MANDAREE, N.D. – Testifying before a legislative committee, holding a picket sign and posting to a blog are not things that come naturally to Theodora Bird Bear.
But the member of the Three Affiliated Tribes is so concerned about the impact of oil and gas development that she’s stepping out of her comfort zone and speaking out.
“When you’re connected to this land, like an intimate connection to this land, you will stand up for it no matter what,” Bird Bear said.
The 62-year-old grandmother devotes much of her time to monitoring oil and gas development, keeping people informed through the Facebook page This Is Mandaree. She frequently participates in meetings on and off the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and is chairwoman of the Dakota Resource Council’s oil and gas task force.
“It can take over your life if you’re not careful,” said Bird Bear, who spent 19 years working for Indian Health Services and now works part time doing bookkeeping for a church.
Bird Bear began raising concerns about impacts of energy development on the reservation years before the Bakken oil boom, when the Three Affiliated Tribes first proposed a refinery.
Her opposition to the refinery, which initially proposed to process Canadian oil sands but later changed to Bakken crude, led to an increased awareness of energy impacts as oil activity ramped up in North Dakota.
Bird Bear lives in rural Mandaree along a busy highway for oil and gas development. She bought a digital camera and started carrying it with her to document spills she would observe while driving to and from town.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to document these impacts because no one else is,’ ” Bird Bear said. “I don’t see anybody out there monitoring or enforcing anything, so I just took it upon myself to do that.”
She sent photos to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management. When she didn’t get a response, she began posting photos to social media.
“I don’t think the feds or the state are really responsive to the people,” Bird Bear said. “So you get your word out however you need to.”
Bird Bear attended her first legislative hearing last year and testified for a bill that would have required oil wells to be drilled farther away from homes.
She also testified in public hearings to preserve the Killdeer Mountains, once against an oil drilling proposal and recently against a proposed transmission line for the area. Bird Bear continues to oppose the refinery, holding a picket sign last year outside the tribe’s groundbreaking ceremony and oil and gas expo.
“It’s not easy to do that when all the pressure is to go forward with this big industrial development,” Bird Bear said. “But it’d be hard to sleep, I think, to know that you didn’t do what you could.”
Charles Hudson, a tribal member who lives in Oregon and follows Bird Bear’s postings on Facebook, said he admires that she speaks up for what she believes in and focuses on attacking issues, not people.
“She’s a hero to me,” Hudson said.
Bird Bear said she can’t always see the impact her efforts are having. But she thinks concerns she and others have raised about radioactive oilfield waste played a role in the North Dakota Department of Health’s decision to hire an independent consultant to study the material.
Bird Bear signed a lease in 2007 for some minerals she owns on the reservation, which will be drilled later this year. She said she had misgivings about it, but had a family member ill at the time and needed the bonus check.
She believes the minerals were undervalued because she and other tribal members weren’t used to the idea of negotiating.
“Most people signed whatever they were given,” she said.
While oil development is bringing millions in new revenue to the reservation, Bird Bear said she worries about the long-term effects for her grandchildren, including her 6-year-old grandson, Russell, whom she babysits and sometimes brings with her to public meetings.
“What’s he going to be dealing with in 20 years when he’s an adult?” Bird Bear said. “What is going to be left here for him? I want him to have the same connection to this land that I do.”