Legacies and Projects : Celebrating a Success
Alexis Bonogofsky


Alexis Bonogofsky

14 people have given kudos so far.

It's no small matter to properly bless a 22-foot totem pole, carved by Lummi Indians from a 300-year-old cedar tree on the coast - especially when the blessing is to happen in a remote river valley in southeastern Montana. The obstacles were many, but we knew the journey had to start on the banks of Otter Creek.

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So a group of us - Northern Cheyenne elders and youth, local ranchers, and totem carvers from the Lummi Nation - made it happen with the help of more than 100 friends and the Custer National Forest. 

A couple of days later, that same totem pole was placed in the homeland of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in British Columbia, the final stop of its journey, I received an email from Kurt Russo, Director of the Native American Land Conservancy and one of the main organizer of the Kwel Hoy’ Totem Pole Journey. It said,

“Wherever we go, Otter Creek goes with us.” 

When I read those words, I knew we had succeeded in creating solidarity among the tribes and ranchers fighting new coal mines in Montana and the tribes fighting the coal export terminals on the West Coast.  Otter Creek isa symbol or our resistance. It’s where we draw the line. 


Kenneth Medicine Bull: 

Kenneth Medicine Bull, a descendent of the Northern Cheyenne Otter Creek homesteaders and a ceremonial leader from Birney, MT, blessed the totem as over 100 people watched.

"We need to protect our way of life," Medicine Bull said in an interview after he blessed the Lummi totem pole. "I addressed the grandfathers, those who have gone before us, and I told them the reason we were here, and I asked them to hear our prayer and stand beside us."

Alaina Buffalo Spirit 

Alaina Buffalo Spirit is a descendent of the Northern Cheyenne Otter Creek homesteaders and a famous Cheyenne artist. 

"The reason I'm speaking out is for my grandchildren, and their children and the future. I want them to enjoy this peaceful beautiful land like I was able to enjoy where there is no air, water or people pollution."

Vanessa Braided Hair

Vanessa Braided Hair is a descendent of the Northern Cheyenne Otter Creek homesteaders and a main organizer with ecoCheyenne. Vanessa has dedicated countless hours to protecting Otter Creek and the Tongue River valley for her people and has traveled thousands of miles to testify at public hearings across the northwest. 

Roger Sprague

Roger Sprague and his wife Bonnie ranch along Greenleaf Creek, north of the reservation. Their ranch would be impacted by the proposed Tongue River Railroad. Sprague's family settled into the Rosebud Valley in 1881 and have traded with the Northern Cheyenne ever since. Roger and Bonnie showed up wearing red, the color of the resistance. 

 "We're neighbors with these people, and we're proud to work with these people," Sprague said at the Otter Creek blessing ceremony. "We don't want this mine in here. We don't want the railroad in here. It's our life. We've fought hard to put it together, and we'd like to keep it that way."

Brad Sauer

Brad Sauer manages a ranch north of Lame Deer, Mont., just outside the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation boundary. Sauer said it's no wonder the Northern Cheyenne settled this part of the country with its verdant stream bottoms, abundant game and rich grassland. It's the same reason ranchers have survived here for nearly 150 years. He emphasizes that ranchers and farmers raise food on these lands, and they can't do that without ample supplies of clean water. Industrial mining operations could threaten both the quantity and the the quality of the water that nurtures these valleys.

Jewell James

Jewell James, a Lummi tribal member from Washington and the master carver of the totem, was very clear about why he carved the totem and why he was on this journey with his family and friends, "We're concerned about protecting the environment as well as people's health all the way from the Powder River to the West Coast," James said. "We're traveling across country to help unify people's voice. It doesn't matter who you are, or where you're at, or what race you are — red, black, white or yellow — we're all in this world together, and we have to live in the aftermath of corporate development."



How it Happened

Three weeks before the totem was to begin its journey, I received a call from Kurt Russo. Kurt and Jewell James (the main totem pole carver from the Lummi House of Tears Carvers) knew they wanted their journey to start in the coal fields and with the Northern Cheyenne and local ranchers.

Right away, me along with Mike Scott from the Montana office of the Sierra Club, Vanessa Braided Hair a main organizer with ecoCheyenne, and her father, Otto Braided Hair, a cultural leader from the Northern Cheyenne were on the phone trying to plan the event. We all agreed the totem pole needed to start its journey on the banks of Otter Creek, near or on the proposed mine site. The questions were many. Who would allow us to hold an event in the valley? How do we get a massive truck and totem pole to the place it needed to be? How do we turn out a large number of people on a Wednesday morning? How do we provide food and bathroom facilities? How do we plan this in less than three weeks?

With all these questions whirling in our heads, I immediately sent out a Save the Date card to everyone I could think of with literally no information on it except the date (September 18), general location (Otter Creek valley) and a statement: We Draw the Line.

The next week, we found the perfect location with the help of the rangers at the Ashland Ranger District of Custer National Forest. It was a small narrow piece of public land that abutted Otter Creek. For the next two weeks, Vanessa, Otto, Mike and I organized the details of the event. But everything wasn’t finalized until the day before.

The totem and its crew arrived in Lame Deer on September 17. On September 18th, Jewell, along with a caravan of vehicles drove the totem right up to the banks of Otter Creek.  The students from Birney school were one of the first to show up. They climbed up onto the truck bed and Vincent Feliciano explained the meaning of the totem. They loved it. After the students came, Northern Cheyennes and local ranchers started showing up. Everyone grabbed a SAVE OTTER CREEK t-shirt. Kenneth Medicine Bull blessed the totem. 

After the ceremony, the Lummi carvers drummed and sang with the Northern Cheyenne and numerous people, including Jewell and I, spoke about the impacts of coal development on our environment and culture.

Over 100 Cheyennes, Lummi, ranchers, students and conservationists, all wearing Save Otter Creek shirts, and all together on the banks of the Otter Creek valley.  We couldn’t have asked for a better event and a better group of people to share the blessing with. 

USA Today - Mont., Wash. tribes join ranchers to fight coal mine http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/09/23/cheyenne-indians-against-coal/2855059/

How this Benefits Montana Today

Saving the Otter Creek valley from a coal mine and the Tongue River valley from a coal railroad will not only protect an extremely important watershed for sustainable agriculture and habitat for wildlife, it will prevent billions of tons of carbon from reaching our atmosphere further damaging our climate.

It will also protect an abundance of important cultural and historic sites important to the Cheyenne and dozens of other Tribes who lived and hunted in the valleys for thousands of years. Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and countless other tribal leaders and their bands moved, camped and lived in the Otter Creek and Tongue River valleys.

Not to mention, southeastern Montana is a prime hunting spot for mule deer, elk and pronghorn. Protecting this valley will protect habitat for the critters and thousands of hunters that travel to the area  every year. 

Connecting the people in southeastern Montana who are fighting for this place with the tribal communities in the northwest will bring more people into our coalition to protect the region, benefiting not only Montanans but the world. 

Take Action: Keep this Legacy Alive

The most important thing people can do is to talk to your friends, family, professional networks and your political representatives about the Otter Creek and Tongue River valleys. We need our political leaders to know that people all over Montana are paying attention to what happens in the remote and beautiful valley in southeastern Montana. We need them to know that a majority of the citizens who live near the proposed mine site are vehemently opposed to the mine and railroad. We need them to know that we are demanding leaders with vision, not leaders who continue to promote the development of an fossil fuel of the past. We don't want a development that will take public resources and seize public land so they can ship it overseas. The project is absurd.

The most important thing you can do is help give a voice to the thousands of people in southeastern Montana who oppose this mine. 

To keep updated on events, public comment periods and other issues related to the mine and railroad, you can follow us in numerous places:



BLOG: http://blog.nwf.org/author/bonogofsky/

Our Conservation Map


Contact Information

Alexis Bonogofsky

National Wildlife Federation

2020 Tired Man Road

Billings, MT 59101

Phone: 406-698-4720



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