From left, Vice President Winfield Russell and President John Robinson.

Stephanie Woodard

From left, Vice President Winfield Russell and President John Robinson.

Hope Springs: An Interview With John Robinson, of Northern Cheyenne


“I’m glad you came here in the spring,” said President John Robinson, of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. “This time of year reflects the way we feel. We know we have problems, but our government is focusing on solutions. There is hope everywhere.”

I met Robinson at tribal headquarters in Lame Deer, in southeastern Montana. The reservation’s flowering trees were blooming in pale pastels against the vivid green of soaring mountains and deep valleys, making this a particularly beautiful moment to see a storied landscape—just east of the Little Big Horn battlefield where the Cheyenne people and their Sioux and other allies defeated Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in 1876.

It’s also a serious moment, with controversy within the tribe over how to respond to coal development planned for the Powder River region, on the reservation’s eastern border, and its effects on the Northern Cheyenne land and people. Robinson talked about challenges his administration faces. Vice President Winfield Russell sat in on the discussion at the point when it turned to veterans’ health care.


What are major issues facing Northern Cheyenne?

We are looking for ways to take the lead on planning—primarily land-use planning, which affects and encompasses everything. Housing is a big issue. Lame Deer has outgrown space for building new homes. We may need new buildings with two or three stories. We will certainly need new water and sewer lines.

What about economic development?

We’re working with the Northern Cheyenne Development Corporation, a group authorized by the tribal council. As a government, we want to support—but not control—the private sector, which is where growth should arise. For example, to provide commercial space that businesses can lease, we are considering purchases of fee-patent land near our business district.

What’s going on with the coal development?

About 10 years ago, after Arch Coal got the blessings of the state to begin development east of our reservation, we started looking at what it would mean for us. Our council at the time said, this thing is going to go, we have to ensure we experience as much positive and as little negative impact as possible. Our leaders were thinking outside the box and down the road. We have our sovereignty, but recognizing that, we formed working partnerships, with the state, for example. We have a good idea of how Arch Coal claims it’ll operate the mine. Groundbreaking is about six years away, and there are possibilities of job training, employment and scholarships.

Are there potential problems?

We foresee a tremendous amount of additional traffic, with impacts on air quality and the roads themselves. We already have 1,400 trucks a day passing through the reservation on federal highway 212, but there will be many more.

Will there be an influx of workers?

We expect at least 1,000 new employees in the area, with greater numbers if they bring families. To compare, the Northern Cheyenne population is just 10,000. Small nearby off-reservation towns are preparing to absorb many, but we’ll get a lot simply because of our location. We have to update our traffic codes and other laws. There will be trespass problems and social issues. But we’re trying to think in terms of embracing, rather than fending off, the newcomers.

How would that happen?

Perhaps we can provide trailer parks, a motel and a convenience store. We could be part of a regional economic avenue; we were bypassed during the Lewis and Clark Bi-Centennial and need to ensure that doesn’t happen again. We must also figure out how to communicate our customs and traditions. We can’t simply say, you gotta respect us. We have to get through to the new area residents.

Our underlying premise is, this is Northern Cheyenne country and Northern Cheyenne law. People who come onto our land are welcome—very welcome—as long as they respect our laws, land and people. If they show disrespect—trespass, for example—we have our civil exclusion law. For more serious issues, we need an agreement with the state. For the most serious criminal cases, we must be sure the feds will step in. We have good relationships with Montana’s U.S. attorney, the state and the counties we overlap, so we feel we’re off to a good start.

Are there lessons from the North Dakota experience?

North Dakota has experienced unrestricted growth in the Bakken oil fields, but they seem to have begun drilling and hiring without screening workers. There is the possibility we could end up with big, lawless, so-called man camps, unless we use the next five or six years to plan. If we invest in schools and housing, we think we’re more likely to get families. We also have to work closely with nearby towns to understand what they can handle.

Has the sequester affected you?

The sequester is forcing agencies to work together because we’re all in it together. People are trying to collaborate and break down barriers. We’ve had more contact with the federal government in the last three or four months than we’ve ever had.

What about health care?

Bringing doctors out here is difficult, and we’re discussing this with the Indian Health Service (IHS). We have openings, but physicians typically come out, show a little interest then don’t accept the position they’re offered. The situation, still unresolved, is straining the medical staff we do have.

And veterans’ care?

At least 25 percent of tribal members are veterans, and health care for them has had serious challenges. Native vets can get care through either the IHS or the Veterans Administration—or both. Until recently, the two agencies had no way to coordinate payments or share patient information.

However, as of December 2012, the Veterans Administration (VA) and IHS can collaborate. We just met with the IHS to figure out how this will work here—so that, for example, a Northern Cheyenne vet can have a medical test at the IHS clinic here in Lame Deer, then have the results forwarded to a VA facility. This was not possible before.

The coordination will help alleviate the enormous travel burden on vets needing care. The several VA hospitals they might go to are a minimum of seven-hour round trips from Lame Deer, and it’s 10 hours round trip to the nearest facility that deals with head trauma—a problem for our younger vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan [where many were repeatedly exposed to improvised explosive devices or IEDs].

Will enhancements in care result?

It’s our foot in the door for a new relationship with the VA. The IHS recognizes traditional ways and incorporates them in treatment. However, the VA has not, and we’re hoping to fix that.

About five years ago, the parent of a veteran approached me, along with a society brother of mine. The father said, ‘My boy is down in Sheridan, Wyoming, in the VA hospital. He has PTSD.’ He wanted to help his son with sweats and traditional ways. We know this helps people in a good way when their thinking gets out of whack, for whatever reason. The father was clear—he wanted to add prayers and sweats, not displace the VA’s treatment.

We wrote and called the VA several times, contacting numerous employees, but never even received an acknowledgment that we existed. Eventually the boy got out and got in a lot of trouble. After he found help through our ways, he straightened out his life and is doing well today. The VA overlooked an opportunity to help in a manner that we know works. It’s worked for thousands of years.

So the new partnership among these important agencies will open the door to more cooperation in this area, and there’s hope here as well.


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Hope Springs: An Interview With John Robinson, of Northern Cheyenne