For Indian tribes, economic needs collide with tradition

Robert White Wolf, 43, works at a hardware store and video store here. "Coal would create a lot of jobs," he says. "It's a gold mine, the white people say."

White Wolf worries that sacred burial and ceremonial grounds could be damaged, but he says, "I know it's going to happen. The unemployment rate is outrageous."

Opportunities not seized

Spang says it could take a decade to get a coal mine operating, in part because a railroad would have to be built across the reservation first, and he hopes to create jobs sooner by attracting some sort of factory. He's also willing to consider developing renewable resources. The federal government helped fund feasibility studies for wind turbines in 2002 and 2003, he says, but the idea was not pursued.

Bob Titley, a former board member of the Land Trust for Tennessee who is on the board of Yellow Bird, has proposed that the Northern Cheyenne consider carbon credit swaps: trading the emissions represented by coal reserves for carbon credits that could be reinvested in alternative energy on the reservation, creating jobs for the tribe.

"It is a new approach and could be a prototype" for other tribes, Titley says. Spang and other members of the tribal council have met with proponents of the idea and a council committee is exploring it.

A network of Native American environmental groups submitted a policy statement to Barack Obama's transition team asking the new administration to promote development of wind and solar resources on Indian lands. Doing so would help develop the "tremendous human and economic potential in the poorest community in the United States," the groups said.

Pat Spears, a Lakota who is president of one of those groups, the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, says that by using renewable resources, "the Northern Cheyenne can leave the coal in the ground and get more jobs."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at a tribal leaders' summit in January that energy and economic development initiatives on reservations will be a priority for the Obama administration. "Tribal lands offer great opportunities for renewable resources. ... We need to make sure Indian communities are grasping these opportunities," he said.

Many already are: Utah's Northwest Band of Shoshone Nation is building a biothermal plant to produce electricity. Wisconsin's St. Croix Chippewa built a biomass plant to turn logging waste into electricity. The Ramona Band of Cahuilla Mission Indians in California is developing an eco-tourism resort powered with renewable energy. Tribes in Minnesota, the Dakotas and elsewhere have wind turbines operating or in planning stages.

For Spang and others here who say new jobs would ensure the tribe's survival, it's an easy call. "We need to change the minds" of those who oppose coal development, he says. "We have to create jobs. We need less talk and more action."

Whiteman hopes members of the tribe will reconnect with their traditions and resist development. "It's a fork up ahead," he says, "and if we choose to stand with the creator, we'll make the right choices."

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