The Senate Indian Affairs Committee heard testimony on Senator Jon Tester and Senator John Walsh's legislation to increase economic opportunities for members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.
Tester, who chairs the committee, and Walsh, introduced their legislation earlier this year after meeting with Northern Cheyenne leaders. Their bill establishes tribal rights to 5,000 acres of land that were mistakenly not included in the reservation more than a century ago.
The subsurface acres contain more than 100 million tons of coal, presenting the tribe with an opportunity to create jobs and increase members' economic options through responsible resource development.
"Common-sense measures that increase economic opportunity and fix century-old wrongs are no-brainers," Tester said. "We need to provide tribes with the tools to control their own fates. This bill gives the Northern Cheyenne the opportunity to responsibly develop their resources and improve members' quality of life."
"This legislation is about fixing a century old wrong that has significantly reduced the Northern Cheyenne tribe's ability to pursue economic development opportunities on their reservation," Walsh said. "The Northern Cheyenne Lands Act will consolidate land ownership, create jobs and revenue, and promote tribal self-governance. I'm pleased Chairman Tester and the Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing on this legislation today and I will continue fighting to get the bill passed and signed into law."
"If this bill is enacted, several long-standing issues for the Northern Cheyenne will finally be resolved and the Tribe's ability to control its land, mineral resources and trust funds will be greatly enhanced," said Northern Cheyenne President Llevando "Cowboy" Fisher. "This will improve the Tribe's ability to self-govern and control its own destiny."
The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation covers about 440,000 acres southeast of Billings, with the tribe and its members owning more than 95 percent of reservation lands. But due to an error by the United States in 1900, the tribe does not own the 5,000 subsurface acres, which lie within the reservation.
Great Northern Properties, which currently has rights to the land, will receive 112 million tons of federally owned coal in the Bull Mountains and the East Fork area as compensation. If Great Northern Properties develops the coal it receives, the company will share the revenues with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.
Tester, who became Chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee earlier this year, has made economic development and education in Indian Country a priority. Walsh visited the Northern Cheyenne Reservation during his first week as a United States Senator.
Tester and Walsh also support renewing the Indian coal production tax credit, which expired at the end of 2013. The Senators hope to pass the Northern Cheyenne land swap bill through committee soon.