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.