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Coal Offers Hope For Montana Tribe


Montana's Crow Tribe has one of the largest reservations in the U.S. And the tribe is moving forward with plans to develop a new coal mine on that land. For tribal leaders, coal looks like the best option to lift their community out of poverty. As Amy Martin reports, not all Crow agree.

AMY MARTIN, BYLINE: Lucy Whiteman Runs Him was raised here in south-central Montana among her people, the Apsaalooke, or the children of the large beaked bird. Europeans translated that as crow. She introduces herself in her native language.

LUCY WHITEMAN RUNS HIM: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: Whiteman Runs Him is currently a student teacher at Crow Agency Elementary School. Her husband works in an older coal mine which opened on the reservation in the early 1970s. She says the proposed new mine just a few miles from their house would allow more families like hers to stay on their land and take part in Apsaalooke traditions.

WHITEMAN RUNS HIM: We need that coal. We depend on it for jobs and then also, like, our roads, our schools, you know? Like, this coal revenue - it provides for this community.

MARTIN: Whiteman Runs Him acknowledges that climate change is a concern and that she sometimes feels a conflict between her traditional values and coal development.

WHITEMAN RUNS HIM: It's important that we need to think about global warming. I think about, you know, like, what we're doing to the earth and to try to, you know, take care of the earth. And - but you know, at the same time it's hard because we depend on it so much, too, you know?

DARRIN OLD COYOTE: What I'm doing is in the best interest of my people.

MARTIN: Darrin Old Coyote is chairman of the Apsaalooke nation.

OLD COYOTE: I don't want to be dependent on the U.S. government. We have the resources. We have the manpower. We have the capability of being self-sufficient. And there's no reason why we should be this poor.

MARTIN: According to a Montana State University report, the median per capita income on the Crow reservation is just over $9,000. Chairman Old Coyote says there isn't enough money for basic infrastructure, and many families lack adequate housing and health care. He says the agreement he signed with Cloud Peak Energy, one of the nation's largest coal companies, would help solve these problems. And he believes it would help restore a sense of self determination to his people which has been eroded by two centuries of attacks.

OLD COYOTE: You know, whether it be through simulation warfare, small pox, all of that, we've survived. And we're going to continue moving forward to survive. And the only way I know how now is to develop our coal.

SCOTT BEAR DON'T WALK: Large companies coming from without and wanting to take advantage of our resources - that's not a new story. That's an old story.

MARTIN: Scott Bear Don't Walk is a Crow tribal member and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago. He says he has grave concerns about coal development.

BEAR DON'T WALK: I do see it as essentially compromising us. It's something that we've had to do.

MARTIN: Like 60 percent of Native Americans, Bear Don't Walk was not raised on the reservation. He grew up in nearby communities. He says he understands the allure of coal given the brutal economic realities facing his tribe. But with world markets in decline, coal prices at a 10-year low and concerns about carbon emissions growing at home and abroad, he's not convinced coal is the answer.

BEAR DON'T WALK: There are other things we can do. We've got people. People are a resource. There are people in the world and in America who are trying to get us away from coal and oil, and we can work with them. We can find a way to do this some other way.

MARTIN: The current agreement gives the Cloud Peak Energy Company an option to lease 1.4 billion tons of coal on the reservation. But to get that coal to markets in Asia, Cloud Peak says it needs two new shipping terminals in Washington State. Many groups are protesting the proposed terminals, including several other Native American tribes. For NPR News, I'm Amy Martin on the Crow reservation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amy Martin is a host and producer at Montana Public Radio. She is also a writer, musician and maker of exceptionally delicious chocolate chip cookies.