NORTHERN CHEYENNE & COAL
Jennifer Diaz & Yvette Aponte
The Northern Cheyenne Tribe has a massive amount of coal on and around their southeastern Montana, which was established in 1884. A majority of tribal members today want to live sustainably and have opposed coal mines and power plants next to the reservation as a threat to their survival. The Northern Cheyenne have been taking action against the proposed Otter Creek Mine and the Tongue River Railroad as a new challenge to their water, air, and health.
History of the Northern Cheyenne and Coal
The Northern Cheyenne Reservation consists of 444,000 acres that are reserved by the United States government. About 5,000 people from multiple tribes, as well as non-Native residents, call this reservation home. The Northern Cheyenne called themselves “Tsis tsis’tas” which means “the beautiful people.” Not only are the people beautiful, but so is the environment that the Tsis tsis’tas have lived on for centuries. The water and the land are aesthetically pleasing, soul-cleansing, as well as rich in coal. The Northern Cheyenne have to protect their natural resources and traditional way of life on these lands since the land was reserved for them. They have been successful at keeping on-reservation coal mines from being developed, but corporations have developed off-reservation resources in the Tribe’s traditional homeland. In 1977, the tribe declared the air over the reservation to be Class I, under the federal Clean Air Act, and so showed the expansion of coal plants next to and around the reservation. It was the first tribe to do so (Small). “To preserve language, culture, and identity you must protect air, land, and water, that’s who we are. Without language and land, we are not who we say we are,” said Phillip Whiteman Jr., Northern Cheyenne Sweet Medicine Chief (Bonogofsky).
The Northern Cheyenne are located within the region that produces 40 percent of U.S. coal, known as the Powder River Basin (see Powder River Coal Basin). Many tribal members opposed a coal mine proposal in Otter Creek, which is near but not directly on the reservation, and a proposed Tongue River Railroad, which would in parallel to the reservation boundary. The Otter Creek Coal mine would be within the traditional homeland of the Northern Cheyenne people, and is considered land, with historic sites. For thousands of years the Otter Creek Valley has been a sacred land for the Northern Cheyenne. The land and water is also habitat for hundreds of wildlife species.
Although many agree with Mr. Whiteman’s sentiments, others support the development is the largest proposed coal mine in the United States. At peak production, the Otter Creek mine could pump out 33.2 million tons of coal each year. There are 1.5 billion tons of coal in the rich layers of the earth of southeastern Montana, and Arch Coal, the owners of the proposed mine, did not want to pass this economic opportunity up (Carden).
Tongue River Railroad
According to Arch Coal, once the coal is extracted it would need transportation to get to coastal Northwest ports for export to Asia, and that is where the Tongue River Railroad comes into play. No coal can leave the Otter Creek Valley without the development of a new rail line from Otter Creek to Colstrip, Montana. Arch Coal owned a portion of this project as well, along with Forrest Mars and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. This railroad would go through private ranch lands, an Amish community, and over cultural and historical sites that are meaningful to the Northern Cheyenne people. It would then connect with rail lines going to Washington, ending up at the proposed Cherry Point coal terminal (see Lummi & Coal).
Tribal Response and Action
Poverty is well known in the Northern Cheyenne, Native Americans in the Northern Plains region struggle to survive due to low income or lack of job opportunities. “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. (Keen)” Coal extraction would bring forth opportunities for employment to many tribal members and a better future, however is it worth the risks of health, culture, water, land, and life.
Some Tribal members believe that coal extractions would be beneficial, such as Antoinette Red Woman. Antoinette is confident that coal extraction will provide profit and jobs opportunities to the people of the land (Sutter, Gannon).
On the other hand, the majority of the tribal members are against coal mining. Lakota tribes from South Dakota have allied with Northern Cheyenne to haul to the excavation of coal. The coal excavators are raping the lands of their ancestors too, and how they are concerned about the effects of climate change on their lands.
Vanessa Braided Hair, is a phenomenal woman who is a climate activist and the co-founder of ecoCheyenne (Sutter and Gannon). She is raising awareness and building coalitions with people who oppose coal and support renewable energy, including white ranchers and farmers who also oppose the Otter Creek Mining and Tongue River Railroad. If coal opponents do not band together, the pro-coal voices will prevail, despite the growing concern over irreversible climate crisis. According to John D. Sutter and Matthew Gannon, “coal has already chewed up land on three sides of the tribe’s territory, and Otter Creek will be the fourth (Sutter and Gannon).”
Support from local Ranchers
The Northern Cheyenne tribe has a lot of support from the inside as well as from the outside. Krystal TwoBulls explained that her tribe has “definitely built some strong grassroots organizations that are on the ground doing a lot more of the work, specific to Otter Creek.” They have also built strong relationships with the ranchers and farmers that are in the surrounding area. Clint McRae is one of the local ranchers who is in alliance with the Northern Cheyenne people. His family migrated to Montana in the early 1800’s and they have resided their ever since. His family operates the Rocker Six Cattle company where they raise cattle and meat for consumers. If the railroad is approved, it will cause conflict with the lands and will cut through his operation about six miles, cutting through the land diagonally in half. Clint believes that the Tongue River Railroad should not be constructed. He states, “the last thing he is interested in is making an industrial site out of his ranch (E360 Video).”
The National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Northern Plains Resource Council, and Greenpeace are major groups that back up Northern Cheyenne and their decision to protect the earth, the water, and the air.
When asked what her biggest motivators and inspirers were, TwoBulls explained that it was her younger siblings.
“Seeing them on a daily basis, being connected to Mother Earth and being connected to horses and the land and just existing in that place, I don’t want them to ever lose that I don’t want them to live in a world where they don’t get to experience that connection to this land and to those horses and to Mother Earth and nature…I don’t want to look them in the eye and tell them I’m doing nothing for that. (Two Bulls)”
The future and the past are both equally important to the Northern Cheyenne when it comes to the preservation and fight for their land. Even though the Tribal Council made their decision and let it be known that they did not want a coal train to go through their historic lands next to the reservation. In November 2015, Arch Coal put the Tongue River Railroad on hold, perhaps forever (Volz). In March 2016, Arch Coal Company went bankrupt, and suspended plans for the Otter Creek Coal mine (Brown).
As Two Bull observes:
“This land is going to be what remains really. Even when my parents are gone, when I’m gone. Our goal is to still have our young people connect to this land and I think that’s something that can be passed forward because it’s something my parents handed to me, they’re parents handed to them, and our ancestors died for us to have that so I think that’s something we’ve been able to pass on and keep connected" (Two Bulls).
Even if the coal mine project is passed and if the trains carry the coal away leaving destruction behind them, the people of Northern Cheyenne will still have their connection to each other and to Mother Earth and would seek to roll back the decision. That is something no amount of money or no powerful business can take away.
Associated Press. (2015, Sept. 22) Northern Cheyenne Officials Reject Coal Railroad Plans. NBC Montana.
Bonogofsky, Alexis. (March 7, 2013) Wildlife Promise Northern Cheyenne Tribal Members Demand Comprehensive Study of the Otter Creek Coal Mine Comments
Brown, Matthew. (2016, March 10). Arch Coal suspends plans for major new mine in Montana. Associated Press.
Buffalo Spirit, Alaina. (215, Apr. 4)Guest Opinion: Northern Cheyenne Future Is in Sun, Wind. The Billings Gazette.
Carden, Kristin. " (Feb. 25, 2013) Completeness of Application for Permit, Otter Creek Mine. Message from the author.
Clara Caufield. (2014, Mar. 20) Northern Cheyenne and Coal - Sixty Year Love-hate Relationship. Native American Times
Glick, Daniel Wood, Ted. (2015, Nov. 17)Not on This Land: A Western Tribe Takes a Stand and Says No to Big Coal. By Glick, Daniel and Ted Wood: Yale Environment 360.
Mayer, Larry. (2015, Nov. 10) Former Cheyenne Tribal Leader to Speak at Billings Public Library Dec. 10. The Billings Gazette.
Small, Gail.(March, 1994) The Search For Environmental Justice in Indian Country. Hayward, WI: Indian Country Communications, Inc.
Small, Jason. (2015, Mar. 14) Guest Opinion: Coal Development May Be Key to Northern Cheyenne Future. The Billings Gazette.
Sutter, John D., and Matthew Gannon. (2015, Nov.24) Climate Change: The Community That Stood up to Coal - CNN.com. CNN.
Volz, Matt(2015, Nov. 25, 2015). Coal railroad plans on hold due to mine permitting delays. Associated Press
Wod, Wilbur. (2015, Nov. 19) Soil Leads CO2 Fight. The Billings Outpost.