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Tester has, in fact, spoken directly with Cloud Peak on several occasions. His schedules for Feb. 7 and June 12, 2013, both listed meetings with company representatives. Tester's communications director, Marnee Banks, says those conversations centered on the company's work in Montana, with Cloud Peak reassuring the senator that "mining on tribal land will create jobs and boost tax revenue." Despite those meetings and Cloud Peak's years-long lobbying record on tax issues, Banks says Tester decided to support the tax credit measure only after discussions with Crow leaders like Old Coyote. "The decision," she adds, "was not made at the behest of the coal lobby."
Daines' office says the congressman also intends to introduce a tax credit reauthorization measure in the U.S. House, one that would make the break permanent.
A different brand of activism
A wall of dark blue storm clouds rolls across the sky above Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, which lies just east of Crow and several miles north of the mine-dominated landscape around Decker. Northern Cheyenne tribal member Phillip Whiteman Jr. hurries to unsaddle his horses as bolts of lightning crisscross the sky. He's spent much of the late afternoon repairing a mechanical bucking machine outside a trailer on his lower acreage. His wrinkled hands are covered in grease. Wind kicks dust in his eyes as he hauls tack to a shed.
Whiteman wouldn't call himself a coal critic. He wouldn't say he's anti-coal, nor would he choose to call opposition to development a "war" as individuals like Daines have. The founder of Yellow Bird Inc., a grassroots organization focused on environmental protection and spiritual identity, Whiteman approaches the issue far differently than high-profile groups like the Sierra Club, the Blue Skies Campaign or Greenpeace. Sitting at his dining room table up the road from his corral, he runs through a series of hand exercises designed to highlight just how left-brained many people are. Lacing your fingers together in a certain way may feel wrong or uncomfortable. Those words don't sit well with Whiteman. They insinuate a focus on the negative, not the positive.
"You can have the best of intentions, but you're still part of the problem," Whiteman says. "You have to know what you're for, not against. If you're against fossil fuels and industrial culture, you're escalating it and you're elevating it. You're focusing on the problem, not the solution."
Whiteman won't directly criticize coal companies or their activity. It's an oddly calm mentality considering his reservation, while free of coal activity itself, is bordered to the north by the Colstrip coal-fired power plant and to the west and south by mines like Spring Creek and Decker. If development at Otter Creek commences, Northern Cheyenne will be surrounded on all sides. Yet when asked if he feels pained or frustrated or concerned driving past these areas, Whiteman rejects the emotions.
"It don't concern me because I believe in a power greater than myself," he says. "I believe in universal law, natural justice, and I believe in a self-correcting earth. It's those that are doing this act, they're the ones that should be concerned because everything comes back around. What you put out there comes back."
Coal is rich below Northern Cheyenne, too, and poverty is pervasive. The tribe has flirted with the idea of pursuing development for years; in 2006, reservation voters overwhelmingly supported a referendum calling for the mining of coal. Past tribal officials have even campaigned on the promise of jobs and economic stimulus. Yet the Northern Cheyenne haven't issued a single permit, and many on the reservation have staunchly opposed the proposal at Otter Creek. Whiteman credits the lack of development here to a strong grassroots pushback, and to the fact that his people maintain powerful ties to their past.
"It goes back to language, culture and identity, our connection to air, land and water," he says, adding that those who did take a run at development are "no longer with us. They're no longer in office."
Whiteman and his wife, Lynette Two Bulls, an enrolled member of South Dakota's Oglala Lakota Nation, espouse a holistic belief system that builds on that connection to the land. It translates into everything Yellow Bird Inc. does. For tribal members, the company builds that connection through the annual 400-mile Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run between Crawford, Neb., and Busby, an event that commemorates the trek Northern Cheyenne took to return home in 1879 after a bloody breakout from Fort Robinson. For visitors, Yellow Bird Inc. teaches how to approach critical issues from a positive, solution-based mindset. Whiteman and Two Bulls recently hosted a crew from Greenpeace interested in incorporating those lessons into their organization's activism.
To understand what coal development means for the environment, Whiteman believes people need to take a hard look at the history of indigenous tribes in the United States. American Indians never displayed a sense of ownership over the land, he says. How can you own something that owns you? Western industrial culture is "warped thinking," and has in many ways backed large parts of Indian Country into situations of poverty and joblessness. For centuries tribes have been traumatized, oppressed, abused. Now that abuse is being enacted in new ways with broader implications.
"That land gave birth to us," he says. "We have astrology stories dating back to the beginning of time that we come from the stars. With that kind of imprint and that kind of history, we predate manifest destiny. We predate eminent domain. We predate that, and what happened to our people is a crime. Now it has moved on into Mother Earth."
The war on coal
Darrin Old Coyote isn't just banking his tribe's future on one mine or one resource alone. This spring, the Crow Tribe received a $665,000 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior to help fund a $44.5 million hydroelectric dam. The Yellowtail Afterbay Hydropower Project on the Bighorn River could generate up to 12 megawatts of power, and is expected to begin operating by 2018.
Old Coyote points to the Yellowtail Afterbay project as further evidence that the tribe is trying to "diversify our revenue stream." Coal isn't the only gift on the reservation. Still, Old Coyote believes Cloud Peak's deal will ultimately offer more jobs and more revenue for the Crow than renewable industries like hydro or wind energy could.
Scott, with the Sierra Club, isn't so sure. Cloud Peak doubling its reserves with a 1.4-billion-ton deal may look good to investors on paper, and a few million dollars up front—along with thousands in scholarship funding—may have some tangible impact on Crow initially. But the voices of coal critics are getting louder. The industry's domestic market is shrinking. And opposition to the new infrastructure necessary to ramp up exports is strong.
"As people have understood more what the impacts of strip mining are, I don't think you have as much sympathy out there for coal as you used to," Scott says. "I think the other thing is the decline in the use of coal. A few years ago, coal was almost 50 percent of the nation's energy. It dropped to 37 percent pretty abruptly. People who pay attention to this saw the 10-percent reduction over just a couple of years and the lights didn't go off. Hospitals didn't stop working. The catastrophe the coal industry has promised us if we stop using coal never materialized."
Old Coyote is insistent that Cloud Peak could provide a quicker fix for his people than other alternatives. He frequently turns to a creation story when defending his tribe's need to take Cloud Peak up on its promises. The Creator blessed the Crow Tribe with resource-rich land for a reason, he says. It was a gift, one he intends to use to improve his people's lot.
Old Coyote views opposition to increased train traffic and West Coast terminal development as part of a broader war on coal. He's not the only one using the motif; in a press release earlier this month, Daines decried Gov. Jay Inslee's announcement against reliance on coal in Washington as a "new front in the War on Coal." His office elaborated on the issue, saying that reductions in demand for power from Colstrip would "directly affect the amount of coal it would be able to obtain from Montana reserves, like those found on the Crow reservation."
"A war on coal," Old Coyote says, "is a war on Crow families."
"We as Crows have been through many types of wars," he adds, "from assimilation to small pox to inter-tribal warfare. We survived. We endured through many hardships. But there are always better days ahead of us. We will continue fighting."