Tribes That Live Off Coal Hold Tight to Trump’s Promises

This article published in the New York Times on April 1st discusses the impact that Obama’s energy policies, specifically the so-called “war on coal,” has had on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. As 30% of coal reserves west of the Mississippi are located on Indian lands, this issue is widespread. The tribe has suffered immensely as the industry has decreased, with the tribe’s chief executive stating things have never been worse. While most of the Crow tribe’s feelings regarding President Trump are hesitant at best, many turned to him in the last election in hopes that his environmental policies would help the tribe during this dire time.

What I found interesting about this particular article was the perspective it took on the controversial issue of fossil fuels in the US. The discussion of coal often focuses on environmental problems or whether coal is a viable industry given the increasing costs.  This article, instead, talks about the impacts the industry has had for a population that is often overlooked. In the environmental debate, the only Native American perspective that has been given a platform is the pro-environment opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.  This is the first piece I have come across that highlights the perspective of the Native American population when discussing the coal industry. Ms. Ten Bear Reed was one of the tribe members the article focused on. A mother who works a $9 an hour casino job, supporting two children in a home without running water, she emphasized that while she cares about the environment, what she needs foremost is the money to support her family.

In environmental discussions, the reduction of fossil fuels is almost always presented in a purely positive light. The perspective of those whose livelihood would be jeopardized is often overlooked.  I finished this article thinking about where these issues belong in the broader debate regarding environmental policies. When we look at the effects of these policies, they vary widely depending on whether you take the perspective of the environment, people working in the fossil fuel industry, or those in the renewable energy sector. Do they all belong in the same discussion? If so, how do we include them all? When there are so many issues at play, it seems to be a hard balance to find.

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6 Responses to “Tribes That Live Off Coal Hold Tight to Trump’s Promises”

  1. Hi Sarah! Thanks for posting this article. The other day I was listening to an interview with a retired coal-miner, and what he said introduced me to an element of changes in coal I had never before found myself empathizing with, or even really considering. Especially because this particular story is about Native Americans, a group generally associated with environmental protection, it challenges what I know even further. One question that this whole debate leaves me with is how much policy can actually influence the coal industry. As the article stated, the energy sector is transitioning to cheaper natural gas anyway. In March, Robbert Murray, the most powerful coal boss in America, warned that Trump can not bring coal jobs back. Despite the potential futility of looser coal regulations, and their danger for health and the environment, I do not believe it is acceptable to close a mine without other employment opportunities. Part of this solution could be renewable energy. If invested in, renewables could keep ex-coal workers on a pay-check, and in a much safer line of work. One issue may be lack of expertise, and I wonder to what degree training could be established for the transition. I wish this article talked to the coal-miners themselves too, I think they would be very interesting to hear from, and key voices to consider in a solution.

    • Ian, I think you bring up a really good point about this article lacking a Native American coal miner’s perspective. Are they willing to put forth the time and effort to go through training for jobs in renewable energy and face the economic hardship that may ensue in the transition from coal? I also was very interested to hear about the debate over coal regulations from a minority group who is so often underrepresented in the media, I had not previously given much thought to the fact that so many tribes’ families and livelihoods were so dependent upon its continuation. The moral conflict between having cultural values rooted in a deep admiration for the environment and an economy that depends on its destruction brings up a really interesting point of view. As policies shift, which one will outweigh the other?

  2. I was also quite surprised to hear about this issue because it’s not that often that a minority group’s problems are brought to the the forefront of political agendas. I think the article did a good job elaborating on the relevance of this issue and why this issue matters. The lede does a nice job grabbing the reader’s attention with some strong statistics about the tribe’s employment. I feel that the author’s use of images in the article help the readers connect with the culture and standard of living that these people are a part of.

  3. I agree that the author did a really good job encapsulating the conflicting sentiments of the Native Americans discussed in the article. On one hand, the tribe members disagree with many of Trump’s policies, but on the other, they are depending on the fact that his environmental policies will result in their favor. The quotes selected really reveal the desperation of tribe members yet there were some claims that the author made that begged for a quote- such as after the author states that many tribe members have taken offense at Mr. Trump’s comments about minorities. This issue is definitely an issue that deserves more recognition in the discussion of the fossil fuel industry- yet it is important to recognize the complexities and dilemmas that the tribe members are facing that are informing their political opinions.

  4. This was a really eye-opening article Sarah! I particularly enjoyed the photographs that accompanied the article. I thought that they broke up the article well and helped me picture what conditions the tribe was living in. The photos emphasize a sense of bleakness and uncertainty which helps emphasize the living situations mentioned in the articles. The degree of poverty faced by a lot of the residents was astounding. Although the article didn’t elaborate on this, it was shocking to see how much land this tribe had about 150 years ago and what had happened to it by 2017. It really made me think of the treatment of indigenous populations throughout history.

  5. I thought that this was a very important article and frankly one that I didn’t expect; I had no idea so many Native tribes had such a significant reliance on oil and coal for revenue. I also found that the photos captured and highlighted the destitution and sadness present in this story, and I thought that Turkewitz did a well in refraining from over politicizing the issue or giving more weight to Obama’s vs. Trump’s dealings in coal and climate regulation. I do wish, however, that there was more of an emphasis on the science behind Obama-era regulations regarding climate change (including the fact that we cannot afford to continue burning coal) and more of an evaluation on how many of those jobs could be feasibly revived, as I feel those numbers are important to know for this conversation. I also wish there had been more Native perspectives included throughout and specifically at the very beginning of the story as I think this piece could have been even more compelling had it centered around specific Native experiences regarding this issue. Overall, though, this was a very significant story that shows a critical perspective that often goes unacknowledged by the environmental justice movement, which is the livelihood of real people who rely on “dirty energy” to support themselves and their families.

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