The Northern Cheyenne have thus far refused to permit coal mining on reservation lands, but some members of the tribe are willing to risk disruption for jobs the industry may bring.
Even though the Northern Cheyenne reservation is located at the epicenter of coal mining in southeastern Montana, the tribe has refused to extract the black rock for years.
Tribal traditionalists fear that mining will bring unwanted change to the people and land, robbing them of their culture. They cite the 1700s Cheyenne mystic Sweet Medicine, who prophesized that digging the black rock would change the people forever. Mining supporters, however, interpret the prophecy as a warning to be mindful in using this resource.
The coal debate on this hard-scrabble reservation, where unemployment exceeds 80%, has bitterly split the community. In 2006, 80% of reservation voters passed a referendum in favor of mining coal on their tribal land. Recently elected tribal president Leroy Spang, a former coal miner, made campaign promises to pursue mining. So far, however, nothing has happened.
According to tribal members like Diana McLean, some of the problem can be attributed to the general ennui that has settled over a community long used to words but mostly inaction from those in authority.
“We’ve had committees set up to look into economic development and we’ve had meetings. But so far we don’t have any jobs,” says McLean.
Most reservation residents depend on some sort of government assistance for basic needs such as food and heat. According to McLean, who runs the Northern Cheyenne Food Bank, nearly everyone uses the Bank’s emergency food boxes at least once a month.
As in many reservation communities, some N. Cheyenne people see selling their natural resources as the only way out of the entrenched poverty that has kept a stranglehold on their reservation.
Tribal member Terry Beartusk insists that the N. Cheyenne need a large source of reliable economic output, such as coal mining, that can fuel larger businesses and development.
“Our tribe is among the poorest in the nation,” he says. “There are even questions about the economic sustainability of our administration.”
He points to the Southern Ute Tribe of Colorado as a model of economic development based on natural resources. Using their $3 billion from coal bed methane, the S. Ute tribe has established a separate and independent business entity, the Southern Ute Tribe Growth Fund. The Fund oversees the tribe’s substantial business and investment holdings including Southern Ute Alternative Energy. Southern Ute Alternative Energy has just invested in an experimental green energy enterprise, Solix Biofuels. Already the world’s largest algae to energy technology development company, Solix is located on the S. Ute reservation. Its goal is to mass produce oil derived from algae and convert it to biodiesel fuel.
Experts have described the coal deposits on the N. Cheyenne reservation as “world class,” enough to fuel the entire United States demand for one year. “We can develop this resource in a responsible manner,” says Beartusk.
According to Phillip Whiteman, however, selling the reservations coal will doom the N. Cheyenne’s land and culture.
“This is the last war our people are going to face,” he told USA Today in an interview earlier this year.
“If we go against ourselves by selling our coal and submitting to the industrial culture, we are doomed,” he said.
Whiteman leads Yellowbird, Inc, a non-profit organization located in Lame Deer, Montana, on the N. Cheyenne reservation. Yellowbird works to create social change in the community by providing cultural programming for youth such as the Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run. The Run commemorates those N. Cheyenne ancestors who broke out of Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in 1879 and returned to their traditional land along the Powder River where the tribe is still located. In the spirit of protecting this hard-won land, Whiteman and his organization have worked to defeat coal extraction and production on the N. Cheyenne reservation. Yellowbird was instrumental in defeating a tribal referendum supporting coal bed methane development.
Recently Yellowbird and supporters have made a bold and unusual proposal to the N. Cheyenne tribe. They recommend making use of the pending American Energy and Security Act’s carbon credit mechanism. The Act, now on its way to the Senate, would allow industry, farmers and others to cap and trade their carbon credits to other users.
According to Whiteman, this law would allow the tribe to keep its coal in the ground and enable them to market their substantial carbon credits for sizable income. These revenues could empower the tribe to create jobs and sustainable economic development without disturbing the land of their ancestors. Yellowbird supporters predict that the N. Cheyenne’s use of carbon credits could be a prototype for other tribes.
There is substantial criticism for the cap and trade proposal. Many predict that cap and trade will fall prey to the futures market, leading to the same kind of crash as has occured in the real estate market.
Reportedly the cap and trade proposal is one of several recommendations currently under consideration by the tribe’s economic development committee.
“We’ve talked to a lot of people. We’ve had forums. We’ve had environmentalists telling us what not to do,” says tribal member John Youngbear.
Although Youngbear was not familiar with the details of the cap and trade proposal, he was not opposed to anything that would help bring jobs to the community.
He describes a reservation in desperate need with a shaky infrastructure unable to provide for basic community services. Five years ago, the reservation got its first paved road and only recently managed to acquire streetlights.
Ruefully, he notes that Colstrip, mining town just north of Lame Deer, has “a lot of environmental mess and more cancer among the population.”
Clearly frustrated, Youngbear adds, “We need jobs! We need to quit holding our hands out, waiting for someone to throw us some change. “
In the meantime, the state of Montana is working to develop Otter Creek, a huge coal reserve near the N. Cheyenne reservation. Many conservation groups, including the Sierra Club and the Northern Plains Resource Council, are organizing ranchers and tribal members in opposing the project. The Cheyenne tribal council voted to endorse the project, providing a 2002 agreement is honored in which tribal members be given hiring preference. As demand for coal wanes in favor of cleaner alternative fuels, it has yet to be determined if industry will make the estimated $1.7 billion investment to develop Otter Creek.
In an Associated Press story, Northern Cheyenne tribal chairman Spang said, “We would be neglecting our people’s interests if we opposed Otter Creek. We’ve got nothing here. We’re broke and we need money.”