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The Crow tribe in southeastern Montana wants to develop its coal resources to help alleviate poverty on the reservation. It’s not uncommon for two, three or even four families to share a house, and the jobless rate is nearly 50 percent. - 

Coal. So 19th century, right? That’s not how the Crow tribe in southeastern Montana sees it. For Darrin Old Coyote, the tribe’s chairman, coal is the Crow's present and their future. “Coal is life,” he says.

The Crow reservation lies in the Powder River Basin, a coal-rich region that straddles the border of Montana and Wyoming. Under the tribe’s nearly 3,500 square miles of land lie 9 billion tons of coal. Not all of it is recoverable, but the tribe currently derives about two-thirds of its budget from the Absaloka coal mine. It averages around 5.5 million tons a year. 

Now the Crow are looking to mine much more of their coal. Earlier this year they signed a lease and exploration deal with one of the largest coal producers in the U.S. Under the agreement, Cloud Peak Energy has the option to mine up to 1.4 billion tons of Crow coal. The tribe stands to gain millions of dollars from the deal, even if Cloud Peak doesn’t end up mining on the reservation. The income will fund annual scholarships for tribal members pursuing college and vocational school.

Dana Wilson, the tribe’s vice chairman, hopes the deal will help lift the Crow’s standard of living. Unemployment hovers around 50 percent and it’s not uncommon for multiple families to share housing. He says the reservation is plagued by a “poverty frame of mind.”

“You live for today," he says. "You get your check and then it’s gone the next day. And then you’re already looking at ways of hustling around and trying to get another paycheck. We’re trying to get away from that.”

Sampson Burdinground, a 70-year-old tribe member, says aside from more mining jobs, there’s the possibility of ongoing royalty payments if Cloud Peak digs up the coal. “The income that will come to the tribe will support the administration, and they use the money to hire people,” he says.  

Just to the east, however, the Northern Cheyenne have historically been more wary of exploiting their coal. In the 1970’s the tribe got into a bitter legal fight with the U.S. government and Peabody Coal over coal leases. It wasn't resolved until 1980. Many tribal members have actively resisted coal development, both on and off the reservation,  but with an unemployment rate even higher than the Crow tribe’s,  internal debate over the issue continues.

Right now, global coal prices are in a slump  and it’s not clear when or if Cloud Peak will actually mine Crow coal. Environmental opposition to coal exports from the Powder River Basin has been fierce. Fifty-seven native tribes in the Pacific Northwest oppose the idea.

Crow leaders have also pushed to build a coal-to-liquids plants for many years, but so far it hasn’t happened. One unemployed young man living on the reservation scoffed at all the talk of coal and jobs. “I grew up on the street all my life,” he said, “and I haven’t seen nothin'.”    

Follow Sarah Gardner at @RadioGardner