After Years of Political Turmoil, Blackfeet Chairman Hopeful for Future

Chairman says economic development will bring more jobs to poverty stricken reservation

By Justin Franz
Browning on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Beacon file photo

The Blackfeet are passionate people and sometimes those emotions boil over, according to Harry Barnes.

That’s how the new chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council describes the divisions and turmoil that brought the reservation’s government to a standstill in 2013 and 2014. But six months after a new tribal council was seated, Barnes said good things are coming to the reservation east of the divide.

Barnes, a successful businessman who was elected to the council last summer, said for the first time in two years the Blackfeet have a government that isn’t distracted with personnel matters and instead focused on making the reservation a better place to live. He said the council is fixing its broken budget and building relationships with other tribes that could bring economic development to the reservation.

“The Blackfeet have been at the forefront of tribal leadership for years, but we had lost that,” Barnes said.

In a Dec. 31 report to tribal members, Barnes said that the tribal government had finally completed its 2012 audit and has begun working on the 2013 audit, which it hopes to finish by March. After that the tribe will dive into the 2014 audit, although Barnes said it would be challenging. In October 2013, the tribal council split into two factions and the Blackfeet began 2014 with two governments that had appointed their own department heads and employees. Barnes said the division created a financial mess and it could take some time to sort it all out.

Since taking office in July 2014, Barnes said the tribal council – made up of nine members – has found ways to reduce costs, find new revenue and consolidate debt.

“We want to restore our financial credibility so that our membership can trust us again,” Barnes said.

Now that those projects have begun, Barnes said he hopes economic development can become the primary focus of the new year. In the spring work will begin on two new projects: a new dialysis treatment facility and a new nursing home. Barnes said both projects would create short-term construction jobs and long-term health care jobs.

The Blackfeet are also working with the Blood Tribe Agricultural Program in Alberta to export hay. The Blood Tribe wants to ship 38,000 metric tons of forage products out of Browning by rail and Barnes said he hopes their northern neighbors can help the Blackfeet develop a similar program.

Barnes said he hopes they are able to create at least 100 good-paying, fulltime jobs by the end of 2015.

“I think the public is appreciative of some of the things we’re doing and they like that the tribal council is addressing some of these issues head on,” Barnes said.

The tribe is also making efforts on the environmental front. In October, tribal chiefs and leaders from the Blackfeet Confederacy signed a proclamation asking the U.S. Department of Interior to ban energy development in the sacred Badger-Two Medicine area. Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association has worked with the tribe before and said the new council appears to be getting a lot done.

“I think there is a lot of good energy and goodwill over there right now,” he said.

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