Northern Cheyenne Lands Act Looks to Right a Century Old Wrong

U.S. Rep. Steve Daines (R-Montana) has introduced a bill that could right a wrong that has harmed the Northern Cheyenne Tribe for more than a century.

U.S. Rep. Steve Daines (R-Montana) has introduced a bill that he hopes will correct a federal error that has hurt the Northern Cheyenne Tribe for more than a century.

The Northern Cheyenne Lands Act (H.R. 4350) would allow the tribe more control over their lands, minerals and trust funds, while strengthening tribal sovereignty for the tribe and increasing the tribe’s ability to serve its people according to a press release from Daines’ office.

“The Northern Cheyenne Lands Act provides the Northern Cheyenne Tribe with a long-overdue resolution to the federal government’s breach of trust with the tribe and empowers the Northern Cheyenne people to control their land and their resources,” Daines stated. “The Northern Cheyenne people have long struggled to secure and maintain a land-based homeland, and this legislation will ensure that the tribe is better able to use their land and protect the sites most sacred to them. I’m proud to have worked hand in hand with the Northern Cheyenne people to find a solution that secures the tribe’s land and protects the tribe’s heritage for future generations.”

The bill states among its Congress findings that the tribe is dependent on its lands and land-based resources to support its way of life since time immemorial and addresses the suffering currently seen on the reservation – “social and economic challenges, including a lack of employment opportunities.”

The Northern Cheyenne Lands Act focuses on 5,000 subsurface acres within the reservation that the tribe does not currently own due to an error by the United States in 1900. This Act is the result of a 2002 settlement by the tribe to dismiss its lawsuit against the U.S. in return for assistance in securing tribal ownership of those subsurface rights.

Daines’ bill also states, that if the actions within the Act are completed, “the tribe would waive all legal claims against the United States arising out of the longstanding loss of the subsurface rights and arising out of the United States’ management of the Northern Cheyenne Trust Fund.”

Protecting the tribe’s right to control their land and minerals has been key to the Act.

“Our tribe has been seeking this kind of greatly-needed relief from Congress for many years, reaching back to my first administration in the early 1990s and prior to that,” Northern Cheyenne Tribal President Llevando “Cowboy” Fisher stated. “This legislation is a number one priority of the tribe, as it involves our reservation lands and subsurface which we made many historic sacrifices to restore and preserve, and also our permanent fund. If the bill is passed, our control over our reservation will be solidified and our economic development opportunities will be substantially enhanced. We thank Representative Daines for his work on this.”

Coinciding with the land transfer in the Act, the Secretary of the Interior is being asked to transfer the funds currently in the Northern Cheyenne Trust Fund to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe Permanent Fund, the latter being within the tribe’s control. This request is consistent with the American Indian Trust Reform Act of 1994.

Great Northern Properties (GNP), the current owner of the subsurface area being addressed within the Act, has agreed to forego its subsurface rights on the reservation to reach this tribal solution. Daines’ bill, in order to compensate GNP for the loss of saleable coal found in the area on the reservation, would transfer subsurface acres in the Bull Mountains and East Fork areas from federal ownership to private ownership for GNP.

The coal tract transfer would give the tribe an estimated 117 million tons of coal according to a tribal representative, while GNP would receive an estimated 112 million tons the Associated Press reports.

According to AP, “An earlier version of the bill from now-retired Sen. Max Baucus stalled because it would have given Great Northern more coal than the tribe received. That lopsided arrangement drew opposition from the U.S. Department of Interior and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and the bill never advanced.”

The Northern Cheyenne Lands Act also qualified surface owners’ rights in Bull Mountains and East Fork by requiring consent if surface mining ever is proposed for those acres, which provides the same protections as if the coal remained in federal ownership.

“We’re not looking to step on anybody’s interests,” Northern Cheyenne tribal administrator William Walks Along told the AP. “The tribe’s main emphasis is the settlement of our claims to the U.S. for failing to acquire the subsurface rights on 5,000 acres in the heart of our homeland here.”

Similar legislation has been supported by the five-member Montana State Board of Land Commissioners, the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, and the National Congress of American Indians.

AP also reports that the tribe is working with Sen. John Walsh (D-Montana) on companion legislation that will be introduced to the Senate in coming weeks.