The mines take bites out of the landscape, digging as much as 200 feet deep and a mile long. Jim Mockler, director of the Montana Coal Council, cites the success of some mine reclamation in the area. “We have shown we can mine the coal and do it right, return the (surface of the) land to good condition.” But even good reclamation doesn’t entirely restore native vegetation. The mines also consume sandstone cliffs that hold petroglyphs and pictographs, and affect groundwater, seeps and springs.
Coalbed-methane development, which requires moving huge volumes of often salty groundwater, takes over entire landscapes and impacts water below and on the surface (HCN, 9/2/02: Backlash). The Tongue River is already receiving salty runoff from methane wells upriver, Joe Walksalong says, and the runoff in the river and in Rosebud Creek will likely increase with expanded methane development. There are plans for up to 16,000 new methane wells near the reservation.
The threats to water are particularly troubling to the Northern Cheyenne. Surface water is used for irrigating crops and pasture, but the meaning of water reaches deeper than its uses. Many springs and the river figure in Cheyenne sacred ceremonies that date back generations. “Cheyenne live all along the river,” says Gail Small. “They bathe in the river, a ceremonial for healing, when the roots of a certain plant in the headwaters are at highest strength.”
As much as he wants economic development, Joe Little Coyote agrees: “We don’t want to do anything that might impact our water, no matter how good it looks.” So he doesn’t want mining on the reservation, and has instead put together 111 pages of analysis, calling for the tribe to establish a commerce department, seed local businesses, and develop energy projects tapping renewable resources such as wind and solar. Gail Small’s group, Native Action, is pressuring a regional bank to open a branch in Lame Deer, so that loans will be easier to acquire. And other efforts to jump-start an economy are afoot.
Tribal President Geri Small — Gail Small’s sister, who was elected in 2000 — says, “I’ve been told that if we mined our coal, we’d be millionaires.” But she is against mining and methane: “We want to keep our homeland, keep it intact.”
Resurgence of the culture
In many tales of Indian sovereignty, tribes have given up control of their land and resources. Just to the west, on the neighboring Crow Reservation, for example, that tribe leased some of its coal for a mine that has been digging for 30 years. And the Crow recently struck a deal with a Denver corporation to develop coalbed methane on their reservation.
But there are no good examples of tribes developing their natural resources so far, says A. David Lester, director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, based in Denver. Tribes that have tried coal mining, like the Crow and Navajo, don’t have appreciably better living conditions and economies on their reservations, he says, because they let outsiders — corporations and the federal government — set low royalties and dictate the other terms.
“It’s hard to say that natural-resource economic development, with the model that’s been used, produces any real benefits for any tribe, or any sustainable economic activity,” Lester says. A tribe is wiser not to make any deals until it can retain control of how development is done, so “it fits in your values and culture.”
That’s what the Northern Cheyenne are doing: Preserving the tribe’s land and culture from an onslaught of outsiders, as well as defending the reservation against environmental threats.
The dismal statistics on economic and social problems don’t show the strengths of the Northern Cheyenne culture. “It’s a communal way of life,” says Gail Small. “A lot of people who have never been part of a tribe have a hard time understanding it.”
She and other Northern Cheyenne leaders cite a resurgence in the Northern Cheyenne language, and the revival of the sweat lodge and other sacred ceremonies, especially the Sun Dance — three days of fasting and dancing that purify individuals and the tribe.
“More young people are getting into the role of spiritual leader,” says Zane Spang, who works at the tribe’s Dull Knife College, where about 100 students pursue two-year degrees in fields such as business and computers. “I think it’s a sense of pride. It identifies the individual as a member of the culture.”
“Families pool their resources and give away (piles of) gifts at powwows and funerals,” reports Duane Champagne of the University of California-Los Angeles, a sociologist who has studied the tribe. “Cheyenne values emphasize cooperation, sharing, generosity, religious spirituality and tribal welfare, all of which conflict with Western notions of competition, materialism, self-interest and individual achievement.”
“The cultural infrastructure here has no room for individualists,” agrees Joe Little Coyote. So far, that makes capitalism the odd man out. But if the tribal culture is going to endure, the Northern Cheyenne must address their economic and social problems somehow. If they continue to stand firm on protecting the environment, they will have to find new ways to meet those challenges.
Jay Littlewolf drives his pickup truck from Badger Peak on teeth-clacking dirt roads, past holy springs marked by cloth tied to bushes and trees. At the tribe’s Natural Resources office, the rear half of a Quonset hut at the edge of Lame Deer, he meets Jason Whiteman and several more coworkers, who wear gloves and carry shovels and rakes. Everyone’s talking about a cleanup that’s under way today, of an unofficial dump near Lame Deer Creek.
Shortly, Whiteman and a technician head off toward the reservation’s southern boundary, scouting for a site where one of six water-monitoring wells will be established to check for impacts from current and future coal and methane development.
“The companies will never leave us alone,” says Whiteman. “They will always be knocking at the door.”
Bob Struckman lived in Montana for more than 20 years, and now writes from Boulder, Colorado. Ray Ring is HCN’s editor in the field, based in Bozeman, Montana.
You can contact ...
• Northern Cheyenne tribal office, in Lame Deer, Mont., 406/477-6284 or www.ncheyenne.net;
• Gail Small, Native Action, in Lame Deer, 406/477-6390;
• Council of Energy Resource Tribes, director A. David Lester, in Denver, Colo., 303/282-7576 or www.certredearth.com.