Why the Otter Creek Coal Mine Will Never be Built

Guest post by Vanessa Braided Hair.

Protesters outside the Otter Creek public hearing
Northern Cheyenne tribal members gather to oppose the proposed Otter Creek coal mine on January 17, 2013
Yesterday, a news station in Billings, Montana ran an interview with Arch Coal representative Mike Rowlands in which he stated that the Otter Creek coal mine, proposed for southeastern Montana, will be in operation by the end of the decade. I’m here to tell Mr. Rowlands and Arch Coal that the Otter Creek mine will never be built, and here’s why.

Arch Coal understands money. What Arch Coal doesn’t understand is community. They don’t understand history. They don’t understand the Cheyenne people whose ancestors fought and died for the landthat they are proposing to destroy. They don’t understand the fierceness with which the people, both Indian and non-Indian, in southeastern Montana love the land.

This is why not one dragline will rip the coal from the earth and not one dynamite blast will loosen the precious topsoil. It is why not one rail car will be loaded with coal and why not one toxic orange cloud will pass over someone’s house or the Tongue River. It is why not one burial site will be dug up and why not one elk will be displaced. It is why our water will continue to run clean and plentiful and our wildlife will continue to roam free.

This is why the proposed Otter Creek mine in southeastern Montana will never be built.

How Arch Coal treats the Northern Cheyenne community

I, along with hundreds of Northern Cheyenne tribal members, have attended all of the recent public hearings that were held on the proposed Otter Creek coal mine and Tongue River Railroad. These hearings were held to gather public input on the proposed coal mine and associated infrastructure that is needed to haul the coal out of southeastern Montana and to the West coast for export to Asia.

Standard procedure for Arch Coal representatives was to sit in the back of the room, checking their phones and looking at their watches. Many times, they would walk out in the middle of someone’s testimony. Mike Rowlands, head of Arch Coal in Montana, spoke to us for one minute.


One minute about a coal mine that will impact my people for generations. This is all he thought we deserved apparently.

Not once did they stand up and tell my community why we should support their efforts to build a massive coal mine on our borders. Not once did they tell us why we should bear the burden of the air, water and environmental pollution that will occur.

You know why they don’t do that? Because they don’t have to. To them, this mine is a done deal. The permit is a detail, a step in the process. A process rigged for one outcome. They don’t care if the Northern Cheyenne community supports them.

Well, I guess they did say they were just here to open a coal mine.

Fighting Back

By now, we have given Arch Coal and the state of Montana thousands of reasons why we are against this mine. Those thousands of reasons are people, individuals and families who are coming to public hearings, group meetings, signing petitions and getting involved.

In November 2012, Cheyenne tribal members turned out in force at public hearings to oppose the Tongue River Railroad. In December 2012, we attended coal export public hearings in Spokane and Seattle to oppose the development of any coal export terminals in the northwest and support our brothers and sisters from the northwest tribal nations who are fighting to protect their land and treaty rights.


Lucas King, Northern Cheyenne, testifies at the Seattle coal port hearing
Lucas King, Northern Cheyenne tribal member, testifies at the Seattle coal port hearing in December 2012. Photo by Paul K. Anderson.
Otter Creek Public Hearing
Northern Cheyenne tribal members attend a public hearing on the proposed Otter Creek coal mine
On January 17, 2013, over 100 Northern Cheyenne peacefully took over a public hearing hosted by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. We did not do this lightly. The scoping hearings were meant to gather public comment on the Otter Creek mine. However, instead of a hearing, they wanted to have an open house where people were prevented from speaking in public to their community. Instead of people giving their opinions to the agency staff and their fellow community members, they would talk to a microphone in a corner. In Cheyenne country, we speak to people, not machines.

On February 20, 2013, we submitted detailed scoping comments to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality on the proposed mine. Over 250 Cheyennes helped write and develop these comments.

On March 20, 250 Cheyennes and our allies from the Southern Cheyenne, Three Affiliated Tribes, Oglala Lakota Nation, Yakama Nation gathered in Lame Deer to oppose any development of the Otter Creek and Tongue River Valley.  This will not be a one-time event.

Then, on March 24 through the 30, a group of us travelled to Henry Red Cloud’s Renewable Energy Center on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to learn how to install solar photovoltaic systems.

Cheyenne students learn how to install solar PV at Henry Red Cloud's Renewable Energy Center
Cheyenne students learn how to install solar PV at Henry Red Cloud’s Renewable Energy Center. Photo credit: Alexis Bonogofsky
We will continue to come together with our friends and allies until this mine is not longer and option in any generation. We will fight this at every step. More and more people join us every day. We will not tire.

We have been fighting for this land for hundreds of years and will continue to do so.

Protecting Otter Creek and Tongue River Valleys for Future Generations

Montana politicians who support the Otter Creek mine and Arch Coal are on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of the people. Since Montana’s leaders will not stand up for the people, the people will stand up and lead them. Politicians like Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester understand the importance of protecting the North Fork of the Flathead River from coal mining but not the lifeblood of southeastern Montana, the Tongue River. Why is protecting the Flathead River more important than the Tongue River?

We will not let it become a sacrifice zone for energy exports. We have already moved beyond the paradigms forced on us by the coal companies.

This message is for Arch Coal and all other mining companies that want to dig up our homeland.

We will not only stop the Otter Creek coal mine, we will pursue renewable, distributed energy and find real, sustainable solutions for our people.

Save Otter Creek sign on Highway 212 on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation
Save Otter Creek sign on Highway 212 on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation
Vanessa Braided Hair is a Northern Cheyenne tribal member and is organizing tribal citizens to oppose the development of the proposed Otter Creek coal mine and Tongue River Railroads in southeastern Montana. She is a also a wildlands firefighter and descendent of the Northern Cheyenne Otter Creek homesteaders. She lives on Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeastern Montana.