For decades, many members of the tribe have resisted coal mining. Now, increased demand for coal and the election of a new tribal president who is determined to create jobs are reigniting debate over energy development among the reservation's 4,500 residents. It's a conflict between tribal traditions and economic self-sufficiency that has long divided people here and on other reservations across America with coal, oil and gas and other mineral reserves."
The new president, Leroy Spang, is a retired coal miner who promised in his campaign to pursue coal exploration.
He says about 80% of the reservation residents are unemployed and dependent on federal aid. EIGHTY PERCENT unemployment!!?? The United States worries about 9-10% unemployment. In fact, many tribal reservatioins suffer from unemployment that high.
Median household income on the reservation was $23,679 ias reported by the 2000 Census. I was $41,994 nationwide at that time.
"Some members of the tribe warn that developing coal would betray the tribe's duty to protect the earth. Sweet Medicine, a mythic Cheyenne prophet, predicted centuries ago that digging up the "black rock" would rob the tribe of its identity, they say.
"This is the last war that our people are going to face," says Phillip Whiteman, 51, a founder of Yellow Bird, a non-profit group based on the reservation that promotes respect for the land and environment."
Tribal values are rooted in protecting the land, yet their resources often seem like the only path out of poverty, says Garrit Voggesser, senior manager of the National Wildlife Federation's tribal lands conservation program. "Tribes have tough choices to make … between their cultural and historical legacy and extraction," he says.
The largest employers on the reservation are the tribal government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
"For Spang and others here who say new jobs would ensure the tribe's survival, it's an easy call. "We need to change the minds" of those who oppose coal development, he says. "We have to create jobs. We need less talk and more action."
Whiteman hopes members of the tribe will reconnect with their traditions and resist development. "It's a fork up ahead," he says, "and if we choose to stand with the creator, we'll make the right choices."