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North Dakota tribe gains title to mineral rights under river

April 5, 2022 GMT

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A North Dakota tribal nation on Monday officially assumed ownership of mineral rights under the Missouri River, snatching the title back from the state in a dispute that has gone on for more than two centuries.

The interior solicitor in the Biden administration said in an opinion released in February that the mineral rights under the original Missouri River riverbed belong to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes. That reversed a May 2020 Trump administration opinion concluding that the state is legal owner of submerged lands beneath the river where it flows through the Fort Berthold Reservation.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs filed notice in federal court on Monday that it recorded title to the tribes for 123 tracts of land.

At stake is an estimated $100 million in unpaid royalties held in trust and future payments certain to come from oil drilling beneath the river, which was dammed by the federal government in the 1950s. That flooded more than a tenth of the 1,500-square-mile (3,885-square-kilometer) Fort Berthold Reservation to create Lake Sakakawea.

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The state has argued it assumed ownership of the riverbed when North Dakota became a state in 1889, citing cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court has held that submerged lands were not reserved by the federal government. The Three Affiliated Tribes base their premise on three previous federal opinions dating back to the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie that confirms their ownership of the riverbed.

The February memo marked the fourth time the Interior Department had addressed the issue since January 2017, when Solicitor Hilary Tompkins, an appointee of President Barack Obama, affirmed tribal ownership. Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, President Donald Trump’s appointee, ruled in favor of the state in 2020. Jorjani’s opinion was scrapped in March 2021, after President Joe Biden took office.