Native Sun News: Northern Cheyenne Tribe plans log cabin project

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

Pastor Dennis Bauer, Circle of Life Church shows Pat McMakin, a log cabin built from Northern Cheyenne timber. Photo courtesy A Cheyenne Voice

Chainsaws, chisels and Cheyenne
Building homes on Northern Cheyenne ‘In our own way’
By Clara Caufield
Native Sun News Correspondent

LAME DEER, Mont. –– If Llevando “Cowboy” Fisher, Northern Cheyenne Tribal President has his way; by next spring at least four Northern Cheyenne tribal members will be building log cabins on the Reservation. Fisher recently shared the details of a new Log Building Pilot Project formed under his administration.

“We will use our own timber and train our own tribal members to build their own log cabins,” he said. “These log homes will cost much less than the traditional stick-built homes provided by HUD; they will last longer and be more energy efficient.”

New housing is desperately needed at Northern Cheyenne he explained.

“We have very little homelessness on our Reservation, because families take care of one another,” he said. “But, we have serious overcrowding with multiple generations living in most Reservation homes. It is not uncommon for 20 people to live in a 3 bedroom HUD home, the grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren. Even my own family is that way.”

To address reservation housing needs, Fisher considered available resources.

“We have a lot of timber on the Reservation,” he explained. “Right now much needs to be salvaged from the 2012 Ash Creek fires; we also have tribal land and provide home sites to our members at no cost; I.H.S. will provide well and septic systems but most important we have tribal members who are willing and eager to be trained to learn the skill of building log homes. Before HUD, the Cheyenne people all lived in log cabins that they built themselves. Many are still standing.”

Fisher, who campaigned on the issue of housing needs, quickly began working on the problem after taking office in November 2013. He then wrote to the Northern Cheyenne Housing Tribal Authority (NCHA) formally requesting that a Pilot Log Cabin Project be included in the Annual Indian Housing Plan. Under HUD policies, each tribal housing authority sets annual priorities for the use of funding.

Such plan is to be community-based, approved and adopted by the Tribal Council and then approved by HUD. While NCHA included the proposed project in their most recent annual plan, it was disapproved at the Denver regional level by HUD representative Randy Ackers, Fisher has been advised.

“I don’t know why. They haven’t said,” he said.

That setback did not deter Fisher, often characterized as having a “bulldog” leadership style.

“Once he sinks his teeth into something, he won’t quit,” joked Steve Small, tribal EDA coordinator assigned to the pilot project, who drafted a proposal for the project to the State of Montana since approved for funding.

Fisher also tasked Michealine Bearcomesout with the project. She is Housing Improvement Program (HIP) Director, a BIA funded program providing housing for elderly and disabled and according to Fisher “has done an outstanding job with this new idea.”

The President also gained technical support from BIA Forestry. Julian Highwalker, recent tribal graduate is now head forester for the Northern Cheyenne Agency enthused about the pilot project as is Michael Bearcomesout, BIA Forestry retiree now volunteering as a project advisor.

Finally, Fisher enlisted the support of former Tribal President Eugene Little Coyote who has been independently working on a similar project. He plans to build a log home for his sister, currently a single parent with several dependents living with her parents in a typical overcrowded housing situation.

Little Coyote, recent NCHA employee, remarked “The log cabin building project is not of high interest to the NCHA. But that’s okay because such an initiative might be better conducted through the tribe as a grassroots effort so people can assume ownership. That leads to empowerment and self-sufficiency.”

Under present policy, HUD funding no longer supports construction of new housing on the Reservation. Instead NCHA renovates older stick built units offered them for sale to tribal members, the cost ranging from $60,000 to $80,000. So far, there have been few takers.

“That’s fine for people who can get the financing,” Fisher noted. “But under our project, it will be possible to complete a new log home for about $25,000 covering the foundation, roof, wiring and interior finish work. Even at that, financing may be a problem for many of our tribal members who will have to come up with that money, but we will continue working to find a way to assist them with that. It won’t be free. Just way more affordable with better quality housing.”

Some gainfully employed tribal members are already interested. Phillip Beckman who recently inherited his grandfather’s allotment near Kirby is one of several tribal members employed at PPL, MT in Colstrip but with the goal of building on that land to move back to the Reservation.

“Heck, you can’t even get a decent double-wide trailer for $25, 000,” he said. “I’d love to build a log home and really look forward to learning that. I am fortunate to be able to get a bank loan.

Pat McMakin, an over the road trucker also earns enough to afford such an investment.

“I’ve always wanted my own home,” he said. “At 46 it’s time to move out of Mom’s house. But on the Rez I can’t even get a rental unit. I’ll be standing in line for the log home deal.”

Fisher has also talked with other young Cheyenne men such as Mike Snow, son of Council member Eloise Snow and Meredith Tallbull who has land and wants to build their own log homes.

“We will assist and encourage these tribal members,” the President promised.

In November, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation formally confirmed a $200,000 grant for the Pilot Project. Under the project, two new log homes will be built in the spring of 2015 for tribal members that are 100% disabled: Owen “Dan” Vance and Cash LaRance. But according to Fisher the most important component will be training provided to 4-6 tribal members who will build the units.

“After that, they will have the skills, knowledge and tools (chainsaws, chisels, hand drawn peelers and scribers) to build other log structures,” he emphasized.

The Tribe is working with Steve Frost, owner of Log Works School, Heron, MT in business for 42 years.

“We build beautiful, long-lasting log homes verses ticky-tacky houses,” Frost proudly noted. His company has built over 500 log homes and trained people internationally including Israel, South America and many locations across America. The Tribe plans to use that expertise for training and to harvest tribal timber for the structures.

Securing enough of the ideal sized logs (11-inch crown) may pose a challenge if relying on Reservation timber stands, Highwalker explained after an initial survey of tribal timber stands. However, when Frost offered to provide pre-built log kits using timber from other areas which would considerably inflate the cost per unit, Fisher adamantly declined. “No, we will use our own timber and resources.”

Frost since agreed that smaller logs ranging from 9” – 10” can be utilized.

During the next few months, the Tribe will be preparing for project implementation. A first task is developing a set of blue-prints for the proto-type log homes, estimated at $2.00/sf for design. In the meantime, Highwalker is identifying timber stands where the logs can be harvested. Under tribal policy, tribal members can receive free logs from the tribal timber resource, estimated at 100-120 logs per structure. While a number of tribal members have requested such an allocation over the years, transporting the logs to the home site where they are peeled and cured has been a stumbling block.

Under the pilot project the Tribe would assist with that hauling. Erecting log homes is also much easier with a boom truck Frost explained and the Tribe will also provide that piece of equipment during the pilot project. Since the Tribe is eligible for federal surplus equipment, Fisher has assigned Steve Small to the task of getting a surplus boom truck for the Tribe. In addition, the Tribe may coordinate with the newly re-opened Ashland Sawmill to acquire logs for the building project.

Once logs are available, Frost says it will only take about a week to erect each structure. HIP Director Bearcomesout explained that both structures will be built on one site; one to remain there permanently and the other to be dismantled, transported and re-erected at another home site, feasible according to Frost. In the meantime, a tribal member with access to financial resources is already building a log home. Bill Parker, Superintendent of Lame Deer Schools and his wife Natalie, a teacher have been working on a log home for two years.

“Our home is more like a work of art,” Parker noted. “But during construction more than 30 tribal members have helped us, expressing interest in log structures and learning those building skills.”

In addition, the Circle of Life Church, Muddy Cluster has been engaged in a log building project for several years, using tribal timber to construct several cabins and a lodge for a youth camp. Pastor Dennis Bauers is very proud of a small sawmill developed at that location.

“We bought an old log truck for a few thousand to haul our logs,” he explained. “It can be done very inexpensively. And the end result is very durable and pleasing. I’m very glad the Tribe is undertaking this project. It will help a lot of Cheyenne people. ”

Finally, this reporter has been engaged in the slow restoration of a reservation log cabin that is 137 years old, possible because the logs are still solid and intact.

“With a good roof and foundation it is very normal for a log home to last for one hundred years, but renovation is usually more expensive than new construction” Steve Frost noted.

“We’re going to do this ourselves and our own way,” Fisher concluded. “The Cheyenne people are very resourceful and this project will show that. We are very thankful that the State of Montana, if not HUD, is supporting this grass-roots effort.”

(Clara Caufield can be reached at

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