Otter Creek, Montana
View of Otter Creek, Montana. Photo by Colin Ruggiero.

About two years ago, I wrote about my partnership with the National Wildlife Federation and why the Otter Creek Mine would never be built. It wasn’t just a guess, a hunch, some hope founded on irrationality. What I wrote two years ago about the demise of the Otter Creek mine proposal was based on conviction, dedication, the strength of my people and our connections to our homelands.

Yet, I was still surprised and overwhelmed when Arch Coal, Inc. announced last Thursday that it was suspending efforts to secure a permit for the Otter Creek Coal mine in Southeastern Montana. Arch cited restraints related to its recent bankruptcy filing and the declining demand for coal. Those economic and market factors did play a role, but consistent with Arch Coal’s gerrymandering over the years, the company failed to acknowledge the fundamental reasons behind their failure to develop their fantasy coal project.

Northern Cheyenne tribal members gather to oppose the proposed Otter Creek coal mine in January 2013. Photo from Northern Cheyenne Tribe
Northern Cheyenne tribal members gather to oppose the proposed Otter Creek coal mine in January 2013. Photo from Northern Cheyenne Tribe

In April 2013, I wrote that 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 land that 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.

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

Last Thursday’s announcement was the result of decades of opposition by those most affected by the proposed project. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe and other tribal nations, the National Wildlife Federation, ranchers and local communities, hunters and anglers, and conservationists have consistently pointed out the threats to wildlife, cultural resources, and the ranching and recreation economies that are the lifeblood of the Powder River Region of Southeastern Montana.

The end of the mine proposal was a remarkable triumph of community resilience. It was the result of our people and our allies standing up for wildlife, our culture, our health, our future. It was the consequence of the true will of the people overcoming corporate greed. It was a triumph of passion and morality.

Otter Creek Montana. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky
Otter Creek Montana. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky

We won because we understand history. We won because the future does not lay in misguided projects that will destroy our climate and our planet, but in a clean energy future that respects balance and connection between the land, people, and wildlife.

It was a major victory for our homelands, the people, and future generations. It means there is hope, hope for our people and our Cheyenne way of life. Today, we reflect on all the hard work and prayers for our homelands and Cheyenne people, and know there is a bright future ahead.

Vanessa_Braided_Hair Vanessa Braided Hair is a Northern Cheyenne tribal member, co-founder of EcoCheyenne, and organizes 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 the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeastern Montana.

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Published: March 16, 2016