David Rooks
Island Girl was supposed to be used by high-end patrons of the casino to travel around the lake in a mini casino & restaurant.

Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Dreams on Dry Dock for Now

David Rooks

It’s a Rez cliché. Drive into a HUD house cluster anywhere in Indian country and within a house or two you’ll see a rust bucket on blocks; a glory of past Detroit beauty that’s been there awhile – a long while – because an old hope someone has for it will not die: “It’ll run again – soon. Just waitin’ on parts.”

Take your drive to the Three Affiliated Tribes’ Four Bears Casino near New Town, North Dakota. Turn right, cruise past the parking lot and then left, down to the bait shop just off the shore of Lake Sakakawea. Rub your eyes at least once or twice: dead ahead is a 96- foot, $2.5 million-dollar yacht dubbed Island Girl. It’s on blocks, actual cinder blocks.

And it’s been there awhile and not because it’s broken.

Tribal officials call it “dry dock,” which has been its regular status the three years since then-Tribal Chairman Tex Hall greenlit its acquisition and plunked it into the water just outside New Town. It was supposed to be used by high-end patrons of the casino to travel around the lake in a mini casino and restaurant.

But, after fits and starts, the would-be floating casino has been barely used. One easily foreseeable but nevertheless overlooked problem: Winters in North Dakota get very cold. The lake often freezes over for months at a time. The other problem: a downturn in the local economy. The yearlong drop in oil prices worldwide means less money is flowing through the hands of oil field workers and local businesses connected to and supporting oil production. The regional fall-off has slashed business at Four Bears Casino up to 60 percent according to casino employees.

Expectations have receded as well. The Citizens of the Three Affiliated Tribes are grappling with the transformations that come with a boom-and-bust economy. A recent trip through their territory also reveals spirits at a low ebb. In interviews and asides, they say they struggle to maintain their culture and community surrounded by energy resource extraction.

Rank and file Three Affiliated Tribes (TAT) tribal members have other names for Island Girl, the epic symbol of their dilemma. Most boil down to a single word: “Embarrassment.” A close second would be: “Wasteful;” several names are not meant for public consumption. One tribal member, a local rancher, suggested that Island Girl “might look better up on blocks behind Tex’s house” in Mandaree.

Questions to tribal members about Island Girl draw near unanimity on a few points: contempt for Hall, the yacht’s perceived champion (and erstwhile commodore), and cynical confirmation that whatever Native values remain in the hearts of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people, they were absent in the Tex Hall government.

Back in July of 2013, near the peak of the oil and gas boom, sunnier days had arrived. The 149 passenger yacht, the first of its kind in North Dakota, received a welcoming ceremony and was boarded by 75 special guests for its maiden voyage. Local “Turtle Island Storyteller” Calvin Grinnell provided “cultural interpretation” as Mandan, Hidatsa and Santee singer and hoop dancer Jackie Bird sang the songs.

During the ceremony, Chairman Hall exclaimed, “We’re back at the river!” a historical reference dear to tribal members but also an unfortunate one—the enthusiastic phrase reminded listeners that the actual river remained buried under billions of gallons of water formed by the Garrison Dam project in the early 1950s. The same Lake Sakakawea waters that floated Island Girl had drowned ancient communities and prime agricultural soil fundamental to Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara culture and identity.


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