Environment | National

Cover Story: Crow Tribe banks on big energy development deal






This week's issue of The Missoula Independent features a cover story on the Crow Tribe and its coal development deal:
Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote rides proudly along Crow Agency's main drag on a Thursday morning in mid-May, wearing an ornate headdress and riding a horse named Skip. Behind Old Coyote stretches a long procession of tribal officials, parade floats and 20-year-old Crow member Amanda Not Afraid, recently crowned Miss Indian Rodeo 2014 at a ceremony in Las Vegas. Hundreds of people line the streets. A vendor on the curb is selling decorative beach towels. Another offers biscuits and gravy for $3 off a grill in the bed of a pickup.

Old Coyote became the 21st chair of his tribe in late 2012, when his people elected him by a wide margin over incumbent Cedric Black Eagle. Today's parade honors the tribe's Head Start students, and each class sits atop its own float. Other flatbeds are dedicated to various tribal offices and organizations, from the Apsaalooke Housing Authority to the Apsaalooke Nights Casino. Near the end of the parade route, Old Coyote stops on the side of the road, waving to the procession until the last float rolls slowly by.

The Crow Indian Reservation in south-central Montana is the state's largest, encompassing roughly 2.2 million acres—nearly half of it individually allotted trust land. Flanked on the west by the Pryor Mountains and the east by the Little Bighorn Battlefield, much of Crow is dedicated to livestock grazing and cropland. But the area is rich in natural resources, too. The Powder River Basin, a geological bonanza of coal deposits, stretches north from Wyoming over the reservation boundary. An estimated 9 billion tons of coal lie beneath Crow alone, and since the Colorado-based Westmoreland Mining Company first came to the reservation to open its Absaloka Mine in the 1970s, the tribenow numbered at more than 13,600 membershas relied almost solely on the coal industry as its economic backbone. Revenues from coal development account for nearly half of the Crow Tribe's annual budget.

After the parade, Old Coyote leans against his horse trailer. He's untucked his green ceremonial shirt from his jeans and replaced the headdress with a cowboy hat. His spurs—the same pair, adorned with the American flag, that he wore while riding behind President Barack Obama on horseback on the reservation in 2008jingle as he crosses his legs. Coal might be a "bad four-letter word" to many, he says. But for a people suffering from a staggering 47 percent unemployment rate—a people now 40 years dependent on a product scientists, environmentalists and political officials around the globe are blaming for climate change—there aren't many alternatives.

"Unless these NGOs can tell me how else to feed my people," Old Coyote says, "we're going to pursue development."

Get the Story:
Coal's long shadow (The Missoula Independent 5/29)