Guest editorial: Our future is in the sun, wind, grass — not coal – Montana Standard, March 24, 2015

March 24, 2015

Categories: Coal, Landowner Rights, News–/article_f7c6b954-0245-5b67-a058-a2af3098086a.html

By Alaina Buffalo Spirit

In Jason Small’s recent opinion piece, he tried to speak for all Northern Cheyenne, saying our people would benefit from coal. But Jason Small doesn’t speak for our people. I strongly disagree with him about coal, and so do many of the Northern Cheyenne.

Our Home is Sacred

My ancestors knew this. After the U.S. Army forcibly moved our people to Oklahoma in 1877, my ancestors walked back to their homeland in Montana. Only a fraction survived. Many died of hunger, weather, and guns in their effort to get back to what is now our reservation. They were driven by their attachment to the water, grasses, forests, and valleys of Cheyenne country.

They didn’t walk back to see their land strip-mined.

My grandfather, John Woodenlegs, Sr., said, “Black gold, let it stay there.” Many of our elders that have passed knew the value of our homeland, the sanctity of water, and the sacredness of our people. This land is our life, culture, and history. If we strip mine our land, we will strip away all of these things with it.

Betting on Coal is a Bad Gamble

Coal is a dying fuel. The companies that mine in Montana and Wyoming lost billions of dollars in 2014, and some will go bankrupt in 2015. The market for coal is shrinking because coal can’t compete with other energy sources. Would Jason Small also have us stake our economy on typewriters? The world is changing away from coal.

Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs used to invest in coal projects; now, these major banks have removed their money from coal and have advised others to do so, too. Coal companies can’t even bring prosperity to their own shareholders. No one should think they can bring prosperity to the Northern Cheyenne.

The coal industry pretends that its only hope is to build export terminals to sell their product to Asia. But coal exports face strong opposition from other tribes. The 57 Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians unanimously oppose Northwest coal exports. Building the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point in Washington would violate the treaty rights of our brothers and sisters in the Lummi Nation. The Lummi wouldn’t expect our people to sacrifice treaty rights for a coal company; the Northern Cheyenne shouldn’t ask the same of them.

I agree that our people need to work to build our economy. But we shouldn’t pretend that coal is the answer. We won’t prosper from an industry that will destroy our land, water and plants with strip mining that will not be able to make a profit, that relies on violating other tribes’ treaty rights, and that is full of almost-bankrupt companies. We can do better than embracing coal.

The Future is in Wind, Sun and Grass

We should work to build an economy on the Northern Cheyenne reservation that doesn’t depend on a dirty and expensive fuel. Our reservation has lots of capacity for wind and solar generation. We have rich grasses that support ranching. I believe the real wealth is in clean energy and agriculture. Nationwide, more people work in the solar industry than the coal industry, and solar is growing while coal plummets. And in Montana, agriculture is number one. Let’s bet on the winners.

Anyone who says we will prosper from coal is ignoring the state of the coal industry. Anyone who says we can’t have economic development while protecting our land, water, and culture isn’t trying hard enough. We can create jobs while protecting our home for future generations. Our grandchildren are depending on us to make the right decision.

Alaina Buffalo Spirit of Billings is an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, an artist, and a landowner.


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