Clara Caufield: A highway of death for Northern Cheyenne Tribe

The following opinion by Clara Caufield appears in the latest issue of the Native Sun News. All content © Native Sun News.

Clara Caufield

Highway of death on Northern Cheyenne Reservation
By Clara Caufield
A Cheyenne Voice

This column is hard to write because it deals with unspeakable tragedy. A few days ago, a young Cheyenne woman was struck and killed on Highway 212, near the Crow-Cheyenne Reservation line in the wee morning hours.

It was a wintery, snow blown night and we hear that the vehicle (witnesses thought it was a truck) did not stop and it took much time to find the body. State-wide radio accounts report that the driver “may have not known” he/she struck anyone, thus that driver has not been apprehended: one of such horror stories that could be told about this Reservation Highway of Frequent Death. Will this be one more in a long chain of unsolved murders on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation?

Poverty and hitchhikers (sometimes under the influence of alcohol) go hand in hand on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, too often with fatal results. State Highway 212 traverses the long lonely stretch between Crow Agency, MT and Belle Fourche, SD, bisecting both the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations, including the two main Cheyenne towns of Busby and Lame Deer.

That route is followed by more than 500 semis each day opting for a short cut to the Bakken Oil Fields. When the Otter Creek Coal Mine, near Ashland is activated, additional truck traffic is expected. And, the two lane highway is also a major route for local Cheyenne hitchhikers, making for a natural collision course, especially at night.

The Tribe has a public transit system, but due to funding constraints, service to outlying communities is minimal. Many Natives who do not have other transportation thus decide to either walk or hitchhike to get to college, medical clinics, the grocery store or to an off reservation bar to obtain a “jug”. I don’t know if these Cheyenne could still walk back from Oklahoma to Montana, but I know for sure they can and do walk 17 miles from Busby to Lame Deer, often pushing baby strollers in stifling, freezing or dark conditions. Most are very young.

Living next to Highway 212, I can personally attest that it is dangerous. Once a day or so, I venture across it on foot to go to the D & D Trading Post, the only retail outlet serving Busby. Usually, I warn my three dogs “Wait, a semi convey (10 or more semis speeding flap to flap) is coming - coming fast- about 75 miles per hour, in spite of clearly posted but rarely heeded 45 mph signs through our town. When driving 212, I travel slow (about 50 mph) because of dangerous speeding truckers, feral/stray horses and dogs, frequent road hazards. Sometimes, from 10-15 impatient and “fingering’ truckers stack up behind me. Still, I brake for hitchhikers, perilously avoiding the truckers behind me. Too bad for them, this is my country.

Not too long ago, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council enacted resolutions relating to Highway 212, imploring the State of Montana to undertake additional safety measures. A few years ago the State, at the request of the Tribe conducted a Safety Audit on 212, developing a number of safety recommendations, none yet implemented because it apparently takes years to plan and design such undertakings.

Yet, does not the Tribe have some responsibility in this matter? The Northern Cheyenne Tribe only has a few traffic safety measures, seat belts, child safety seats and DUIs. Otherwise, there is no license, insurance requirements, speeding laws, vehicle safety measures, load limits, oversize loads, hazardous materials traffic regulations, etc. Thus, the BIA and Highway Traffic Safety Officers are extremely limited when dealing with speeding truckers.

From what I understand they can only detain them and call for backup from the Highway Patrol or County officers who have the authority to issue citations. Waiting for them to show up takes hours and usually the BIA cops are called for more pressing matters – like chasing down a tribal member in possession of a Bud Light. The presence of the MHP or County officers on the Reservation HWY 212 is minimal, in part because of jurisdictional disputes.

The underlying cause will be very hard to solve. Poverty and hitchhikers (desperate folk) will always be linked. Until that basic problem is addressed, I fear that too many Northern Cheyenne will continue to travel 212 on foot, putting themselves in jeopardy. And we will continue to report such horrific stories.

(Clara Caufield can be reached at acheyennevoice@gmail.com)