ICYMI: The Montana Tribe Torn Between Coal and Culture

By Yessenia Funes Jun 27, 2017

The people of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation are in disagreement. What’s more important: culture or economic prosperity?

The reservation, in southeastern Montana, suffers from high rates of unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as suicide. These issues have gotten some tribal members wondering if they should get on President Donald Trump’s coal industry bandwagon.

“We need the economic development. We need the jobs here,” said Diana McLean, a tribal member, to NPR. “We’ve been in the same situation for the last 50 years. And it hasn’t changed. It hasn’t improved. There’s no jobs here.”

And while coal might seem enticing when a community of 5,000 is seeing an unemployment rate as high as 60 percent, other tribal members are concerned of what coal mining could do to their water, air and sacred lands.

“So it brings in money,” said Alaina Buffalo Spirit, another tribal member, to NPR. “Guess what? More drugs, more alcohol, human trafficking,” she says, referencing what might result from an influx of outside coal miners (as the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota has allegedly seen with its fracking field workers).

For now, the tribe is likely to stay away from the fossil fuel. Its president, Jace Killsback, is against coal and doesn’t want to see it ever removed from the ground. 

Killsback wants to see his people focus on other industries, perhaps renewable energy or e-commerce. On the reservation’s budding small businesses, NPR writes:

His administration is helping launch small, Northern Cheyenne-owned businesses.

Off of Route 39, the main road through Lame Deer, not far from where [tribal member Ernest] Littlebird sells his hamburgers is a new shopping center. There is an art store, a print shop and cellphone repair shop among others.

Brandin Limberhand is opening the cellphone repair shop with a friend. It’s the only one in 120 miles.

“We can find a better solution to create jobs — more jobs, different jobs — on this reservation,” Limberhand says. “Coal makes money and all that, but it impacts our land and our people. We can do better.”

Read the full NPR story here.