Photo: Joe W. Azure in front of the new Ceremonial Sweat Lodge, in Big Warm, Mt., on May 29, 2017
Speech given by Joe W. Azure at the Western History Conference in St. Paul, MN
My name is Joseph W. Azure, I was born on Jan.30, 1948 at the Ft. Belknap Indian Health Hospital, in North Central Mt. My mother’s name was Inez Brisbo and my dad’s name was William Azure, both deceased. I’m a member of the Ft. Belknap Tribes the home of the Gros- Ventre & Assiniboine. I lived there most of my life except for a few absences to go away to school and work. When I was a young boy I was always excited to go hunting and fishing with my uncles and aunts. Our small community of Lodge Pole is in the foothills, on the north side of the Little Rocky Mountains. Most of our people there used the mountains for hunting, fishing and gathering berries, and some used them for fasting.
This small mountain range called the Little Rocky Mountains, is on the south end of the Ft. Belknap Indian Reservation. The southern reservation boundary used to extend all the way to the Missouri River. Early miners could not be kept out of the mountains, so when the Indian Agent sent word back east to Washington, that the miners were illegally mining on Indian land and would not keep out, the government sent out a negotiator to legalize the trespassing miners. The Government further reduced the southern boundary by taking a big chunk out of the mountains for the miners, they called it the Grinnell Agreement of 1895.
Shortly after it started a gold rush, which cumulated in the boom towns of Zortman and Landusky, which were built on the southern edge of the mountains. Of course, them days they couldn’t do much damage, because they had to use pick, shovel and panning, to mine the gold & silver. In the 1940’s the high-grade gold and silver deposits petered out and most miners moved further west.
In 1969 the Ft. Belknap Tribes began negotiations to get their sacred mountains back and the government seemed receptive to the idea.
Then in early 1970’s Warf Resources Ltd. of Vancouver, B.C. Canada started mining under the 1872 free mining law, using a new technology. The company was later warned, in 1976, by the B.I.A. (Bureau of Indian Affairs) to keep the mine tailings from washing down on to the reservation, they’re response was to build a dam made of mine tailings, which soon ran over and never solved the problem. In 1979 Pegasus Gold Ltd, of Canada, bought them out and kept expanding the new technology of using Cyanide Heap Leaching, to extract minute particles of gold & silver, from football field sized leach pads. This is where the house sized dump trucks took the tons of rocks, that were from the dynamited mountain rock quarries.
One day around 1985, I was coming back from work and noticed how large the holes in the mountain tops were getting and some of the peaks were gone, it stunned me, finally realizing that our entire mountain range was at risk of being taken down by mining explosives. These were the mountains where I grew up hunting, fishing and gathering wood in. Our Tribes used for fasting and other ceremonies as well as hunting & fishing & gathering, for many generations.
Then at our traditional ceremonies we started to talk about how we noticed the fish and wildlife were slowly disappearing since the mines moved in, and started to suspect the miners of having a negative impact on our way of life. We decided to bring it to the attention of our elders, they said to build a sweat lodge ceremony and pray about it and ask for guidance what to do.
In 1989 we formed a small grass roots traditional society called Red Thunder, to address the ever-expanding mining problem, which we later got Incorporated under the Mt. law and IRS nonprofit status. We formed a board; I was elected President and coordinator, as we became formal.
We started to investigate the mines on our own, taking water samples, finding out the creeks were being polluted by acid mine drainage & other pollutants, we noticed the algae & plant life were dying in & around some of the streams. We were finding mine tailings a lot further down stream on the reservation than first thought. We also found out the permitting agencies were allowing the mining companies to monitor the affected environment themselves and report any faults back to them, which was the adage, can you trust the fox to guard the hen house. We began to request more public hearings before the next expansion. We used the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), passed by Congress in 1978, to try and preserves some of our Sacred Fasting Sites & Places being threatened by the ever expanding Mines.
We created a lot of local and national publicity for our cause, to save the sacred Little Rocky Mountains, and protect the environment from a further degradation.
We requested & won a temporary Injunction to stop a proposed large leach pad expansion in 1990, in front of the Federal Interior Board of Land Appeals. And demanded the B.L.M. and Mt. State Lands hold more public hearings in the area, before any further expansions. We also requested them to do a full E.I.S. (Environmental Impact Statement), instead of an E.A. (Environmental Assessment) that was previously, used on the 10 or so, previous expansions. We had support from our Traditional people, Spiritual Advisor, Robert Gopher; atty. Donald Marble, atty. Paul Zogg; and Documentary film producer, Ali Zaid, and The Land and Water Fund law firm of Boulder, Colorado.
In 1991 we made our own 50-minute documentary film we called the Indian Tears of Love and later Extinct Civilization to help us bring awareness to the destructive forces of the new mining technology called “Open Pit Cyanide Heap Leach Mining”. We later convinced the local ranchers group called Island Mtn. protectors and the Tribal Council to join our cause to stop the mining expansions now on their 11 expansion. The EPA finally joined our cause, and helped to stop the expansions. I believe it was around 1993, when we were invited to join some other environmental groups, to lobby Congress to ask them reform the 1872 mining law. Of course, we were out gunned by big mining lobbies and their campaign funding, but we lost by just a few votes.
Under heavy pressure from us and all the others that we managed to bring on board, including government agencies, Pegasus Gold and their subsidiaries finally gave up and filed for bankruptcy in Reno, Nevada, in 1998, effectively ending their 20-year destruction and poisoning of our environment in the Little Rocky Mtns. We don’t like the idea of course, of leaving the cleanup for the tax payers. And the water drainages coming from the mines will need to be treated indefinitely for acid mine drainage and other contaminants.
We heard large amounts of money exchanged hands through the bankruptcy agreement, but we Red Thunder Inc., never saw a penny, nor wanted it. Red Thunder Inc. was dissolved by the State of Mt. in 1998 not keeping up with our filing requirements and Audited by the IRS in 2002.
We are just happy and relieved that the mining has stopped and we hope and pray our Little Mountains will heal up some day. Maybe someday, in the future our grandchildren might use them to practice ceremonies, hunt, fish, and gather berries & wood, without fear of harm.
Thank You: Joseph W. Azure
Joseph W. Azure
Previous President & Coordinator for R.T.I.