Spang, 65, says he'll ensure that there are "real strict reclamation laws ... but we'll look at anything that can make a job."
Some tribes with no mineral reserves are building wind, solar, geothermal and biomass projects. Tapping renewable energy creates jobs while upholding cultural traditions, says Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe economist on Minnesota's White Earth Indian Reservation and executive director of the environmental group Honor the Earth.
"Indian tribes should not be ... put in a situation of creating an economy that destroys their people," she says.
The Northern Cheyenne helped the Sioux defeat Gen. George Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, then were relocated to Oklahoma. Chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf led the tribe back to Montana on a journey that claimed hundreds of lives. The reservation was created in 1884.
There are small cattle ranches, but the biggest employers are the tribal government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There's a small casino, the Charging Horse, but Lame Deer is too isolated to attract many people who don't live on the reservation.
"Our situation is pretty urgent," says Pat McMakin, 38, who works at Cheyenne Depot, a gas station and store in Lame Deer. "There's no money for education or anything else." The tribe is divided over coal development, McMakin says, but he's "totally for it. ... It's the only option we have right now."
Spang says he would insist on a guaranteed number of jobs for the tribe and payments to all members. He hopes to create 300-400 permanent jobs. The number of jobs and pay would depend on the reservation's contract with a mining company, but coal miners can make more than $40,000 a year.
Hard to keep traditions alive
Tribal history explains why some members are wary of exploitation. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the tribal council signed coal leases with several companies. The federal government, acting as trustee, sold exploration rights on land allotted to some tribe members.
The tribe later fought in the courts to void those leases, arguing that the full tribe's interest in the coal outweighed individual rights. In 1976, the tribe won a U.S. Supreme Court case affirming the tribe's ownership and control of all mineral deposits.
In 2006 referendums, the tribe supported coal mining but voted against coal bed methane wells. Spang says he believes his election proves that opinions have changed as economic conditions have deteriorated.
Gertrude Firecrow, 68, has had a dream twice in the past few weeks. "I see big machines ready to dig into the reservation. Their lights are coming toward my house," she says. "It's scary. In my dream, there's no place to go."
The grandparents who raised her said life on the reservation "wouldn't stay the same forever," Firecrow says. Still, she's saddened that fewer young people learn Cheyenne, and she worries that allowing outside companies to mine coal here would further erode tribal traditions. "Elders like me are trying to keep our sacred traditions alive," she says.
Joe Waters, 54, an electrician, is angered by talk of coal mining. "They're selling us out," he says of tribal leaders who support development and tribal members who elected Spang. "Coal has a purpose, like the trees have a purpose," he says. "It's protecting our land, our air."
Others are torn as they weigh the consequences of mining against the prospect of jobs. Some say it's inevitable.