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Invisible line couldn't separate Blackfeet in their hearts

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BROWNING, Mont. - After decades of separation, the four main branches of Blackfeet people are reuniting as an international confederacy.

"This is a dream many people have envisioned for a long time," said Bill Old Chief, chairman of Montana's Blackfeet Nation. "It's going to symbolize the starting point of our healing with our people."

Banded together by their common culture, language, and customs but split by the U.S. Canadian border, the revived Blackfoot Confederacy will address a variety of issues of mutual concern, Old Chief said. Combined, the Blackfeet Tribe (Amsskapippiikunni) and Canada's Blood Tribe (Kainai), Peigan Nation (Aapatohsipiikunni) and Siksika Nation have nearly 35,000 members, which will give the coalition unprecedented political clout.

"That number speaks loud," Old Chief observed. "This is who we are, and we're not going away."

Before the coming of the white man, the various groups of Blackfeet occupied a vast territory that ranged from present-day Central Alberta to the Yellowstone River Valley in what is now Montana, Old Chief said. The Blackfeet, known by some as "Lords of the Plains," traditionally traveled hundreds of miles east from the Rocky Mountains in their quest for buffalo.To the west, they were generally bordered by the Continental Divide. But an influx of Europeans, the formation of the U.S.-Canadian border in the early 1800s, and the advent of reservations and reserves combined to split the Blackfeet into separate political entities. Boarding schools in both countries helped seal the fractures.

"It was pulling our people apart, intentionally," he said of the various events that decreased the power of native peoples.

On May 4, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council approved a resolution that again joins the tribe politically with its relatives to the north. Canadian tribal leaders are planning to formally approve the declaration of confederacy at a May 19 ceremony on the international border north of Browning.

A commemorative powwow and other events are also being scheduled in Alberta, Old Chief said.

After the last signatures are added, Old Chief said the historic document will be presented to the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and the National Congress of American Indians for further ratification.

"That just makes it the icing on the cake," Old Chief said of the process. One of the first issues Old Chief expects the confederacy to tackle is border crossings. Indian leaders say customs officials on both sides of the border often detain and hassle tribal members who cross over to visit family members, attend cultural activities, or conduct business in the United States or Canada. Old Chief said he and others want to make routine crossings easier.

Along with giving the tribal entities more influence with their respective provincial, state, and federal governments, the new alliance will also help reunite families and could lead to multi-nation enrollment, he said. In some ways, he added, Indian people, especially those who have been split up by outside political forces, are a lot like Jews.

Jewish people, he noted, "have been scattered all over the world, but their language and their culture held them together wherever they went," even while existing as a minority.

"It's separated us physically, but it couldn't separate our hearts," Old Chief said of the invisible line between the Indian nations of the United States and Canada.