Crow Agency, Montana – Neither tribe created the modern energy economy. They did not build the railroads or the power plants or the giant freighters that cross the ocean.
But the Crow Tribe, on a vast and remote reservation here in the grasslands of the northern Plains, and the Lummi Nation, nearly a thousand miles to the west on a sliver of shoreline along the Salish Sea in Washington state, have both become unlikely pieces of the machinery that serves the global demand for electricity — and that connection has put them in bitter conflict.
The Crow, whose 2.2 million-acre reservation is one of the largest in the country, have signed an agreement to mine 1.4 billion tons of coal on their land — enough to provide more than a year’s worth of the nation’s coal consumption.
The Lummi, on a 13,000-acre peninsula north of Seattle, are leading dozens of other tribes in a campaign that could block the project. They say it threatens not only the earth’s future climate, but also native lands, sacred sites and a fragile fishery the Lummi and others have depended on for thousands of years.
For the Crow, the project is a matter of survival. Traffic at the Crow’s remote and modest casino provides no meaningful revenue, there are no reservation hotels and unemployment here is well into the double digits. Tribal leaders say the new mine could provide up to $5,000 annually in dividend payments for each of the more than 13,000 members of the tribe and high-paying jobs for decades to come.
But to get Crow coal to its most promising market in Asia, the tribe wants to transport it by rail across the Pacific Northwest to a deep-water port just north of the Lummi reservation. The trains, potentially several a day, would unload their cargo at a proposed new shipping hub, the Gateway Pacific Terminal, near the town of Bellingham. The Lummi say that the terminal location is home to historic burial grounds and fragile fish habitat — that they too are fighting for their way of life.
“Everyone says it’s Lummi against Crow,” said Johnny Felix, a member of the Lummi tribal council and a commercial fisherman, as he watched his son and others practice for wooden canoe races against other coastal tribes this summer. “It’s not. It’s not a tribe against a tribe. It’s a resource against a resource. That’s our resource — out there in the water. And their resource is coal.”
The Lummi hold a potential trump card in the fight: The 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, signed by several Salish Sea tribes with the United States, ensures them access to their “usual and accustomed” fishing areas.
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