Montana’s two South Central Indian tribes elected new leaders last fall. The Crow Tribe elected Darrin Old Coyote its chairman and the Northern Cheyenne voted John Robinson its president.
The two men recently sat down to talk about their first few months on the job and their goals for the next four years.
Today, a look at Old Coyote; Friday a profile of Robinson.
CROW AGENCY — Darrin Old Coyote doesn’t hesitate about his top priority.
“I want to be self-sufficient as a tribe, and economic development will be key to all of that,” the chairman said in an interview at the tribal headquarters in Crow Agency.
Old Coyote, elected Nov. 3, was sworn in on Dec. 3. It's been a whirlwind few months, traveling to meet federal and state officials, working with the other officers of his executive branch to establish his cabinet and focusing on his top priority.
He's no novice to tribal government. Old Coyote served two four-year terms as vice secretary, first under President Carl Venne, who died in office, and then under President Cedric Black Eagle.
Old Coyote defeated Black Eagle in the general election, campaigning for positive change for the 13,200 enrolled members of the Crow Tribe, more than 8,000 of which live on the reservation and more in nearby towns.
During his first week in office, Old Coyote met with the three other elected members of the executive branch to reconfigure his cabinet. The four men decided to increase the number of cabinet heads from three to 10, and decided who would fill those posts.
Old Coyote traveled to Denver, to meet with officials of the Westmoreland Coal Co. Since 1974, Westmoreland has leased coal reserves from the Crow Tribe to operate the Absaloka Mine in the Northern Powder River Basin, near Hardin, with an average annual production of 5.5 million tons.
On Wednesday, Westmoreland announced it had entered into a lease with the tribe for an estimated additional 145 million tons of Rosebud McKay coal, located adjacent to the Absaloka mine. The lease, subject to approval by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, will allow the company to control 357 million tons of total coal reserves and resources.
It is worth $12.5 million in bonus and advance royalty payments to the tribe over the next 4-1/2 years, Old Coyote said.
The new agreement is good for the tribe because a majority of the its annual operating budget comes from Westmoreland coal royalties.
In January, Crow officials signed an agreement with Cloud Peak Energy Inc. for the potential development of 1.4 billion tons of coal, which could also mean millions of dollars for the tribe.
The tribe is also looking at clean-coal technology. Old Coyote said tribal officials are meeting with a company that’s willing to push that technology under the banner of the Many Stars coal-to-liquid plant that previously stalled.
But Old Coyote is quick to say that while coal is crucial to the tribe’s financial well-being, his goal is to diversify.
“I just don’t want to depend on one source of income,” he said. “That’s why I’m pursuing hydro and bentonite and limestone to create that self-sufficiency. Once all those are in place, I want the largest percentage of our budget to come from revenue streams that we have created, and not depend on federal monies.”
With the previous passage of the Crow Water Settlement Act of 2010, the tribe plans to develop hydropower at the Yellowtail Afterbay Dam. It also is developing a water code, moving toward construction on its irrigation projects and doing engineering and design work on a municipal water system.
The tribe also is considering construction of a cement plant because all of the ingredients for cement, including limestone, sand and gravel, are found on or near the reservation. It also has a plentiful supply of bentonite.
“And so we’re pursuing business partners wanting to come in and be business partners with the Crow Tribe,” Old Coyote said.
Another piece the Crow Tribe hopes to put in place to boost its economy has to do with land. According to an estimate by the Department of Interior, the Crow Reservation has the fourth-highest amount of land owned by non-Indians.
One part of the recent Cobell Settlement will provide money for tribes to buy back segments of fractionated lands. As a result of the 1920 Crow Allotment Act, land parcels were allocated to tribal members to do with as they wished.
Over the years, ownership of acreage on the 3.3-million-acre reservation has splintered to the point that it is virtually unusable, Old Coyote said.
“Maybe 20 to 50 people own a percentage of one tract of land, and it makes it difficult to do anything feasible,” he said.
The federal government has set aside $1.9 billion for the land buyback, for tribes to buy back the fractionated parcels. The Crow Tribe lobbied to be one of four tribes that will take part in a land-buyback pilot project that is set to begin in June.
“We have the opportunity to buy back land as a tribe and then to use it for the benefit of all members,” he said. “And we want to pursue farming and ranching at the tribal level, creating a business arm of the tribe.”
Like much of the country, the Crow Tribe is dealing with the effects of federal cuts coming with budget sequestration.
The American Indian Higher Education Consortium estimated that Little Big Horn College will lose $225,000 from its basic institutional operations budget through the end of this fiscal year in September.
Old Coyote said the tribe has set aside money to help accommodate some of that shortfall, and, through the Crow Legislature, it has secured additional funding.
As the tribe learns how other tribal programs will be affected, it will seek to supplement their budgets, he said. But the federal agencies that also provide services, including the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, also will receive less money, which will affect tribal members.
The tribe also struggles with an unemployment rate of 47 percent, according to BIA figures.
As tribal officials grapple with these issues, they will continue to work toward self-sufficiency. In the short-term, it plans to hold an economic summit the week of April 8-12 at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency.
The meetings will involve the executive and legislative branches, as well as the college, and others to develop a strategic plan, including deciding what laws need to be put in place to make economic development a reality on the reservation.
“People have been saying we’re moving too fast, but all these opportunities, they come once in your life, so you want to move fast, move forward,” Old Coyote said. “At the end of my term, I want to see the tribe in a better position than it ever was before.”
Coming Friday: A talk with Northern Cheyenne President John Robinson.