The mood was festive and spirited on the Crow Nation last year when they signed a deal on Jan. 24, 2013 with Cloud Peak Energy Inc. that sold 1.4 billion tons of coal from beneath their land. As various news outlets were quick to point out, the entire United States uses less than that with about one billion tons of coal burned annually.
A drum group sang a victory song while Montana's lone congressman, as well as a U.S. Senator, were on hand to congratulate the Crows on their successful business deal. The young and newly elected Crow leaders donned feathered headdresses while seemingly well on the way to fulfilling their “positive change” campaign promises of job creation, self-sustaining economic stimulus, and true sovereignty.
The Crow Nation would initially receive $2.25 million after the ink dried, followed by another $1.5 million after the Department of Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the deal in July. Depending on profits, it was optimistically estimated lease payments could reach as high as $10 million over five years. And in the culture where Chief Plenty Coup famously said, “Education is your greatest weapon. Without education you are the white man's equal, without education you are his victim,” the tribe would receive up to $75,000 per year for scholarships. For a tribe whose unemployment rates always hovered at just under 50 percent, it indeed represented a new day and era for positive change.
But as detailed in this enlightening piece by Winona LaDuke, 880 miles away in Bellingham, Washington, the Lummi Tribe has been staunchly protesting one of the proposed coal export terminals where much of this coal would theoretically end up by train before shipping off to Asia. The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would see some 48 million tons of coal travel through a corridor that would be built in the heart of the Lummi's sacred Cherry Point area.
In a recent media statement to the Bellingham Herald, the tribe wrote: "The entire Cherry Point area is significant to the Lummi people. Cherry Point is nearly adjacent to the Lummi reservation. Lummi's cultural history of Cherry Point has been known for decades, both by Lummis and by cultural resources professions …monetary value cannot be placed on our cultural history.”
One glaring example of blatantly ignoring significant “cultural history” recently came from big coal. After several years of meticulous excavation, perhaps one of the most important archaeological finds in the last 50 years that detailed the religious beliefs of indigenous peoples 2,000 years ago was destroyed. A coal company operating on the Crow Reservation took a backhoe to it so strip-mining operations in the immediate vicinity could resume more quickly.
The kicker is this was done with permission by the Crow Tribe's very own Tribal Historic Preservation Office, an office created to prevent such abuses against historically significant landmarks. The head of the THPO at the time, Dale Old Horn, gave permission to the coal company to take a backhoe to the sacred site in July 2011. He was fired by the tribal administration later that year for his preeminent role in a corruption scheme that totaled some $500,000, ultimately leading to a federal conviction last August.
What would compel people to do such things that would desecrate a sacred bison site? A shocked anthropologist, Judson Finley from Utah State University, who witnessed the aftermath and destruction of the historical site, said, “We’re talking about coal, and the whole area has coal underneath it. You make the connection.”
Rather than being admonished for causing the destruction of a sacred bison site, two family members of Old Horn involved in the $500,000 scheme were actually rehired at the Crown Nation’s Cultural Affairs Office. Awaiting sentencing, Old Horn was given preference and worked for the tribe's new administration as “part of a group making recommendations on how to preserve the Crow culture and way of life,” according to the Billings Gazette. It must be noted that Old Horn is the current Crow tribal chairman's uncle.
There's a line between supporting family and versus supporting illogical nepotism that plagues our tribal governments. I'm not implying the Crow condoned the incident, but what message did it send to their youth when these convicted men were immediately rehired after such blatant abuses of greed? Are natural resources that make a quick buck more important than culture and values?
While personally reporting on the sacred site that was destroyed for coal, I admit it was hard to not be personally disheartened and outraged. One merely had to view the photos and pristine artifacts pulled from the site to know this site was truly unique. What I understood foremost, however, was that something supremely important happened there. Great medicine was made honoring the earth, the bison lifeline of the Rocky Mountains, and Great Plains.
With the rapid decline of coal in the United States, the Chinese moving away from coal, widespread public pressure against dirty fuels, and recent news that Goldman Sachs pulled out their 49 percent investment on the Cherry Point port, substantial layoffs have been proposed in the Crow Tribal government.
One wonders if those bison that were being honored at that sacred site 2,000 years ago are finally letting their voices be heard.
Adrian Jawort is a proud Northern Cheyenne living in Montana. He's been a freelance journalist for various newspapers and several nationally distributed publications, including Cowboys & Indians and Native Peoples magazines, and he's a continual correspondent for Indian Country Today Media Network as well. He's compiled a fiction anthology due out this winter titled, “Off the Path, An Anthology of Montana 21st Century American Indian Writers, Vol. 1.”