Interior Gives Portion of Missouri River Back to MHA Nation

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

The Interior Department has returned jurisdiction over a portion of the Missouri River to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation, the three affiliated tribal nations that live on the reservation through which the river flows. This decision has undone an order from the Trump Administration that gave the state of North Dakota jurisdiction over this stretch of river.

As Native News Online explained, previously, the land belonging to the Three Affiliated Tribes was upheld through the 1825 and 1851 Treaties, subsequent Executive Orders, a clear, binding decision by Interior’s Board of Land Appeals in 1979, and Solicitor legal opinions in 1936 and 2017.

Today, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation said in a statement that it fully supports the Department of Interior’s decision to reject a 2020 opinion by former Solicitor Daniel Jorjani that illegally sought to take away the MHA Nation’s ownership.

Why This Matters: The Trump administration routinely displayed hostility toward the sovereignty of Native American tribes. However, these indiscretions date back to the founding of our nation. Honoring historic treaties is important, but more than that, lawmakers must increase the political power of indigenous communities and develop a better cultural competency when it comes to federal relations with tribes. 

President Biden has made some strides in this regard: revoking the Keystone XL pipeline and installing Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico as his Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American to be selected for a cabinet position. 

In 2019, presidential candidate Julián Castro released a plan that would put the federal government on a path to forge more equitable relationships with tribal governments and begin centering Indigenous needs in broader federal priorities. The plan should be a blueprint for how Democrats begin to address historic injustices as well as honoring treaty commitments.

Returning the River: With the Trump administration’s M-37056 Opinion, it had overturned decades of existing precedent that had the Missouri riverbed belonging to the MHA Nation.  After the tribe contested the opinion in the District Court for the District of Columbia, the Court granted the Interior Dept. a stay to review the Trump administration’s opinion.

While North Dakota has emphasized that the state owns the mineral rights to the riverbed, the tribes suggest that legal precedent from 1936 makes the river theirs. 

Recently, the National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp said of the decision: “The MHA Nation’s rights to the Missouri River riverbed minerals have been reaffirmed through a history of longstanding, well-settled, and still applicable legal precedents, and there should be no question as to the validity of the Nation’s claims.”


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