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. "Some say God put this coal here for us to use," says Fred Black Wolf, 34, a college student.

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.

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."

hopes to attract energy companies to create employment for the area that has an 80% jobless rate.