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On Eve of Film Premier, Interior Cancels Oil and Gas Leases in Blackfeet ‘Cathedral’

Promoting documentaries to raise awareness about Native struggles and impasses with the U.S. government has become a hallmark strategy for tribes.

Promoting documentaries to raise awareness about Native struggles and impasses with the United States government has become a hallmark strategy for tribal nations, particularly when it comes to maintaining the environment, supporting their culture and preserving sovereignty. However, few tribes can plan on being upstaged before the official release of the film by the federal government. This was the pleasant surprise experienced by the Blackfeet Nation prior to the screening of Our Last Refuge on November 17 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The day before, November 16, Secretary of the Department of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the cancellation of Devon Energy Corporation's 15 oil and gas drilling rights leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana, the "Cathedral" of the Blackfeet Nation.

Located at the splendid intersection of the Blackfeet Reservation, Glacier National Park, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in northwestern Montana, the pristine 200 square-mile (130,000 acre) Badger-Two Medicine site comprises the heart of Blackfeet spirituality. For them, as the film states, "It's like where the Creator lives," the place where the Blackfeet Creation story begins. Against the backdrop of the tapestry of the raw beauty of its majestic mountains, crystal rivers, and the endless stands of pines that dominate unbelievably deep snow in one of the most remote places in the contiguous United States, the documentary rolls out the Blackfeet fight to reclaim the Badger-Two Medicine region. The movie is a dynamic collage of film, photos, Native drawings (by Blackfeet member Jesse Desrosier) and cameo narratives of tribal citizens involved in government negotiations by young New York filmmaker Daniel Glick.

Courtesy Walt Lamar

Blackfeet leadership at the National Museum of the American Indian for the premiere showing of the Badger-Two Medicine documentary.

In 1981 the Badger-Two Medicine area was still largely untouched by outsiders. That year the Reagan Administration's U.S. Bureau of Land Management, exercised what tribal leadership described as an "application of Manifest Destiny." The BLM began issuing oil and gas leases based on the U.S. Forestry Service's finding that development would have “no significant impact." The grant of the leases was made without the required consulting (or informing) of the Blackfeet. When in 1985, the BLM subsequently approved the first application to drill, the Blackfeet nation decided to mount a serious push back. Badger-Two Medicine was the only area where the nation's citizens were legally allowed to freely practice their traditional religion (their last refuge), and the only place where they felt like they were a part of the Creator. Subsequent demonstrations and resistance by Blackfeet led some leaseholders to quickly pull out. State and federal advocates during both the Clinton and Bush II Administrations succeeded at implementing the suspension of oil and gas leasing activity, and in 2007, President Bush made permanent a U.S. Forestry Service moratorium on re-issuing leases sold or relinquished. By 2010, five more leaseholders relinquished their leases as well. Of those that remained, however, Solonex, LLC, sued to drill in 2013, which ultimately and ironically led to the current resolution of the issue.

Though the film only briefly touched on the complex legal wrangling that occurred as the result of Solonex's actions, the lawsuit is crucial to the context of how this refuge was salvaged. In brief, and according to those involved in the negotiations, by 2014 Blackfeet Council members involved in the negotiations describe their campaign as being as much "...about [the U.S. Government] running over the Blackfeet again," and "...[having] been too obedient over time” as it was about tribal unity, cultural perpetuity, and U.S. atonement. They also believed that if anyone were actually allowed to drill, it would lead to a "free for all," with "any place being open to drilling" in the United States. The general attitude of the Blackfeet nation and other tribal and non-governmental advocates was, "What's best for Indian country is good for the world," in the words of Jacqueline Pata, the Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). As historical land managers, the fight became not only about Native sovereignty, but about land rights issues across the nation. Today, the challenge to unbridled federal government action that steps all over social and cultural interests for corporate economic gain is being played out most significantly in the challenge to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Renae Ditmer

Chief Earl Old Person welcoming attendees.

In contrast to the 35-year running battle, the resolution to the struggle has been fairly rapid. According to Tribal Historic Preservation Office’s John Murray, the process ultimately worked because it followed the law. The first need was to determine what the tribe had to do to legally establish the foundation for their claim that Badger-Two Medicine was "their Vatican." In previous discussions, although the Blackfeet Nation had a 10,000-year oral history of the meaning of Badger-Two Medicine to the nation, it had not documented it. Consequently it had no basis to challenge the U.S. government. So, under advisement, the nation hired Dr. Maria Zedeño, an ethnographer from the University of Arizona, as Principal Investigator. Zedeño documented Badger-Two Medicine’s historic religious and cultural value and use by the nation. Her findings, even though heavily redacted by the Tribal Council, provided enough evidence that the Forest Service ultimately found 11 pages of adverse effects on Badger-Two Medicine if the land were drilled for oil and gas.

In brief, in September of 2014, the Blackfeet issued a letter to all consulting parties, requesting them to review the Forest Service's findings. In October 2014, a joint tribal proclamation called on the U.S. Department of the Interior to cancel all oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area, and petitioned the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, and the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, to meet to discuss the oil and gas leases. Although the Solonex, LLC lost their legal fight, the key to Blackfeet success regarding 15 leases held by Devon Energy Corporation, was their ability to convince stakeholders that Badger-Two Medicine was not a "wilderness" but a "human landscape." That is, it was not wild; it was a living sanctuary. More important, Blackfeet leadership ascribes the ultimate success of their negotiations to their investment in building a relationship with U.S. department representatives and Devon Energy. Rather than being "relentless with intruders" as they had in the past, according to Murray, the relationships they developed led to the conversion of the "intruders’” longstanding beliefs that the Badger-Two Medicine area was "wilderness" to concur that it was instead the heart of their worship.

Panel discussion participants: Chief Earl Old Person, Harry Barnes, Chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, Kendall Edmonton, Tribal Cultural and Conservation Resources Technician, John Murray, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, and Tyson Ru

The narrative arc of the documentary—originally designed to support the Blackfeet's core argument regarding Badger-Two Medicine, and to bring it a wider audience—does not anticipate Secretary Jewell’s announcement "…that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) [had] canceled 15 additional oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in northwestern Montana." The action by Interior leaves only two outstanding leases to be resolved.

Although it remains to be seen whether the land itself will be moved into the Blackfeet trust as desired by the tribe, it reinforces the belief that Badger-Two Medicine has and could continue to act as the focus for reunifying a nation still suffering the shattering effects of becoming wards of the United States in 1871. While the repercussions of U.S. intrusion linger to this day, the elders believe that with the permanent connection to their Cathedral within reach, those issues, too, may be resolved.