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Valley of the Chiefs/Weatherman Draw, MT (Lakota/Crow and others) (2004)

About Valley of the Chiefs/Weatherman Draw
Weatherman Draw is a valley located in south-central Montana, about 70 miles southeast of Billings. To native peoples it is known as Valley of the Shields and Valley of the Chiefs. Encompassing around 4,200 acres, Weatherman Draw is federal land and thus under the protection and management of the BLM (Bureau of Land Management).
Native American Communities, Weatherman Draw, History, and Spiritual Significance
For many Native Americans, Weatherman Draw (hereafter referred to as Valley of the Chiefs) is a sacred site, a place where spiritual power and presence are especially strong; the Blackfeet, Crow, Comanche, Sioux, Shoshone, Arapaho and Cheyenne are just some of the Native American communtities that regard the Valley of the Chiefs as sacred. For these people it is a place imbued with spirituality, history, and culture, a place where vision quests and prayer ceremonies were (and are still) conducted, where the dead were laid to rest, and where medicinal plants were gathered. It is also a place on which the ancestors of the Plains tribes left their subtle mark: beautiful, polychromatic rock art over a millennium old.
Valley of the Chiefs contains the largest collection of Native American polychromatic rock art on the continent, most of which consists of large, colorful shields--hence the name “Valley of the Shields.” There are also paintings of animals and human figures. These petroglyphs are considered “spiritually potent” by many of the Plains tribes today; to the Comanche, for example, each shield represents an individual and is an integral part of their cultural and personal history.
Valley of the Chiefs, the BLM, and Oil Interests
Until quite recently Valley of the Chiefs and its abundance of rock art were virtual unknown to the general public, protected by the wildness of the terrain, which even kept some tribal members away from the larger concentrations of petroglyphs. But in 1985 this relative seclusion was threatened by the growing imperative to find fossil fuels within the United States.
Initially, the BLM was supposed to assess Valley of the Chiefs for special protection; that assessment, however, was never finished, and the BLM eventually offered drilling leases in the area, one for oil, another for natural gas. Blackford Energy purchased the leases and in 1994 proposed drilling four wells, only to scrap the proposal later. In 1996 Blackford Energy transferred the leases to Anscutz Exploration Corporation, a subsidary of Anschutz Company, a Denver, Colorado-based entertainment and oil company owned by one of the most wealthy men in America, Philip Anschutz. One year later, in 1997, Anschutz submitted an application for an exploration permit for the area to the BLM. Preliminary estimates by the United States Department of the Interior suggested that Anschutz might find up to 10 million barrels of oil under the valley, only equal to about half of America’s oil consumption for one day. The BLM held the application for four years and in 1999 designated Valley of the Chiefs an “ Area of Critical Environmental Concern” (ACEC) owing to its historical and cultural significance not only for those Native American tribes who consider the valley sacred, but also for America’s national heritage. Though this seemed a crucial step toward the preservation of the Valley of the Chiefs, but because of the existence of a grandfather clause, leases granted prior to an ACEC designation are to be honored regardless of that designation, and thus Anschutz’s leases were still valid.
Then, in 200, just twelve days after the Bush administration moved into the White House, the BLM approved Anschutz’s application, issuing a permit based on an Environmental Assessment, which is less stringent than an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that is typically required. The permit allowed the drilling of one exploratory well in Valley of the Chiefs with the condition that if the well should have commercial promise, further development could not occur until a more thorough environmental review had taken place. The permit placed other restrictions on drilling activity: no drilling or associated activity could occur between March 1 and June 15 to protect a sage grouse lek; from April 15 to May 16 and September 15 to October 15 no activity could take place because of religious ceremonies conducted by Native Americans during those periods; an archaeologist would be present whenever soil was disturbed; and archaeological sites were off-limits to oil field workers.
Despite the restrictions placed upon the drilling project designed to address the concerns of Native American communities, the response from Native communities, especially those tribes with religious, historical, and cultural connections to Valley of the Chiefs, was outrage. Not only was the well no more than a quarter mile from some of the rock art, but the very idea of drilling a well at such a culturally rich site was offensive to the Shoshone, Comanche and others, the valley was a sacred place which must not be disturbed by the filth and noise of an oil well.
Moreover, the permit allowed the construction of a road, which would have opened up much of the area once protected by its wild terrain to traffic and vandalism. Rock art close to existing roads had already been destroyed by people who shot at the petroglyphs, carved their names across them or scrawled pictures of their own on the rocks. Many Native people thus feared that the new road would bring about even more wanton destruction of the sacred rock art.
These Native communities were not alone, however, as the Sierra Club and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) became their allies in the struggle to keep Anschutz out of Valley of the Chiefs. The NTHP because of the valley's significance to both Native and non-Native peoples determined it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places,a designation that offers some protection from potentially damaging activities.
Successful Negotiations
In June 2001 the NTHP, the Sierra Club and ten Native American tribes appealed the BLM’s decision to grant Anschutz a permit for exploration to the Interior Board of Land Appeals within the Department of the Interior. This unofficial coalition also came before Congress to insist that it do something to stop drilling in Valley of the Chiefs; the result of this was the proposal of a bill entitled: Valley of the Chiefs Native American Sacred Site Preservation Act of 2001 (HR 2085) by Rep. Nick Joe Rahall (D-WV). HR 2085, however, never emerged from the House Resources Committee.
NTHP and the 10 Native American tribes who had stepped forward to lead the struggle to protect Valley of the Chiefs also met with representatives of Anschutz and attempted to work out, at the least, a compromise that would satisfy everyone involved. At one point the Blackfeet tribe invited Anschutz to drill on its reservation, which sat atop a proven oil reserve of 2 billion barrels in exchange for leaving the sacred valley in peace. It was a compromise that would have satisfied everyone, giving Anschutz access to a proven oil reserve while protecting Valley of the Chiefs and alleviating a crushing unemployment rate of 60% on the reservation. Like HR 2085, however, this offer of compromise came to naught, and the talks between Anschutz and the coalition of Native Americans and environmentalists continued.
Then, in April 2003 the unexpected happened: Anschutz agreed to donate its leases in Valley of the Chiefs to the NTHP, which would simply hold them until they expired, one in 2003, the other in 2005. After the expiration of the leases, the BLM will not offer any more leases in the area pending development of a new resource management plan in 2004. And thus, Native Americans and environmentalists were triumphant in their attempt to protect the sacred site of Valley of the Chiefs from development and commercial exploitation. For its role in helping to preserve the area, the NTHP honored Anschtuz with a "Good Neighbor Award."
Originally drafted by Jennifer Griffen
Updated on October 4, 2004