Rebuilding a Nation

Two years after a governmental crisis led to protests and arrests, a fresh slate of leaders looks to rebuild the Blackfeet Nation

By Justin Franz
The Badger-Two Medicine area near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on May 6, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

BROWNING Two years ago, the doors of the Blackfeet tribal headquarters were often locked.

Police would stand guard by the entrance and protesters frequently loitered outside. Tribal members who wanted to access their government were turned away. And sometimes, when the splintered tribal council could not agree on who would sign paychecks, the government simply shut down.

But today, the doors are open.

It’s a Thursday morning in early May and the Blackfeet tribal headquarters in Browning is alive with a flurry of activity. Shortly before 9 a.m., secretaries are rushing around with paperwork and binders as members of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council prepare for their regular meeting. Sequestered in a back office, Chairman Harry Barnes quickly reviews the agenda before taking a few minutes to talk with some visitors about the progress his government has made over the last 10 months.

Barnes discusses rebuilding the tribal government and restoring trust with its members. Then he turns his attention to work that has begun on a gamut of projects that could change the course of history on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, including constitutional reform and protecting the culturally and environmentally significant Badger-Two Medicine area.

A few minutes after 9 a.m., Barnes apologizes to his visitors that he has to run. He grabs a stack of papers and walks down a hall to a conference room where the nine-person tribal council is about to meet.

“Time to get to work,” he says as he enters the room.

In 2012 and 2013, the government on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation east of the divide was in shambles. Divisions on the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council began almost immediately after the 2012 election and over the next year and a half numerous council members were illegally suspended or appointed. The actions of the tribal council, led by then Chairman Willie Sharp Jr., drew ire from Blackfeet members and protests outside of tribal headquarters were common. At one point, in August 2012, Sharp called in law enforcement from off the reservation and declared a state of emergency that lasted for nearly two years. Many worried violence would break out.

Browning. Beacon File Photo
Browning. Beacon File Photo

Under the guise of the state of emergency, protestors and opponents of the council were often arrested under questionable circumstances. In one instance, Native American activist Bryon Scott Farmer was arrested for a comment he had made on Facebook. Sharp said the arrest was made because Farmer, a tribal member who lived in Great Falls, was trying to incite violence. But critics accused the council of using an obscure law, Ordinance 67, to stifle free speech.

The situation took a turn for the worse in October 2013, when the tribal council split into two factions, with both claiming control over the government, which was later shut down because neither side had the ability to issue paychecks after a treasurer was terminated. Employees of the tribe went without pay for weeks at a time until a temporary solution was found.

In June 2014, Sharp and two other incumbents were ousted in the primary just two weeks before 10 candidates jockeyed for five open spots on the council. Harry Barnes, Joe McKay, Nels St. Goddard, Tyson Running Wolf and Iliff “Scott” Kipp were elected to the council, joining members Bill Old Chief, Cheryl Little Dog, Forrestina CalfBossRibs and Chief Earl Old Person. During a secret ballot at North American Indian Days, Barnes was named chairman. Prior to running for council, Barnes ran a successful construction business and supplies store.

“We had to hit the ground running, literally and figuratively,” Barnes said of the early days of the new council. “We literally had a full council meeting right after the inauguration to address the tribe’s dire financial issues… None of us came into this with our eyes closed. We knew there would be big challenges.”

The biggest challenge was addressing the fact that the Blackfeet Nation essentially had two governments. When the tribal council split in October 2013, each faction began appointing its own members to various positions. When the new council arrived, there were multiple people holding the same job.

To get the tribe’s financial house in order, the council began to consolidate debt and make cuts. According to Running Wolf, who is also the council secretary, in early 2014 there were about 700 employees. Today, there are about 550.

“We’ve made tough decisions because past administrations did not,” Barnes said.

The tribe is also trying to catch up on its own audits. Last week, the tribe completed its 2013 audit report and began to work on the 2014 edition, which Barnes said would be tough because of the split government.

Another challenge for Barnes and the new council has been restoring relations internally and externally. Since taking office, Barnes said he’s become the tribe’s biggest “cheerleader” and has frequently met with local, state and federal officials.

“During the dysfunction of the last few years, we pushed all of our relationships to the brink,” he said.

The work to mend fences is also happening on the council itself. Running Wolf said that even when council members disagree with each other they try to respect each other’s opinions and leave any grudges behind closed doors. He said that members of the public are starting to notice, too.

“I recently asked a tribal member how we were doing as a council and she told me that we were ‘boring’ to watch when compared to the last one,” Running Wolf laughed. “I love being a boring council.”

Ten months after it took office, this “boring” council and other leaders on the reservation are now turning their attention to a variety of issues, ranging from economic development to environmental and cultural preservation.

Topping the list is protecting the Badger-Two Medicine, a remote area at the edge of Glacier National Park, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. In April, tribal members kicked off a campaign to rally public support to terminate 18 oil leases held in the area by Sidney Longwell of Solenex, LLC.

The leases were among 47 issued by the federal government in 1982 and since then the tribe has been fighting them, arguing they violate numerous federal environmental and historic preservation laws. While other oil companies have terminated their leases, Longwell has stood his ground and in 2013 filed a lawsuit so his company could begin drilling. A federal judge has yet to make a decision on the matter.

Tribal historic preservation officer John Murray said the tribe has met with Longwell on three different occasions, including last month, but Murray said Longwell remains uninterested in relinquishing his claims. Murray, who has been working on the effort to protect the area for a number of years, said he is confident the tribe will prevail. He hopes that someday, the Blackfeet will be able to co-manage the land with the U.S. Forest Service.

“We need to protect this land not just for the Blackfeet people but for you and your offspring,” he said, adding that it is the setting for various Blackfeet creation stories.

Another critical environmental project on the reservation is the finalization of the Blackfeet Water Compact. Negotiated for 20 years and passed by the Montana legislature in 2009, the water rights agreement has languished in Congress ever since. The agreement would formalize the tribe’s water rights and unleash funding needed for critical improvement projects on the reservation.

In April, Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines introduced legislation to finalize the water compact, but sources close to the tribe expect it will be another year before there’s a vote. Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke also came out in support of moving the legislation through the Senate and House. Chairman Barnes said working with Montana’s Washington, D.C. delegation would be critical to getting the compact passed.

Harry Barnes, left, chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, views a map of the Badger-Two Medicine area while Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray, standing, discusses the cultural significance of the area. Tristan Scott | Flathead Beacon
Harry Barnes, left, chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, views a map of the Badger-Two Medicine area while Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray, standing, discusses the cultural significance of the area. Tristan Scott | Flathead Beacon

The tribe is also working with others in Indian Country to protect bison on the Great Plains. In September 2014, the Blackfeet joined other tribes from the United States and Canada to sign the Northern Tribes Bison Treaty, which seeks to coordinate management and preservation efforts and allow the animals to roam freely across the international border. The treaty was significant as it marked the first time that these particular tribes had signed an agreement in more than 150 years. Barnes said preserving and expanding the tribe’s bison herd would have both cultural and economic benefits.

Barnes and just about anyone else on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation agree that the economy is among the biggest challenges facing the area. Unemployment rates of 75 percent are not uncommon on the reservation. In hopes of improving that, earlier this year the tribe began planning a new dialysis treatment facility and nursing home that would create short-term construction jobs and long-term health care jobs. The tribe is also working with the Blood Tribe Agricultural Program in Alberta to possibly export hay.

But locals are not waiting for the tribal government to solve the economic issues by itself. Late last year, a small group of business owners revived the local business bureau and rebranded it the Blackfeet Country Chamber of Commerce. In May, the group had more than two-dozen members and more are signing up.

Chamber President Skye Gilham, who runs the local Radio Shack, said that a year ago, a tourist from New York visited her store and asked about what type of attractions they should see. Gilham said she had a hard time coming up with a list, and it dawned on her that local businesses could band together to solve that.

Alger Swingley, owner of Blackfeet Outfitters, said one of the chamber’s goals is to attract some of the 2 million people who visit Glacier National Park every year.

“People just drive through town and they never stop,” Gilham said. “But we want them to stop and enjoy our beautiful landscape, meet our people and experience our unique culture.”

To help foster tourism on the reservation, the chamber is working on hosting a series of events this summer, including art shows and farmers markets. It’s also helping businesses by getting out brochures and plans on creating a mobile visitors center that can be taken to local events. It has also sponsored cleanup events around town to make Browning more attractive.

“Browning has a negative reputation among locals and that’s unfortunate,” Swingley said. “But we’re going to move past it.”

Swingley and Gilham both said that the stable political climate in the last 10 months has helped the community significantly, noting that the area’s economy took a major hit when tribal employees weren’t getting paid because of the split council.

Perhaps most important of all of the recent changes on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation is a grassroots effort to reform its government and possibly change the constitution.

One of the biggest criticisms of the Blackfeet government – or any tribal government established through the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934 – is that there is no separation of powers and the tribal council controls everything. In June 2008, voters on the Blackfeet reservation overwhelmingly passed a referendum to reform the constitution and implement a government with three branches, much like Crow Nation did in 2001. A constitutional committee was established, but after a few years the effort faltered.

After the political dysfunction of the last few years, support for change is once again growing and even those in the government support the idea.

“This is a bad form of government,” Barnes said. “And now that I’m in it I can see where all the weaknesses are.”

In recent months an informal group of tribal members has been regularly meeting to discuss reforms. In July, Blackfeet tribal members will go to the polls and be asked a simple question: Do you want to see a different form of tribal government? If a majority of voters support reform, a formal committee will be created and a constitutional convention could be held to rewrite the government’s core documents. Supporters of the reform say that drastic changes in how the government is set up could prevent future dysfunction.

However, even without restructuring its government, positive momentum seems to be growing on the reservation.

Earl Old Person, chief of the Blackfeet, pictured Oct. 2, 2013. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Earl Old Person, chief of the Blackfeet, pictured Oct. 2, 2013. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Earl Old Person has been on the tribal council off and on since the 1950s and was named chief in 1978. Last week he said that the current tribal council is one of the most effective he has seen in years, but noted that there is still more work to be done.

Chairman Barnes agrees, but said he is excited for the future of the Blackfeet Nation and its people.

“Our reputation was dragged through the mud and blood and beer and tears,” Barnes said of the last few years. “But the Blackfeet Nation has always been a leader in Indian Country and we will be that again.”