Tribes/First Nations:

Roma Castellanos

Today, the Apsáalooke tribal government, federally recognized as the Crow Tribe of Montana, is in favor of the mining and exporting of subbituminous coal from the Powder River Basin, via railroad, to proposed coal terminals in the Pacific Northwest. To understand how Apsáalooke came to be in favor of extraction requires a careful look at their history. Their location in southeastern Montana, their amount of reservation land, and their economic enterprises have been influenced and shaped by the regional and global resource extraction economy. The complexity of their situation has been boiled down and simplified by the media in a way that ignores the real reasons for their attempts at surviving, and reclaiming their culture and livelihood through means which are supported entirely by the fossil fuel burning society which surrounds them. To avoid bias, it is essential to understand the Apsáalooke as real people, with a history stretching back to time immemorial, and a complicated present and future.

Apsáalooke History

Apsáalooke (pronounced Ahp-SAH-loa-ga) oral history places them around the area we now know as the upper Great Lakes between Canada and the United States. In the 1450s runners were sent in search of food and returned with buffalo meat. They went in search of a new place to settle and spent many years traveling, eventually ending up in southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming (Juneau).  

In the early 1700s, the Apsáalooke acquired horses from a Native community near the Great Salt Lake. Using these horses, they were able to efficiently follow buffalo herds and effectively sustain themselves by taking what they needed from the land (Juneau).  

The first contact with Europeans came in 1743 with the arrival of French-Canadian traders. Their next contact came in 1805 when the Lewis and Clark Expedition met the Apsáalooke along the Yellowstone River. In 1825 an informal “Friendship Treaty” between the Apsáalooke (known by this time as the Crow, due to a mistranslation) and the U.S. was signed by one of their leaders Long Hair (Juneau).

In the 1840s, the Apsáalooke suffered from smallpox epidemics, reducing their population from at least 10,000 to approximately 2,000. Immediately following these tragedies, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 was signed by representatives from the Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Shoshone, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (Juneau).  

In 1868, amidst the “Indian Wars” which devastated the Cheyenne and other Plains Tribes, a second Fort Laramie Treaty was signed which reduced the land of the Apsáalooke from 38 million to 8 million acres. The map below illustrates the reduction of Crow land under these treaties and subsequent land grabs, as well as pressure from surrounding tribes due to reduced grazing land. The Crow Reservation was reduced in 1882, 1891, and (to its present size) in 1904.


As American settlements started expanding, pressure from the government and white settlers forced Native communities onto smaller and smaller reservations. This overwhelming pressure from outsiders led the Apsáalooke to side with the U.S. as a means of survival, during the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War. This alliance pitted the Apsáalooke against their neighbors, the Northern Cheyenne and Lakota (Sioux).  

Northern Pacific Railroad

President Abraham Lincoln had encouraged Congress to pass the Pacific Railroad Acts, which gave railroad companies the rights to land stretching from coast to coast. These Acts encouraged settlers to purchase land from the railroad companies at high prices along the railroad. The land granted to railroad companies, Union Pacific in particular, ran across the northern border of the Crow Reservation and included usual-and-accustomed grazing and hunting lands included in their treaty. Compensation for land owned by the Crow Tribe, was given to the U.S. General Land Office, and was meant to be given to the Apsáalooke at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior (Pacific).

A map showing the route chosen for the Transcontinental Railroad which displaced many Native nations. (Credit:  Pam Reitsch ) 

A map showing the route chosen for the Transcontinental Railroad which displaced many Native nations. (Credit: Pam Reitsch


More specifically, funds were to be allocated through the government agency located on the Crow Reservation. To be clear, 5,084 acres were appropriated for the Northern Pacific Railroad right-of-way in exchange for $750,000 to be paid out annually at $30,000.  Somehow only $25,000 were actually received by the agency (Juneau).

As urban industrialization in Europe brought an enormous influx of immigrants to Tim the U.S., Asian immigration was limited by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Essentially the U.S. Government allowed “desirable” European immigrants while limiting the immigration of less “desirable” nationalities. This “Great Wave” of new American settlers forced many established settlers to move west.


In 1883, a government boarding school was located in Crow Agency, which became the capital of the Crow Nation. Two years later Chief Plenty Coups went to Washington D.C. with demands for his people, citing misuse of funds by the agency (Juneau).

The 1890s were a difficult time for many Native communities. A Congressional Act in 1891 ceded and allotted (privatized and divided) two million acres of Apsáalooke land for public purchase. Crow tribal members could hold allotments in the ceded portion, however many could not afford to maintain their leases. In return for this cessation the tribe was to be compensated $940,000, again at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior. The same year, tribal grazing leases changed to a bidding system, limiting who could hunt and where within their usual and accustomed treaty land. At the turn of the century Chief Plenty Coups returned to DC “demanding just payment for the Burlington Railroad right-of-way across the reservation and employment for Crow men” (Juneau). It is also important to mention that oil companies were beginning to explore for petroleum during this time.

Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow (better known as Joe Medicine Crow), tribal historian and anthropologist created a handbook in 1966 outlining the many complex addenda and acts related to the shaping of the Crow Reservation. His analysis of the allotment system was highlighted in this passage:

There were both noble and greedy motives behind this policy. Foremost, the allotment system was seen as the quickest and most effective means to assimilate the Indian into white society. Each Indian was to become a small self-sufficient farmer. A second aim was to protect Indian land holdings. It was felt that, while large tracts of tribal lands could easily be lost or ceded, an individual would fight to retain possession of his allotment. A provision against sale of this land was to protect against the possibility of land gradually passing into non-Indian ownership. 
The land-hungry settler was also to benefit from allotment. According to the 1887 Act, after each head of household received 160 acres and each adult 80 acres and each minor 40 acres, that land which remained unalloted and which the Secretary of Interior felt was "not needed by the tribe," was to be ceded and sold to the non-Indian settlers (

Tribal Governance

By 1920, the Apsáalooke were governed by a Tribal Council.  Between 1920 and 1940 this Tribal Council separated into committees to address important issues such as “Schools, Oil, Hospitals, Budget, Leases, Law and Order, etc”. In 1948, the Crow Tribe wrote its first constitution, “…in an effort to enforce the respect of their basic human, constitutional and treaty rights, do hereby re-establish the Crow Tribal Council to represent, act and speak for the Crow Tribe in any and all tribal matters, and to promote the general welfare of the Crow Tribe…”

The re-established Tribal Council includes all members of the Crow Tribe which would finally give members of the Tribe a voice in their relationship with local, state, and national agencies. The Constitution states that every two years a Chairman, Vice-Chairman, Secretary and Vice-Secretary are to be elected by the Council on the second Saturday of May. The way that members are to be elected is through “voice, standing, hand-raising or secret ballot, as the council shall elect at each of its meetings.” Essentially, this process created a direct democracy for the Crow Tribe.

In 1966, Pauline Small was elected to the Tribal Council as Vice-Secretary. She was the first woman to be elected to any position in the Crow Tribe. This is important to note, because historically the Apsáalooke had a matrilineal system and women held a significant role in tribal governance (Powell).    

Constitutional Controversy

In 2001, Chairman Clifford Birdinground allowed a new constitution to replace the 1948 Constitution. There was a great deal of controversy surrounding the circumstances of the passing of the new constitution. In essence, the new 2001 Constitution replaced the direct-democracy style Tribal Council, with a three-branch system similar to that of the U.S. Government. Also, it increased the term served by the four main Council members from two years to four, and gave the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) final say on economic enterprises. The chart below illustrates the new and current tribal governance system.



Positive Change Administration

In 2012, Chairman Darrin Old Coyote, Vice Chairman Dana Wilson, Secretary Alvin Not Afraid Jr., and Vice Secretary Shawn Backbone Sr., were elected to lead the Tribal Council. They campaigned with the promise of developing natural resources and human resources in order to revive the struggling Crow economy (Olp).

Economic Enterprises

Today the Crow Nation has about 13,000 members. It is the biggest employer on the reservation, with a total of about 900 people, including those with state and federal funding, and about 1,100 employees in the summer according to Chairman Old Coyote (Johnson). 

The Absaloka coal mine, owned by Westmoreland Coal Co., and located just south of Hardin, Montana, opened in 1974. It provides coal primarily to Xcel Energy, Western Fuels Association, Midwest Energy, and Rocky Mountain Power. The coal is being leased by the Crow Nation and is transported by truck and rail to its primary customers in Minnesota (Westmoreland).  

In 2013, Old Coyote signed a new lease with Westmoreland worth $12.5 million in bonus and advance royalty payments to the tribe to 2018. Recently, Westmoreland had a reduction in coal sales and many employees of the Tribe have been furloughed, also some tribal budgets have been cut. An article in the Billings Gazette noted, “Old Coyote blamed the furloughs on President Barack Obama, saying reduced revenues are being caused by ‘Obama’s ‘War on Coal.’’ Obama, he said, is trying to cut the usage of fossil fuels, including coal. ‘Our bread and butter is coal. A war on coal is a war on Crow families’ he said" (Johnson).

In a phone interview, I asked Vice Chairman Dana Wilson what kind of benefits the tribe receives from their mining operations: 

"Our benefits are threefold.  One of them is we have tribal members who are employed out there, another one is every single tribal member, regardless of where they work, they all get a dividend payment which is …depending on the market, about six hundred dollars per year….Also, two thirds of the tribal revenue money comes from coal mines.  And that pays my salary, that pays a lot of the tribal member’s salaries.  The employees, the ones that don't work under government programs salaries, and that's a good thing" (Wilson). 

As Vice Chairman, Wilson is in charge of water resources, education, and public works. Before his election to the tribal government, Wilson worked at the Absaloka mine for fifteen years and served three terms on the tribal legislature. When asked about the possibility of a future in renewable energy, Wilson said, “I'm a kind of a person that would say diversify your portfolios as much as you can, but at the same time I'm thinking about thirteen, close to fourteen thousand tribal members that need jobs.” He also added, “…the unemployment rate is about sixty percent….if there's an opportunity that we could generate some revenue from green energy or whatever, I'm all for it. But, just because I'm doing that I'm not gonna kick coal mining to the ditch. That's too big of a hit on our revenue.”

Proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal

In 2013, just months before signing the Westmoreland deal, Chairman Old Coyote signed a separate deal with Cloud Peak Energy.  The agreement allows the potential development of 1.4 billion tons of coal. The Billings Gazette covered the story:

“Hundreds of people in the Multipurpose Building in Crow Agency looked on as Crow Chairman Darrin Old Coyote and Cloud Peak CEO and President Colin Marshall signed the legal documents. Under the pact, the Wyoming energy company will initially pay the tribe $2.25 million. Cloud Peak will pay another $1.5 million once the agreement is approved by the Department of the Interior, and then make additional annual payments through the initial option period, up to $10 million. The exploratory phase is expected to take at least five years. Whether Cloud Peak will actually develop a mine on any of the three coal deposits near its Northern Powder River Basin properties remains to be seen. Marshall said that could well depend on whether West Coast coal ports are developed. The ports would open the way for Cloud Peak to ship coal to energy-hungry countries in Asia” (Olp).  

The “West Coast coal ports” Marshall refers to are the same proposed terminals which many Coast Salish tribes are determined to stop. For the Crow in particular, the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would be the destination for the majority of Crow coal. Much of the controversy surrounding the Gateway Pacific Terminal is due to location of Cherry Point to the nearby Lummi Reservation (See Lummi & Coal). The pro-coal stance of the Crow tribal government has also historically put it at odds with the historically anti-coal Northern Cheyenne next door (See Northern Cheyenne & Coal). In 2016, the defeat of the Tongue River Railroad and the Gateway Pacific Terminal created a new situation for the Crow Nation.

Concluding Thoughts

It is important to note that the history recounted here is only a brief summary, and that the complex history since time immemorial is impossible to quantify. Also, the vast amount of work that went into establishing treaty rights by both Crow and Lummi cannot be understated. Countless Apsáalooke have spent their lives and have died working to establish their basic human right to sovereignty. On a personal note, I took great pleasure in learning about the Apsáalooke and their rich culture and history. From my research, I have learned that it is not fair to blame a Nation, or any community, for doing everything in their power to survive, and to understand the circumstances of an extractive Nation such as the Crow, it is vital to first understand why they have been put into such a desperate situation. As an American, I would say it is a crime of morality to place the blame of fossil fuel extraction on anyone but ourselves. As consumers we provide the means for companies like Westmoreland and Cloud Peak to continue operations in communities around the world. In closing, I would like to thank Vice-Chairman Dana Wilson for his time and valuable information which aided me in my research. 

Sources (n.d.) Treaties and Federal Laws. 
Crow Nation of Montana, Bureau of Land Management. (2002). Crow Natural, Socio-Economic and Cultural Resources Assessment and Conditions Report. Crow Agency, MT.
Daniels, R., & Graham, O. L. (2001). Debating American immigration: 1882-present. Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield.

Johnson, C. (2016, January 8). Crow Tribe furloughs expected to affect about 100 employees. Billings Gazette.

Juneau, D. (2010, March). Crow Reservation Timeline

Olp, S. (2013, January 24). Crow Tribe signs 1.4B ton coal deal with Cloud Peak Energy. Billings Gazette.

Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum. (n.d.). Pacific Railroad Act - Transcontinental Railroad and Land Grants. 

Pauline Whiteman Runs Him-Small. (2005, March). Billings Gazette.

Powell, P. J., & Merritt, A. S. (1988). To honor the Crow people: Crow Indian art from the Goelet and Edith Gallatin Collection of American Indian art. Chicago, Ill. (4512 N. Sheridan Rd., Chicago 60640): Foundation for the Preservation of American Indian Art and Culture.

Reitsch, P. (n.d.). The 1891 Grain Dealers and Shippers Gazetteer - Northern Pacific R.R.

National Archives. Teaching with documents: Using primary sources from the National Archives. (1989). Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration.

Westmoreland. (n.d.). Absaloka MineMontana.

Wilson, Dana. (2015, November 19). Vice Chairman of Crow Indian Nation. Personal interview.