U.S. Senate Field Hearing Focuses on Coal in Indian Country

A hearing was held Wednesday at the Little Big Horn College Health and Wellness Center in Crow Agency

By Dillon Tabish

BILLINGS — Opponents of a plan to expand coal production on tribal lands said Wednesday the Senate Indian Affairs Committee received a mixed message from Native Americans about whether to mine coal in Indian Country.

A hearing was held Wednesday at the Little Big Horn College Health and Wellness Center in Crow Agency, Montana, chaired by GOP Sen. Steve Daines.

Daines said the debate in Washington about energy development in general, and coal in particular, fails to recognize what it means to real people in places like Crow Agency.

He said energy development is “a debate about the lives of real people, and the future of sovereign nations looking to be self-sufficient and provide for their own livelihood.”

Alaina Buffalo Spirit, a member of the Northern Cheyenne, said her reservation is surrounded by big coal mines and the largest coal-fired power plant in the state. She said coal has not brought the prosperity promised by supporters of the coal industry.

“These have only brought us a worsened economy and destruction of our homeland,” she said in a statement after the hearing.

She said the committee did not allow public comment from Native Americans who disagree that coal mining is a good economic development idea.

“Coal companies are dying right now. If they can’t even make a profit for their shareholders, why would they be able to bring prosperity to the Northern Cheyenne?” Buffalo Spirit said.

“Our ancestors walked back to this land from Oklahoma after they were forcibly removed. They suffered and died making the journey. They didn’t make that walk to see their homeland strip mined,” she said.

Montana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Webb Brown and leaders of the Crow and Navajo American Indian tribes praised the mining jobs and other benefits provided to their reservations by the coal industry.

Brown said in a statement Wednesday that increasing development of tribally owned coal presents perhaps the greatest economic opportunity for some tribes in Montana.

“The economic benefits of developing these resources, which truly have the potential to lift Montana Indians out of crushing poverty and unbearably-high unemployment, must be carefully balanced against environmental concerns,” Brown said in a statement.