Robin Sterritt, a mechanical engineer who’s lived in Colstrip, Montana, for thirty years, points to the cloud of steam where the town’s famous smokestacks typically loom. It’s four degrees and the towers are hidden behind the heavy fog. “A day like today, everybody’s got the heat on,” he said.
Normally the smokestacks are hard to miss; they’re the tallest man-made structures in the state. On a clear day, you can see them thirty miles before you drive into Colstrip, a tidy town of 2300 in the southeast corner of Montana. Colstrip isn’t on the way to many places. It’s out here for only one reason: coal.
The coal industry here provides good jobs - the kind of high paying jobs with good benefits that have disappeared from towns and cities all over the United States. And these jobs brought relative prosperity to the area. The median household income is around ninety thousand dollars a year, compared to under fifty thousand for the state as a whole. Nearly every household here relies on jobs in the coal industry.
But since the summer of 2016, Colstrip has received a series of bad news. The two oldest units of the power plant, Units 1 and 2, are slated to close by 2022, and plant’s largest owner is planning for a complete closure in 2027.
The news has worried many residents of the area. “Absolutely I’m afraid. Yeah, I’m afraid every day,” said Lori Shaw, a newly elected member of the Colstrip City Council and life-long resident. “Am I going to have to leave and start over? Like wow, that is so scary.”
The Northern Cheyenne Reservation lies fifteen miles south of Colstrip. Northern Cheyenne country is a postage stamp on the southeastern corner of Montana, about half the size of Rhode Island. About one hundred Northern Cheyenne tribal members work at the mine or the plant, and many more work service jobs that depend on the coal industry.
Twenty-seven year old Josh Sioux works as a welder mechanic at the mine, and he is a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. “I chose [to work at the mine] basically because it was close to home and I could be home every night,” he said. “If I did get laid off or lose my job I'd probably have to relocate somewhere, I'm guessing out of state. To be able to make what I'm making now.”
Like the people of Colstrip, Sioux doesn’t want to leave the area. It’s his home. But for Cheyennes like Josh, there’s an added complexity to the idea of having to leave to chase a job. The reservation isn’t just where his family lives or where he grew up, it’s the last piece of ground in the world belonging to the Northern Cheyenne.
“Our people sacrificed a lot to get the land that we that we have,” said Dennis Limberhand, a tribal elder.
Limberhand said the history of the Northern Cheyenne is full of stories about fighting for what they thought was right. The most famous example was the Battle of the Little Big Horn, known by the Cheyenne as the Battle of Greasy Grass. The Cheyenne fought alongside the Lakota Sioux to defeat General Custer. It was a huge victory, but the aftermath was brutal. The US Army changed tactics and threw everything they had at the resisting tribes. The Cheyenne were forced to move down to Indian Territory, in present day Oklahoma. The conditions there were terrible - there wasn’t enough food, and malaria ripped through the tribe. The people were starving, and so the leaders Dull Knife and Little Wolf decided to escape. They walked all the way back to their homeland from Oklahoma.
But the band led by Dull Knife were captured and held in brutal captivity at Fort Robinson. The soldiers tried to starve them into submission, to convince them to go back to Oklahoma. When the group tried to escape, US soldiers chased them down.
“Women and children are killed because they wanted to go home,” said Limberhand. “And we just got a small piece of land. Four hundred and fifty thousand acres or so in that precious land for the Cheyennes.”
Limberhand, 71, has spent his life working to lift up his fellow Cheyennes, and protect Cheyenne land. He was first elected to the tribal council when he was 25 years old - the youngest person at the time to have served. The Tribal Council is the heart of the Northern Cheyenne nation’s government.
“It wasn’t a paid position but if you were interested in helping the people, well, you ran,” said Limberhand.
When Limberhand joined the council in the early seventies, commercial coal development had existed in the region for decades. The Northern Cheyenne knew they had significant coal reserves, so the tribe had sought out developers in hopes to bring some economic activity to their remote community. And energy developers saw energy reserves on reservation land across the West as a huge opportunity. Though reservation land only covers about two percent of the United States, some estimated that they held as much as a quarter of fossil fuel deposits.
In the years before Limberhand was elected to the tribal council, the council signed off on a series of agreements with big coal companies. Those deals were negotiated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (It’s important to note that throughout its history, the BIA has often represented the often adversarial interests of the U.S. government over those of the tribes. As a result, historians and activists have gone on to question the legitimacy of the BIA’s role in representing tribes in energy deals like this one.)
According to James Robert Allison, a historian who wrote “Sovereignty for Survival: American Energy Development and Indian Self-Determination” about this period of energy development, these BIA officials were bureaucrats who were unqualified to engage in negotiations of this scale.
“The largest deal these guys probably negotiated was the purchase of their $150,000 house,” he said. “And here they are basically trying to do deals with the world's largest coal company to access millions of dollars if not billions of dollars of coal.”
Predictably, there wasn’t much of a negotiation. The BIA signed a deal favoring the energy companies.
Dennis Limberhand puts it this way: “I guess you could say that the coal companies just wrote their own leases and contracts and the BIA rubber-stamped them.”
When the tribe granted permits and leases to the coal companies, including Peabody Coal and Consolidation Coal, they expected small scale mining similar to other development happening in the region. But a couple years later, one of the companies, Consolidation Coal, came back with a plan to cash in on the agreement they had with the tribe on an unexpectedly huge scale. They brought plans for building four new power plants on the reservation. Huge swaths of reservation land would be dug up for mines, and the forested hills and sagebrush valleys would be transformed to industrial city. The project was so huge that the company said they would need a new reservation town of thirty thousand people to support the project. And with only three thousand Cheyennes living on the reservation, the new town would be made up of outsiders.
“We’d be wiped out in a short time,” said Limberhand. “We’d have been outnumbered and overwhelmed. People would be displaced. Culture and tradition, land. Everything [would] disappear.”
It’s important to understand what it means to say the American Indian tribes are sovereign nations. The Cheyenne’s relationship to the reservation goes beyond just ownership or control. They have a legal and political right to self-government within the reservation boundaries. Cheyennes are dual citizens – citizens of their tribal nation, in addition to the United States. So they absolutely call the shots – not the US government or the BIA. So when the tribal council learned about Consolidation Coal’s plans, they had to act. They saw it as a threat to their nation’s sovereignty.
The council, led by legendary Chairman Allen Rowland (and including a newly elected 25-year-old Dennis Limberhand,) unanimously voted to petition to cancel the coal agreements. It was 1973, and the move hit the national press and echoed throughout Indian Country.
It’s hard to overstate how absurd this sounded to non-Indians, in Montana and beyond. American Indians, as a whole, were the most impoverished group in the country. From where the average non-Indian stood, the Cheyennes were sitting on a gold mine. Plus, the country was in the midst of an energy crisis resulting from the 1973 oil embargo.
“That creates a real backlash among non-Indian Americans that who see American Indians as disloyal to the country,” said historian James Robert Allison. “[But the Cheyenne] have very good reasons to want to control the development. They view development that they can't control as a threat to their tribal survival.”
“We wanted to control our own destiny,” remembers Limberhand.
But the tribal council’s vote wasn’t final; it was only a vote to petition the Interior Department to cancel the leases. And in 1974, the Interior Department did what the tribe asked. It was the first time a tribal government successfully overturned a big energy deal negotiated between a federal agency and an energy company.
“Their ability to void coal leases - held by some of the world's largest energy producers - set us up for a situation in which tribes could suddenly control the development of their resources. So this is the watershed moment,” said historian James Robert Allison.
It was a moment that didn’t go ignored in Indian Country. In fact, in the years after, tribes around the country would follow the Cheyenne’s example and stand up to energy developers on the same basis.
Famous Montana historian K Ross Toole wrote in his book “Rape of the Great Plains,” that the Northern Cheyenne were “the most important tribe in this country.” The trick, now, was to figure out how far they could leverage that newfound control.
That same year, Montana Power Company started seeking approval to expand their operation at Colstrip. They wanted to build two new units on their power plant and triple the output. It was a $1.4 billion project. The Cheyenne tribal council had just exerted control over coal development inside reservation borders, but this project lay beyond the boundary.
The late sixties and early seventies were a high point in American Indian activism. The American Indian Movement (AIM) was the most visible face of this activism, and in 1973 they occupied the Pine Ridge Reservation town of Wounded Knee for 71 days. And the modern environmental movement had only just reached the mainstream; the first Earth Day was in 1970. Cheyenne activism didn’t necessarily resemble the tactics or interests of these other movements, but this was the context in which tribal members responded to the Colstrip expansion. And many were concerned about the new plants’ impact on Cheyenne country’s air and water.
The Clean Air Act was still fairly new in 1976. It set up a classification system for the air. Under the law, there were three designations. Class one was the best, most pristine air, and class three was the worst - the air in designated industrial zones. Towns and cities automatically received a class two designation. All of Southeastern Montana was class two, which meant that by law, some pollution was allowed.
The tribal council saw this new Clean Air Act as an opportunity. They applied to the Environmental Protection Agency for a class one air designation, which would put their reservation in the same air quality category as Glacier National Park.
This move forced Montana Power to stop construction and re-engineer the project. About a hundred workers were laid off - a big hit in such a small community.
“We took a beating over and over that because you know we were costing people jobs and we're holding up progress,” said Dennis Limberhand.
And things get pretty nasty. It was 1976. The country was coming off a recession, and the plant’s expansion was a major source of jobs in the region. Tension between the Cheyennes and non-Indian coal development supporters had been simmering under the surface for the last couple years.
“And you know it seemed like that whole part of the country was against the tribe for causing delays in the work schedule,” said Limberhand.
The Billings Gazette published a letter to the editor that read, “A people who a few generations ago were eating dog meat and sometimes killing their own girl children so they wouldn’t have to go through so much grief, this same race of people can now go into a clean store and buy wholesome food, clean bedding, etc… Now they are getting so finicky they can’t stand the thought of a few carbon particles or whatever being wafted in the wind.”
Dennis Limberhand remembers the often vicious racism of those days. “Just the same old argument, the hate, the prejudice. You know, we turn the lights on and heat our homes and drive cars and everything, but all we're asking is you know to do it with the best available technology and [as] efficiently as we can.”
The plant stayed closed for almost three years, and lawsuits flew. But Colstrip’s owner, Montana Power, wasn’t about to give up on their investment - they’d already sunk over a hundred million dollars into building the new units. They added new pollution control machinery to the power plant, and went back to the EPA. The EPA said Montana Power had made the plant clean enough not to impact the reservation’s air. And they issued the permit for Montana Power to start building again.
The tribal council had another move - they could file another legal action against the EPA’s approval, and stall construction again. But the Cheyenne saw an opportunity to make a deal with the energy company.
The tribe backed off in exchange for jobs constructing and operating the power plant. The power company and the tribe made an agreement that plays a role on the reservation to this day. Northern Cheyennes got first hiring preference, meaning they’d be put on the top of the pile - ahead of just about anyone else applying for the same job. A new training program was put in place for the new hires. A scholarship program was setup to send Cheyenne students to college for free, provided they study something related to energy development. The power company set aside money for things like community relations, transportation, and law enforcement. And Dennis Limberhand was named the liaison between the tribe and the coal company..
Limberhand was in charge of all the recruiting - helping tribal members prepare job applications, get ready for interviews, and anything else they needed. “That was really the first generation lunch packers,” said Limberhand. Lunch packers were those workers who left home for work, packing a lunch. “We didn't have a chance to get up and see our dads pack a lunch and go to work. Most of our fathers never had a job. Couldn't get a job. Nobody give them a job,” said Limberhand.
And now that tribal members were getting jobs in Colstrip, some people there weren’t happy about it. “I remember my name being written on bathroom walls, you know, being called names and [getting] phone calls and all that,” said Limberhand. “You'd get in a fistfight if you went in a bar, I’ll tell you that.”
It’s been thirty-seven years since the tribe’s agreement with Montana Power. Hundreds of Cheyenne men and women have worked at the plant or the mine, gone to college through those scholarship programs Dennis helped negotiate. Now their kids are working there.
But still - half of families live below the poverty line, and the reservation has one of the highest unemployment rates in Montana. So Northern Cheyenne’s dilemma seems to remain. To put it simply, do the Cheyenne mine to pull their people out of poverty? Or preserve cultural values and leave money in the ground?
Those questions have never stopped being asked - both in the halls of the Tribal Administration building in Lame Deer and in the homes of tribal members across the reservation. Some, like Linwood Tall Bull, say mine. “I think that's the wave of the future is coal development. It’s a real must for our country.”
The current tribal president, L. Jace Killsback, wants to leave the coal in the ground. “We don't see the value in [natural resource extraction.] The little plot of land that the government left us, we're going to value it as much as we can for future generations.”
We’re at another turning point – this time, for the coal industry. Cheap natural gas is flooding the market and undercutting coal and the industry is suffering. Across Southeastern Montana, everyone feels the effects. Especially folks in Colstrip.
So these days, people in Colstrip and on the reservation are in a sense in the same boat. They both love this place, and they’re both uncertain of the future. Limberhand has seen it before. “What it comes down to is the economy and jobs you know, versus the environment. And it’s the same old same old battle tested for how long I don’t know. Just kicked around like a football.”
The tribal council’s actions back in the seventies showed what the Cheyenne valued the most. Jobs were important, the land was important. But the ability to make their own decisions about how to protect their land and employ their people, while preserving Cheyenne culture - that was the most important thing of all.
This story was produced by Lacy Jane Roberts. The editor was Anna Sussman with additional editing from Graelyn Brashear, Chris Harland-Dunaway, Marylee Williams, and Levi Bridges. Special thanks to Clara Caulfield, Dennis Limberhand, and Ben Manilla.
Lacy Jane Roberts is an audio producer from Miles City and Missoula, MT. She has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley and her work has been seen and heard on PBS Newshour, The Atlantic, Here and Now, and NPR affiliates around the country. She’s now based in the San Francisco Bay Area where she produces podcasts, most recently Closer Than They Appear hosted by Carvell Wallace. She also can be found teaching podcast production classes, spinning old country records, and riding her bike.