Fort Belknap Indian Community responds to Luke Ployhar’s plans for mining at Zortman Landusky

By: - February 14, 2022 9:57 am

Water from the Zortman Landusky site (Photo provided by the Fort Belknap Indian Community).

Montanans have every reason to be proud of Luke Ployhar, a Hi-Line boy-made-good.

He was raised and educated in Montana, then moved away to explore opportunities in Hollywood, where he has had a successful career doing special effects work on major films.  His glamorous path has given him more resources than most of us who live in Montana can imagine, especially those of us on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, where the majority of our Aaniiih and Nakoda people live below the poverty line.

Historic unemployment on our Reservation often exceeded 70%, especially on the southern end, in and around the Little Rockies where Mr. Ployhar wants to bring more gold mining.

The legacy of gold mining in the Little Rockies has been devastating to our people from both cultural and environmental perspectives.  Therefore, our tribes have steadfastly resisted more mining ever since federal agents and gold-mining interests took the “Grinnell Notch” portion of the lands in the Little Rockies, promised to us in our solemn treaties with the United States in 1896, under express threat of starving our families and children if we did not agree to the land cession.

This grim history is recounted in numerous contemporaneous Congressional reports.  But despite that deadly threat, only 37 Gros Ventres consented to the 1896 cession.  This was because our land, and especially our mountains, are the foundation of our cultural practices.  The Little Rockies are home to many of our sacred sites and cultural ceremonies.  They are the place we go to fast, to pray, to engage in spiritual communion.

We endured the grave injustice of the loss of the Grinnell Notch, which was sliced and diced in various private land transactions thereafter.  One such transaction resulted in Ployhar being able to pay a substantial sum of money for a property roughly 20 years ago, easily outbidding our poor tribes.  He now seeks to explore gold mining on the property not withstanding near universal local opposition to his proposals.

Happily, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Administration and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality have heard our concerns and pledged to follow Montana’s environmental laws requiring deeper professional analysis of Ployhar’s proposals.  This is a major change from past mining permitting in the area, where tribal concerns were ignored and proper methods of identification of cultural sites were not followed.

In short, the State of Montana has announced their intent to follow Montana law and to do better than past administrations.

Each of Ployhar’s arguments about why he should not have to comply with Montana law is meritless:

  1.  The modest costs of compliance with Montana’s environmental laws are proportional to the potential damage of the proposed activity.  In his response to the DEQ’s decision, Ployhar complains about the cost of legal compliance in comparison to what he categorizes as the de minimus size of the exploratory activity he wishes to undertake.  Gold-mining is a highly environmentally destructive and toxic activity and Montana law requires DEQ’s closer analysis of the environmental effects of Ployhar’s proposal.
  1. The Tribes’ opposition to any further gold-mining is not predicated on a secret desire to mine and profit from any gold ourselves.  Ployhar surmises that the tribes’ opposition to his proposal is because the tribes wish to extract gold.  Mr. Ployhar is mistaken.  The Aaniiih and Nakoda people have zero interest in any more gold mining on or near our reservation.  Water flows northward out of the Grinnell Notch on to our reservation.  That water is routinely and continuously bright orange and foul as the photos illustrate.  This intensive pollution is well-documented and persistent.  The pollutants of gold mining have poisoned us for generations, creating documented cancer clusters, including among children, in the communities at the southern end of our reservation.  We swim in the waters of Mission Canyon, important both for recreation as more or less our community pool, and also for certain ceremonies that require a cold plunge by participants.  For years, we bathed in and ingested the chemical remnants of more than a century of gold mining.  We are now continuously fighting to clean it up and restore the safety of the waters flowing to our permanent homeland.

Mr. Ployhar’s statement that “Any and all claims by the tribes of bad water extending onto their lands is a blatant falsehood. The water treatment facilities put in place by Pegasus Mining are able to capture and contain and process any historical elevated acidic waters” simply could not be more wrong.

Water from the Zortman Landusky mining site (Photo provided by the Fort Belknap Indian Community).

Ployhar’s strident response statement misses the mark on many things.  He is clearly angry and has failed to listen to our pleas not to take us down a path that further poisons our children and destroys their cultural heritage.  There is no conspiracy at work—we want our children to be safe, we want to be able to drink our water, we want the graves of our relatives to be at peace, and we want our sacred places left unmolested as was promised to us in our treaties with the United States.  These are modest dignities that we seek.

Ployhar’s response wonders if the Aaniiih and Nakoda Tribes are willing to listen to him.  We are and we will.  Our doors and hearts are open to conversations.  While we will not change our mind about gold-mining, just as our two-greats grandfathers stood against federal-backed gold tyranny in 1896, we also want to be fair to Ployhar.  Our greatest wish would be to buy him out, to give him fair value for the land and let him realize the benefits of his successful career.  We are also very willing to talk to him about non-mining economic development on the Hi-Line.  We would rather greet him as a neighbor than an enemy and seek to meet and talk together in hopes of finding a shared vision for the success—and health—of our broader Montana family.

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