Blackfeet: Land and Language is the Heritage

by Andreas Knudsen

[ Original pagination indicated in slash marks, e.g. /4/ indicates the end of page 4.]

Reprinted from Indigenous Affairs, January/February/March 1996. Published by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.

The original homeland of the Blackfoot Nation contains the so-called Northern Rocky Mountain Front, the largest woodland of the USA outside of Alaska. Part of the Front is the 500 km2 large Badger-Two Medicine which the Blackfoot Nation regards as their "Jerusalem" because of its religious importance for them. Many events which are decisively important for their mythology and religion have taken place in the Badger area. It borders directly on the Glacier National Park, which is part of the UNESCO International Convention for Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The region is the last are of retreat for over 270 species of animals and plants, e.g. grizzlies and the grey wolves.

The Blackfoot Confederacy lost the Badger-Two Medicine area in 1895. The tribes were weakened after a smallpox epidemic and a year of famine and desperately needed governmental help. They got it, but at the cost of a new agreement under which the area in question became public property. The Blackfeet were deceived by the American negotiators, who used a misleading translation for their purposes. While the government talked about a take-over of the land, the Blackfeet meant to lease the Badger area for 50 years to Washington with an official guarantee ensuring them the right "to go across the land." This was an official euphemism for continuing their religious practices, which were forbidden. Since the United States Supreme Court denied relief to traditional Californian tribes (the famous "Go Road Decision") in 1988, the right of religious freedom, which is protected by the Free Exercise of Religion Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, has been in real danger (see IWGIA Document 62).

Regardless of the key religious, cultural and environmental role of the Badger area, the US-American Chevron group and the American subsidiary company of Belgian Petrofina have decided to drill for oil in the area, although experts of the US Forest Service estimate the chance of finding oil at only 0.5 per cent. One wonders if so much effort is necessary when the prospect of finding oil is so slim. The companies want to create a precedent with this case for opening up Alaska\'s great oil reservoirs, which lie mostly in natural reserves (Alaska Natural Wildlife Refuge).

The consequences of drilling approval would be fatal. Over 7,000 acres (approximately 30 km2) of the Badger-Two Medicine area and the border territories (the southern part of the Glacier National Park is only 7 km away from the planned drill-hole) would be destroyed by deforestation, road construction, industrial noise, pollution and leaky pipelines.

In January 1993, the Bush Administration gave Fina permission to drill for oil by enacting a law. The following Clinton Administration achieved a delay because of a loophole in the legislation. The Bush Administration "forgot" to install a "contradiction right" into the already insufficient US Forest Service\'s report, which was unconstitutional. Because of this mistake and the protests of a coalition of traditional Blackfeet and local environmental groups, the final decision has been postponed until June 30, 1996. The postponement has not completely undone the Bush permission. The interests of the Blackfoot Confederacy were "perceived" by the corrupt and incompetent Tribal Council which does not represent the traditionals.

All parties involved, the industry and political representatives of Montana on the one hand, and environmentalists and the traditional Blackfeet on the other, have tried to carry their interests with the help of a bill in connection with the Wilderness Act. This act was passed in 1964 and protects landscapes in order to keep them in their natural conditions. According to their needs, the bills differ. The industrial companies and representatives\' aim is to keep some parts of the Northern Rockies without this protection or, at least, to publish a study which will help in deciding whether permission can be granted or not and whether the /24/ region might be used economically. The favorite Williams Bill (one of the bills supported by industrialists and representatives) ignores the need for protection of the Badger-Two Medicine area