Saturday, February 28, 2015
What's New in the New West


More Non-Indians Choosing Tribal Colleges

Chris Hilfer and Noel Stewart, both white, learned unexpected lessons during their first year at college. They found out what it’s like to be in a racial minority. Both young people are non-Indian or non-beneficiary students who are enrolled in tribal colleges. Hilfer, 22, attends United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) in Bismarck, North Dakota; Stewart, also 22, attends Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet reservation. The greatest numbers of non-beneficiary students are located on “checker board” reservations, in which Indian land is not contiguous, such as the Blackfeet and Salish Kootenai reservations in Montana. The Dawes Act of 1887 authorized the federal government to divide reservation land and allot tracts to individual tribal members. The head of each household received 160 acres with the remaining land available to non-Indians. Over time, many Indians sold their property or lost it through a variety of swindles. Today many non-Indians may live on land that is surrounded by reservation land. Read More »

On the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Be Advised: Don’t Drink the Water

Since moving to her home more than 20 years ago, Laveta Killsnight has never drunk her tap water. “My water’s plum orange,” she says. Killsnight, a diabetes technician with long, graying hair and a wide grin, lives in Muddy Cluster, a small town on the Northern Cheyenne Indian reservation in southeastern Montana. The reservation, home to about 4,800 people, is dotted with small housing clusters separated by dozens of miles of rolling plains and curving two-lane highway. Hard water is a problem in much of this territory, but it's a particular problem on the reservation, which often lacks the equipment and funding to put in better water systems. The tribe’s administration operates on less than $2 million a year, and the money is spread thinly among housing, health and education services. The Northern Cheyenne tribe is known nationally for its environmentalism and pristine landscape. But for a tribe that fought for and succeeding in getting Class 1 air status—the same air quality standards as a national park—what they don’t always have is good water. Read More »

Colorado Professor: Muslim Community in Rockies Surprisingly Strong

Even in the increasingly diverse Western states, it’s still rare to find established Islamic communities, either in cities like Denver or in more isolated mountain towns. It would seem that followers of Islam, for one reason or the other, have simply bypassed the West. And that’s exactly the kind of misconception that Dr. Nabil Echchaibi, assistant professor of journalism and media studies at the University of Colorado and associate director of the University’s Center for Media, Religion and Culture, is out to correct. Muslims have a rich history in the Mountain West, he says, and he has spent the last two years researching and documenting this legacy as part of a cultural history project co-funded by the Social Science Research Council and CU. Read More »

How a New Mexico Find Revolutionized Archaeology

Although little visited, it was near this town in a valley of pine-covered volcanic buttes near the border of New Mexico and Colorado, that sensational discoveries were made in the last century. They proved ancient man lived and hunted here long before previously thought. The existence of Folsom Man and the projectile points he used to down massive, now-extinct creatures was revealed here in 1926-27, after the bones were found in 1908. Thompson was opening the Folsom Museum on a Saturday to show me how it happened. Until those years, the theory held by influential archeologists at the Smithsonian Institute was that native people had only been in North America for about 4,000 years, said Steve Holen, curator of archeology for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Read More »

Boom and Bust: Reshaping Development Patterns in Teton Valley

When the market turned in 2008, Teton Valley was quickly rendered the poster child for ill-conceived development dreams in resort towns. Today, this community of approximately 8,800 residents has 7,791 vacant lots. Local analysts say that, even if building rates returned to what they were in 2007, it would take a minimum of 77 years to exhaust the supply. “Any time your ratio of vacant subdivision lots to the number of people in your county is close to one, that’s a bad thing,” says Randy Carpenter, North American Program Director for the international land planning organization the Sonoran Institute. In addition, development in Teton Valley has not managed to pay its way. Questions about the maintenance of roads and bridges needed for accessing remote developments along with the increasing demand placed on schools, emergency medical and safety services and public parks and pathways were never asked or answered. Even with the additional revenue garnered by property taxes on those additional 7,791 lots once they are built, the county would still come up $17.4 million dollars short for what it would take to cover country operations, infrastructure and capital investments to service those lots. Read More »

Off the Grid in Montana, Part 3: Growing Up in the Earthship

Holly Leonard returned to the U.S. last year from Kenya, where she had been doing nonprofit work with adoption agencies. As she relocated to Denver to work at Hope's Promise headquarters, her roommate called her with some bad news: She had found an apartment, but they'd have to share a bathroom. “I just laughed at her. I grew up sharing a bathroom that is a hallway with my entire family,” Holly says. Although there is nothing special about the two-bedroom Denver apartment where Holly, 25, lives now, she says it's the most luxurious place she's ever had: It has a flush-toilet, electric heat and a TV. From the camper van where she spent the first years of her life, to the off-the-grid Earthship her family built in the hills above Florence, Montana, to the crammed dorm rooms of the University of Montana, luxuries have been defined as heat, personal space and doors. Holly will be the first to tell you she's not the Earthship type. Read More »

Off the Grid in Montana, Part 2: Building the Earthship

Two days after a late January snowstorm, Tom Leonard is in the Earthship on top of the hill in Florence, Montana, preparing beans he harvested from his garden earlier in the season. He soaks them in a crockpot. There's hardly a cloud in the sky. It's just above freezing. While his wife Tara is at work for the afternoon, Tom says he wants to use the time to realign his solar panels. There's one large frame with 10 panels on the berm behind his house and another with six more powerful panels on his roof. Although the solar panels are actually one of the more easily maintained aspects of the Earthship, Tom says that most people are turned away from alternative housing projects like this one because of the necessity of solar power. The upfront cost of the panels and installation can add up to $30,000 or more. And no matter if a house is on the grid or not, it will require pricier, energy efficient appliances if any of the electricity is to come from solar power. Read More »

Off the Grid in Montana, Part 1: Winter in the Earthship

It's a warm weekday in the middle of January in the Sapphire Mountains south of Missoula, Montana. The ground is slushy and an inversion hangs just below the peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains across the valley from Tom Leonard's home. He'd like to be cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or hiking the hills that surround his home, which sits outside the town of Florence, but the warm weather doesn't fool him. He's spent enough winters up here to know that, even in June, it can drop below freezing around these peaks, and his stockpile of wood is looking a little thin. There's still a long way to go before the end of the winter. He chucks a log into its home under a canopy that extends from an exterior wall. “That'll get us through until at least March,” he says. He packs up his chainsaw, houses his ax and eyes the solar panels on the hillside. It's getting late in the season and the sun is changing position, but he decides he’ll change the angle on the 16 panels next week. Read More »

The Land Trust Alternative: For Wyoming’s Endangered Ranchers, It’s a Future

In north central Wyoming, seven miles east of the Big Horn National Forest, Catherine Kusel and her brother Fred, two siblings well into retirement age, still run cattle on land purchased by their father in 1920. Their land has an undisturbed beauty typical of Wyoming. It is the dry, high desert steppe of open sage and grass juxtaposed with the rising forms of the Big Horn Mountains at its edge. The Kusel Ranch is an ideal place to raise a small herd of cattle, ideal, too, for people craving the aesthetic of the open west or for the second-home buyer wanting a private getaway. That's why, since last summer, Catherine and Fred Kusel’s newest neighbor is not another rancher, but a new subdivision. Statistics presented by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association indicate that by the middle of this century, an additional 48 million people are expected to live in the West. This population boom will put 26 million acres of open space at risk of residential and commercial development. Expected to have the third-highest growth rate, Wyoming will feel much of this coming change. Read More »

A Moment of Opportunity for Public Land Counties

U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack just announced that this year’s “transition” payments to counties from the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS) will again “contribute to rural communities becoming self-sustaining and prosperous." The Secretary stressed that these payments ($389 million) fund local roads and schools—important for communities still feeling the after-effects of the recession. They do much more. In the West, federal spending is important, but equally so are federal public lands. How SRS payments are funded and distributed is a key factor in determining how public lands are managed, and the kinds of jobs available in rural communities. Read More »