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146 seventeen The Northern Cheyennes Fight Strip-Mining in 1973, i received a phone call from a young indian named George Crossland. George was an Osage from Oklahoma whom I had met in 1971 when he was a student at the University of Chicago Law School. I had been in Chicago for a class reunion, and I stopped at the school to watch a moot court argument. George was one of the student lawyers and he was impressive. Afterward, I introduced myself and we talked. I wound up inviting him to contact our firm if he ever was interested in practicing Indian law. He didn’t call, and I lost track of him until he called two years later. George told me he had been on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana and they were facing serious legal problems. He thought our firm could help. Would we be interested? When I said yes, he told me he would have the tribal president, Allan Rowland, call me, and the next night I was talking to Rowland. Rowland explained that the tribe had signed coal exploration permits and mining leases with several companies, only learning later how destructive a mining operation would be on their reservation. The tribe wanted to find a way to cancel the leases and put an end to the threat. They had a local attorney, but he had supported the leasing. The tribe wanted new legal counsel. “George tells me your firm is the best Indian law firm in the country,” Rowland said, “and we need the best.” I was flattered by George’s endorsement and arranged to meet with the tribal council. The Northern Cheyenne reservation is about a hundred miles east the northern cheyennes fight strip-mining 147 of Billings, in eastern Montana. It’s not large as western reservations go, about 440,000 acres consisting of low rolling hills, mainly used for cattle grazing. There are three towns on the reservation: the principal town and home of the tribal government offices is Lame Deer; the others are Busby and Ashland, on the reservation’s eastern border. When I visited the reservation, the population was more than 90 percent Indian, mainly Northern Cheyenne. The tribe had about three thousand members —living in poverty, but proud. The Northern Cheyennes were a warrior people; they and the Sioux defeated Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. The Custer battlefield site lies only twenty miles west of Busby. After Custer was defeated, the U.S. government banished the Northern Cheyennes to Indian Territory (which would become Oklahoma). Alone among all the other tribes banished to Indian Territory, the Northern Cheyennes fought their way back to their historic home in Montana. The Cheyennes have never forgotten their past and they remain a tough people , capable of withstanding great hardship and never yielding to an opponent. In the 1960s, the Northern Cheyenne reservation became the focus of intense corporate interest. Just beneath the rolling hills lay immense coal deposits—billions of tons of high-quality, low-sulfur coal. That these deposits were close to the surface made them even more valuable . They could be strip-mined, removing just the top layer of earth to expose the coal beneath for removal by giant shovels. The U.S. Geological Survey had described these deposits in the 1920s, and they were well-known to the coal-mining industry. But for forty years this coal had been too distant from the power plants of the Midwest to make mining it worthwhile. By the 1960s, however, environmental legislation forcing power plants to install expensive sulfur-removing scrubbers improved the economic equation. Montana coal began to look increasingly attractive. The coal industry approached the Bureau of Indian Affairs and proposed that the reservation be opened to bidding for coal leases. BIA officials were excited. Here was an opportunity for an impoverished tribe to acquire wealth. So BIA officers came to the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council and told them of this wonderful opportunity. The tribe gave its consent for the process to go ahead. Only later did the tribe begin 148 the northern cheyennes fight strip-mining to realize the grave consequences of this action. That is when we were called in. When I agreed to go to the reservation to discuss the coal-leasing problem, I decided to take Steve Chestnut with me, the newest member of the firm. Though he had no background in Indian law, he had a master’s degree...


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