Chairman Alvin Not Afraid, Jr. of the Crow Tribe. Photo: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
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Crow Tribe welcomes Vice President Pence to coal mine on homelands

The Crow Tribe is welcoming a high-profile visitor to its homelands in Montana.

Vice President Mike Pence will visit the Absaloka Mine in Hardin on Friday afternoon. According to the White House, he will participate in a "horseback tour" of the facility with Crow leaders, along with Secretary Ryan Zinke, the new leader of the Department of the Interior.

The trip highlights the importance of coal to the tribe, which owns the minerals that are mined at Absaloka. The facility generates revenues for the tribe and jobs for tribal citizens.

"For many years, coal has been the mainstay of the Crow Reservation economy," Chairman Alvin "AJ" Not Afraid, Jr. told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in March.

But Not Afraid said federal regulations prevent the tribe from exercising greater control of its resources. That's where the Trump administration comes in -- Zinke has repeatedly vowed to end the so-called "war on coal" and restore jobs to Crow country.

"You can take it from the Crow Nation in Montana," Zinke told reporters at a White House briefing last month, "The chairman once said, a war on coal is a war on Crow Nation, and coal jobs are the only jobs."

The tribe's coal dreams were indeed derailed by the Obama administration. In May 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted the permitting process for a controversial export terminal in Washington that was to be supplied by Crow coal.

The agency took action because it said the Gateway Pacific Terminal would harm the treaty rights of tribes in Washington. Zinke, during his confirmation hearing in January, acknowledged that tribes in Washington "had every right to object" to the project but also suggested that Crow treaty rights were not fully respected.

"One should not be in the business of picking one treaty over the other, at least [not] arbitrarily," Zinke said at the time. Although he responded to questions about the issue, the Army Corps does not fall under Interior's authority.

In addition to touring Crow country, Pence is in Montana to speak a rally for Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for the U.S. House seat that was previously held by Zinke.

Democrats are bringing a big name of their own in hopes of taking the seat. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who remains popular in Indian Country despite losing the presidential nomination in 2016, will campaign for Rob Quist on May 20 and May 21.

The special election for the seat takes place May 25. Native Americans represent 6.6 percent of the population in Montana, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and their votes, in the past, have swayed close races.

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Interior Department pulls back rule designed to maximize Indian coal revenues (April 4, 2017)
Tribes with coal resources look to Trump administration for change (April 3, 2017)
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Clara Caufield: Ryan Zinke brings tribal record to the table at Interior (January 4, 2017)
Crow Tribe signs agreement to resolve long-running tax dispute (October 21, 2016)
GOP candidate blames tribal culture for lack of economic 'success' (August 22, 2016)
Mark Trahant: Pay tribes to leave coal resources in the ground (June 20, 2016)