Ernest Littlebird put his grill out on the side of Route 39 in Lame Deer, Mont., under the shade of a tree and started grilling hamburgers.
“Come get a dollar burger,” he says. “Good meal, you know, something to put in the belly at least.”
Littlebird is an entrepreneur. This is his second year selling dollar hamburgers out of his minivan when he couldn’t find other work. Jobs are scarce here on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and so is money.
But Littlebird thinks they don’t have to be.
The Northern Cheyenne Reservation sits on one of the richest coal deposits in the country. There are billions of tons of the black rock buried underneath Littlebird, Lame Deer and the surrounding pine-dotted prairie. In some places, it’s so easy to access that coal developers have told tribal members it could be scraped up with a spoon.
But despite high unemployment and systemic poverty, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe has never touched the coal. It has spurned developers and scuttled plans. Most recently, it sued the Trump administration for opening up the opportunity for new coal development in its corner of southeastern Montana.
The land here is sacred to the tribe. Retaining culture is crucial. And tribal leadership says it’s committed to finding long-term economic opportunities for its members, not the boom-and-bust cycle of extractive industry.
But with the Trump administration pushing for new coal development, some on the reservation are wondering whether the tribe should finally cash in on the resources buried beneath their feet.
“We’ve got to do something,” Littlebird says.
Farther down the road, Diana McLean, a tribal member waves at the land and the nearby homes. She says coal would be good for the community.
“We need the economic development. We need the jobs here,” she says. “We’ve been in the same situation for the last 50 years. And it hasn’t changed. It hasn’t improved. There’s no jobs here.”
Unemployment on the Northern Cheyenne
The Bureau of Indian Affairs says it’s closer to 60 percent.
The tribe’s former economic development officer, Steve Small and many other people you talk to here think the unemployment rate is even higher than that. “I’d say about 10 percent of us have jobs,” Small says, in an office just outside Lame Deer. “I’m sure people would be out there working if we had jobs, but we don’t.”
A high unemployment rate has led to high rates of alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide — the symptoms of poverty. Small says people here are tired of it.
That is why he says he would like to see the tribe develop the estimated 23 billion tons of coal that lie underneath the reservation. Development would bring jobs, which would bring a sense of self-worth, he says.
“You know culture is really nice and I love my culture, but it doesn’t put food on the table,” Small says.
As he is talking though, his secretary, who is standing next to the door, starts to shake her head. She disagrees completely.
“I’m concerned about the destruction of our water, our air, our safety for our children and women because of the influx of people that would come into our community,” says Alaina Buffalo Spirit. “So it brings in money. Guess what? More drugs, more alcohol, human trafficking.”
What’s more, she says, “coal is dead. There’s no economy for it.”
Surrounded by coal
The Northern Cheyenne Reservation is in the upper part of the Powder River Basin, which is the source of about 40 percent of the nation’s coal supply. The tribe is surrounded by coal development.
But in recent years, as America’s energy system has shifted increasingly toward natural gas and renewable energy sources, the neighboring coal communities have suffered setbacks. Hundreds of workers have been laid off on the Crow Reservation. Real estate values have plummeted in a coal town to the north, where lawsuits are forcing a forthcoming closure of half of the town’s coal-fired power plant.
There is hope in those places and on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation that President Trump and his push to do away with Obama-era environmental regulations will stop the bleeding and help bring the coal economy back.
“He’s for development. He’s trying to create jobs,” says Leroy Spang, a former president of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and a retired coal miner. “But I don’t trust that guy.”
Spang speaks in a measured, raspy voice. He served as the tribe’s president from 2008 to 2012, and he worked hard to bring coal development to the reservation during that time. He looked to other tribes like the Southern Ute, in Colorado, for advice on how best to start developing a natural resource.
It wasn’t the first time the tribe had seriously considered mining its resources. Coal companies have been courting the Northern Cheyenne for decades. And they’ve always left disappointed.
Spang’s tenure was no different. He projected it would take 10 years and hundreds of millions of dollars for coal development to get going on Northern Cheyenne, but he couldn’t get a project off the ground. Some members of the tribal council resisted his efforts, and a slowing demand and market for coal didn’t help his cause.
Now, Spang says, with coal being out phased out domestically, he fears it might be too late.
“If you can’t sell it, you can’t dig it,” he says. Someday, he thinks, that will change. The coal will eventually be mined, he says, because it’s a valuable resource. But it won’t be anytime soon.
“We are the ancestors of those who resisted.”
Jace Killsback, the current president of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, would like to see the coal never leave the ground.
“I have a cultural worldview that is opposed to the destruction of our land,” he says. That worldview is one he shares with many in the tribe — the more traditional members, who are wont to point out that their ancestors died procuring this land.
It was the Northern Cheyenne who helped kill Gen. George Armstrong Custer back in 1876. And it was their leaders who fought the U.S. government’s orders to move south to Oklahoma. They battled their way back north to Montana and what would eventually become the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
“We are the ancestors of those who resisted,” Killsback says. And he says he intends to keep it that way.
Earlier this year, the Northern Cheyenne sued the Trump administration for its decision to end an Obama-era moratorium on coal leasing. The tribe, he says, should have been consulted before that decision was made because it will have a direct impact on them. Consultation, he says, is a treaty right that was established between the tribe and the U.S. government.
With the moratorium gone, the government can begin leasing federal lands for new coal development. And Killsback expects some of those leases will be near his reservation’s borders.
The problems, he says, could be many. He has concerns about air and water pollution, heavy traffic from semitrucks and a surge in outsiders moving into the area.
“We want to have a say in how a coal lease is given out next to a reservation and how it will impact our communities,” he says.
The lawsuit against the Trump administration raised some eyebrows on the reservation. Some worry it could draw repercussions. The Northern Cheyenne, like many tribes, receives federal money. And without another independent revenue stream, it is largely dependent on those funds.
This is a point many pro-coal people on the reservation make for development: The tribe would have more independence and flexibility if it wasn’t so tied to federal money.
Killsback is concerned about that too, but he doesn’t see coal as the solution. He would like to see the tribe attract other industry like clean energy or e-commerce. His administration is helping launch small, Northern Cheyenne-owned businesses.
Off of Route 39, the main road through Lame Deer, not far from where Littlebird sells his hamburgers is a new shopping center. There is an art store, a print shop and cellphone repair shop among others.
Brandin Limberhand is opening the cellphone repair shop with a friend. It’s the only one in 120 miles.
“We can find a better solution to create jobs — more jobs, different jobs — on this reservation,” Limberhand says. “Coal makes money and all that, but it impacts our land and our people. We can do better.”