On rolling hills in south-central Montana, near where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry made their Last Stand in 1876, the Crow Nation sees the future.
The tribe’s 2.2-million-acre reservation is rich in coal, and unlocking its potential is critical to the tribe’s economy, tribal leaders say. The Crow’s main source of income is the 43-year-old Absaloka Mine in Hardin. The tribe for the past several years has pushed to open a second mine that could produce 1.4 billion tons of coal and generate $10 million for the tribe in five years.
“I don’t want to be dependent on the U.S. government,” former Crow tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote said. “We have the resources, we have the manpower, we have the capability of being self-sufficient.” Noting that the tribe’s unemployment rate ranges between 25 percent and 50 percent, he added, “There’s no reason why we should be this poor.”
But nearby tribes say fossil fuel development threatens the environment and Native Americans’ distinct way of life, which they believe the federal government is obligated to protect under centuries-old treaties. Energy development “threatens the cultural heritage of what it means to be Northern Cheyenne,” tribal council member Conrad Fisher said. “It has to do with being environmental stewards of the land and appreciating this beautiful country we call home.”
The tribes’ contrasting views highlight a spirited debate among Native Americans, economists, environmentalists, scholars and lawmakers about energy development and tribal sovereignty. Some tribal governments — including the Navajo in the Southwest and the Southern Ute in Colorado — favor authorizing tribes to develop their energy resources or implement their own environmental safeguards without restrictions from the federal government and outsiders.
“It’s about sovereignty,” said Mark Fox, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, known as MHA Nation, which has profited from an oil and gas boom on its Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota.
But other tribal governments, numerous individual natives and environmentalists say the federal government remains obligated to protect Indian land and natural resources from outside commercial exploitation or corrupt tribal governments.
“It’s not about business anymore,” David Kenny, a member of the Seneca Nation, said as he marched past the White House on March 17 protesting the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The controversial oil pipeline runs under land sacred to Native Americans just outside the Standing Rock Sioux’s reservation in North Dakota. “Everybody is going to die if this continues. The Earth is dying.”
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