Dieterich-Ward on Allison, 'Sovereignty for Survival: American Energy Development and Indian Self-Determination'

James Robert Allison
Allen J. Dieterich-Ward

James Robert Allison. Sovereignty for Survival: American Energy Development and Indian Self-Determination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 256 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-20669-2.

Reviewed by Allen J. Dieterich-Ward (Shippensburg University) Published on H-Energy (October, 2016) Commissioned by Tammy Nemeth

When I was a kid growing up in the northern Appalachian coalfields, I heard stories about the vast and rapidly expanding strip mines of the Northern Great Plains appearing like a distant storm threatening the livelihood of local workers. While lower in energy value per ton, the sub-bituminous coal of the Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana is also much lower in sulfur dioxide, the key ingredient in acid rain, and thus highly desirable for meeting power plant emissions limits. Indeed, at hearings in southeastern Ohio following a revision of the Clean Air Act in 1977, it was common to see signs reading “Take Your Western Coal and Shove It” alongside more general calls to “Abolish the EPA.” Just a decade later Wyoming overtook West Virginia as the leading coal-producing state, and today the Powder River Basin alone accounts for about 40 percent of the nation’s total coal production.  

One issue I do not recall ever coming up in local discussions was the fact that a significant amount of the coal being mined in the Northern Great Plains came from Native American reservations with a history of exploitation and poverty even more significant than that of Appalachia. This is the starting point of James Robert Allison III’s excellent new book, which begins with the expansion of coal mining activities in the 1960s within a policy context of Indian dependency and ends with the assertion of Indian sovereignty over their mineral resources that resulted in a series of changes to federal law in the 1980s and 1990s. The central argument of Sovereignty for Survival is that “energy tribes,” American Indian groups that have substantial energy resources, expanded their administrative capacity to manage their land before winning the specific legal authority to do so. The book focuses specifically on the Powder River Basin reservations of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne, where Allison concludes tribal members “mobilized to fight for what they believed to be their tribe’s survival” and thus “the tide of energy companies exploiting Indian minerals turned” (pp. 5-6).

Sovereignty for Survival is divided into three parts, with the first three chapters detailing the backstory of a broken minerals-leasing regime, the postwar expansion of coal production in the West, and the initial excitement with which most Native American leaders greeted energy-company interest in their desperately poor communities. When agents for some of the nation’s largest energy companies began arriving in the Powder River Basin where coal had been overlooked due to its relatively low grade and distance from population centers, Native American leaders and their trustees in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) were at a distinct disadvantage. As Allison explains, the expansion of coal mining in the Southwest in the 1950s provided a cautionary tale of the ways in which collusion between corporations and federal agencies intent on obtaining low-cost power for irrigation and booming cities could leave tribes with little to show but meager royalties, social problems, and a scarred landscape despite the wealth of their mineral resources. Compared to the savvy and well-financed multinational corporations with which they sought to do business, tribal and BIA officials lacked scientific capacity, knowledge of national markets, and administrative capability, with the result that outside companies “secured Cheyenne minerals on the cheap” (p. 36).

Nevertheless, the promise of much-needed income found the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council eagerly seeking out leasing arrangements with energy companies in the late 1960s. While neither local leaders nor BIA officials fully understood the area’s potential, the quiet publication of a technical report entitled North Central Power Study in the fall of 1971 made it clear that tribal lands were ground zero for an energy revolution that would see the focus of American coal mining move from underground in Appalachia to open pits on the Northern Great Plains. Such momentous opportunity, tribal president John Woodenlegs concluded, meant “the Cheyenne people today find themselves in the best situation in their history” (p. 63). In the spring of 1972, leasing negotiations culminated in a proposal by Consolidation Coal Company (Consol), a Pittsburgh-based firm that had begun expanding in the West, to open a mammoth, 70,000-acre mine that would feed a $1.2 billion gasification complex to convert coal to natural gas piped to population centers throughout the country. In return, the company promised an immediate $4 million infusion into the cash-strapped reservation and the possibility of another $250 million in royalties over the life of the project. These benefits, declared Consol vice president Dell Adams, meant “the standard of living should rise dramatically” and would “solve the unemployment problem” on the reservation (p. 18).

Allison then shifts to the main focus of the book: as the enormity of Consol’s proposal began to sink in, resistance to energy development began to grow among tribal members first of the Northern Cheyenne and then the Crow. While some local residents were concerned about the negative environmental effects of surface mining and power production, most opposition focused on the potential loss of tribal identity and sovereignty accompanying a sudden influx of large numbers of non-Indian workers. Consol officials estimated their project alone would require a new city of thirty thousand people to fill the required positions at a time when the total population of Northern Cheyenne on the reservation was around three thousand. As federal officials looked to the Powder River Basin to solve an energy use crisis exacerbated by the OPEC oil embargo while also helping reduce emissions as required under the newly passed Clean Air Act, a group of tribal landowners, including full-blooded Northern Cheyenne Marie Brady Sanchez, joined forces with off-reservation ranchers, an environmental activist named Bill Bryan, and a staff attorney from the Native American Rights Fund to coordinate opposition to Consol’s proposal. In a stunning reversal of previous policy, opponents convinced the tribal council to not only reject the Consol deal, but also to successfully petition the Department of the Interior to void all previous contracts on the grounds that the BIA did not conduct required environmental assessments. Council member Edwin Dahle made clear the priority was on tribal jurisdiction over the leasing process rather than environmental protection per se. “The name of the game is control,” Dahle declared. “We don’t have it right now, but we’re trying to make damn sure they [the coal companies] don’t get it either. Without controls, we’ll be eliminated” (p. 94). 

Moving to the Crow, who “generally followed a few steps behind their Northern Cheyenne neighbors,” Allison digs deeper into the ways in which new questions about how to administer a shared landscape “triggered fundamental questions about the future of the Crow community” (pp. 100-101). When a number of firms, including Westmoreland Coal Company, another corporation that expanded its operations from Appalachia to the Northern Great Plains, submitted proposals to mine the “Ceded Strip,” an off-reservation area with mineral rights controlled by the tribe, a consensus formed among pro- and antimining Crow that permitted a limited partnership to emerge. But this fragile coalition fractured as the focus shifted to mining the reservation itself, resulting in the impeachment of tribal chief Patrick Stands Over Bull and “an altered perception of what it meant to be Crow” that “foregrounded the importance of an Indian-only land base and the use of efficient, expert-driven mechanisms for protecting this reservation refuge” (p. 124).

With the framework in place for a new land-use regime in the Powder River Basin that placed economic development more firmly under tribal authority, Allison expands the story to the national level beginning with the 1974-75 formation of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT). CERT emerged as tribal leaders and activists pivoted from a defensive strategy to a more cooperative effort to expand resource development under tribal control. Key to this effort was the expansion of research and administrative capacity, the dearth of which had long placed local groups as well as the BIA at a disadvantage when dealing with sophisticated, multinational energy companies. By 1980 tribal president Allen Rowland could rely on the Northern Cheyenne’s own expertise in directly negotiating a contract with the Atlantic Richfield Company that looked less like the problematic leases that had been the norm than a service agreement in which the tribe retained key decision-making authority. This level of authority, however, was not explicitly authorized under federal law, leading first to the Indian Mineral Development Act (1982) and then the Indian Energy Resources Act (1992) that established a statutory reality based on the principles of Native American sovereignty first articulated by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1832Thus, in the words of President Ronald Reagan, tribes would finally take their “rightful place among the governments of this nation” (p. 171)

Sovereignty for Survival is an engaging and well-argued monograph that systematically demonstrates how “control over energy confers power” as well as the ways in which local effort “produces power at the periphery, which can radiate beyond those locales” (pp. 8-9). Allison is at his best in explaining the complexities of legal and business history through mining the seemingly mundane details of federal statutes, lease agreements, and royalty payments for the insights they provide into the nation-building process of tribal government since the 1960s. Of particular note are the innovative ways in which he explores the struggles over Native American community identity, especially among the Crow, through a close reading of the changing governance structure by which tribal members made decisions about whether and how to go about developing their energy resources. Later in the book he applies the same nuanced analysis to a changing of the guard at CERT in 1982 that represented “the passage of responsibility and expertise for reservation energy development from federal to Indian hands” (p. 174).    

This is an admirably succinct, tightly constructed volume that effectively links local activism and decision making with issues of national policy. The author effectively draws connections to the creation and evolution of community identities, but never veers far from what is essentially the legal and political backstory of several specific statutory changes that allowed tribes more control over land-use decisions. Consequently, I did find myself wishing there was more discussion of the actual social, cultural, and environmental changes taking place on the ground as these political issues matured. The focus on movement leaders and formal meetings is certainly appropriate for this type of story, but more attention to the everyday realities of life on the reservation would better contextualize the fear among tribal members that an influx of outsiders would harm the community. The two reservations are also only a part of the Powder River Basin’s coalfields; presumably the rapidly expanding mining activities in the surrounding region had some effect on the outlook of tribal members as the 1970s wore on. Finally, the book does not really examine the environmental changes wrought by the mining industry in the Northern Great Plains. For communities that were often defined in terms of an innate attachment to the land, it remained unclear how the massive disruptions to that landscape wrought by surface mining affected individual and group identity. These broader limitations aside, Allison has provided an important addition to the literature of American energy history and established Native Americans of the Northern Great Plains as key players in shaping the nation’s energy policy.    

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Citation: Allen J. Dieterich-Ward. Review of Allison, James Robert, Sovereignty for Survival: American Energy Development and Indian Self-Determination. H-Energy, H-Net Reviews. October, 2016. URL:

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