This is also the place where corporations fill their tankers and ships to travel into the Pacific and beyond. It is one of only a few deep-water ports in the region, and there are plans to build a coal terminal here. That plan is being pushed by a few big corporations, and one Indian nation--the Crow Nation, which needs someplace to sell the coal it would like to mine, in a new deal with Cloud Peak Energy. The deal is a big one: 1.4 billion tons of coal to be sold overseas. There have been no new coal plants in the United States for 30 years, so Cloud Peak and the Crow hope to find their fortunes in China. The mine is called Big Metal, named after a Crow legendary hero.
The place they want to put a port for huge oil tankers and coal barges is called Cherry Point, or XweChiexen. It is sacred to the Lummi. There is a 3,500-year-old village site here. The Hereditary Chief of the Lummi Nation, tsilixw (Bill James), describes it as the "home of the Ancient Ones." It was the first site in Washington State to be listed on the Washington Heritage Register.
Coal interests hope to construct North America's largest coal-export terminal on this "home of the Ancient Ones." Once there, coal would be loaded onto some of the largest bulk carriers in the world to China. The Lummi nation is saying Kwel hoy': We draw the line. The sacred must be protected.
So it is that the Crow Nation needs a friend among the Lummi and is having a hard time finding one. In the meantime, a 40-year-old coal-mining strategy is being challenged by Crow people, because culture is tied to land, and all of that may change if they starting mining for coal. And, the Crow tribal government is asked by some tribal members why renewable energy is not an option.
The stakes are high, and the choices made by sovereign Native nations will impact the future of not only two First Nations, but all of us.
How it Happens
It was a long time ago that the Crow People came from Spirit Lake. They emerged to the surface of this earth from deep in the waters. They emerged, known as the Hidatsa people, and lived for a millennia or more on the banks of the Missouri River. The most complex agriculture and trade system in the northern hemisphere came from their creativity and their diligence. Hundreds of varieties of corn, pumpkins, squash, tobacco, berries--all gifts to a people. And then the buffalo--50 million or so--graced the region. The land was good, as was the life. Ecosystems, species, and cultures collide and change. The horse transformed people and culture. And so it did for the Hidatsa and Crow people, the horse changed how the people were able to hunt--from buffalo jumps, from which carefully crafted hunt could provide food for months, to the quick and agile movement of a horse culture, the Crow transformed. They left their life on the Missouri, moving west to the Big Horn Mountains. They escaped some of what was to come to the Hidatsas, the plagues of smallpox and later the plagues of agricultural dams that flooded a people and a history--the Garrison project, but the Crow, if any, are adept at adaptation. The Absaalooka are the People of the big-beaked black bird--that is how they got their name, the Crow. The River Crow and the Mountain Crow, all of them came to live in the Big Horns, made by the land, made by the horse, and made by the Creator.
A Good Country
"The Crow country is a good country. The Great Spirit has put it exactly in the right place; while you are in it you fare well; whenever you go out of it, whichever way you travel, you will fare worse. The Crow country is exactly in the right place."
--Arapooish Crow leader, to Robert Campbell, Rocky Mountain Fur Company, c.1830
The Absaalooka were not born coal miners. That's what happens when things are stolen from you--your land, reserved under treaty, more than 30 million acres of the best land in the northern plains, the heart of their territory. This is what happens with historic trauma, and your people and ancestors disappear -- "1740 was the first contact with the Crow," Sharon Peregoy, a Crow Senator in the Montana State legislature, explains. "It was estimated" to be 40,000 Crows, with a 100 million acres to defend. Then we had three bouts of smallpox, and by 1900, we were greatly reduced to about 1,750 Crows."
"The 1825 Treaty allowed the settlers to pass through the territory." The Crow were pragmatic. "We became an ally with the U.S. government. We did it as a political move, that's for sure." That didn't work out. The 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty identified 38 million acres as reserved, while the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty greatly reduced the reservation to 8 million acres. A series of unilateral congressional acts further cut down the Crow land base, until only 2.3 million acres remained.
"The 1920 Crow Act's intent was to preserve Crow land to ensure Crow tribal allottees who were ranchers and farmers have the opportunity to utilize their land," Peregoy explains.
Into the heart of this came the Yellowtail Dam. That project split the Crow people and remains, like other dams flooding Indigenous territories, a source of grief, for not only is the center of their ecosystem, but it benefits largely non-Native landowners and agricultural interests, many of whom farm Crow territory. And the dam provides little financial returns for the tribe. The dam was a source of division, says Peregoy. "We were solid until the vote on the Yellowtail Dam in 1959."
In economic terms, essentiall y, the Crow are watching as their assets are taken to benefit others, and their ecology and economy decline. "Even the city of Billings was built on the grass of the Crows," Peregoy says.
Everything Broken Down