A Native American tribe in Montana hopes its coal reserves will provide economic opportunity

The Takeaway
Coal mine

Westmoreland Resources' Absaloka Mine in southeastern Montana is shown on May 30, 2008. The mine is on Crow Nation land.

Adam Tanner/Reuters

In the United States, many non-native people subscribe to a certain mythology about Native Americans — a mythology that casts them as stewards of the earth working in harmony with the land.

It's a mythology we've seen play out in Disney films like "Pocahontas," in Oscar winning films like "Dances with Wolves," and in every cowboy and Indian film of the golden age of Hollywood.

In reality, of course, Native peoples have had the vast majority of their land taken away, and they've been left with very few natural resources to survive off of. One of the few resources left, at least for one tribe, is coal.

The Crow Nation in Montana, also known as the Apsaalooke, have an abundance of coal on their reservation. They already have one open-pit mine, and soon, they’re hoping to open another.  In cooperation with Cloud Peak Energy — one of the biggest coal companies in the country — the tribe plans to mine 1.4 billion tons of coal for customers in Asia.

“For the Crow, this really comes down to self sufficiency,” says Amy Martin, a freelance radio producer based in Missoula, Montana, who has done extensive reporting on the Crow tribe with Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America’s energy issues.

Native Americans of all tribes have suffered a long and brutal history of oppression, something that’s left many indigenous communities without the means to provide for themselves.

“In the case of the Crow, they have this resource — they have about 9 billion tons of coal on their reservation,” says Martin. “At least for most of the people I’ve talked to, that feels like a way to pull themselves out of poverty, to provide for their families, and provide for their community.”

While this mining project promises great financial rewards for the tribe, it also comes at a time when protests against dirty coal are on the rise.

“I think some people are concerned about climate change and global warming,” says Martin. “I hesitate to try to speak for everyone, but from the people I’ve talked to, it feels like that’s the 30,000-foot level [issue], while there’s this very immediate need staring them in the face.”

Unemployment on the Crow reservation hovers between 25 and 50 percent. Housing is scarce, and there’s often not enough money for basic services and infrastructure. Darrin Old Coyote, chairman of the Crow Tribe, says the decision to develop coal has to be understood with these facts in mind — and in the context of 200 years of attacks on Native Americans.

“Assimilation, warfare, smallpox — all of that we’ve survived,” says Old Coyote. “And we’re ‘gonna continue moving forward to survive, and the only way I know how now is to develop our coal. What I’m doing is in the best interest of my people.”

Old Coyote’s comments have been echoed by others in the community, including Jason Cummins, the principal at Crow Agency school. His father worked in the mine, and he sees families who benefit from coal every day.

“To give your kid warm clothes in the winter and food in their belly — that’s what every parent desires to do,” he says. “The coal mine in our community, that’s the opportunity it brings. It helps for self-sufficiency and to be able to determine our own future.”

Though the global risk of climate change seems small for a native family struggling to get by, the Crow tribe might be aligning itself with a dying industry that may not serve the community’s needs in the long term. Since 2012, nearly 60 coal-burning power plants have partially or completely shut down in the US.

“If this mine had been developed 40 years ago, it’d be a very different story,” says Martin. “But right now, coal prices are at a 10-year low, and this all depends on getting the coal out of the United States. There’s going to be some domestic demand for a while, but to really make money, they need to ship it overseas, particularly to Asia.”

In order to get coal from the mines to places like Vietnam and South Korea, a new ports must be developed in Washington State.

“Those ports are very controversial,” says Martin. “There are actually other Native American tribes who are protesting those ports because one of them is near their land. It’s not clear that those ports will be permitted and put in, and if they’re not put in, it’s unclear that Cloud Peak Energy will actually develop all of the coal that they have the rights to now.”

These factors are concerning to at least a few members of the tribe, like Carolyn Pease-Lopez, a Montana state legislator from the Crow reservation.

“I just hope that there's some other resource that we have that we can count on,” she says. “I mean, if the markets start declining for our commodity that we do have, I just hope that we're finding something else that we can support our people with so that our families can be fed and our communities can be rebuilt.”

Does Rep. Pease-Lopez see another viable option on the horizon for the Crow people?

“Actually, I don’t,” she says.

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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