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What would you do if you had billions of dollars buried in your backyard? That's a question that's been debated on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Southeast Montana. The tribe sits on one of the richest coal deposits in the country, but despite high poverty rates, they have never mined it. With the Trump administration pushing for new coal developments, some see an opportunity. NPR's Nathan Rott reports.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: It's hard to beat a cheap burger and Ernest Littlebird knows it.
ERNEST LITTLEBIRD: Come get a dollar burger. A good meal, you know? Something to put in the belly at least.
ROTT: Littlebird is set up on the side of a highway in Lame Deer, Montana, under the shade of some trees. This is his second year selling dollar burgers to get by.
LITTLEBIRD: I've been trying to get a job over here at the store, at the depot. I put my applications in and nothing, you know? So you got to hustle somehow.
ROTT: Jobs are scarce here on Northern Cheyenne - coal is not. There's an estimated 23 billion tons of it under Littlebird's feet and beneath the surrounding pine-dotted prairie. And it's come under increased attention during the last few months. In a recent visit to a nearby coal mine, Vice President Mike Pence said the Trump administration was, quote, "absolutely determined to continue to expand the opportunities to develop American energy in an environmentally responsible way." Littlebird and others here on Northern Cheyenne would like to be a part of that expansion.
DIANA MCLEAN: We need the economic development. We need jobs for our people, so I am for that.
ROTT: Diana McLean lives down the road. She used to run the reservation's food bank and head start program, so she knows the socioeconomic situation here. The U.S. Census Bureau puts unemployment on Northern Cheyenne at about 24 percent. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and most people in Lame Deer say it's closer to 60. McLean says it's been that way for a long, long time.
MCLEAN: And it hasn't changed. It hasn't improved.
ROTT: And the decades-old question about what to do with the coal hasn't been answered, not for a lack of trying. Steve Small, the tribe's former economic development officer, says that coal companies have tried to woo the Northern Cheyenne for decades.
STEVE SMALL: Told us, we can make you rich. But we don't know how to take that. I mean, that's a scary word. We're going to make you rich. Wow, you know?
ROTT: There are a lot of reasons the coal has never been developed but Small says the main one is culture. The land here is considered sacred. People don't want to sacrifice it for money.
SMALL: You know, culture's really nice. And I love my culture, but it doesn't put food on the table.
ROTT: Small is sitting at a table. And as he speaks, a woman standing next to him shakes her head.
SMALL: She disagrees totally.
ROTT: Can I ask you why?
ALAINA BUFFALO SPIRIT: Well...
ROTT: The woman's name is Alaina Buffalo Spirit, and she says she's concerned about air quality, water quality, the impact that mining would have on the land and the people.
BUFFALO SPIRIT: So it brings money in. Guess what? More drugs, more alcohol, human trafficking.
ROTT: What's more, she says...
BUFFALO SPIRIT: Coal is dead, and there's no economy for it.
ROTT: This last point is an important one because sure, from a regulatory standpoint, now is as good a time as any to start new coal development. From a market standpoint though, it makes less sense. Natural gas and renewable energies are the new favorites in America's energy market. Even coal supporters admit the challenge.
LEROY SPANG: They got to get a market for it.
ROTT: Leroy Spang is a former president of the Northern Cheyenne. He's also a former coal miner.
SPANG: I worked for 20 years on second shift from 4 to midnight.
ROTT: And no, he says, sitting beneath a pine tree outside his home, his raspy voice is not the result of his time in the mine. Spang tried hard to get coal development started when he was the tribe's president from 2008 to 2012 but the plans never came to fruition. And with the economic downturn in coal, he thinks the opportunity for now is lost.
The Northern Cheyenne's current president absolutely agrees. Jace Killsback pulls a seat over in a spacious office at tribal headquarters. On the wall beside him, a print of a newspaper describing the Cheyenne's victory at General Custer's last stand.
JACE KILLSBACK: I have a cultural world view that is opposed to the destruction of our land.
ROTT: Killsback says his election was a mandate from the people here to ensure that coal mining does not happen. Earlier this year, he even sued the Trump administration for reversing an Obama-era policy that would have stopped new coal development around tribal lands. Killsback says the tribe should have been consulted. Consultation is a treaty right.
KILLSBACK: We have cultural resources that will be impacted by development here and off the reservation.
ROTT: The move did raise some eyebrows on the reservation, but Killsback is defiant.
KILLSBACK: We are descendants of those who resisted.
ROTT: And he says they'll continue to resist. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Lame Deer, Montana.
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