'We can compete at all levels'
Thu, 01/04/2018 - 5:00am admin
Chairman Not Afraid lays out goals for tribal energy development, finances
By Andrew Turck / Big Horn County News
With a customary display of feathers, beads, elk teeth and brightly colored regalia swirling to the beat of drums and singing, Crow tribal members entered 2018 via their New Year’s Powwow. This three-day event, held Dec. 29-31, honored the Hardin High School girls’ cross-country team for their back-to-back state championships, as well as the Crow Fair board and royalty, and Executive Branch officials.
From the stage at the powwow site in Crow Agency’s Multipurpose Building, Chairman Alvin “A.J.” Not Afraid Jr. addressed the gathered Hardin runners – plus two from Lodge Grass and Pryor schools – on Friday night. Many of those who brought home the victory for Hardin in October 2017 are Crow tribal members, including the first across the line for the Lady Bulldogs: Sydney Little Light.
“The good thing about our Crow members is we’re strong, healthy and committed,” Not Afraid told them. “We can compete at all levels.”
Sports aren’t the only place where Not Afraid wants the Crow Tribe to succeed – this year, he plans to push for tribal achievements in energy production.
Right now, he said, he is examining options in mineral development and “green energy.” He believes the tribe potentially could move into the fields of solar power, wind energy and natural gas production. By next fall, he continued, they should be producing seven megawatts of electricity through their hydropower project at the Yellowtail Afterbay Dam in Fort Smith.
This doesn’t mean Not Afraid is avoiding the tribe’s usual energy source. Coal, their mainstay since the 1970s, has declined in recent years and with it a significant amount of tribal revenue. Near the beginning of October 2017, Not Afraid decided to shut down all nonessential tribal operations not funded by federal grants, in part due to coal revenue’s decline.
President Donald Trump’s administration, he said, gives him hope for the future of coal. In May 2017, Vice President Mike Pence himself took a trip along Sarpy Road to Westmoreland Coal Company’s Absaloka Coal Mine and declared the “war on coal is over.” According to Not Afraid, the Trump administration has cut back on regulatory hurdles and “tends to ask the tribe, ‘What can we do to help you be your own business?’"
“We currently are searching the market for more buyers of coal,” said Not Afraid, whose tribal government is financed largely through revenue from Absaloka Mine. “We understand the coal tax credit is going to be voted on soon [in the U.S Senate], so that’s good news. It made it to the floor.”
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., sponsored Bill 975 on behalf of himself and three other senators including Jon Tester, D-Mont., which would permanently extend the Indian coal production tax credit. Not Afraid, as reported in August by Reuters, is pushing for a new Pacific coal export terminal and wants the senators’ tax credit bill to pass to the tune of 10 percent.
Sens. Daines and Tester, Not Afraid said, “have been adamant about giving a leg up to the tribe and not a handout.”
As the tribe tries to maintain their energy revenue, Not Afraid said, they also face a deficit of “at least $50 million” – down from what he said was about $64 million when he took office in December 2017. These charges include loans both current and some that “go back clear to the ‘90s.”
“Today, if we didn’t have [these charges], we’d have millions to move forward, but we’re using our millions today to pay that old stuff,” he said. “Our liabilities exceed our current revenue sources. We’re trying to clear the name of the tribe on past bills.”
On the issue of finances, Not Afraid and previous Chairman Darrin Old Coyote diverge. Within days of taking office, Not Afraid placed hiring on hold, stating in a Facebook post that finances “are not only in disarray but there is a lack of strategic planning for longterm financial accountability.” During his first year, Not Afraid said he has needed to catch up on missed taxes, workman’s comp, and IRS and unemployment payments.
Old Coyote, in contrast, said the tribe not only transitioned with a $12 million surplus, but eliminated a $12 million debt that existed when he became chairman in December 2012. At his retirement party, people passed out bank statements with numbers that indicated the tribe was in the clear. In a May 2017 letter to the editor, he stated, copies of the bank statements “are still available for tribal members who wish to see for themselves.”
Both Not Afraid and Old Coyote have remained consistent in their published statements on finances.
Whether the tribe eventually can overcome the deficit, Not Afraid said, depends on both the Legislative Branch and tribal members. Rather than keeping financial information strictly “within the government,” he continued, he would like to “do some outreach to the community to explain, ‘This loan was taken out at this time, for this purpose.’”
“I’ve asked current staff in finance and previous finance staff [if] they know the tally of all of these and a lot of them say, ‘We don’t even know,’” Not Afraid said. “This is a perfect opportunity to show transparency.” While Not Afraid and the tribal legislature have disagreed strongly on issues in the past – to the point they held separate general council meetings in July 2017 – he mentioned “things are looking good” now.
“They also want prosperity," he said.