Story by Peregrine Frissell, photos by Freddy Monares
When Dana Wilson was a young man, he thought politicians dressed sharp, had big guts and wore cowboy hats, even if they weren’t cowboys.
Today, Wilson is vice chairman of the Crow Nation. He dresses sharp, has a big gut and wears a cowboy hat. They compliment what is almost a handlebar mustache and he speaks with a truncated drawl that could be from a wild west movie.
He is a big man, with thick arms and a barrel chest he developed working for 15 years at the Apsaalooké coal mine before he went to college. He calls himself “kinda the coal guy.”
“I was always a rock hound when I was a kid,” Wilson said. “Pick up a rock and that’s cool. Just the allure of it. Maybe I’ll find a gold nugget, or maybe I’ll find a diamond.”
As a tribal leader, Wilson still hopes to find wealth in earthly sediments. Coal is his new diamond and Wilson is sitting on a lot of it.
Leaders on the Crow reservation have been angling to stake the tribe’s economic future on the coal that lies beneath tribal lands. However, overall demand for the resource is plummeting. Spearheaded by federal regulations, opportunities to export the product to better markets in Asia are rapidly closing.
Crow officials often speak of diversifying the tribe’s revenue streams by investigating and implementing other types of revenue-generating operations, but fail to back up that talk with action.
The Crow Nation, Montana’s largest tribal reservation, sits on 2.4 billion tons of coal. The resource has become fodder, a common enticement politicians use to highlight the potential wealth therein as a carrot on a stick to curry public favor. It’s not a difficult sell, considering the Crow Nation sees a truly dire economic situation with little hope of improving without big investments in other resources.
If the past has any predictive power, the coming November election will do little to help the tribe find or develop new revenue sources. Without that, the candidates are likely to use nearly identical campaign strategies as the last election cycle.
That includes free food and Trump-style speeches filled with rhetoric and nepotistic promises.
The pressure has been exacerbated by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. His passing breathed life back into the federal Clean Power Plan, which could cut Montana’s carbon emissions 47 percent by 2030 and all but eliminate coal mining in Montana. It’s legislation that Scalia, Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote, and Montana Governor Steve Bullock strongly opposed, and any high court nominee appointed by President Obama, or a succeeding Democrat, will likely support.
The four big companies that develop coal in the United States, including Cloud Peak and Peabody Energy, have seen their net worth decrease by over 90 percent in the last five years, according to a 2016 report by Foreign Policy, a policy and business focused media organization based in Washington D.C.
In response to the proposed emission cuts, this past winter Gov. Bullock appointed Chairman Old Coyote to the advisory council, tasked with strategizing exactly how Montana will meet the more stringent regulations that could shutter the doors of Apsaalooké mine.
It’s one of many appointments Old Coyote hopes will help him forge a future for Apsaalooké resources.
In late March, Old Coyote was a keynote speaker at the Montana Energy Conference in Billings. The conference, co-hosted by Montana Sen. Steve Daines, the Montana Petroleum Association and the Montana Coal Council, was the largest discussion addressing Montana’s energy potential.
In his keynote address, Old Coyote said the Crow perspective concerning energy was different from many of those in attendance.
That difference began in 1825 when the Crow tribe signed a friendship treaty with the United States government. At that point, Crow lands consisted of half of Montana and half of Wyoming, an area renowned for its rich ore deposits.
In the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, Crow lands were shrunk exponentially to about 8 million acres. Later, Congressional acts reduced the land the Crow held to the current 2.2 million acres by the year 1904.
Both Montana and Wyoming have profited off the coal that lies under what used to be Crow land in the ensuing 112 years. In tax revenue alone, Montana pulled in $58 million over the last three years for exporting coal out of the state. Half of that money goes to a fund that today holds $953 million dollars and is used for economic development and infrastructure, including water systems, in the state of Montana.
The other half of the money is divided among several programs, including the general fund, state parks and the long-range building program accounts. Despite the fact that a large portion of it came out of former Crow country, the state’s plan does not require any of the funds be returned to the Crow government or people.
That leaves the Crow Nation reliant on its sole mine, the Apsaalooké, to extract what remains of its former claim. The mine sits just Crow-side of the Bighorn River, past a fireworks stand and behind the low-lying hills from Interstate Highway 90. The mine is the largest private employer on the reservation. Since the first trainload of coal shipped in 1974, the Apsaalooké has produced over 200 million tons of coal, according to Old Coyote.
But that’s only about 8 percent of the coal that the Crow tribe currently sits on. The mine has a capacity of five-to-seven million tons per year, a rate that would take the Crow tribe 400 years to mine.
But those estimates assume no outstanding issues, a set of circumstances unlikely in the current political climate with a market quickly evaporating.
Dana Wilson is from a small reservation town south of Crow Agency. After high school, he went to work as an apprentice at the coal quality lab at the mine, where his interest in geology took root. He later earned a geology degree from the University of Montana in 2012.
Soon after, he was elected vice chairman, running on a slate with Darrin Old Coyote, the current chairman.
Their term is up in November, and like other representatives in his government, Wilson is coy about whether he will seek reelection.
He does not deny that he and Old Coyote enjoy a strong support base, which he credits to them being “people-oriented.” They play to traditional preferences their people appreciate, like playing hand games and driving modest cars.
Wilson said the intersection between tribal and state politics is minimal, but when they do interfere with each other it is rarely beneficial.
He said the biggest political issue his administration faces is lack of jobs. The Crow tribe has an unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent, 10 times greater than the rest of Montana. He also said he isn’t sure how to combat that, but he hopes to promote small businesses.
“Instead of being the biggest employment source, we should be working on things that bring jobs in,” he said.
In five years, Wilson would like to see a resurgence of the Crow language and expansion of the tribe’s commercial buffalo herd. He would like to expand the national dialogue surrounding the Crow tribe beyond coal and have people refer to them as a meat exporter too. He would like people to consider that his legacy.
Wilson is responsible for two programs that created jobs on the reservation: A Crow language program and a bison herd. Today those programs don’t employ many people, but he hopes that will change.
The language program culminated in a free app available for download on smart phones through the Google or Apple app stores.
Wilson said the Crow language is the best preserved of any tribe in Montana. Many sources say the fluency rate is as high as 80 percent, but most people on the reservation admit that it has plummeted among young people in recent years.
The app has a 4.9 out of five average reviewer rating on the Google app store.
“Now our children who didn’t grow up with the language can now learn on their own,” said Shyra Three Irons in a review. “Litchiikbaa!”
Nikki Cloud, another reviewer, is hopeful the app will help her forge closer relationships with her family. “Now I can tease my cousins back and pray in my language.”
The second effort at diversification involves developing the 2,500 head buffalo herd Wilson said his tribe owns. Wilson said Chairman Old Coyote assigned him the task of turning that herd into something more profitable.
Wilson got the herd insured, and the tribe is working on getting it approved by the USDA to sell meat to larger markets off the reservation. It’s a long, arduous and bureaucratic process, but one Wilson hopes to have accomplished in the next several years.
In the meantime, he said the tribe plans to hire a tribal member to run a small business that can help it get that certification. He hopes if it goes well, that business can hire a couple more people.
Wilson said he and Old Coyote share a remote working relationship, something mirrored in the tribe’s relationship with state elected officials.
He has met Congressional candidate and Blackfeet tribal member Denise Juneau several times, but appreciates the way incumbent U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke sits down and speaks with the tribe about its needs. Zinke makes Wilson feel that his issues are important, even if the Republican congressman doesn’t follow through, and that makes him stand out over the actions of Democrats Juneau and Tester, Wilson said.
Wilson wants to get coal out of the ground, but the extra bureaucratic steps the Crow tribe has to take with the state government make it more difficult to nimbly navigate a volatile global market for coal.
Because of this, he said the Crow Nation cannot put all their eggs in one basket. He said he and Chairman Old Coyote both feel the tribe should have diversified 30 or 40 years ago, but it didn’t.
That’s the reality tribal leaders deal with today. They don’t want all their eggs in one basket, but after four years they have only moved one or two eggs elsewhere.
Despite it all, Wilson remains optimistic about the future. Even though state and federal politics could potentially decide the fate of the tribe’s economics for him, Wilson hasn’t watched many of the national presidential debates yet. He spent the beginning of April watching college basketball.
Lucky for him, he has his own superdelegate to make his voting decision for him. She’s young, intelligent and more sprightly than most of the people Wilson works with.
It’s his daughter in the eighth grade. They’re pulling for Bernie.
“They are young men,” said Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, who represents the Crow tribe as state senator. “I call them young men because that is what they are. Wet behind their ears.”
Stewart-Peregoy makes Wilson look like a tall man even though he isn’t. She has long, peppered hair and an ardent gaze she employs while teaching politics and education at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency.
She said during the heyday of Crow coal development, several large companies came to the reservation to strike deals with current tribal leaders, all wanting a slice of the pie that Crow Nation sat on. That pie was packed with over two billion tons of coal, enough to power the entire U.S. for over a year.
A series of shortsighted decisions quickly turned that interaction negative.
Coal that was mined and exported from the Crow reservation sold for a fraction of the market price. Train cars shipped it out and the tribe was paid only 12.5 cents a ton, while non-tribal entities could sell a similar product for as much as $14 a ton.
Stewart-Peregoy maintains leaders well before that era should have diversified the tribe’s energy and economic portfolios, but since then the reasons have only become more apparent.
“These young men should have been really aggressive in looking at resources instead of running around talking about coal this and coal that and making backroom deals,” Stewart-Peregoy said.
She asserts that data exists supporting the development of solar and wind energy projects on Crow land, but the only alternative energy the tribe has chosen to look at is a hydroelectric dam.
Stewart-Peregoy teaches a course on tribal politics at Little Big Horn College, and sees promise in her students. She thinks a critical step on the road to reforming their constitution is to implement increased education requirements for any chairman.
Winters Plainbull is a successful soon-to-be graduate of Little Bighorn College. He spends time between classes wedged in a small booth in the college cafeteria, talking with friends about what comes next in life.
“There is no future for the Crow tribe if Crow coal stays in the ground,” he said.
Plainbull is tall, expressive and kind, and a social connector. Everywhere he goes, someone shouts his name and they exchange nods of greeting. He is on scholarship as a manager of the women’s basketball team and boasts that he has 1,400 Instagram followers.
He, in many ways, reflects the problem today’s Crow youth are experiencing. PlainBull’s drive to participate politically is coming to a crescendo, but information about the nexus of tribal, state and national politics remains hard to access and put to political use.
Plainbull recalls being told who to vote for in previous elections by an older family member standing over his shoulder as he filled out his ballot.
“Vote for him,” they said, “because he’s your cousin.”
Coal is not the issue he wants to hear candidates debate in the coming November election. That’s mostly because there will be very little debate. Tribal members agree that any successful politician needs a pro-coal platform as a foundation, but candidates disagree on how to spend proceeds the coal could generate and aren’t made to disclose those opinions to the public during election season.
Coal is a distraction, a red herring that encourages candidates to out-coal other pro-coal competition. In the end, they all ignore the more nuanced issues distinguishing them that their electorate actually cares about.
PlainBull wants to hear emphasis put on education. Throughout his time attending school, he felt the reservation hasn’t been a supportive place when it comes to getting a degree.
He said at the beginning of the year his teachers tell him to look around. They tell the class they expect less than half the students will still be there after student refunds from scholarships and federal Pell Grants come back partway through the semester.
After he graduates this spring, PlainBull plans on leaving the reservation to pursue his bachelor’s degree.
He would like to see a candidate who has been to college, someone who would be able to promote it.
Plainbull shares a sentiment held widely in his community. In the eight years since the Crow tribe officially adopted Barack Obama as a member, PlainBull said it feels like the politician has turned his back to the tribe.
“Obama was supposed to do so much for us,” he said. “We all elected him, and then he didn’t.”
PlainBull can’t articulate exactly why, but the excitement surrounding Obama’s grace on the campaign trail has worn off and he is disinterested in federal politics. He doesn’t plan on voting in the 2016 presidential election. The disgrace local politicians bring to their tribe makes him feel just the same.
“I regret all of it. The chairman before [Old Coyote] was my uncle, and he messed so much up. They are spending money foolishly,” PlainBull said.
“They put up outdoor basketball courts with glass backboards. Kids broke them, and now there are no backboards. It shows we’re American and everything, but we don’t need to spend $15,000 on a pole to show that,” PlainBull said, referring to the poles that held up the glass backboards.
“We’re Native Americans, I feel like we could make our own pole that big.”
Geraldine Bull Chief is a classmate of PlainBull, also set to graduate this spring. After class she congregates in the same area of the cafeteria as PlainBull. She talks in a different circle but the topic is the same. She is quieter and more reserved than her classmate, but no less fierce in her beliefs.
She feels similarly hopeless in the search for a political candidate who could lead their nation out of the dark.
“I guess you could say aboriginal people are very dependent,” Bull Chief said. “Right now we are dependent on coal, but if that is gone, what would we be dependent on next? The coal is where the money comes from. We already sold the land.”
“The way I see it, the Crow tribe runs on coal,” Bull Chief said. “Other tribes have other resources, but the Crow tribe runs on coal.”