A breath of fresh air

Surrounded by a massive industrial buildup, the Northern Cheyenne tribe defends its homeland

  • CHEYENNE VIGILANCE: Gail Small leads Native Action, a Northern Cheyenne activist group that helps protect the reservation from impacts of the 2,000-megawatt Colstrip power plant and five huge coal strip mines, which nearly surround the reservation

    Ken Kania
  • GENTLE COUNTRY: The Tongue River, used by the Northern Cheyenne for irrigation and sacred ceremonies, flows along the reservation's eastern border; the river, creeks and springs on the reservation are threatened by runoff from coalbed-methane development

    Larry Mayer
  • STRONG TRADITIONS: When the federal government relocated the Northern Cheyenne tribe to Oklahoma in the 1870s, chiefs Little Wolf and Dull Knife (seated) led several hundred men, women and children in an attempt to walk back to Montana in 1878

    L.A. Huffman
  • DIGGING THE LAND: The Big Sky Mine, run by the world's largest coal company, Peabody Energy, stripped about 2.5 million tons of coal in 2001 a few miles north of the reservation, and shipped it by rail to the Minnesota Power company

    Larry Mayer
  • Danny Sioux, who has served on the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, thinks the tribe should try coal mining to help develop the tribal capital, Lame Deer (in the background), and alleviate poverty on the reservation

    Jay Littlewolf photo
  • Map

    Diane Sylvain

BADGER PEAK, Mont. — Stand on a rocky outcrop on this modest, pine-clad mountain, the highest point on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and gaze northward, and you can see the four smokestacks of Montana’s largest power plant, Colstrip, clustered on the horizon, 16 miles away. The stacks puff like giant cigarettes. And today, from near the stacks, a separate black plume of smoke rises.

The plume drifts southwest on the prevailing winds, toward Badger Peak and tribal air space.

Jay Littlewolf, an air-quality technician for the Northern Cheyenne, says the smoke comes from the huge strip mine that feeds coal to the furnaces of the power plant. “Must be blasting to loosen the coal beds,” he says.

Other than the smokestacks and the black plume, there is no trace of industry in sight. Red rocky ridges roll out to brown-grass plains under high wispy clouds and blue sky.

Littlewolf steps into the tribe’s air-quality monitoring station on the peak. It’s little more than a stuffy shack, with a dozen mousetraps on the floor. But the sensitive equipment housed here measures traces of air pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, and weather conditions, such as wind speed and direction. A new digital camera takes twice-a-day photos of the skies over the Colstrip stacks and mine.

“A few years ago, we would have heard rumors about a plume like that,” Littlewolf says. “But with (the camera), we’ll have visuals to go along with the rest of our data.”

This is one of three mountaintop air-monitoring stations the tribe has deployed along the reservation border closest to Colstrip, making sure the drifting smoke doesn’t violate the tribe’s air-quality standards, which are some of the toughest in the U.S. It’s a line of defense held by one of the most determined environmental programs anywhere.

In southeast Montana, the Northern Cheyenne Reservation is an island. The tribe has been nearly surrounded by no less than five huge strip mines, as well as the Colstrip power plant, haulage railroads and transmission lines. Montana’s only active coalbed methane field sucks gas and groundwater from several hundred wells near the reservation’s southern border, and there are proposals for thousands more methane wells. And a few miles east of the reservation, in the only direction still undeveloped, the Montana state government has allied with industry seeking to create a new strip mine, and possibly build another power plant and railroad.

Yet for 30 years, the Northern Cheyenne — a relatively small and isolated tribe — have fought powerful corporations that want to develop the coalbeds that underlie almost every inch of the reservation. They have done what many other tribes have been unable to do: protected their land and culture, and repeatedly reached beyond their borders to battle development off the reservation.

But economic paralysis is testing the tribe’s resolve. Some Northern Cheyenne are starting to see coal and gas royalties as a solution to the reservation’s crushing poverty, crime, alcoholism and drug abuse.

“People are hungry here, they’re dying, they suffer day by day. They fight over a $15 food voucher,” says Danny Sioux, who just finished a term on the tribal council. “I went to 47 funerals (last) year, mostly young people. We have tremendous social problems.”

He is among those who want to take up mining and drilling to generate jobs and an economy. “That’s the only option we have. We have spent the last 30 years in litigation (against coal companies), we’ve blackmailed the socks off these corporations, and how has it helped our situation?”

Will the Northern Cheyenne hold out, or give in to industrial development? Is there a third way — to avoid invasion by corporations, but still gain from small-scale development? These questions hold implications for Indians and non-Indians alike, as a new wave of energy development sweeps into the West.

A hard-won homeland

The Northern Cheyenne environmental stand continues a long tribal tradition. The tribe’s resistance to white settlers, prospectors and the U.S. Cavalry is legendary: They helped the Sioux tribe wipe out Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s men in the Battle of the Little Bighorn (just west of the reservation’s present boundary) in 1876.

The Northern Cheyenne endured broken treaties and massacres, but even when the tribe was eventually relocated to Oklahoma with the Southern Cheyenne (who lived on the Central Plains), the resistance continued. In 1878, led by chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf, some 300 Northern Cheyenne men, women and children tried to walk from Oklahoma back to Montana, trudging through snowstorms and dodging an estimated 13,000 soldiers and vigilantes.

More than 60 Northern Cheyenne were killed on that walk, memorialized in the semi-accurate Hollywood movie, "Cheyenne Autumn." But some made it to Montana, and the tribe was granted a reservation here in the Tongue River country in 1884.

The Northern Cheyenne Indian reservation is not large. Over the years, its boundaries have been adjusted, and now it encompasses about 707 square miles of rugged, semi-arid country, rising up to Badger Peak’s 4,422-foot elevation. Ponderosa pines dot the long red ridges, and sagebrush, skunkweed and prairie grasses fill the narrow valleys. The Tongue River meanders along the eastern border.

“We had to fight for it, with our spirit (and) our determination to continue and survive as a people on our land,” says Joe Little Coyote, the tribe’s economic development planner.

During community meetings, old men still rise to expound on the lessons learned at Little Bighorn and lesser-known confrontations, such as the Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, 1876, in which a woman warrior, whose name has been translated as Buffalo Calf Road Woman, fought bravely and saved her brother’s life.

The struggles didn’t end once the Northern Cheyenne won their reservation. Generations since have faced tough times, trying to survive on small-scale ranching, logging and federal assistance, far from any city, airport or interstate highway.

Sep 26, 2007 06:53 PM

I am Northern Cheyenne woman age 50 divorced with three children, sole provider; 2 children in college and 1 in jr. high.Since I was a child I lived in my ancestor’s world which was a horse & buggy to vehicles.  Daily meals consisted of wild game, berries, potatoes, corn any wild veggies.  We LIKE many others meals still consist of the same type of meals.  Just as you travel to the supermarket for food we travel out to get our meals.  Popular is dry meat, pemmican with berries, we enjoy different types of produce at different times of the year.  My Question: why is there much controversy over to destroy or not to destroy?  At any given time when you cause any movement to the earth, you automatically affect our SUPERMARKET!Why must you people feel that you are the only people IN CONCERN on this GOD/MAHEO's GIVEN green Earth.  IT IS NOT FOR ANY LIVING PERSON TO DECIDE WHO MUST LIVE OR DIE.  Without food we will eventually all die and for what - just so some one out there wants more money!  What on MAHEO's green earth GIVES ANYONE TO FEEL THEY HAVE THE RIGHT TO IMPOSE A DEATH PENALTY ON PEOPLE WHOSE LIVES SUSTAIN ON THE NATURAL RESOURCES.  It’s a shame that you have to audacity to call yourselves humans and civilized, what’s more you even have the nerve to ask as to give you a reason why you should or should not destroy our home and OUR ONLY SUPERMARKET! You slaughter the lives of humans by your wretched hands and your SAVAGE, BARBARISM, INHUMAN decisions.  I am sure that if you returned to land of your forefathers whether it Scotland, England, etc YOU WOULD HAVE THE UTMOST RESPECT because, it is where you ACTUALLY came from (YOUR ROOTS). YOU WOULD TAKE TIME TO LEARN OF THE CULTURE AND FIND ANYWAY POSSIBLE TO PRESERVE YOUR CULTURE AND I-T-S   L-A-N-D!  Like our ancestors say this is not your land, you have no connection to our land because you don't depend on it.  WE DEPEND ON IT BECAUSE OUR LIVES DEPEND ON IT.  So who is the uncivilized savage?  It definitely is not the indigenous people, remember when your ancestors first came we greeted them and saved your ancestors from starvation and in return your ancestors swindled our lands, raped, killed our people in exchange for gratitude AND NOW YOU THINK THAT YOU SO CALLED CIVILIZED HUMANS, HAVE THE RIGHT TO DECIDE WHAT SHOULD HAPPEN?1.  SO-WHAT LAWS GIVE YOU THE RIGHT TO IMPOSE THE DEATH PENALTY ON OUR PEOPLE? 2.  AND WHAT LAW OR LAWS HAVE WE VIOLATED TO RENDER Y-O-U-R DEATH PENALTY ON INDIGENOUS PEOPLE?    THIS WILL BE YOUR SHAME AND THE ONSLAUGHT OF OUR PEOPLE WILL BE ON YOUR HANDS FOREVER!   AND YOU, TO THINK THAT YOU BOUGHT CIVILIZATION TO THE NATIVES! HUH GREAT SICK HUMOR!

If the terrorist came in and destroyed all your supermarkets, then what? Go hungry and eat yourselves? I don't think so; you would be shopping at my supermarket and get this you would not even have to pay.  And I bet you anything you would say that you come first and you have first choice because, you're white?                                                                                         A-N-D then you would probably start selling my BACKYARD food and expect me to buy it from you(improvise, make-LAWS) for 100 times more then the regular white consumer for whatever the going price will be, which will be HIGH!   C-R-A-Z-E-E   but, think about it.   This is your usual trend, you have little or no respect for anyone or ANYTHING (UNTIL YOU NEED IT), not even yourselves. - And it’s never a need for you, IT’S ACTUALLY A WANT.  If you ever really were in desperate need you would actually be respectable because, you would NEED IT for survival THEN,maybe you would understand and think "Why even ask should we destroy or not destroy" and more then likely it would be - not destroy.  Because you know that your life depends on it and we would both be shopping in the same SUPERMARKET and not at your prices!

Sorry if I sound so repugnant and vile but, this is what I see and have seen of your kind.  Since childhood this is what I have seen of your kind always, out to destroy and annihilate.  Put yourself in my place, imagine what we have to live through and worry about what’s going to be here and not be here when your survival depends on it.  And I am trying to help you understand the atrocities that you bring to our people by what YOU merely call development.  It sounds too innocent – development but it’s a picture of total destruction and annihilation of all natural living species which includes US.Remember by your decisions and actions you are determining the out come of my family’s future and the future of people and the future of people who are yet to come.