Tribes That Live Off Coal Hold Tight to Trump’s Promises

Tribes That Live Off Coal Hold Tight to Trump’s Promises

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At the tribes’ side is Ryan Zinke, who as the new interior secretary is charged with protecting and managing Indian lands, which hold an estimated 30 percent of the nation’s coal reserves west of the Mississippi and 20 percent of known oil and gas reserves in the United States.

In a recent interview, Mr. Zinke noted that he was once adopted into the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes and said he would help native nations get fossil fuels to market.

“We have not been a good partner in this,” he said. “The amount of bureaucracy and paperwork and stalling in many ways has created great hardship on some of the poorest tribes.

“A war on coal is a war on the Crow people,” he continued. “President Trump has promised to end the war.”

Stripped of other resources, many tribes have had to rely on pit mines and oil pads to fund their budgets. This has bred conflict within not only Indian nations, but also individual hearts, with people torn between revenue that feeds their children and a deep commitment to protecting the environment.

Complicating the matter is the coal market. Although Mr. Trump has promised to revive the industry, power plants across the country are switching to cheap natural gas, leaving no guarantee that his policies will bring money back into tribal bank accounts.

“Unless there is severe restriction of natural gas production, there is not much U.S. coal can do to expand its market in the U.S.,” said Ian Lange, director of the mineral and energy economics program at the Colorado School of Mines.




Boundary of the Crow Reservation in 1851

as of the Treaty of Fort Laramie

The Crow Reservation in 1851 as of the Treaty of Fort Laramie


Under the Trump administration, some native nations are asking for help as they work toward other revenue streams, including renewable energy. Others are seeking greater control of their own land, so they can create their own rules on harmful activities related to development, like gas flaring and wastewater dumping.

“It’s about sovereignty,” said Mark Fox, the chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, a tribal nation north of the Standing Rock reservation that has seen a boom in oil and gas.

Here on the 2.3-million-acre Crow Indian Reservation in southern Montana, at least half of the tribe’s nonfederal budget comes from a single source: a vast single-pit mine at the edge of the reservation, called the Absaloka, which sends brown-black coal by rail to Minnesota’s largest power plant.

The Absaloka opened in 1974. It operates all day every day, employs about 170 people and has left a complex legacy. The work — shoveling coal dust, hauling through the night in trucks — is grueling.

But on the reservation, coal royalties, taxes and mine salaries have funded college educations, weddings and much-cherished homes with ponies corralled in the back. A coal payment every four months of about $225 to every tribal citizen puts food on tables, warm jackets on backs and gifts under Christmas trees.

Ms. Ten Bear Reed, the mother without running water, recently used her coal payout to buy a hot bath at a local motel. Normally, she sponge-cleans at home.

“I care about the environment, I really do,” said Ms. Ten Bear Reed, 37, who is raising two children on a $9-an-hour casino job. “But when you see that money, then you don’t care. Because you’re getting the thing you need.”

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