How the Cheyenne beat big coal

July 6, 2012

Brian Ward describes the battle to keep strip-mining off of Northern Cheyenne land.

THE NORTHERN Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Southeastern Montana lies on one of the richest coal deposits in North America.

The Northern Cheyenne are a nation of a little over 4,000 people. The reservation itself was founded in resistance. This resistance continued in the 1960s and 1980s to prevent the destruction of their land by coal companies.

In 1966, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) urged the Northern Cheyenne's Tribal Council to lease out as much of the reservation as possible for coal extraction. At first, this seemed like a good prospect for the Northern Cheyenne, who faced extreme poverty on the reservation.

The Peabody Coal Company received a permit to explore 94,000 acres of Northern Cheyenne Reservation. In exchange, Peabody was to pay the nation 17.5 cents for every ton of coal shipped off the reservations and 15 cents for every ton consumed by the reservation.

This agreement made the BIA happy, and they continued to sell exploration permits. By 1971, five of the biggest energy companies had leases and leasing rights on over half of the entire Northern Cheyenne reservation.

The Colstrip coal plant, just north of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, photographed in the mid-1980s
The Colstrip coal plant, just north of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, photographed in the mid-1980s (David T. Hanson)

That same year, the U.S. Department of the Interior released the North Central Power Study, which proposed stripping billions of tons of coal from reserves in Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming and elsewhere in the Northern Plains, building "mine-mouth" generating power plants next to the mines, and creating a network to supply energy around the country.

"We just didn't know what we were doing," said a tribal council member. "We wanted money for the nation. We didn't know what the coal companies were planning to do, and they sure didn't tell us."

The BIA deliberately misled the nation in order to benefit the energy companies. Consol Energy was going to set up four plants on the reservation. It claimed that it was going to build a health center and that the nation would be millionaires with the royalties.

"But even if we are poor, I think I would rather be poor in my own country, with my own people, with my own way of life than be rich in a torn-up land where I am outnumbered 10 to one by strangers," said Ted Risingsun, a Northern Cheyenne, in response to the growing expansion of coal permits.

Author Brent Ashabranner made a parallel with what had happened to their ancestors:

There was a terrible symmetry between what had happened to their forefathers 100 years ago and what was happening to them now. Then the white man had wanted their land for farms and ranches and for the gold beneath the Dakota Black Hills. The government had sent the army cavalry to drive them off the land.

This time, a century later, it was coal that the white man wanted. This time, it was not ranchers and farmers and prospectors who came, but well-dressed businessmen and lawyers. This time, the government could not send the army, for the Cheyenne was legal in the form of Bureau of Indian Affairs, could help the businessmen, and it did.

GEORGE CROSSLAND, a lawyer who used to work for the BIA, quit and came to help the Northern Cheyenne. He discovered that no study had been completed about the effects of strip-mining on the land, environment and culture of the Northern Cheyenne. According to code, the BIA was required to do this. In addition, coal-mining leases and permits on Indian lands must not exceed 2,560 acres.

With this information, the Northern Cheyenne could petition the Department of Interior to cancel the agreements, on the grounds that the BIA had not carried out its duties as trustee of Indian lands--which to be honest they never had. On March 5, 1973, the Tribal Council voted 11 to 0 to ask the interior secretary to cancel all Northern Cheyenne coal leases and exploration permits.

As Ted Risingsun said:

They couldn't believe that our land and environment and culture meant more to us than a stack of dollars. They couldn't believe it even when we turned down the Consol offer. But we wanted those agreements cancelled. Period. That petition was sort of a Cheyenne Declaration of Independence.

At first, the Interior Secretary didn't cancel the leases, and instead said that the nation and companies had to come to an agreement before mining could occur. This was a mini-win for Cheyenne land, but not for sovereignty, so the fight continued.

The coal companies continued to push and tried to prove themselves by saying that the land could be "reclaimed"--meaning put back together. Obviously, this was just one of their schemes to make sure the contacts didn't get canceled. The companies immediately tried to build power plants surrounding the reservation in Colstrip, Mont., 12 miles north of the reservation. The stripping of coal around the area increased to 20 million tons each year.

Looking to build a large base to fight strip-mining both on the reservation and in the surrounding area, the Northern Cheyenne reached out to local ranchers and environmentalists, who were also worried about the building of power plants in Colstrip.

The next step of action was to appeal for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protection under the Clean Air Act. The argument was that pure air was part of the Cheyenne heritage, as much a part of the life they had chosen to live as the clear sky above them and pine-clad hills around them. The EPA responded quickly and gave protection to the reservation.

However, in 1978, it looked like the EPA was going to approve Montana Power Group's request to building two more power plants in Colstrip. But since a study showed that these plants would affect the air quality of the Northern Cheyenne, they didn't issue the permits to Montana Power.

Montana Power's executive vice president said, "We've already spent $130 million getting ready to build them, and they are so badly needed that we do not intend to stop now." This showed that the coal companies had no regard for the law and used the energy crisis to gain more profit despite the effort it would have on the Northern Cheyenne and the surrounding white ranchers. They kept on pushing the EPA, and the agency said it would grant the permits if the company installed "more effective pollution control equipment."

THE LAST resort for the Tribal Council at this point was to try to get a bill passed by Congress canceling the coal leases and permits.

Moving forward on this front, it became even clearer that the BIA was in bed with the coal companies. In response, the BIA stated, "We believe this measure is both unjustified and unnecessary and would set a bad precedent for future similar situation that may arise."

Obviously, the BIA was right--if the bill succeeded, it would empower nations to claim sovereignty, declare independence from the U.S. and successfully fight back. The nation's success could inspire nations all over North America.

A bill was introduced in Congress in March 1980, and hearings were held in Billings, Mont. Allen Rowland, the lawyer for the Northern Cheyenne, said, "We think that each company would recognize that any rights to develop coal on the Northern Cheyenne reservation are, in fact meaningless unless enthusiastically supported by the Northern Cheyenne people as a whole."

He continued:

It is now absolutely clear that no such support exists for these transactions. During the initial stages of our struggle against these transaction, and, indeed, for several years thereafter, many governmental and industry people believed that the real purpose of the nation's effort was to extract large monetary payments from the coal companies through a forced renegotiation.

However, for some time now, that cynical view has been discredited. It is no recognized that the nation has acted pursuant to its own sense of duty and honor, the duty to protect and preserve the Northern Cheyenne reservation as a homeland for the Northern Cheyenne people.

The bill to cancel the coal leases and permits was passed by Congress and signed by President Jimmy Carter on October 9, 1980. In response, the Northern Cheyenne would say, "Our air was pure and the sun had not turned black." Wally McRae, a white rancher said, "We should thank the Indians."

The Northern Cheyenne showed great reliance against the U.S. government and their corporate partners. However, this resistance did not happen in a vacuum. At the same time, movements were growing for Black Power, Red Power, against the Vietnam War, for women's rights and the environment, and many people were radicalizing around the country.

It was in this climate that a nation of 4,000 people were able to organize with white ranchers and environmentalists to prevent the destruction of their land.

To this day, coal companies are still trying their best to mine in the area, and the Northern Cheyenne continue to resist. This story shows us what is possible when people fight back.

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