The Indian Wars: One White Man’s Struggle with the Bureau of Indian Affairs

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At first, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was helpful to this white man. This episode in the Indian Wars should never have become necessary.

Unfortunately, the extreme courtesy and professionalism shown by the Deputy Director at the Agency’s office for the Great Plains Region in Aberdeen, South Dakota…did not extend to his subordinates. The BIA went from being highly helpful in July of 2012 to stonewalling my attorney for five straight months (and ongoing) in 2013.

I didn’t crack that wall, either, when I personally took over.

As a result, this page is, I suppose, a Declaration of War. Victory in said war is clearly defined: We’re simply requiring the BIA staff in Aberdeen to talk to us, to let us know where a particular Indian probate modification process stands at the moment, and to keep us posted.

We’re pretty sure that’s not too much to ask.

For this to make sense to the average reader, however, a bit of backstory is necessary.

Sarah Baker was a fullblood Mandan Indian woman (yes, “Native American” these days, but she passed from this world before that term came into vogue) who was my step-grandmother, my paternal grandfather’s second wife. She owned certain mineral rights on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.

At the time, those rights were considered worthless–literally worthless–but they were nonetheless passed down faithfully from generation to generation.

Sarah died of bone cancer in 1977. My grandfather, Ralph Baker, inherited the mineral rights from her. When he passed in 1980, the rights went to my father, Elvin M Baker. Dad died in 1997, leaving the rights to me.

These rights were still considered worthless. So worthless, in fact, that Dad made a sincere and somewhat strenuous effort to sell them when he had them, but he could find no takers at any price.

I’d held the mineral rights for twelve years when, completely out of the blue, I got a call in August of 2009 from a company interested in leasing some or all of those rights from me. The reason the rights had been considered worthless was not because there were no minerals of value in that area. There was, in fact, a huge oil deposit, right there. But it was all embedded in shale, and until somewhere around 2005, the United States had not yet developed the technology that could profitably extract oil from shale.

What the caller explained was that in essence I’d drawn the long straw. What had been worthless for more than a century was suddenly very valuable indeed.

By the time the year (2009) was done, I had two leases signed with two separate energy companies. I’d also retained Josh Cole of Bakken Oil LLC in Sidney, Montana, to handle my title curative work.

This was a new area of study for me, but essentially it goes like this:

    1. When an energy company drills for oil, it pays royalties on the sale of that oil (and any accompanying natural gas) to the owners of the mineral rights for the acreage where the well was drilled.

    2. Before those royalties are paid out, however, the company’s lawyers have to be certain that the people they’re paying really do own what the records indicate they own. If they pay the wrong people, they could end up in all sorts of legal hot water and end up losing money, which would be a bad thing. Therefore, they nitpick–which I understand completely. In their shoes, I would, too.

    3. A title curative attorney specializes in clearing up any questions about these ownership interests. One never knows just what sort of documentation or legal action may be necessary to accomplish this.

Josh has done great work for me. At one point, just for example, he needed to track down a certified copy of Ralph’s death certificate, and he did that. At one point, he also had to round up a copy of Sarah’s Indian probate record, and he did that, too.

Long story short, he was able to reassure one of the two companies regarding several questions they had, after which they released money they’d been holding for many months–just in time to save our financial situation. Without his yeoman work, we’d not have had enough cash on hand to even cover my wife’s necessary medical prescriptions. (We’re cash and carry, no health insurance, and do not consider Obamacare an option.)

Everything was looking pretty good until a problem arose in 2012. One of the energy companies notified me of multiple oil wells being drilled in an area where I appeared to have mineral rights, but there was one piece of documentation they needed to make their understandably ultra cautious lawyers comfortable. I needed what they called a mineral fee patent.

Josh wrote the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). That turned out to be the wrong Bureau, but the BLM bucked the letter over to the BIA. Interagency cooperation to help the American citizen; we were favorably impressed.

The Deputy Director of the BIA, four months after Josh had first mailed his letter to the wrong agency, wrote Josh a letter.

Letter dated July 25, 2012, from the Deputy Director of the BIA in Aberdeen, South Dakota, to my curative rights attorney, Josh Cole.

Letter dated July 25, 2012, from the Deputy Director of the BIA in Aberdeen, South Dakota, to my curative rights attorney, Josh Cole.

The letter reads as follows:

Dear Mr. Cole:

This is in response to your letter of March 14, 2012, addressed to the Bureau of Land Management, North Dakota Field Office, received in our office on April 2, 2012 (copy enclosed). You requested a fee patent for Mr. Fred Baker, for the mineral interest of Sarah Baker located in the W1/4SE1/4, E1/2SW14, Section 15, Township 150 North, Range 92 West, Fifth Prrincipal Meridian, Mountrail County, North Dakota, also known as allotment no. 301 M 510.

Our findings show that a fee patent was issued to Sarah Baker on September 22, 1966, for the surface portion of the aforementioned property. The mineral portion is still however owned by Sarah Baker. The Indian Probate for Sarah Baker did not include allotment no. 301 M 510, therefore her probate will need to be modified to add and distribute said allotment. This office has requested our Land Titles and Records office to initiate the modification process for the Estate of Sarah Baker. Unfortunately, this is a very lengthy process.

Without a written consent from Mr. Fred Baker, we are unable to release any additional information to you regarding this transaction. If you receive a release of information from Mr. Baker allowing us to communicate with you, please submit the original document to our office at the address listed above.

Included with your letter there were documents you obtained from the county or the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). We appreciate all of the research and documentation that your office provided regarding this case.

If you have any questions, you may contact Luree Livermont, Realty Specialist, or Carla Clark, Acting Realty Officer, at (605) 226-7618.

Sincerely,

ACTING Deputy Regional Director–Trust Services

Enclosure

cc: Superintendent, Fort Berthold Agency

This was a wonderful letter. It lacked only one thing: The signature is not legible–it could possibly be something like “Jim Dee”, but there’s no way to be sure, and the name was not printed below the signature.

Other than that, things were looking good. I did need to get a letter to the BIA authorizing them to talk to Josh Cole, which I did immediately as follows.

A copy of my July 31, 2012, letter to the BIA, authorizing them to communicate with my curative rights attorney, Josh Cole, regarding any and all mineral rights issues I might have in the state of North Dakota.  No signature, of course; that was only provided on the original.

A copy of my July 31, 2012, letter to the BIA, authorizing them to communicate with my curative rights attorney, Josh Cole, regarding any and all mineral rights issues I might have in the state of North Dakota. No signature, of course; that was only provided on the original.

Okay. With the Indian probate modification process in the works, Josh and I agreed we might as well not bug the BIA for a while.

We waited one full year to check back in for an update.

And…nothing. In July of 2013, Josh began calling the BIA office in Aberdeen. The receptionist was always 100% courteous and helpful…but she was never “able” to locate either party (Livermont or Clark) when he was on the line. He always had to go to voice mail, every time. Leave a message.

Which would have been all right, except that no one ever called him back. Not once.

In August, he added a snail mail letter to the mix. He got no reply to that, either. He kept calling, but as you might imagine, the man was getting mightily frustrated. The Aberdeen office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which had been so helpful at the Deputy Director level in 2012, had suddenly decided we peons simply did not exist.

I’m willing to bet a dollar to a doughnut hole that if President Barack Obama called Aberdeen, someone extremely helpful would be on the line in half a heartbeat.

On November 1, 2013, I got involved. My first move was to visit a Constituent Representative for Congressman Ron Barber, who represents our Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Rep who met with me promised to do her best, and I’m sure she did–but still the stonewall continued.

On December 4, after letting Josh Cole know he could take a break and I would take over, I called the BIA personally. My experience was identical to that reported by the attorney. The young lady who answered the phone hopped right to it, doing her best (I do not doubt her sincerity) to find me someone “in Research” and trying to find Carla Clark.

She had no success, and, as Josh had been doing for months, I left a message via voice mail.

I did not get a call back.

On December 6, after pondering various angles of attack, I concluded further phone calls were a waste of time. Instead, I wrote a two page letter specifically addressed to Carla Clark. I’d heard the receptionist use her name, so she clearly still works there.

The letter was not written with any anticipation of hearing back from Ms. Clark. Rather, it was a shot across the bow, a Fair Warning sort of message letting the BIA staff know what my next step would be.

Page one of my December 6 letter to Carla Clark at the BIA in Aberdeen.

Page one of my December 6 letter to Carla Clark at the BIA in Aberdeen.

Page two of my December 6, 2013, letter to Carla Clark at the BIA in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Page two of my December 6, 2013, letter to Carla Clark at the BIA in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

The text of the letter (shown in the two screen shots immediately above) looks legible enough, but I’ll recap just in case it’s not. In summary, I advised Ms. Clark that this post would be published if I had not heard from the BIA by Christmas Day. I further promised weekly updates and also promised to forward links to this page and each update to various interested parties until communication has been properly reestablished, the Indian probate modification process completed, and the fee patent issued.

One final image: I’m keeping a journal which includes a copy of the tracking receipt for the December 6, 2013 letter. That missive arrived in Aberdeen on December 10.

Weekly updates to follow regarding this white man’s Indian War, a simple yet inexplicable conflict with one of our nation’s great federal bureaucracies, the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Some may question my use of “Indian Wars” in the title, but hey. My grandmother was definitely Mandan, my wife is part Choctaw, and our newest housemate happens to be part Cherokee.

That’s close enough for government work.

My journal page, showing the tracking data that confirms delivery of my Dec. 6 letter on Dec. 13.

My journal page, showing the tracking data that confirms delivery of my Dec. 6 letter on Dec. 10.

Oh, the location of the mineral rights under discussion? They’re in a portion of the Bakken formation in North Dakota, part of the biggest oil boom in the country. Declaring war on a non communicative front line BIA staff blocking payment in that area is worth the effort.

List of those notified of this post:

1. Josh Cole, Bakken Oil LLC, Sidney, Montana…………email.
2. Michael Black, Director, BIA/Aberdeen, South Dakota…snail mail.
3. Congressman Ron Barber, Sierra Vista, Arizona………snail mail.
4. aberdeennews.com………………………………..forum comment.
5. BIA headquarters, D.C……………………………snail mail.

Update: Christmas morning, 2013. Remember Stieg Larsson’s book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest? Well…based on my dream state a few hours after publishing this post, I seem to be The Man Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

In the dream, I was out and about, looking to hike up over a ridge I knew well. At the base of the ridge, however, there was a bit of a hollow log lying beside the trail, a chunk of half-rotted wood maybe two feet in diameter and six feet in length. I kicked the thing for whatever reason (it made sense in the dream), whereupon it rolled over a bit and split in half.

Inside were thousands of black hornets, many of which came boiling out in dark clouds to deal with the two legged intruder that dared to defile their domicile. Several hundred of them landed on my back, clinging to the thin fabric of the western shirt I was wearing. Others, though fewer in number, speckled other places on my face and body.

I felt a few stings, nothing serious yet, but having a “bee blanket” (“bee” for the “B” in BIA, most likely, even though they were not bees but hornets) half an inch thick covering one’s entire back is a sure precursor; a greater number of zingers was virtually guaranteed.

Among the insects remaining inside the hollow log halves were several queens, each of them marked differently than the monochrome workers; these queens had horizontal black and white banding around their abdomens, not unlike the famous “coontail” pattern on the tail of the western diamondback rattlesnake. The largest queen looked to be a good five inches in length, with a coontail abdomen the size of my sizeable thumb.

It wouldn’t have bothered me to kill her at that point, but with what? It would have taken either a shotgun or an industrial strength pesticide spray gun, and I had neither. So, the only damage I did to the hornets was to literally expose them to the light of day.

Forget about the hike. I needed to get back home, shuck this hornet shirt as carefully as possible, and go from there.

Later, having eased out of the shirt with a “minimum” number of additional stings, I asked a few observers to take a look at my shirtless back. “I’m guessing 100 stings or so,” I said, and they agreed; that looked about right. Each sting produced a tiny red welt–fortunately, I’m not overly allergic to this sort of venom, and my resistance was apparently enhanced dramatically in the dream state. The pain wasn’t even that noticeable.

At any rate, there were sting marks on my face and hands, etc., but my back was pretty well covered in red marks.

When I awakened, the interpretation of the dream was obvious. I’ve been working on interpreting certain of my own dreams accurately for more than four decades, and this one was simple, to wit:

1. I’ve kicked the hornet’s nest with this post, stirred things up in grand fashion.

2. The post has also exposed the venomous little critters for what they are (log breaking open).

3. Most of the back stabbing (stings on back) will be just that, perhaps minor bureaucrats doing what they believe they need to do to protect their jobs, spewing their little bits of venom as they can.

4. I’m relatively immune to such attacks and, though perhaps mildly discomfited, I’m in no real danger.

Before George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry went down at the Battle of the Greasy Grass, Sitting Bull had a vision of soldiers falling into camp. I don’t claim to be a seer of Sitting Bull’s caliber, but my dreams are nonetheless helpful.

Let’s see where it goes from here.

Update: December 26, 2013. This post is already beginning to collect views from the world wide web. When that happens (which it does with many, but far from all, of my posts), it’s invariably a result of the post showing up high in Google results.

So I checked that out.

Searching the complete title brings it up in the #1 spot, but that’s meaningless. Nobody is going to enter such a long, convoluted title in a search box. So I try to think it through: What might people really search for? In this case, I found the following results:

    “struggle Bureau of Indian Affairs”: #15, in the middle of page two Google results.

    “struggle BIA”: #40, at the bottom of page four Google results.

These are terms a real human might actually think to type into a search box. This is encouraging and should lead to even greater exposure over time.

Update: January 1, 2014. This is the first “scheduled weekly update”, as promised.

No, I’ve not heard the magical word from the BIA. But then, in all fairness, what great government office pays much attention to the plebes during the holidays? (Okay, so they don’t always pay attention to us when it’s not the holidays, either, but still.)

There is, however, good news to report on the Internet front. Not blockbuster stuff, but good news nonetheless. Which is important, because the one real weapon I have available to me in my war against the Great Stone Wall of Silence in Aberdeen is the ability to garner views from the public. Exposure doesn’t seem to do much to lessen President Obama’s popularity, but any lesser (read bureaucratic) being is vulnerable to the searing light of the noonday sun.

The good news to date:

1. Searching “struggle BIA” no longer brings this page up at the bottom of page four. Now it’s #1, page 1.

2. Yes, of course that at least partially explains why several dozen views popped up in the last day or two as well.

3. Searching “struggle Bureau of Indian Affairs” brings the page up from #15 (page 2) to #1 (page 1).

4. “BIA war” doesn’t show high in web search results…but four of the images from this page dominate the very first row of Google Images results.

5. “Indian Wars BIA” pulls up three images from here at the top of Google Images results and posts the link at #10 (bottom of page 1) for a web search.

And so on, and so forth. That’s all in the first week of publication.

–End of Update–

List of those notified of this update:

1. Josh Cole, Bakken Oil LLC, Sidney, Montana…………email.
2. Michael Black, Director, BIA/Aberdeen, South Dakota…snail mail.
3. Congressman Ron Barber, Sierra Vista, Arizona………snail mail.
4. aberdeennews.com……………online form, Letter to the Editor.
5. BIA headquarters, D.C………………email (text to be included in next update).

Update: January 7, 2014.

We have something to report. Yesterday, I received a letter from the BIA. In addition to the letter itself, from Timothy LaPointe, Deputy Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Aberdeen, a copy of a key document was enclosed. Here’s a look at both items.

Page one of the letter, date stamped Dec. 20, 2013, from Deputy Director Timothy LaPointe of the BIA in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Page one of the letter, date stamped Dec. 20, 2013, from Deputy Director Timothy LaPointe of the BIA in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Page two of the letter from Deputy Director LaPointe.

Page two of the letter from Deputy Director LaPointe.

The request for the probate modification of Sarah Baker's estate, forwarded on December 11 from the Acting Superintendent of the Ft. Berthold Agency to Judge Albert Jones in Billings.

The request for the probate modification of Sarah Baker’s estate, forwarded on December 11 from the Acting Superintendent of the Ft. Berthold Agency to Judge Albert Jones in Billings.

We are, of course, extremely pleased to see Deputy Director LaPointe’s letter and accompanying documentation. To explain this to the reader, however, it’s probably simplest to do it by the numbers.

1. It looks like the BIA got off the dime following the receipt of my Dec. 6 letter advising the Agency of my intended action in the event that I did not hear from them in a satisfactory fashion by Christmas Day. There is a time gap of 17 days between the date stamp (and postmark) on LaPointe’s letter and the day the Priority Mail envelope arrived in our mailbox.

2. Our suspicions that the probate modification request for Sarah Baker’s estate might have never been initiated at all (despite the previous Acting Deputy Director’s advice to the contrary in July of 2012) appears to have been borne out. In other words, somebody dropped the ball, and a 17 month delay that never should have happened…did in fact happen.

3. However, we now have in hand (a) a copy of that initiation request (above) from the BIA to Judge Albert Jones in Billings and (b) the indication that the usual time span to accomplish an Indian probate modification runs between six months to one year. This all amounts to much more than we had to go on prior to this point in time.

4. Both of the BIA employee names (Luree Livermont and Carla Clark) that were provided in 2012 were provided once again in LaPointe’s 12/20/13 letter, indicating that the ladies who’d been stonewalling us are in fact both still employeed in Aberdeen.

So. Glitches happen. The key question now is: Where do we go from here?

MY title curative attorney, Josh Cole, is out of the office for a couple of days. When he returns, I’ll be bringing up to date by phone (to follow up on an email already sent). I’ll also be forwarding copies of the latest, crucial documents to him. Once he has those in hand, he may want to give the BIA in Aberdeen a call–and see if, this time, either Livermont or Clark will deign to answer the phone, just to verify the existence of the newly reopened channels of communication.

We’ll keep you posted.

UPDATE: November 2, 2014.

Obviously, I’ve not kept up with the “weekly updates” that were promised early in this post–but this one is worth the wait. Bottom line is that the necessary paperwork has been completed and received, to wit:

1. The Indian Probate Modification of Sarah Baker’s estate was requested by the Aberdeen (South Dakota) BIA office through the New Town (North Dakota) BIA office to the Tribal Court in Billings (Montana). Judge Albert Jones approved the modification and the estate paperwork was updated in the BIA records on July 13, 2014.

2. In September of 2014, I called Josh Cole (title curative attorney) because the BIA seemed to be stalling once again. Josh was so frustrated by this time that he “fired himself” before I could get around to it. Dealing with the BIA had simply worn him down; he was completely burned out on this case, and I don’t blame him one bit.

3. However, from the BIA Assistant Director’s earlier letter (December 2013), it was clear to me that now the BIA simply needed to ask the BLM to issue the mineral fee patent to “Ralph Baker and/or the Heirs of Ralph Baker” and that would be the end of it. So I decided to call the BLM in Billings (Montana, where the fee patent would be issued)–and I got very, very lucky. The receptionist bucked me to the lady who actually issues these fee patents. She answered her phone on the first ring and turned out to be the finest ally an oil well owner could possibly have.

4. The BLM employee (a) called her contact at the BIA, (b) called me to let me know she expected to see the application from the BIA within days, (c) called me when the application arrived (about ten days later), (d) called me when it was issued (which didn’t take long, and (e) mailed me a certified copy of the fee patent at the same time the original was being mailed to the BIA.

Beyond that–which is more than amazing and wonderful enough in its own right–she also clued me in regarding the situation at the BIA. It seems that the office in Aberdeen was already understaffed before the Bakken oil boom hit. Since then, they’ve received no more help whatsoever while at the same time their work load has multiplied exponentially.

No wonder Aberdeen is only responding to the wheel that squeaks the loudest.

At the moment, my copy of the mineral fee patent document is sitting somewhere in the Mountrail County Courthouse in Stanley, North Dakota. The County Recorder needs to record that fee patent for me. Once I have it back, a copy of the recorded document will need to go to the oil company holding my funds in suspense, at which point the company will feel safe and the funds will be released to relocate in my bank account.

There does appear to be one final obstacle. The people in Stanley are terribly overworked as well. When I called a few days ago to check in, wanting to make sure that (a) my packet had reached the Recorder’s office and (b) the paperwork was in order…I was advised by a very helpful lady that she could not find my mailing, at least not yet.

I’ll be staying on top of that for obvious reasons.

10 thoughts on “The Indian Wars: One White Man’s Struggle with the Bureau of Indian Affairs

  1. And WAR has been declared. I was afraid this was coming for you. The Federal Government is good at trying to keep the people from knowing anything, especially if it may cause them to do a bit of work. Good luck, and add my little bit of Indian in there too. I will lend it to you, even if I don’t know which kind. I know it is in there somewhere. I get asked too often if I am and so did my father. Grandpa said it was there, but he didn’t know which kind either.

  2. Thanks, Becky; I’ll take all the helpful “little bits of Indian” I can collect as allies for this one. 🙂

    I’ve just posted my first update–which is early enough that the list of link recipients won’t need a separate advisory. As you’ll see when you read it, my dream state spoke right up after I published this one.

    And…MERRY CHRISTMAS!!! HO! HO! HO!

  3. You’re a man of his word, Ghost. The BIA will do themselves a favor and answer your simple request. Sending a little more Cherokee spirit your way to help with the war!

  4. Thanks, Sha. It’s starting to look like we’ll have a broad coalition of Indian Nations indeed, before this is over.

  5. The letters and emails should get through, all right–though to what desk at each location, who knows.

    One key: This post keeps pulling in a fistful of views every now and then, in batches for some reason. As long as readers are finding the page, we’ll pierce the BIA’s stonewall sooner or later.

  6. (I posted this reply under your “Tales of a Golden Heart — Gdeck” story, but it also seems relevant to your BIA struggle.)

    Hi Fred, your family history is very fascinating. As a child, I devoured the Karl May books which described the adventures of Winnetou and Shattered Hand. I always rooted for the Indians at that time. I then had no idea of the unspeakable atrocities committed against them by the “White Man.” And that despicable acts continued in the 20th and are continuing in 21st century.

    Sarah was born in 1894 and, according to the 1940 census, was living then in Elbowood, McLean county, on the Fort Berthold reservation. Elbowood was flooded in the 1950’s when the three tribes of that region, including the Mandan, had no choice but to agree to the building of the Garrison dam. Facing eminent domain actions, they opted for the lesser of two evils, hoping for some just compensation. There is a heartrending photo of the signing of the agreement.

    So Sarah Smith and her family had to leave their home to be relocated, probably to New Town in Montrail county. Most of the agricultural land of the three tribes was flooded and traditions and families were shattered.

    The oil boom of the Bakken, and its attendant influx of pollution, man camps, traffic, crime and drugs, were poorly managed by the three tribes council, headed by Tex Hall. Trust money was squandered and unaccounted for. So Sarah is still smiling, at least her mineral rights belong to her family.

    I really have to stop reading your mesmerizing essays. As to the Mandan language, there is only one survivor who speaks it fluently. His name is Edward Benson. The translation for “yes” is “hu” in Mandan. I thought you might enjoy that little tidbit :).

    Now you’ve got me researching the Baker ancestors in the Mandaree, Halliday and other ND regions, the difference between rodeos and jaripeos, and American rodeo spurs versus Mexican gangas.

    And I did find your video of “The Rose In My Heart.” Very touching!

    Warm regards, Ingrid

  7. Correction: “Tales of a Golden Heart — Geck” — not Gdeck. Sorry about the typo.

    Ingrid

  8. Thanks, Ingrid. I commented more in length on the “GECK” page. As for this page, here’s a “final update”: The paperwork did get recorded in Stanley, and all monies being held in suspense by the oil company were released to me by winter’s end, 2015.

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