pro-extraction because of the economical benefits. Lisa had to educate her fellow representatives on the impacts of extraction on her community, while also advocating for unpopular reforms that would help secure the health and safety of indigenous communities.

“I want future generations to understand that I fought for them and tried to protect them. What is going to happen when the oil is gone? There will be no more money, just contamination.”

Environmental Justice

Lisa’s story shows just how complicated environmental justice can be. It’s easy for middle class, suburban families to put their noses up at fossil fuels, but for a community that has been forced into a region where oil and gas are one of the only ways to make a living, turning away from this industry is not a luxury many of them have. “It’s not that I’m against oil, it’s that companies need to be held accountable and take the environment into account,” Lisa said. Her family and many others in her community depend on oil royalties to live, despite just a small fraction of the profits going to the tribe. Lisa also spoke about the difficulties of uniting a community that is so dependent on oil money. “We need to protect our people, but some of the tribal leaders are focused solely on the money,” Lisa said. “They neglect all other considerations.” In May 2023, a former tribal leader was sentenced to five years in prison for soliciting bribes and accepting kickbacks from a contracting business between 2013 and 2020 (CBS). Lisa and others wanted to know why the council allowed him to make these shady deals and take so much money from their community. Unfortunately, even with such a blatant betrayal of trust, it is still difficult to change people’s minds. “Some people are afraid to say anything because of potential retaliation,” Lisa explained. Her own son works in a position where he could be impacted. “They tried to make him sign a gag order, but he refused.” Whenever any of the community members tried to speak out publicly (ex. letters to the editor), workers from the oil companies would respond with racist comments on their trash cans or property. Even some fellow community members were opposed to making a stand, for a variety of reasons. “I started to get attacked by my aunt, calling me every name in the book for speaking out against these issues and trying to hold our tribal leaders accountable.”


Lisa had two key pieces of advice. The first was to be humble and continue to learn. “I don’t know everything, I’m still learning a lot,” she said. Throughout her advocacy, she has had to learn about collecting surveys from her community, how to implement data collection, how to back up testimonials with science, and how to communicate her community’s needs to people who have no idea what they face. The second piece of advice was to speak up for what you believe is right, even if others try to tear you down or silence you. “I haven’t been silent, even when I’m bashed for it, because I care about our future.” She found her motivation in her culture, which emphasizes our collective connection to Mother Earth, and her children, who she hopes will grow up healthy and be able to have a connection to a land without pollution. Find your own motivation and let it give you strength to speak out for your community.

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Sources Cited

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