The Hess Corporation’s development of oil resources on Taĥċa Wakutėpi (Killdeer Mountain) on the edge of the North Dakota badlands threatens to destroy the integrity of a site sacred to tribes and important to historians, wildlife biologists, archaeologists and local landowners. In a June 2010 report on the preservation of North Dakota battlefields, the National Park Service wrote, “Each of North Dakota’s battlefields remains a good candidate for comprehensive preservation, but Killdeer Mountain is most at-risk. While exploratory oil well drilling has had little effect on the battlefield’s condition so far, industrial scale extraction of the sub-surface resources at Killdeer Mountain could destroy the landscape and associated view-sheds in the near future.”
Killdeer Mountain was the site of an attack by U.S. Army Brigadier General Alfred Sully against a traditional summer gathering of American Indians for trading, socializing and ceremonies. On July 28 and 29, 1864, the general’s troops killed an estimated 150 Dakota and Lakota warriors and executed uncounted women and children. They destroyed as many as 1,800 lodges, 200 tons of buffalo meat and dried berries, clothes and household utensils, tipi poles, travois, and piles of tanned hides and slaughtered horses and perhaps 3,000 dogs. It was the final significant battle in the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862, but its deliberate brutality led to other conflicts. Among the survivors of the Battle of Killdeer Mountain were Sitting Bull and his lieutenant, Gall, who would fight again at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.
The mountain was a sacred site long before the battle. Dakota Goodhouse, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, says, “Killdeer Mountain is a place people still go to pray, [and there are] still people at Fort Berthold who visit the site for vision quests.”
Gerard Baker, an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a former National Park Service superintendant, is 59. As a child, he learned the ceremonial importance of Taĥċa Wakutėpi from his father, who learned it from tribal elders. “He told us the stories of Singing Butte, where Earth-naming ceremonies once took place. Many of the ceremonies are lost because of time, but they are still extremely important. Medicine Hole is associated with lost ceremonies. Many were lost during the smallpox epidemic of 1837.” Baker explains that unless a ceremony’s owner sells or gives away the ceremony before he dies, it can no longer be performed. So many Indians died so quickly during the smallpox epidemic that they did not have time to ensure the survival of their ceremonies.
Sioux leader Sitting Bull, left, and Hunkpapa Chief Gall survived the Battle of Killdeer Mountain. (AP; Courtesy National Archives)
But the spirits still live on Singing Butte. “The spirits live in different areas throughout the Dakotas in various buttes from Canada to the South Dakota line. The Hidatsa consider that their ancestral territory,” says Baker. Other lifeways that once took place on Killdeer Mountain included burials, fasting, trapping to get eagle feathers, deer-hunting and dressing.
A fundamental problem—and one of the challenges in opposing oil drilling on the mountain—says Baker, is that “not enough people know about the ceremonies. Even though people know the site is sacred, not so many know about the ceremonies.” He has a very pragmatic approach to dealing with Hess’s current oil drilling proposals. “I wish we could say ‘No drilling,’ but that’s not going to happen. They’re going to get that oil one way or the other.… We could hold up protest signs, but I think education would work better,” says Goodhouse. “I feel the issue is people don’t care because they don’t know” about Killdeer Mountain’s cultural or historical significance. “In an ideal world, there would be no wells near that area, but I have to be a realist. My suggestion is to drill laterally” for four miles, instead of the two miles of lateral drilling Hess is planning.
Opponents have won two concessions. “They have agreed that if they come across artifacts they will cease operations. But I know from experience that road companies do not stop development to save what’s there. They call in salvage archaeologists to survey,” says Goodhouse.
Richard Rothaus, president of Trefoil Cultural and Environmental, an archaeological consulting firm, had been planning to look at the Killdeer battlefield in 2014 or 2015, but when he heard about the imminent oil drilling there, he got permission to do a quick surface survey. He found three sites, two of them major. “This is an area that could have good, important information about the battle. It would be a shame to see it torn up without some work.”
Rothaus says he would need one excavation season, roughly one summer, to do 80 percent of the archaeological work that needs to be done at the battlefield. He has applied for funding for the work to the National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program and will know in July whether the money will come through.
According to Rothaus, “Oil development is growing so fast out there that no one can keep track of it. People didn’t know this was being leased,” so they couldn’t do the archaeological work earlier. “Hess says it avoided the battlefield, but is 2.5 miles away from the historical marker for the battlefield, not three miles away from the battlefield.” The marker, he says, occupies just a couple of square feet of the vast battlefield. The wells Hess proposes are within the battlefield area.
The current situation on Killdeer Mountain, says Rothaus, came about through “a series of fairly innocent mistakes. I’ve almost never encountered anyone who doesn’t care about this history, but the right people are not at the table.”
Anne Marguerite Coyle, assistant professor of biology at Jamestown College in Jamestown, North Dakota, who spent three years studying golden eagles on Killdeer Mountain, concurs with Rothaus. “People don’t know when a plot of land might come up for lease.” The North Dakota Industrial Commission, she says, has no obligation to call other state agencies when they are planning to sell oil and gas leases.
Hess has agreed to a second concession, says Goodhouse. “The community did not want wells to be drilled during the school year because of the increased traffic, so they agreed to drill them in July.” But this concession brings its own problems. “The time they are going to put in the wells conflicts
Sully led the 1864 assault on a summer gathering of tribes at Killdeer. (Joel Emmons Whitney)
with religious pilgrimages to area. If someone went to pray up there this summer, drilling would have an adverse effect, based on the impacts I saw of drilling at Bear Butte. There the development is five to 10 miles away from the sacred site. The dirt roads there were expanded to accommodate additional traffic. The traffic is heavy, loud and constant—not conducive to a vision quest.”
Goodhouse says a January meeting between the Mineral Resources Department and those with concerns about the drilling was “very civil, very cordial,” but whether education and goodwill can lead to other compromises is doubtful. Hess responded to a request to ICTMN’s request for an interview via e-mail: “Throughout the regulatory process, members of the community have had an opportunity to raise their concerns with the North Dakota Industrial Commission. We believe that the commission remains the best forum for concerns to be raised and addressed.”
Loren Jepson, a landowner on Killdeer Mountain, cattle rancher and former Hess employee, did raise the issue with the commission when he filed a petition in February asking the commission to suspend its order to allow the drilling and to rehear the case. The commission denied Jepson’s petition on February 20. One argument he made—in keeping with his intent to slow down the process in order to allow more time for study and compromise—was that the commission “failed to consider the best alternative of drilling the requested wells,” referring to the concept that the wells could be started further away from the battlefield. The commission found: “What Jepson has characterized as the failure to consider ‘the best alternative’ does not constitute grounds for rehearing or reconsideration.” In order to reopen the case, says Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the commission’s Division of Mineral Resources, new information would have to be brought forward. “The commission carefully weighed the evidence,” she says, and the case has already been reopened once, last fall, which does not happen often.
Hess began preliminary work on the site one-quarter mile from Jepson’s house on February 21. He says an archaeologist is on site, but since the work moves so quickly and so much is destroyed in the process, it was unlikely anything would be found, an assessment Rothaus confirms. “Monitoring is just the last safeguard, not where you would want to start an archaeological investigation.”
Ritter explains that Jepson has run through his options at the executive level of the North Dakota state government and his next move would be to file an appeal in district court. Jepson says he does not know whether he will appeal. His attorney has told him that he would need $20,000 just to begin the process.
“I’m 60 years old,” Jepson says. “There are 30 [oil] wells here now and there will be 90 before the end of summer. I will never see the end of this. A way of life is gone, and it won’t come back.”