Lawrence Wetsit is a man with a sense of history.
An administrator at the Fort Peck Community College in Poplar, he’s also the cultural leader for the Assiniboine tribe. His great grandfather, I Ax Ba, also known as Chief Wets It, was known for his antelope horn bonnet and his ability to steal horses at night from a neighboring tribe. Wetsit speaks with a sense of great fondness for the land of his people.
“Historically, this land from White Earth in North Dakota, all the way across the Yellowstone and all of this Bakken field, all the way to Sweet Grass Hills, was Assiniboine land,” he said.”We tried to have possession of this good hunting ground.”
As a young man, he was chosen to be the tribe’s cultural leader. “I carry ceremony that has been passed and passed for thousands of years,” he said.
He also spent the better part of the 1980s as the mineral director and tax administrator for the Fort Peck Tribe, responsible for leasing and managing the tribe’s mineral resources. The price of oil had skyrocketed during the 1970s, and continued to remain high for the first half of the ’80s.
“We were selling leases for a million dollars in 1980, he said. “About in ‘85, I was selling leases for about a million dollars for a half section. And so we were doing real well.”
But at about that same time — in the late 70s and early 80s — severe water contamination north of Poplar was traced back to the oil & gas development of the 1950s.
“Their water wells were turned to salt,” Wetsit said. “All the people north of Poplar can’t drink the water and can’t eat Poplar River fish,” Wetsit said. “And out here in the West, if you don’t have fresh water, you don’t survive very long.”
The EPA reports an estimated 40 million gallons of highly salinized wastewater entered Poplar’s water supply as a direct result of oil production in the East Poplar field. To mitigate the drinking water contamination, a 3,200-mile pipeline is under construction that will pump water from the Missouri River.
“And that’s the thing about oil,” Wetsit said. “It’ll give us a lot of money now, but at the risk of us making our homeland uninhabitable. This is the last piece of property that the tribe has, and we have no place else to go,” he said.
“Our people don’t just pick up and move somewhere else. Our people have been here for thousands of years. These hills hold the bones of our ancestors,” Wetsit said. “By god, no matter where people go to live, they come back to this place.”
Wetsit is happy that the oil companies have not brought this new boom to his backyard. He said that while members of the tribe may disagree internally on whether or not to accept oil and gas development, they’ve kept the oil boom off the reservation.
“I’m very glad that we’re hard to get along with, because it has kept us from really getting involved in the Bakken oil development,” he said. “I hope that the price of oil drops low enough that they quit producing over there, so that our people quit looking there towards a quick fix.”
Wetsit lives in Wolf Point and works in Poplar. Poplar may be located near Williston — about 75 miles due West — but the economic conditions couldn’t be further apart. Where Williston is booming, Roosevelt County suffers from high rates of unemployment and poverty.
“My vision for the future is that those who want to live here on our homeland will have the opportunity to use our tribal resources to make a living for themselves.”
Despite that, Wetsit said he doesn’t see oil and gas development as the answer, as tempting as it might be. “So my thought is that we have to change people’s attitude about what a quality life is. What’s a quality life — is a quality life having riches? Or is a quality life just being happy and enjoying your days and working a little bit and enjoying your family?” he asked.
“We live on a reservation that is 2.2 million acres. And by God, there’s enough land here for every one of our tribal members to put together a nice family farm. And farming is hard work,” he said. “But my vision for the future is that those who want to live here on our homeland will have the opportunity to use our tribal resources to make a living for themselves.”
He knows it won’t be easy.
“Change is hard to do, it may never happen. But that’s my wish for the world — wish for our world,” he said. “And when I say the ‘world,’ I mean Fort Peck Reservation. That’s my world.”