Interior reverses course on tribal ownership of portion of Missouri river

The Interior Department has reversed a Trump administration decision determining that a portion of the Missouri River was under the jurisdiction of the state of North Dakota rather than a Native American reservation.

Trump officials had concluded a part of the river that flows through the Berthold Indian Reservation was within the state’s jurisdiction rather than that of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, the reservation’s three affiliated tribes.

“The previous administration’s M-Opinion overturned decades of existing precedent holding that the Missouri riverbed belonged to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation,” an Interior spokesperson said in a statement. “Today’s action will allow us to review the matter and ensure the Interior Department is upholding its trust and treaty obligations in accordance with the law.” 

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The earlier opinion is the subject of a legal challenge by the tribe in the District Court for the District of Columbia, according to the department. The court has granted the Interior Department a stay to review that opinion.

North Dakota has maintained the state owns the mineral rights to the portion of the river while the tribes have asserted legal precedent dating back to 1936 that gives them ownership.

“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,” National Council of American Indians president Fawn Sharp said in a statement last July. “We cannot reiterate strongly enough that consultation with tribal nations and upholding treaty obligations is not optional. It is mandatory.”

The opinion comes days after Interior Secretary Deb HaalandDeb HaalandBiden taps Obama-era official to lead Fish and Wildlife Service The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Manchin, Sanders in budget feud; Biden still upbeat Cheney reveals GOP's Banks claimed he was Jan. 6 panel's ranking member MORE became the first Native American Cabinet secretary. Native groups have expressed hope that Haaland’s confirmation will mean they have an ally in the department on issues affecting tribes.

The Hill has reached out to the MHA nation and North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office for comment.