The Powder River Basin of northern Wyoming and southern Montana is bounded by the Big Horn Mountains to the west, the Black Hills to the east, and the Yellowstone River to the north. Within this area today are Devils Tower National Monument (Bears Lodge), and the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. The Powder, the Tongue, and the Little Big Horn rivers that flow through these grasslands from the Bighorns to the Yellowstone wash over the sites of some of the fiercest battles between the U.S. Army and the nations of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho as the War Department and Department of the Interior — between the 1850s and 1870s — completed the ethnic cleansing of the Great Plains.
The impetus for the scorched earth campaign by Generals Sherman, Sheridan, Crook, and Custer was initially to remove the Indians from the rich grasslands where they hunted buffalo and antelope in order to replace them with white ranchers, but in the end, it was the yellow gold of the Black Hills that forced the final solution on the Plains Indians and sacrificed the Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn.
Today, the sacred Black Hills that lie just across the Bad Lands from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and the Powder River Basin that still echoes with the names of Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse is again under attack by the power grid of the United States–this time for fools gold.
Back in 2006, I read about the Northern Cheyenne holding a plebiscite on coal extraction within their reservation, and the discussion they were having over how to take advantage of their energy resources without ruining their environment, which left me wondering if the Powder River Basin will end up like Appalachia. Now that Wall Street and the energy companies own the United States government, what’s to stop them?
The answer to that lies partly in the response of Indian tribes whose treaty resources would be negatively impacted by coal shipping, which involves some seriously heavy traffic by trains and maritime vessels. As noted on Mother Earth Journal, treaty resources enroute between the Powder River Basin and the Pacific coast — along with other environmental impacts — may eventually derail the project.
In the meantime, while politicians and the public keep an eye on the dollars and deals involved, some of us need to be keeping an eye on the politics behind the scene–politics that have in the past gotten pretty ugly when such high stakes are involved. Anytime big bucks are on the table, especially regarding resource extraction, Wise Use operatives can be found hovering nearby, waiting for an opportunity to cash in on mobilizing resentment. When that inevitably happens, most communities won’t know what hit them.