The Red Thunder Oral History Project

Shaping Our Future Through Knowing Our Past

The project’s focus is on developing a detailed account of the origins, actions, and outcomes of Red Thunder’s efforts during the 1990s within the historical context of mining and land loss at Ft. Belknap. Our goal will be to document a model of grassroots activism in response to environmental injustice in the context of a contemporary indigenous tribal community and to enter this sequence of events into the historical narratives of US environmental history,  Native American studies, and Montana history. Research activity will center on recorded interviews—transcribed for subsequent archiving and analysis—with as many knowledgeable or informed individuals as we can identify and recruit for participation, all framed by and interpreted within existing documentary records pertaining to mining in the Little Rocky Mountains.
 

Read About The History of Red Thunder

OVERVIEW OF COMMUNITY DEFENSE OF THE LITTLE ROCKY MOUNTAINS IN THE MODERN MINING ERA

During the last three decades of the 20th century, the Little Rocky Mountains in north-central Montana were the site of a series of physical and ideological collisions that permanently reshaped their physical form and symbolic power. Located immediately south of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, home of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes, the Little Rockies once belonged to the Fort Belknap Indian Community. To many in that community, the mountains are sacred. They have been used for fasting and ceremonies for generations.

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Leach Mining in the Little Rocky Mountains at the Ft. Belknap Reservation

In the 1970s, open-pit cyanide heap leach mining was a very new and poorly understood technique. The process involves excavating huge quantities of mountainous rock and spraying that rock with a cyanide solution to separate out precious metals. The Zortman and Landusky mines were the first in the state of Montana and among the first in the country to utilize the technique, something Pegasus Gold advertised as an innovation in the field. The effects of these mines on the Fort Belknap community can generally be categorized into two categories: cultural and environmental.

The Timeline of Events and Outcomes

History of Mining and Protection in the Little Rocky Mountains: A Timeline of Events

View the timeline in more detail here.

May 10, 1872

General Mining Act of 1872 signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant.

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May 10, 1872

The General Mining Act of 1872 is a United States federal law that authorizes and governs prospecting and mining for economic minerals, such as gold, platinum, and silver, on federal public lands. This law, approved on May 10, 1872, codified the informal system of acquiring and protecting mining claims on public land, formed by prospectors in California and Nevada from the late 1840s through the 1860s, such as during the California Gold Rush. [Wikipedia]

June 1, 1888

Fort Belknap Indian Reservation established for the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes.

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June 1, 1888

Fort Belknap Indian Reservation was created by an Act of Congress on May 1, 1888 and the Fort Belknap Agency was established at its present location, four miles southeast of the present township of Harlem, Montana. [Fort Belknap Indian Community]

October 9, 1895

A federal commission led by George Bird Grinnell signs an agreement with the Fort Belknap Indian Community purchasing a 49 square-mile tract of line that encompassed the Little Rocky Mountains.

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October 9, 1895

A federal commission led by George Bird Grinnell signs an agreement with the Fort Belknap Indian Community purchasing a 49 square-mile tract of line that encompassed the Little Rocky Mountains. During negotiations for the treaty, Grinnell and other members of the commission told Fort Belknap Indians that they would not receive rations if they did not sign the agreement. Within months of the agreement being signed and received by Congress, mining prospectors flooded the Little Rockies and rapidly built the mining districts of Zortman and Landusky.

June 1979

The Montana Department of State Lands approves applications filed by Zortman Mining, Inc. (ZMI), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pegasus Gold Corporation, for operating permits for two open-pit cyanide heap leach mines in the Little Rocky Mountains.

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June 1979

1979 Pegasus Gold Corp. and its subsidiary, Zortman Mining Inc. (ZMI), build two connected cyanide heap-leach mines named after the original prospectors, Zortman and Landusky. The companies promise not to mine sulfide ore, which creates a lethal brew called acid mine drainage when exposed to air and water. [The rise and fall of a gold mining company, High Country News]

June 15, 1990

After at least three spills at the Zortman and Landusky mines in the previous year, the Fort Belknap Community Council Tribal Health Department issues a notice to Fort Belknap residents indicating that water from streams leading from the Little Rockies may not be safe for consumption and outlining alternative water sources and methods of water monitoring and treatment.

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June 15, 1990

Before opening, mine owner Pegasus Gold hired a spokesman to assure the public that the company would run an efficient and non-polluting business. Pegasus also promised 70 jobs and a $2 million annual payroll. State regulators were so impressed they did not require extensive environmental studies, Trout Unlimited’s Farling said.

Within three years of cranking up, however, pollution had leaked from the property. By 1993, selenium, a metal associated with mine waste, began to show up in German Gulch, where an almost pure strain of native cutthroat trout lives. [Toxic legacy haunts Montana; What can SC learn?, The State]

 

 

June 22, 1990

The Lewistown District Office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approves an application for an amendment to the operating permit of the Landusky mine.  

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June 22, 1990

Soon after, Red Thunder Incorporated, along with a similar organization called Island Mountain Protectors and the Fort Belknap Community Council, appeal this decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA). Their appeal was denied on December 19, 1990.

August 22-25, 1991

American Indian Traditional Environmental Conference held by Red Thunder at the Chief Nosey Creation Center in Lodgepole; supporters from as far away as Ontario, New York, and Texas participate in the conference.

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March 15, 1992

The premiere screening of Indian Tears of Love is held at Hotel Boulderado in Boulder, Colorado.

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March 15, 1992

During the early 1990s, a handful of Native American activists founded a grassroots, reservation-based environmental organization known as Red Thunder, Inc., a non-profit organization. The purpose of Red Thunder was to fight for the sacred Little Rocky Mountains on the south end of the Fort Belknap Indian reservation, and preserve the natural environment.

Red Thunder and it's allies also made some documentaries to help educate the public and solicit support for their cause. One was “Indian Tears of Love.”

May 1992

ZMI submits another application for an amendment to the operating permit of the Landusky mine to the BLM and the Montana Department of State Lands.

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May 1992

This amendment proposed to more than triple the amount of disturbed land at the mine sites.

Late 1992

Acid rock drainage is detected in water monitoring reports sent to the Montana Department of State Lands by Pegasus.

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June 1993

Red Thunder and Island Mountain Protectors send a notice to Pegasus of their intention to file a clean-water suit against them.  

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June 1993

July 1993

A heavy rainstorm leads drainages at the Zortman mine to overflow and send thousands of gallons of orange, acidic sludge through the streets of Zortman.  

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July 1993

July 28, 1993

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a notice to the Montana Department of Health and Environmental Sciences (DHES) that the Zortman and Landusky mines had violated the federal Clean Water Act.

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July 28, 1993

August 24, 1993

The DHES files a clean-water suit against Pegasus and ZMI for violations of the Montana Water Quality Act first in the Phillips County District Court, and then in the First District Court of Montana in Helena.

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August 24, 1993

June 1995

The EPA filed a complaint against Pegasus Gold Corporation and Zortman Mining Inc. for violations of the federal Clean Water Act in June 1995 that sought civil penalties and permanent injunctive relief. 

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June 1995

The State of Montana filed a supplemental complaint soon after. The Fort Belknap Community Council, the Assiniboine Tribe, and the Gros Ventre Tribe filed a complaint in a District Court for various violations of environmental legislation. These two complaints would eventually be consolidated.

March 1996

The BLM and Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ; created on July 1995 as a consolidation of other state agencies involved in environmental regulation, such as the Department of State Lands and the Department of Health and Environmental Sciences) release an environmental impact statement for the expansion project that permitted expansion with various conditions.

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March 1996

July 1996

A Consent Decree between Pegasus, the EPA, the Montana DEQ, the Fort Belknap Community Council, the Gros Ventre Tribe, and the Assiniboine Tribe is signed under the auspices of the Department of Justice. 

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July 1996

The decree outlined $37 million in civil penalties; monitoring, mitigation, and reclamation procedures for ongoing mining; and other forms of redress for the parties damaged by the Pegasus mines. Notably, the settlement was reached so that Pegasus could continue mining in the Little Rockies, just in allegedly safer ways.

June 1997

The IBLA halts the expansion of the Zortman and Landusky mines as it reviewed an appeal of the BLM’s decision to proceed with the project following their environmental impact statement and the consent decree. 

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June 1997

The appeal was filed by the Fort Belknap Community Council, the Gros Ventre Tribe, the Assiniboine Tribe, Island Mountain Protectors, and the National Wildlife Federation.

December 1997

Pegasus stock falls to under one dollar per share.

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December 1997

January 16, 1998

Pegasus files for chapter 11 bankruptcy in a Nevada court.

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January 16, 1998

December 1998

Pegasus reorganizes under the name of Apollo Gold. Apollo Gold liquidated thirteen of sixteen Pegasus subsidiaries, including ZMI, abandoning the Zortman and Landusky mines and leaving surface reclamation and water treatment completely to state and federal agencies.  

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December 1998

January 2017

Reclamation in the Little Rocky Mountains is ongoing.

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2017