For Indian tribes, economic needs collide with tradition

Jobs are scarce and poverty is pervasive on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, but rich coal deposits lie beneath the buttes where wild horses roam.

For decades, many members of the tribe have resisted coal mining. Now, increased demand for coal and the election of a new tribal president who is determined to create jobs are reigniting debate over energy development among the reservation's 4,500 residents. It's a conflict between tribal traditions and economic self-sufficiency that has long divided people here and on other reservations across America with coal, oil and gas and other mineral reserves.

Tribal president Leroy Spang, a retired coal miner who promised in his campaign to pursue such exploration, says his election proves that most Northern Cheyenne want to mine coal or dig wells to extract methane gas from coal beds on the 445,000-acre reservation. He was elected in November with 977 votes to his opponent's 642.

Spang says about 80% of reservation residents are unemployed and dependent on federal aid. Median household income on the reservation was $23,679 in the 2000 Census, when it was $41,994 nationwide.

Some members of the tribe warn that developing coal would betray the tribe's duty to protect the earth. Sweet Medicine, a mythic Cheyenne prophet, predicted centuries ago that digging up the "black rock" would rob the tribe of its identity, they say.

"This is the last war that our people are going to face," says Phillip Whiteman, 51, a founder of Yellow Bird, a non-profit group based on the reservation that promotes respect for the land and environment. "If we go against ourselves by selling our coal and submitting to the industrial culture, we're doomed."

On some of the 25 reservations with coal reserves, recent debates over the issues that divide people here ended with tribes deciding to turn coal into cash.

The nearby Crow tribe signed a contract last year with an Australian company to build a coal-to-liquid plant. The tribe will receive taxes, royalties and a share of profits. The Crow reservation, on the Northern Cheyenne's western border, leases some of its land for coal mining.

In New Mexico, the Navajo Nation plans a coal-fired power plant that could create up to 3,000 construction jobs and bring $54 million in revenue to the tribe, according to the company that will build it.

Tribal values are rooted in protecting the land, yet their resources often seem like the only path out of poverty, says Garrit Voggesser, senior manager of the National Wildlife Federation's tribal lands conservation program. "Tribes have tough choices to make ... between their cultural and historical legacy and extraction," he says.

Renewable energy may be key

On the Northern Cheyenne reservation, objections to mining originate in ancient beliefs that link the tribe's religion, language, culture and health to the integrity of its land and water. Tribal members believe that Mother Earth gives them sustenance and defense against their enemies.

"When you go against your own traditions, you're going against yourself," says Whiteman, organizer of the annual Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run, a re-enactment of the tribe's 1879 escape from the U.S. Cavalry and return to its homeland.

Other members of the tribe believe coal was put here by Mother Earth to improve life on the reservation and can be mined without permanently damaging the land.

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