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Native Sun News: Northern Cheyenne Tribe hails land measure

The following story was written and reported by Clara Caufield, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

Northern Cheyenne President Llevando "Cowboy" Fisher and Eloise Snow, Busby District, both lobbied in DC for passage of Cheyenne Lands Act. Photo by Clara Caufield

Cheyenne Lands Act passes Congress
By Clara Caufield
Native Sun News Correspondent

LAME DEER, Mont. –– One hundred and fourteen years ago when the Northern Cheyenne Reservation was expanded, the Federal government bought out non-Indian land owners, but overlooked 5,000 acres of railroad mineral rights containing some of the richest coal deposits in North America. That problem is now resolved through passage of the Northern Cheyenne Lands Act.

On Dec. 12, the U.S. Senate gave its stamp of approval by a vote of 89-11 to a historic public lands agreement negotiated by Montana’s Congressional delegation. Part of the National Defense Authorization, the package included the Cheyenne Lands Act (section 3077) legislation that the Northern Cheyenne Tribe sought for over 20 years to correct that Federal error. The legislation also includes other measures to assist the Tribe.

Senators Jon Tester and John Walsh worked with Congressman Steve Daines (R, Mont. Senator-elect) over the past year with Northern Cheyenne leaders to secure passage of the Act.

“The Northern Cheyenne Lands Act provides the Tribe with a long-overdue resolution to the Federal government’s breach of trust with the Tribe and empowers the Northern Cheyenne People to control their land and their resources. I’m pleased to see this important legislation moving forward and seeing it signed into law,” said Daines who made the legislation a priority during his recent House term.

Tester -- who has a strong track record of supporting tribal issues -- chaired the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs while this legislation was under consideration commented. “Restoring the mineral rights to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe rights a wrong made over a 100 years ago, creates jobs and gives the Tribe more control over their lands and economy. As a leader on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee I will continue to work with the Tribe to increase economic opportunity and strengthen sovereignty.”

Tribal President Llevando “Cowboy” Fisher and Tribal Council members were ecstatic about passage of the legislation. “Northern Cheyenne now controls 100% of the minerals on our Reservation,” Fisher said in satisfaction. “Very few other Tribes can say that.”

“The Tribe tried to get this done for over 20 years,” he explained. “We started in 1993 under my first Administration, but it fell by the wayside for several years, picked up again about eight years ago and pushed by Presidents Little Coyote, Small, Spang, Robinson and myself. The legislation got stalled in two previous sessions of Congress. We didn’t give up and are grateful to all the Northern Cheyenne tribal leaders and the Montana Congressional delegation who made this possible. Their combined leadership on behalf of the Cheyenne was outstanding and the impact of this law will benefit out people for all time.”

Former President John Robinson underscored that sentiment: “This deal has been in the works for many administrations. When I took office the deal was in place. I give President Spang and his administration credit for working closely with Senator Jon Tester to hammer out the final details for this Agreement with Tester, helping make this a reality.”

Tribal Administrator William Walksalong was engaged in the process as former Tribal President, Vice-President and highly placed tribal employee. “It is a great accomplishment,” said Kelly Johnson, attorney for Holland and Hart Law Firm. “We couldn’t have done it without Walsalongs’ leadership and personal engagement."

Walksalong explained that the legislation includes other key provisions. In addition to granting the Tribe mineral rights to some 5,000 acres of Reservation sub-surface, the Tribe will receive a 40% royalty interest in off-reservation coal that may be developed by Great Northern Properties (GNP) the company that owned the subsurface in question and controls mineral rights for other potential Montana coal mines, including the proposed Otter Creek mine adjacent to the Northern Cheyenne reservation.

The legislation grants GNP mineral rights on other MT federal lands to make them whole from the minerals transferred to the Tribe.

“The royalty income we will depend upon future coal off-reservation development but eventually we could reap millions from that,” Walksalong said. “And without disturbing our own coal reserves.”

He stressed that question of coal development involving the new subsurface rights has not been formally entertained by the Tribal membership or Council.

The legislation also transfers 932 acres of Tribally-owned fee land into trust status. All lands are on the Reservation, except for two tracts near the Tongue River Reservoir. An early version of the bill would have put Cheyenne tribal lands at Bear Butte in trust. Fisher said that provision was dropped because agreement could not be reached with some of the Sioux Tribes.

Another provision transfers $5 million from the Office of Special Trustee (OST) into the Northern Cheyenne Permanent Fund. This funding was left over from the 1992 Tribal Water Rights Settlement dedicated to the repair and expansion of the Tongue River Reservoir located near the Reservation.

President Fisher explained that the funds have generated very low returns of 1-2% under OST while the tribal investment portfolio yields a higher return. The tribal Permanent Fund was adopted through a referendum in 1994, assuring that the multi-million dollar Water Rights corpus would not be invaded or quickly dissipated. Only the interest is spent annually for a variety of specific purposes, including an annual allocation to each of the five Reservation districts, distributed by community committees for charitable, educational and elderly needs.

Since 1994, the initial ten million dollar corpus has grown to roughly 20 million.

“The interest from these funds will assist our people for years to come,” Fisher added.

Finally, the law requires the Secretary of the Interior to report to Congress on the status of consolidation of fractionated land on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and the prospects for agricultural development.

Tracy Robinson, Ashland Council member also worked closely on the legislation during the past six years.

“We need to educate our people on the significance of the Act,” he said. “It is a true expression of sovereignty that will be very important to our economic well-being in the future.”

Though some groups, including the MT-WY Tribal Leaders Council oppose the combined Lands Package for reasons not related to the Cheyenne provision, Northern Cheyenne is confident the measure will receive final approval from President Obama.

“I don’t think he will challenge an 89-11 vote,” Walksalong predicted.

Ed. Note by Indianz.Com: President Obama signed H.R.3979, the National Defense Authorization Act, into law on December 19.

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

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