Fort Belknap Reservation
of Unanswered Questions
Are health problems of reservation residents related to the mines?
story by Fred
photos by Lisa Hornstein
Jammi Starr Snell is lucky to be
alive. She’s 14. And she considers the
12 years of her life to be a gift from the spirits.
Snell (right) shares a laugh with her best friend and cousin
Gwena McConnell. Without Gwena, Jammi says life would be
a lot harder. While Rhonda Snell was pregnant with Jammi,
three major spills occurred at the Zortman-Landusky mines. “My
firm belief is that the mine did this to my daughter,” Rhonda
says. Jammi suffers seizures from a degenerative brain disease.
“She was born having seizures,” Rhonda Snell says of her daughter.
Given the amount of lead that flowed through her bloodstream when she entered
this world, Snell says she suspects her daughter, one of seven children, was
having seizures while still in the womb.
Jammi (pronounced “Jamie”) Snell, an Assiniboine, lives in Hays in
the southern part of the 650,000-acre Fort Belknap Reservation. She has a condition
called “cerebral atrophy.” While her body was still developing, the
left side of her brain was shrinking, and it nearly caused her to die shortly
after she was born. A doctor in Helena told her family she would be lucky to
live two years, Rhonda Snell says. If she did, the doctor said, her mental growth
would be stunted.
Lead caused Jammi’s problems. Lead causes stillbirths,
brain damage, and learning deficiencies. Lead can wreck the fragile bodies of
tiny babies and snuff
out lives before they have a chance to begin.
Rhonda Snell says that before her daughter was born she had no idea lead would
plague her the way it has, but there’s no doubt in her mind where the lead
The Snells live in the shadow of a blighted giant. Before white people confined
the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes — bitter enemies at the time — to
the Fort Belknap Reservation in the 1880s, the Little Rocky Mountains, part of
which lie only a few miles south of the Snells’ house, were sacred to the
Assiniboine. The tribe gathered traditional plant medicines and held ceremonies
there. But after gold was discovered
in the Little Rockies in 1884 the U.S. government removed a 40,000-acre chunk
of mountain from the reservation to allow non-Indians to reap the benefits of
Over the next hundred years, miners employed a popular and economical new mining
method. They would pile high hundreds of tons of ore and spray it with cyanide,
a highly toxic chemical, in a practice called cyanide heap-leaching. More than
100 tons of ore were needed to reclaim one ounce of gold. Cyanide separated the
gold from the ore, but it left tainted hills, streams and endangered wildlife
in its wake. The practice was banned in 1998 by a Montana citizens’ initiative.
Could the lead that invaded her daughter’s body have come from the water
that flowed from the mines? There’s no medical proof of that, no studies
to confirm it. But Rhonda Snell will always believe it.
Snell’s beliefs aren’t unique on the reservation. Her neighbors blame
the mine sites for a litany of health problems, but little information is available
to verify the connections. Snell wants the tribal government to thoroughly investigate
the problems so it can better handle its sovereign responsibility to guard the
health of its people.
“There’s a lot of horror stories about what happened up there,” she
says. Jammi Snell has little memory of her early days, but she knows what her
family has told her. Before she was 2 years old, seizures were an all-too-common
occurrence for her.
At first, it is difficult for the shy teenager to tell these details of her life
to a stranger. The Snells say they were ridiculed when Rhonda Snell and her husband,
Ed, tried to persuade the family’s doctors that the mines were to blame
for Jammi’s illness.
from an afternoon swim, Eddy Snell (right) is disappointed when his
uncle Vincent Snell (left) tells him he shouldn’t be swimming
near the mine anymore. Aunts Jammi and Isabel Snell concur.
“She said that people used to make fun of them,” Jammi Snell says.
While she talks, she holds a plastic baby doll, a learning tool for a junior
high school class. Every now and then, the doll’s electronic voice box
cries, and Snell “feeds” the doll or changes its diapers. The doll
is to teach her and her classmates how to care for a baby.
Holding the doll in her family’s living room, Snell resembles an odd mirror
image of her mother in a video about the mines made about 13 years ago. In it,
a younger Rhonda Snell cries tears of anguish and holds a wild-eyed child — Jammi.
The doctors prescribed phenobarbital, Tranxene and other medications for Jammi’s
seizures. They told Rhonda Snell the lead in Jammi’s system probably came
from paint or plumbing in the Snells’ house, and in any case, the water
at Fort Belknap was just fine.
Some state authorities also say the mines did not cause Jammi Snell’s problems.
Wayne Jepson, Bureau of Land Management project officer for reclamation of the
mines, says high levels of lead have never been found in the reservation’s
well water or the
water flowing north from the mines. Cyanide does not dissolve lead, he says.
He agrees that the lead probably came from a household source.
“Basically it’s impossible that what they’re observing could have
been related to the mines,” Jepson says.
But when doctors said Jammi’s time on Earth would be limited, Rhonda Snell
felt like they had pronounced a death sentence.
“They told me my daughter would only live to be 2 years old, if she lived that
long, and I got immediately angry and I said, ‘You’re not God. You’re
not going to tell me how long my daughter’s going to live,” Snell
Because she felt she wasn’t getting the help she needed from the Indian
Health Service and her tribal leaders, Rhonda Snell and her family found a more
powerful medicine: the sun dance, a traditional ceremony of prayer and fasting
to call on the spirit world to heal loved ones.
“So what they did, her and her husband, they went and danced in the sun dance,
two years straight,” remembers Virgil McConnell, Rhonda Snell’s father, “and
that little girl came out great.”
Today Jammi Snell is an ‘A’ student in the eighth grade at Hays/Lodgepole
Middle School. She still has occasional seizures, in which she gets dizzy, “zones
out” and loses awareness of what’s going on around her, she says,
but they are more infrequent than they were when she was much younger.
Some time after the sun dance, Rhonda Snell took her daughter back to the same
doctor who had predicted her death. The doctor refused to believe she was seeing
the same little girl as before, Snell says.
Today, silence pervades the peaks of the Little Rockies. But until a half-dozen
years ago the Zortman and Landusky mines, two huge expanses of dirt patched with
grass and separated by a narrow isthmus of pine trees, buzzed with activity and
In nearly 100 years, $25 million in gold was wrenched from the “Island
Mountains,” so-called because they rise steeply from the vast, largely
treeless ocean of prairie and scrub land below. But the heaviest mining didn’t
begin until 1979, when Pegasus Gold Corp., an international mining conglomerate
based in Canada, began its cyanide heap-leaching operations on the land.
Previously, gold had mostly been mined in tunnels. Some had been processed with
cyanide in the Ruby Mill to the south of the mountains in the town of Zortman,
but never on the scale Pegasus went about it. In almost 20 years, the company
netted about $300 million, none of which went to the tribes.
But then Pegasus’ luck began to change. In 1994, the tribes and state filed
suit against the company under the federal Clean Water Act. The tribes said mine
pollution violated Fort Belknap’s sovereign right to quality water. A federal
judge agreed, and in 1996 the company was charged $36.7 million in damages, which
included $32 million for a cleanup bond, $2 million to the federal government
and the state, $1 million to the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes, and $1.7
million for supplemental environmental projects.
In 1997, the tribes sued the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to stop
the agency from granting a Pegasus request to triple the size of the mines to
more than 1,200 acres. Less than a year later, however, falling gold prices forced
the company to file for bankruptcy, and the lawsuit was moot.
Helgeson takes apart a cigarette to offer tobacco as thanks to the
spirits at the site of last year’s medicine lodge which is
near his property. Every year the sacred sun dance is held at the
foot of the Little Rocky Mountains. The four-day ceremony is a time
for prayer and giving thanks.
Controversy over the mines continues today. In late January the tribes filed
a new lawsuit, this time against the state Department of Environmental Quality,
the federal Bureau of Land Management and Luke Ployhar, the current owner of
much of the affected land. The tribes contend the agencies and Ployhar are not
fulfilling their obligation to clean up the site.
The health issues also were never resolved.
“We don’t know what we’re facing here health-wise,” says Kenneth “Gus” Helgeson,
an Assiniboine and lifelong Fort Belknap resident. Helgeson helped found Island
Mountain Protectors, one of two tribal groups that filed the 1994 lawsuit and
worked to shut down the mines.
The State of Montana has done no formal studies to specifically study mine-related
health effects. Pegasus started to fund a health study with the $1.7 million
supplemental money from the 1996 settlement, but the company’s downfall
put an end to it.
The correlations have not all been proven, but Helgeson can tick off a laundry
list of mine-related maladies he says he hears about through the “Indian
Respiratory diseases like asthma and emphysema have exploded on the reservation
in the last 25 years, especially among children, Helgeson says. He blames dust
containing arsenic and selenium, byproducts from old mining operations he says
the wind blows down to the communities of Hays and Lodgepole.
Thyroid problems have been on the rise, he says. So has diabetes, a condition
that affects American Indians 3.5 times more than the American public at large,
according to national statistics released from the Indian Health Service.
Rhonda Snell can name at least two other family members who she says were hurt
by the mines. In the waning years of her life, Snell’s mother, Marie McConnell,
showed high levels of lead in her bloodstream.
“She couldn’t walk, it affected her so badly,” Snell said.
Erik Snell, 17, Jammi’s older brother and one of Rhonda’s three sons,
had a brush with mine chemicals that literally scarred him for life, Rhonda Snell
contends. A little more than 10 years ago, Erik contracted a chemical burn on
his arm while swimming and playing with some other children in King Creek, which
flows north to the reservation from the mines. Once again, Snell says, the doctors
said the mines were not to blame.
“And the doctor told me, ‘Well, that looks like a chemical burn,’” Snell
remembers. “‘He couldn’t have got that from that creek.’” The
doctors then asked Erik where he got the burn, she says, but “they couldn’t
convince him to say it was something else.”
Virgil McConnell, 79, one of the founders of Red Thunder, the other group that
filed the 1994 lawsuit, lives in a small log cabin just up the road from his
daughter. He has watched the changes in the small town of Hays for nearly a lifetime.
He says he has seen more instances of lead poisoning and chemical-related respiratory
illnesses in children in the past 25 years than in all the years leading up to
“That’s stuff that never happened to our people before,” McConnell
Much of the water that flows down from the Little Rockies is unfit to drink or
be exposed to, he says, and the animals show him that. He has gone for walks
in the mountains many times and seen dead deer and beaver below the mines. Mine
employees used to watch deer drink from the Swift Gulch and King Creek drainages
north of the mines; then they would make bets of up to $100 on how long the deer
would live, he says. McConnell says he remembers seeing a burial mound mine employees
dug to hide the bodies of poisoned deer. Many of the miners themselves — white
and Indian — died from exposure to chemicals the mines unleashed, he says.
“Hell, we used to hunt in the mountains a lot,” he says. “We’d
stop and take a cool drink, but after the mines came in we couldn’t do
Kirby King, an Assiniboine, worked at the mines as a machine oiler between 1987
Snell’s opinion on why her children and grandchildren are getting
sick is that “when the kids walk in the water they stir up
sediment and the bottoms of their feet act like sponges and it [the
toxins] goes up through their feet into their bloodstream.”
“We used to put on raincoats and walk through the cyanide sprayers to go check
the equipment,” he says.
His father also worked at the mines, and both men have come down with similar
health problems, King says. Both have heart troubles, respiratory problems and
diabetes. Because diabetes is rampant among Indians and some of his other problems
could be genetic, King has encountered skepticism for blaming his problems on
his former jobs but he remains firm in his belief.
“I could basically directly relate my health problems with (the mines) and my
father could probably tell you the same,” King says.
King says he believes the mines bring sickness to people who have never worked
at them. He often hears about respiratory problems and children contracting rashes
from playing in some of the creeks.
A sensory memory of his old job that still stands out vibrantly for King is the “burnt
almond” smell of cyanide. Every once in a while, in the mornings when he
walks from his house at the foothills of the Little Rockies, he can still smell
it wafting down from the mountains.
When state officials are asked
whether the mines have contributed to decades of public health problems, some
acknowledge the possibility but all make it clear
nothing’s been proven.
Jan Sensibaugh, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, says she
has never seen proof the mines have hurt the Indians, but “obviously, when
you take all that rock out of the ground, crush it and expose it, there’s
a lot more of a possibility” of harmful effects.
Sensibaugh says arsenic and other toxic metals can be found naturally inside
mountains, and streams sometimes carry them out. The Centers for Disease Control
also notes this fact. This does not rule out the possibility that heap-leaching
accelerated the process, Sensibaugh says. There’s just no way to be sure.
Andy Huff, an attorney for the tribes in their latest lawsuit, says the tribes
are frustrated by the lack of solid evidence of mine-related illnesses that would
strengthen their case. The evidence is out there and the state, Environmental
Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management need to commission the studies
to look for it, he says.
“I don’t think they want to because I don’t think they want to find
out about the health effects,” Huff claims. “I think it’s in
their best interest to downplay the problem as much as possible.”
Others say the anecdotes of mine-related illnesses should be looked at with a
critical eye. State and tribal experts have found community wells in Hays and
Lodgepole to be safe for drinking. Another record exists to balance the claims
of Fort Belknap residents: a report completed in 1996 by the Agency for Toxic
Substances and Disease Registry, based in Atlanta.
Snell gives his nephew Eddy a
piggyback ride across a deep section of a local swimming hole. Eddy is
not allowed to play in the water near the canyon minutes from his home.
The children now have to travel to “The Plunge,” a 45-minute
drive off the reservation.
The tribes petitioned the agency to examine the streams and groundwater around
the communities of Hays and Lodgepole. In its investigation, the agency looked
for lead in the communities’ well water. Lead was found in two wells on
the first test, the report said. One was in Fort Belknap Agency, but a later
test showed the lead level had gone down. The other was in Hays, where a treatment
device was installed and a later test showed an acceptable level.
In some ways, the study said, the mine sites were more of a threat before 1996
than after. The report credited Pegasus Gold with removing about 75 percent of
old mill tailings from reservation drainages after the company opened for business
Between 1979 and 1993, the report listed four leaks or “slippages” from
leach pads that led to the spillage of cyanide into water draining south from
the mines, safely away from the reservation. Most of the Little Rockies’ creeks
In July 1993, according to the report, “a flood resulting from unusually
heavy rainfall sent King Creek waters flowing over the Cumberland Dam spillways.
The beaver dams located further down the King Creek drainage were washed out,
releasing tailings that were previously contained by the beaver dams... The amount
of tailings that moved and the ultimate resting place is not known.”
That same summer, Erik Snell burned his arm swimming in King Creek.
The Bureau of Land Management’s Wayne Jepson says the King Creek tailings
were not acidic. Most of the tailings were cleaned up by the Environmental Protection
Agency in 2000, he says.
Ultimately, the report concluded, “the gold mining operations are no apparent
public health hazard to the residents of Fort Belknap.”
On several occasions Rhonda Snell has asked officials with the Fort Belknap
tribal college to test nearby water for lead and other metals, but she says they
Today, water scientists at the Fort Belknap college say they are willing to test
water for anyone who asks.
They are “full of beans,” Snell answers, when told of their response.
“They only do what they want to do,” Snell says, speaking of the tribal
authorities. “It’s something else to live here.”
Helgeson, who has known the Snells and McConnells for a long time, agrees with
her. The dissatisfaction the Snells and others feel with their tribal representatives
cuts to the heart of sovereignty, Helgeson says.
“We’re right in our own country and they’re damaging us because they’re
breaking their trust responsibility,” he says. “We elect them, so
we should have the ability to tell them what we want.”
Citing a gag order imposed by the tribes’ lawyers because of the pending
lawsuit, the 10-member tribal council and its president, Benjamin Speakthunder,
who resigned in mid-May, declined to comment on any issues dealing with the mines.
However, earlier this year, he said, “The water pollution is just not getting
cleaned up and we have to bring this lawsuit to protect our people and water.
The area is still so contaminated that even the water treatment plants are discharging
The gag order means other tribal agencies are only at liberty to divulge certain
non-sensitive aspects of the case. What they can reveal speaks volumes about
the toxins they say the mines have been squeezing from the mountains for decades.
At the Fort Belknap College water quality lab, Environmental Research Coordinator
Donna Young, a member of the Gros Ventre tribe, stands near large tanks and hoses
while pointing out several small glass bottles filled with soil samples. The
soil in some has settled to the bottom and is a rich, healthy brown color. This
came from the top of Mission Peak, which was never affected by the mines because
it lies far above them, she says. Other bottles holding dingy, tan-colored soil
came from areas of the mines that have been under reclamation for about two years.
The third set of samples are a diseased yellowish color. Those samples were taken
directly from old cyanide leach pads, she says.
In a science classroom where Billy Bell, an Assiniboine who also goes by the
name Lefthand Thunder, teaches a water practicum class, are pictures taken in
the summer of 2002 of the Swift Gulch drainage, which flows north toward the
reservation. A small stretch of the creek is fine. Other parts of it are a frothy,
pea-green color, which comes from algae plumes that only appear where nothing
else will grow, says Bell, a 1999 graduate of the college. Other parts of the
creek are a rusty red, reflecting a heavy concentration of iron. Years of mining
have left Swift Gulch polluted, he says. Bell explains the effect the creek has
McConnell walks past a car on his property where bison skulls are
drying in preparation for this year’s sun dance. McConnell
used traditional Native American medicines to treat illnesses his
grandchildren Erik and Jammi have suffered.
“There was thousands and thousands of dragonflies,” he recalls. “They
touched down, and basically that was it for them.” Most died quickly, he
says, but some stayed alive long enough to flop around pitifully.
In the worst parts of the creek, there are no stone flies or caddis flies to
indicate good water. To test the health of some parts of the water, scientists
subject minnows and daphnia (water fleas) to the creek environment. In some tests
last summer, the daphnia didn’t last 12 hours and the minnows lasted about
Swift Gulch may be the worst drainage, Bell says, but others, like Montana Gulch
and Mission Creek, are also in danger. In some ways, cyanide is of the least
concern to scientists. Cyanide breaks down in soil and rarely shows up in water,
but some tests of Montana Gulch and Mission Creek have turned up trace amounts
of cadmium and selenium that cyanide separated from ore long ago. According to
the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, cadmium can damage lungs,
kidneys and the digestive system. Selenium is an antioxidant the body needs in
small amounts, but breathing large quantities of selenium dust can lead to severe
Regarding the lead Rhonda Snell believes poisoned her daughter, both Bell and
Young say they don’t know enough to be able to tell the truth of the matter.
It’s possible the lead was from “historic” mining that took
place before Pegasus came to the area. Some water sampling was done by the tribal
Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s, but the tests showed no alarming
levels of lead.
Bell thinks Erik Snell’s burns may have come from acid-mining runoff, but
nobody can say for sure.
At the tribal Environmental Protection Programs office today, though, some numbers
are available to show more that is currently known about what flows through Swift
Gulch. Graphs display comparative levels of minerals in milligrams per liter
between 1999 and 2003.
In 2003, iron levels in Swift Gulch were about 14 times what they were in 1999.
Sulfate and arsenic levels were about 13 times more and 4.6 times more, respectively.
Certain other minerals, like phosphorous and copper, dropped during those four
years. Lead levels in Swift Gulch stayed roughly the same.
One major concern of the tribal scientists is the pH level of the water. In 1999,
Swift Gulch had a pH of almost 7. In 2002, the latest data available on the graph,
pH had dropped to slightly more than 3. A drop in pH makes water more acidic.
A pH of 7 is considered neutral. A pH of 3 is comparable to battery acid, Bell
Dean Stiffarm, who works at the tribal Environmental Protection Programs office,
says Swift Gulch’s drop in water quality after 1999 — a year after
the mines shut down — is a frightening anomaly. It happened, he says, because
groundwater broke through the earth at the top of the Little Rockies after mining
had diverted its flow. The BLM’s Jepson says he isn’t sure why the
metal levels have gone up, but he thinks it might have something to do with iron
pyrite beneath the ground oxidizing and releasing iron and sulfuric acid.
generations of Rhonda Snell’s
family live down McConnell Street, a short but curvy dirt road that shares its
name with her father. At the end
of the lane is a long, rectangular house holding Snell, her husband, four of
their seven children, one grandchild, the occasional cousin and whichever of
the children’s friends stop by to visit. Across the road from Virgil McConnell’s
cabin is a small house where yet more cousins live. They are a close-knit family.
When the younger children are not in school, brothers Erik and Vincent can be
found playing guitar, working on old cars or playing basketball with their cousins.
The kids take walks near their home through hills filled with the rotting carcasses
of cows that died off in a brutal, Hi-Line winter. They stop to sit, then talk
of childhood friends who have died in recent years from accidents or suicides.
A vague sense of uncertainty about the future looms over them like the “Island
Mountains” in the distance.
love this place,” Erik Snell yells as he hikes to the top of
a ridge in the Little Rocky Mountains. Erik suffered severe chemical
burns to his right arm when he was a child swimming in the Swift
Gulch Creek near his home.
Rhonda Snell says she worries about 4-year-old Eddy — the child of a daughter
who moved to Havre and the youngest member of her clan — being exposed
to lead. She now guards her children fervently against the risks she says they
face. She’s careful about which streams she lets Eddy play in.
“When the metals come down, the bottoms of little kids’ feet act like sponges,” Snell
She asked the Indian Health Service office to test him for lead, but they said
it would be too expensive and referred her to Medicaid. It’s hard to find
reliable health care close to home for her children, she explains. To get the
best care, they have to drive to Billings or Helena.
When treatment is needed the family sometimes supplements it with traditional
medicines. When Erik Snell burned his arm, his grandfather, Virgil McConnell,
used a moss that grows in the mountains to treat his skin.
For her part, Jammi Snell has no doubt of the power of the spirit world in bringing
her back from the darkness, but she also recognizes the role her family played
in helping her to make it through the difficult times. She couldn’t have
done it without them, she says.
Despite all that was uncertain in her past, Snell has big dreams for her future.
She wants to attend college in Ireland, then become either an interior decorator
or a teacher.
While her mother quietly seethes over the difficulties her family has faced in
fighting its troubles over the years, Jammi Snell feels her past was a test of
When she was little “my mom told me that I couldn’t do anything and
I always wanted to do things, but they couldn’t do them for me, and I just
had to try to do them for myself,” Snell says.
Family friend “Gus” Helgeson shares Snell’s independent outlook.
He’s tired of waiting for others to look into possible mine connections
to the health problems on his reservation. He hopes to secure grants to do an
extensive study. To Helgeson, sovereignty depends on answering some long-standing
questions, with or without governmental help.
“They really don’t care about us so we’ve got to fight for all we’re
worth,” he says.