It saddens Lloyd Irvine to watch hard-rock mining operations at the base of Chief Cliff Mountain in his hometown of Elmo, on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
"Because of our beliefs, we're not here to destroy what was given to us," says the 67-year-old Irvine, who is half Kootenai and half Salish.
Tribal members have for years tried to curb the use of dynamite by quarry operator Western Stone LLC to loosen the richly colored rock deep underneath the Chief Cliff rock formation, considered sacred among Kootenai people.
The quarry is owned by a non-tribal member but sits within the reservation's boundaries, so it falls in a regulatory blind spot of sorts. The tribe has attempted to buy out the landowner and lobbied Montana's congressional delegation for help, according to Irvine, a former Confederated Salish and Kootenai (CSKT) Tribal Council representative who now sits on the Salish Pend d'Oreille Culture Committee. "We can't get anywhere," he says.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has proposed that it regulate the Chief Cliff quarry and another site on the reservation in the town of Perma. Earlier this month, the cultural committee, comprised of Irvine and more than a dozen other elders, met to discuss the offer.
Though frustrated by the impacts of mining on their reservation, members of the cultural committee, including Irvine, bristled at the notion of DEQ intervention. The DEQ's offer might be the most feasible option, but inviting an outside government agency onto the reservation, Irvine says, contradicts American Indian tribes' right to self-govern.
"It goes against all principles," he says.
Elders will continue debating the proposal as the CSKT Tribal Council also looks for ways to address hard-rock mining concerns, says CSKT spokesman Robert McDonald.
"The Tribal Council is in the process of gathering input from our various departments, including our culture committees," McDonald says. "Our council has not yet determined the best path for our nation.