Preserving Memories on the Blackfeet

By Beacon Staff

Rain had fallen on Northwest Montana and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation for days when water and hell broke loose June 8, 1964. One of the most destructive flash floods in Montana history took dead aim at the Flathead Valley.

Mel Ruder, then editor of the Hungry Horse News, captured the destruction on film, and images were flashed across the country and around the world. Ruder went on to win a Pulitzer for his coverage of the 1964 floods. But a different, and more deadly, story was unfolding east of the divide. A story that was mostly overlooked until now.

This summer, a group of documentary filmmakers are working on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to interview survivors of the 1964 floods that devastated and changed the community forever. According to filmmaker and Washington State University journalism professor Benjamin Shors, nearly 40 people died on the Blackfeet Reservation when a group of small dams broke.

“There is a sense that this part of the story was not told in 1964,” Shors said.

Endless rain and deep snowpack led to water cascading down from the mountains and inundating a series of small farm dams on the Blackfeet Reservation, including the Swift Dam near Valier. When the dam broke, a wall of water stormed down the small creek bed. The United States Geological Survey says the wave of water was nearly 40 feet deep; survivors who were there say it was twice that. Vehicles, homes and debris were swept away and moved more than 100 miles, according to Shors, who grew up in Cut Bank.

After the flood, many people had to move away from the rural areas, relocating to places like Browning. The migration, Shors said, changed the reservation forever and yet little has been published about the 1964 flood in the area.

“It’s painful because some people saw loved ones die in front of them and yet there was nothing they could do,” Shors said.

Earlier this year, Shors and his group of filmmakers got approval from the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council to move forward with a documentary project about the flood. In May, Shors made his first scouting visit to the area and, so far, his group has made two trips this summer to interview survivors. The project was made possible with with funds from WSU. Shors said the filmmakers would be looking for grant money to finish the project later this year.

Once interviews are completed, they will be made into short five- to six-minute films that will be available online. A big part of the presentation will be a mobile phone app that people will be able to download and use to travel across the reservation. At specific sites, video, photos and text pertaining to that spot will appear on the phone and people will be able to read about what happened there 50 years earlier. The use of mobile technology to tell stories in new and innovative ways is what initially attracted Brooke Swaney, a filmmaker and Blackfeet Tribal member in Polson, to the project.

“I thought it was an interesting way to tell stories in the setting they took place,” she said. “Here in the West, the land is steeped in history, but there are not many landmarks to tell you what happened there.”

Swaney said the filmmakers hope to have something done by next summer, the 50th anniversary of the floods. Shors said even after the mobile app is available, he hopes to continue recording stories of survivors on the Blackfeet Reservation before they are gone. He also said it is critical that they leave the community with something that tells its story.

“We don’t want to parachute in, take the stories that we need and not leave anything behind,” Shors said.

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