Peter Auld grew up across the way from the towering rock formation known as "Chief Cliff." The craggy stone above the Flathead Indian Reservation just off Highway 93 is central to Kootenai creation stories and today acts as an anchor for moral directives followed by tribal members.
"Basically, that cliff is part of the community of Elmo—religiously, culturally, spiritually, we have ties with that cliff," Auld says. "What it means to us means a great deal."
One of Auld's favorite stories, handed down through the generations, tells of an elderly chief who, with his horse, scaled Chief Cliff to show his displeasure. He was angry, the story goes, because young people were losing respect for their elders.
"So, one day he dressed up in his full regalia, his best buckskin, his best headdress, and got on his best horse," Auld says. "And he's on top of Chief Cliff, and he tells them how they should never forget their elders. They should never forget the brave deeds that they've done in their life. Basically, show them respect. And, in doing that, he jumped off a cliff for a sign of bravery."
The rock formation and surrounding areas remain sacred to each of the seven Kootenai bands that stretch from Idaho through Montana and into Canada. That's why Auld and some friends, including Jason Smith and Ambrose Caye, launched a movement about two months ago that aims to protect Chief Cliff from the effects of a rock-mining operation near the formation's base. The trio says dynamite blasts used by quarry operator Western Stone LLC to loosen the richly colored rock deep underneath Chief Cliff threaten the landmark's integrity.
"It bothered me ever since they started mining," Auld says. "I just didn't know what to do. And it's caused great concerns for other people. Me and Jason and Ambrose, we talked and talked and talked and sat down and conversed. We figured we need to get people aware of this...We just decided it's time for it to stop and so we decided to start getting organized."
And so they did. The effort's been a whirlwind so far. After creating a Facebook page, ordering "Save Chief Cliff" T-shirts and launching a letter-writing campaign to grab the attention of state and federal decision makers, the group is quickly making headway.
As a result of the their work, Richard Opper, director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), recently learned of the controversy surrounding the mining operation. He says the quarry is not permitted through the DEQ and his agency is now looking into whether state jurisdiction applies.
If the Flathead Reservation's Confederated Salish & Kootenai tribal government has no objections, DEQ can step in and require mining operators on non-tribal land to obtain a permit. Through that process, DEQ would next evaluate if Chief Cliff constitutes a cultural resource. If it is in jeopardy from the rock quarry, Opper says DEQ could restrict operations.
"Whether [the tribes] want us to be the bad cop who comes in to [regulate the mine], that remains to be seen," Opper says.
Opper adds that permitting mines on private property inside the reservation is tricky.
"We certainly want to respect tribal sovereignty," Opper says. "We don't want to step on toes, necessarily."
The Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribal Council is in the process of passing a formal resolution supporting the Save Chief Cliff movement, says tribal spokesperson Rob McDonald. As far as state regulation is concerned, McDonald says extending an invitation to DEQ would require additional debate within the tribal government.
Dan Fischer, owner of Western Stone in Lakeside, operates the quarry. Fischer leases the land from Leif Jensen, whose family has been in the area for decades. Fischer referred questions about the mining operation to Jensen, who refused to comment for this article when initially contacted via telephone. That phone number has since been disconnected.
Chief Cliff stone sells for about 35 cents per pound, and is used in building walkways, signs and structures. According to Western Stone's website, "Chief Cliff Stone comes from one quarry only, you are insured of uniformity and consistency of color and that the same rock you use now will be available in the future...We quarry year round."
Jason Smith, a founding member of Save Chief Cliff, says the group is acutely aware of the importance of nurturing small businesses. Western Stone provides local jobs and generates thousands of dollars worth of tax dollars for county coffers annually.
"Economic development is important to communities," Smith says. "We're not really trying to stop the mining. We're just trying to protect this cultural resource."
Ideally, the two camps—those who wish to protect the site and those with a financial investment in the operation—will find common ground, Smith says.
"We just want to preserve what's sacred to us," Smith says. "I believe there is a middle ground. There is a middle ground for everything."