Greg Fortin has been making his living for more than 15 years in Glacier National Park, operating Glacier Adventure Guides out of Columbia Falls and leading tours throughout the landscape, but 2017 was the first time, he said, that he asked those he considers the owners of the park for permission.
“It’s really Blackfeet land,” Fortin said. “Last summer I asked for their blessing, and they gave it to me, which was really nice.”
So fast-forward to earlier this year, when a Blackfeet medicine chief named Eesukyah “Jimmy” St. Goddard told him that hundreds of families on the Blackfeet reservation were going hungry, and Fortin felt it was his duty to spring into action.
In the span of 24 hours, Fortin shared a message from St. Goddard on Facebook, managed to secure 2,500 pounds of food from the Flathead Food Bank in Kalispell, recruited a dozen or so helpers to load his 14-passenger bus and drove the food through a snowstorm over Marias Pass and to the towns of Heart Butte and Seville Colony (near Cut Bank) on Jan. 23.
Primarily potatoes and bread were handed out, with a few dozen boxes of granola bars mixed in, all of which was the result of fortuitous timing. The Flathead Food Bank had recently received an excess donation of potatoes and cobbled together spare bread to aid the cause, without ignoring those going hungry in Kalispell. Fortin praised the food bank for its quick action and willingness to chip in, something Executive Director Lori Botkin said the group is rarely able to do.
Once Fortin arrived on the reservation, a number of locals helped him distribute food to needy families, who in recent weeks had been sharing amongst each other to ensure no family went hungry. Fortin estimated more than 100 families and 400 people were fed.
The two primary mechanisms for serving hungry families on the reservation are the Blackfeet Food Distribution Program — funded by the Blackfeet Nation and private donors, and working in conjunction with the Montana Food Distribution Network — and the federally funded Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. The local director of each of those operations, Roy Crawford, said the Blackfeet program aims to feed up to 300 families monthly, but that spans the entire reservation, not just the outposts of Heart Butte and Seville.
According to St. Goddard and Fortin, the existing programs are not currently serving every family in need, and the Montana Food Bank Network in Missoula was scheduled to make another food delivery on Feb. 2. Stephanie Stratton, the Montana Food Bank Network’s chief program officer, said her organization is working on more long-term solutions to what is a complicated and challenging problem in the region.
Regardless of the reason for the most recent food shortage, and whether or not a long-term solution is possible, Fortin will not hesitate to act in the future if it’s needed.
“I know things can get tangled up in politics and sometimes people get overlooked,” he said. “When somebody does make a call for help, it should be responded to.”
People interested in assisting with food distribution and donations can contact Stratton at (406) 215-1772 or the Blackfeet Food Distribution Program at (406) 338-7340.