Tribes Ask Government to Halt Leases

Calling it an “historic day,” tribal leaders from Blackfoot Confederacy band together to urge withdrawal of oil and gas leases in sacred Badger-Two Medicine

By Tristan Scott
Harry Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Tribe, signs a proclamation addressed to Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell urging the withdrawal of oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area. File Photo

BROWNING – In a sign of cultural and political solidarity, tribal chiefs and leaders representing the Blackfoot Confederacy and throughout Indian Country convened Oct. 24 to sign a proclamation they hope will ban energy development in the sacred Badger-Two Medicine area flanking Glacier National Park.

The Confederacy, made up of the Blackfeet in Montana and three bands in Canada, met and passed a joint proclamation urging the U.S. Department of Interior to cancel what they allege are illegal oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area, located at the wild intersection of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and so named for the two pristine rivers that spill from its surrounding mountains.

In doing so, the Confederacy added its voice to an unprecedented alliance of American Indian tribal nations who have called on the federal government to resolve the decades-long dispute over oil and gas leases in the 165,588-acre Badger-Two Medicine, forever protecting the area from private industrialization.

“This is our traditional territory, a place we celebrate, a place that influenced our language, and we’ve come together as a culture to protect it,” John Murray, Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, said.

Tribes from Montana, Wyoming and the Canadian province of Alberta also banded together and issued joint proclamations, insisting that the government cancel the leases in the Badger-Two Medicine, which is designated as a Traditional Cultural District by the National Register of Historic Places.

The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council also approved sending a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, complementing the proclamation and demanding swift action by the federal government.

“This is an historic day,” Murray said. “This proclamation by the Confederacy shows clearly that this is not just an important issue for the Blackfeet, but for Indian Country.”

“We are living our history today, but more importantly, we are helping to create our children’s history,” added Harry Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council.

Murray, a Blackfeet historian who grew up roaming the mountains of the Badger-Two Medicine, said the area is a traditional place of cultural power for the tribes, where Montana’s rolling prairie runs headlong into the Rocky Mountains, and is known as “Miistakis” – the “Backbone of the World” – where the Blackfeet creation story began.

The Badger-Two Medicine cradles sacred mountains with revered names, Murray said, such as Morning Star, Scarface and Spotted Eagle – names drawn from the beginnings of Blackfeet culture. It is also home to grizzly bears, wolves and wolverines.

“This is our cultural territory, it’s where our language began, our creation story,” Murray continued. “We took our language from nature. And in one generation we lost our culture. But there is a renaissance happening with the Blackfeet and that culture is starting to blossom again. We’ve been silent for a long time, but we stand together today.”

For more than 30 years, American Indians have struggled with the federal government over plans to industrialize the landscape on behalf of private oil and gas companies. Despite numerous overtures to negotiate – to buy the leases, or to swap them for leases in other areas with less cultural significance – several companies have declined to discuss anything short of full industrial development, including roads, gas wells and oil fields.

As a result, the tribes are now insisting that the original leases be canceled, as the government has done elsewhere when leases were found to have been issued in error.

Addressing the leaders of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Murray specifically referred to a lease held by Sidney Longwell, of the Louisiana-based Solenex.

Since 1982, Longwell has held a lease and a permit to drill in the Badger-Two Medicine, but his attempt to explore the area for oil and gas has been stymied by lawsuits from environmental groups, and, most recently, a review of the impacts drilling have on the area, which is designated a Blackfeet Traditional Cultural District, located in Lewis and Clark National Forest.

The Blackfoot Confederacy’s proclamation comes in the face of a lawsuit from Longwell, who is suing the federal government in an effort to fast track the development.

In recent months, Longwell and Murray, as well as other consulting parties, have discussed ways to mitigate impacts of development on the cultural district, but neither party has been willing to make concessions.

“This is a threat to our way of life, to our existence, and now we are going to take back what is ours,” Murray said.

The region around the Badger-Two Medicine has a long history of federal protections, dating back more than a century to the creation of Glacier National Park in 1910, the Sun River Game Preserve in 1913, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness in 1964.

The designations have been complemented by the ban on future leases, implemented by a 2006 law introduced by former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., the prohibition on motorized use, and the establishment of the Traditional Cultural District. The leases – which the tribes argue violate both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act and have long been entangled in lawsuits – stand out on the conservation timeline as an inconsistency, tribal leaders and environmental advocates say, and were granted with neither tribal consultation nor a review of cultural resources.

Removing the leases and protecting the Badger-Two Medicine, according to the coalition of Tribes, is therefore only remedy.

Chiefs and tribal leaders from the Blackfoot Confederacy who signed the Badger-Two Medicine proclamation included Barnes; Charles Weasel Head, chief of the Blood Tribe; Clayton Small Legs, chief of the Piikani Nation; and Vincent Yellow Old Woman, chief of the Siksika Nation.

Tyson Running Wolf, secretary of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, said the joint proclamation comes at a significant time, on the heels of a long period of unrest among the Blackfeet, whose leadership and governing body was splintered into factions and mired in political infighting.

“We went through some tough times here on the Blackfeet Reservation. It was really hard. But seven months of unrest does not define us,” Running Wolf said. “And now, we are able to unite as a nation. We know how strong we can be, and our ability to unite together is a powerful thing.”

The letter reads: “Should this company [Solenex] prevail, any short-term private-industry profit from energy development will irrevocably change the Blackfeet’s ancient right to the natural capacity, power and ability of the land, including its plants, animals and the region’s pristine and isolated nature.”

Leaders of several prominent conservation groups who attended the signing ceremony in Browning said the proclamation served an ecological benefit.

“The cultural significance of this for the Blackfeet is enormous, and when you add the ecological perspective to that worldview and recognize that it is a natural extension of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and Glacier National Park, a place that for 30 years we have been working to protect, a home to grizzly bears and elk and a stronghold for native Westslope cutthroat trout, it’s hard to understand how anyone could think that it would be better off industrialized for private profit,” said Michael Jamison, of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Blackfeet tribal member Kendall Edmo, who recently led a field trip for students from Browning into the Badger-Two Medicine noted, “Our homeland reaches beyond the reservation boundary and we are fortunate to live in such an incredibly intact environment, which is crucial to Blackfeet identity. It is amazing that the Blackfoot Confederacy along with the Montana-Wyoming tribal leaders support the protection of the Badger-Two Medicine.”

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