- Case Study:

Freedom Mine, ND (Lakota)



Coteau Properties, a well-financed coal mining company, is seeking to expand Freedom Mine in Beulah, ND. Freedom Mine is already the largest coal mine in North Dakota, mining more than 16 million tons of coal annually. The 17,051 acres of the Freedom Mine produce lignite and also supply two electric power plants with coal. Despite the enormity of this mine site Coteau Properties has planned a 5,571 acres expansion on which there are 88 million tons of federal coal reserves. On January 16, 2002 Coteau Properties filed an application with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to lease the federal coal at the Freedom Mine site (West Mine Area (WMA)). It is unclear whether the permit to mine federal coal has been granted, but at least partial mining rights have been granted to Coteau. Both Coteau and their adversaries have much resting on the expansion of this mine. Coteau claims that it must expand its industry in order to reduce dependence on foreign fuels, while some tribal groups in the surrounding areas are opposed to the expansion because it will encroach on sacred sites and offend their ancestors as well as reduce their cultural integrity.

History and Background

The proposed mine expansion is not on reservation land. However, the West Mine Area has been inhabited by native groups for hundreds of years and was a recognized tribal territory beginning in 1851. In the year 1851 the United States signed the Fort Laramie Treaty meaning that many local tribes maintained their rights to hunt, fish, and pass over tracts of land described in the treaty. The treaty also bound the United States to protect the American Indians “against the commission of all depredations by the people of the said United States, after the ratification of this treaty.” The Fort Laramie treaty gave the territory to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikira tribes and it would still be held by these tribal groups, but in 1868 it was revised and the land of the proposed Freedom Mine expansion now lies outside the boundaries of the land of granted to the Three Affiliated Tribes (the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikira) in the 1868 treaty. Around the same time as the revision of the Fort Laramie Treaty was the passage of the Homestead Act. The 1862 Homestead Act placed an astonishing 270 million acres, or approximately ten percent of United States land, in the hands of private citizens. It was under the Homestead Act that so much of the land in the area was transferred to private citizens. The effects of the Homestead Act can be seen today in that the surface of the West Mine Area has been privately owned for more than a hundred years; it is now farmed and ranched by locals. Another interesting aspect of the West Mine Area expansion is that while many areas are privately owned, some of the subsurface contains federally owned coal. Coteau plans on extracting both privately owned and federally owned coal from this region.

Today the town of Beulah, North Dakota, located in West Central North Dakota, has a population of approximately 3,150 people. Beulah is located in Mercer County with a total county population of 8,644 people. It is important to note that Coteau Properties is a major employer in the Beulah, second only to Dakota Gasification. With 1,167 people in the town employed by Dakota Gasification and Coteau Properties, and only 2,132 working in Beulah, Coteau clearly has much local power and provides benefits to some local people. Furthermore, since Freedom Mine has been operating since 1983 it is a well-established community business. For these reason, those who oppose expansion of Coteau Properties face an uphill battle in which they must prevent actions in the interest of a wealthy, well organized, and largely popular company.

Cultural Significance of the WMA

Some Native American groups consider expanding Freedom Mine to be the most disturbing current action against cultural sites. Given the major lack of respect for many Native American cultural sites this is a scathing review of Coteau Properties Company. Even the Public Service Commission (PSC) agreed that the Coteau mine permit would have more cultural impact than any other permit issued in North Dakota to date.

In the area of proposed expansion are nearly 2,000 cultural sites of different types. Structures including 1,200 stone rings, 400 stone cairns, a turtle effigy, and burial mounds have been discovered at the West Mine Area site. Some of these structures are believed to be over 1,000 years old(Bismarck Tribune). Their very existence indicates that native people have been connected to this area for generations. Furthermore, the symbolic nature of the structures describes these areas as spiritually significant. Rock structures have long been recognized as spiritually important to Native American tribes in the region. Each of the tribes impacted by this project have honored these rock structures for generations by holding vision quests, fasting, praying, and making offerings at the sites. In the traditions of the Sioux, Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara rocks can physically and spiritually protect or endanger a person. Many individuals even carry small rocks because they believe they have the capacity to protect them. Some members of these tribes communicate through rocks with Inyan, who they believe to be the first supernatural in existence. The stone features that dot the landscape of the proposed expansion are considered symbolic representations of His presence. Consequently, people have continued to pray and make offerings at these stone features. Stone effigies are markers of suitable prayer and offering places. Cairns are also places where offerings are commonly held. Additionally, cairns may mark burial sites. To some, the burials are the most important sites on the landscape. There are believed to be many unknown and unmarked burial sites in the area of proposed expansion. Tribal members believe that treating human remains with sensitivity is not adequate, and that they deserve to have these burials left completely undisturbed.

These sites also hold greate cultural significance because local tribes hold historic ties to the land. The age of the spiritual sites makes them more culturally important because through honoring them contemporary Native Americans can connect with their ancestors. Tribal leaders argue that the tie between Indian people today and their ancestors is highly valued and must be maintained by leaving these sites intact. The also state that, “access to these sites [is] critical to their continuation as a people.”

Current Proceedings

Coteau planned to expand the mine to extract federal, state, and private coal from the region. Accessing federal reserves requires different permits than for private and state land. Therefore, acquiring the appropriate permits is a lengthy process. Coteau Properties Company expressed interest in expanding their mining operation in Beulah when they filed an application with the BLM on January 16th of 2002. Responding to this application an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was drafted that described possible impacts of leasing the federal coal in the West Mine Area. The EIS considered three alternatives. Alternative A describes leasing the tracts of land as Coteau Properties requested, Alternative B rejects the lease application, while Alternative C discusses modified leasing of federal coal to protect some of the cultural sites in the area. The EIS recommended Alternative C which forces Coteau to offer protection to some sites by mining 237 acres less than it originally intended. Under this plan the grave of the Hidatsa chief, Chief Raven, will be protected. A Draft of the EIS was published in April of 2004 while the Final EIS was made available in September of 2005, years after Coteau applied to lease the land.

While the BLM was reviewing Coteau’s lease application and the recommendations of the EIS, another important agency involved in this process, the North Dakota Public Service Commission (PSC), approved permits to mine private and state coal reserves in the proposed area of expansion. The Tribal Historic Preservation Office of Standing Rock reservation estimates that Coteau will lease land from 47 landowners. After mining this land, it will revert back to the private owners. While there are several private landowners in this area that oppose the mining efforts of Coteau, the Public Service Commission has the authority to take the land and compensate the owners.

While the application was filed to the BLM, which can provide mining rights, it does not authorize mining. The Office of Surface Mining (OSM), a federal agency, regulates surface coal mining and requires that mining be done in accordance with relevant mineral acts. If the land is leased, it will be the OSM that makes decisions about its mining and that tribal opposition groups will likely speak with.

As it stands today, the debate is primarily about expanding in the area of the federal coal reserves. Coteau has already expanded moderately and begun to mine some private coal. Current efforts are underway to resist expansion to mine the federal coal in the area by describing the sites as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Individuals are not attempting to actually place these sites on the National Register, but rather describe how they are eligible to be listed on it. This is an important step because under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) all sites eligible for the National Register must be given some protection by avoiding, minimizing, or mitigating negative impacts to historic sites. To be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places a site must be over 50 years old, remain unaltered, and then meet an addition criterion for Significance. Two of the criteria for significance are “contributing to broad patterns of our history”, and being “associated with the lives of persons significant in our past”. Tribal members may argue both that these sites are associated with important figures in their history and that they have contributed significantly to their history.

Though it will be difficult to oppose Coteau Properties Company and successfully reject their application to expand their mining operation to mine federal coal on the disputed land, the Tribal Historic Preservation office of nearby Standing Rock reservation has not given up. They still wish to meet with Coteau Properties, the BLM, OSM, and other tribes. Furthermore, they are attempting to resolve the Section 106 issue and demand preservation of their sacred sites in the vicinity of Freedom Mine.

Significance of WMA Issue

Resolving the issue of expansion at Freedom mine is important in determining what sites are eligible for protection under Section 106 of the NHPA. In addition, if these culturally important sites are protected, groups in similar circumstances may cite their protection to demand that other sites with cultural significance are protected. Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, Federal agencies must examine historic properties and consult parties impacted by the proposed action. Furthermore, these agencies are required to “accommodate historic preservation concerns”. Therefore, if Section 106 is not applied it may set a dangerous precedent of ignoring federal legislation. Additionally, if Section 106 is ignored agencies may be criticized for continuing the tradition of overlooking the rights and concerns of minorities. However, this issue should not be considered important simply because of the precedents that may be set in dealing with it, but also because several groups of people consider these areas meaningful to their traditions and personal lives.

Updated on July 21, 2010