Northern Cheyenne Tribe at a Crossroads: To Develop Coal or Not?

Crowd listens to speakers in Lame Deer
Crowd at the Way of Life Gathering in Lame Deer, MT listen to speakers.
On Sunday, over 100 people assembled for a Way of Life Gathering (Hestana Vestotse) in Lame Deer, Montana. Yellow Bird, a Northern Cheyenne non-profit group and Sierra Club, organized the event with assistance from a number of conservation and community development organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Lands Partnerships Program.

The Northern Cheyenne Reservation, located in present day southeastern Montana, is in the heart of the Powder River Basin, the largest coal-producing region in the Nation.

The gathering focused on encouraging participants to reconnect with nature and on educating them about the importance of protecting natural resources and wildlife, the social and environmental impacts of mining, climate change, and economic alternatives to resource extraction. Yellow Bird and its supporters want tribal members to be fully informed before the upcoming vote that will determine whether coal development can proceed on the reservation.

The Tribe has an abundance of natural resources on its homeland in southeastern Montana and it has fought to keep these resources undeveloped for generations. Because the Tribe has invested countless hours and resources into protecting tribal lands, the Northern Cheyenne reservation maintains clean water, clean air and pristine wildlife habitat.

However, multinational coal companies are now asking the Tribe to open its lands to coal mining. And this isn’t the first time the Tribe has had to make this decision.

History of fighting coal development

Sign on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation - Respect our homeland
A sign on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation
Historically, the Northern Cheyenne have resisted coal development, both on and off the reservation. The Tribe has repeatedly faced struggles to keep its coal in the ground and its air and water free of coal pollution. For example, in the late 1960s, Peabody Coal Company offered a pittance to the Tribe for its coal. Using back door deals and taking advantage of incompetence within the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Peabody procured three coal leases that leased over 57% of reservation land for a mere 12 to 17 cents per ton. Opposing these leases, Northern Cheyenne environmental and social activists arranged for tribal members to travel to the Southwest to see firsthand the impacts of coal strip mines on local communities and the environment and to speak directly to the Navajo people who experienced these impacts.  Tribal leaders began asking questions of the BIA, asking why their coal was only worth 17.5 cents per ton in royalties while their gravel was selling for 18 cents per ton.

According to an historical account of the Northern Cheyenne tribal opposition to coal development, compiled by Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, there was much community opposition to the Peabody coal leases. Ted Risingsun, a cultural leader and tribal council member, responded to the promises of jobs and economic development this way:

“I think I would rather be poor in my own country, with my own people, with our own way of life than be rich in a torn-up land where I am outnumbered ten to one by strangers.”

After months of listening to their constituents and doing their own investigations, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council voted 11–to–zero on March 5, 1973, to seek cancellation of all the coal permits and leases. The Tribe petitioned the Secretary of the Interior, explaining the permits and leases violated 36 federal regulations. Then Secretary of the Interior Rogers C. B. Morton refused to cancel the leases outright. Instead, a year after the petition, on June 4, 1974, Morton placed the leases on indefinite hold, a de facto victory for the tribe.

Then, in 1976, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe objected to Montana Power Company’s plans to expand the Colstrip power plant by 1,400 megawatts and proposals for several other coal-fired power plants in the region. Knowing these power plants were a major source of air pollution, the Tribe used the Clean Air Act to block construction of the new units. The Clean Air Act gives states and local governments the option of choosing the Class I designation (which requires that air be maintained in a relatively pristine condition) or the Class III designation (which allows the most pollution). The Northern Cheyenne Tribe convinced the EPA and eventually the courts that tribes had authority under the law to redesignate and protect their airshed. The courts said that the Tribe, through the Northern Cheyenne Research Project, had adequately studied the social, environmental, and economic impacts of applying a Class I designation to the reservation. On Sept. 16, 1976, the EPA announced that the Tribe’s Class I standard—the same designation used for national parks and wilderness areas—would be applied to the new generators.

Way of Life Gathering 2012

Wahleah Johns
Wahleah Johns speaks to the Gathering
The Way of Life Gathering hosted tribal speakers from across the West: Wahleah Johns (Navajo) from Black Mesa Water Coalition in Arizona, Kandi Mossett (Three Affiliated Tribes) representing Indigenous Environmental Network in North Dakota, and Arvol Looking Horse from Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. The speakers described to the Northern Cheyenne and local ranchers how energy development has affected their people, their water and their way of life. Wahleah spoke of how, on her reservation, the coal companies were using millions of gallons of their water to wash and transport coal to far away places, destroying aquifers and contaminating air and water. Kandi spoke of the social and environmental impacts to her reservation from the massive oil development happening in the Bakken formation in North Dakota.  Chief Arvol Looking Horse spoke of the importance of native culture and the connection to the land.  Speakers talked of abandoned mines and the broken promises of economic development for their communities.

In addition, other speakers addressed economic development alternatives to fossil fuel development and how the Northern Cheyenne community could take advantage of renewable energy and the emerging green economy.

At a crossroads

Today,  the Northern Cheyenne are at a crossroads. Soon, possibly at end of September, Northern Cheyenne tribal citizens will be asked to decide whether to lease the billions of tons of coal that lie under the reservation to a large coal mining company.  This company will most likely offer the Tribe less than they were offered in the 1960s coal leases and probably less than the State of Montana was recently offerred for the Otter Creek coal tracts, which are adjacent to the Reservation. The people will have to decide whether the promises of economic development outweigh the threats to their land, air and water.