As Former Big-Oil Lawyer Takes Over BLM, Tribes Fight for Sacred Land - Rolling Stone
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As a Former Big-Oil Lawyer Takes Over the Bureau of Land Management, One Tribe Fights for Its Sacred Land

Over a century ago, the American government promised the Blackfeet Nation they could keep the rights to their sacred land. So why do they have to still fight for it?

June 11, 2016 - West Glacier, MT, United States of America - Arrowleaf Balsamroot wildflower blooming near Sinopah Mountain in Two Medicine Valley at Glacier National Park in West Glacier, Montana. (Credit Image: © Frank W. Frank/Planet Pix via ZUMA Wire)

Arrowleaf Balsamroot wildflower blooming near Sinopah Mountain in Two Medicine Valley at Glacier National Park in West Glacier, Montana.

© Frank W. Frank/Planet Pix/ZUMA

The Blackfeet Nation believes their people were created where Badger Creek and the Two Medicine River trace their headwaters in Montana. Bounded by Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Reservation, the Badger-Two Medicine is a staggeringly beautiful landscape of 8,000-foot limestone peaks and deep river canyons, just 30 miles south of the Canadian border. Some of the Blackfeet’s highest ceremonies are still performed on its mountains. It’s home to denning grizzlies and their cubs, rare lynx, and some of the last genetically pure cutthroat trout on the planet. And it’s now under unprecedented threat: this summer, William Perry Pendley, lead council for the company suing for oil and gas drilling rights in the Badger-Two Medicine, was appointed acting director of the Bureau of Land Management — the agency that controls oil and gas on public lands.

In December 2017, a report by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rolled back protections on Bear’s Ears National Monument, ancestral land to five American Indian nations, which President Obama had declared a national monument in 2016 via presidential proclamation. In that 2017 declaration, though, Zinke tacked on a short paragraph that the Badger-Tow Medicine was worthy of monument status. This little-known swath of land, “considered sacred to the Blackfeet Nation,” he wrote, should be “considered for designation as a national monument and as a candidate for co-management with the Blackfeet tribe.”

But Zinke resigned a year later, and nothing ever happened to protect it. In fact, although the Blackfeet have called this region home for more than 10,000 years, its potential fate has flipped in just 10 months with the new Interior Secretary’s appointment of Pendley’s as acting director of the BLM.

In the wake of the public lands disaster of Bears Ears, the Badger-Two Medicine represents an opportunity to re-think how this country approaches historic obligations around sacred indigenous lands. It’s also a chance to rethink what creates “permanent” protection. The Blackfeet Nation has been calling for protections like those Zinke recommended since the first oil and gas leases were sold on the Badger-Two Medicine in 1982, and is currently working to bring a proposal to the federal table that meaningfully brings this land back under their purview. Under the current circumstances, it can’t come soon enough.

The Badger Two-Medicine, now in the Lewis & Clark National Forest, is part of what the Blackfeet call “the ceded strip.” In 1895, the Blackfeet Nation signed over a wide chunk of their remaining land to the U.S. government in exchange for $1.5 million to care for their people, who had been decimated by smallpox and starvation, and hemmed in by the fast-retreating borders of a once vast territory. To this day, many in the Nation believe it was a 99-year lease; that when they signed the agreement, the council hoped their youth would have recovered to the Blackfeet’s former strength and the land would be returned to them.

But in the 1980s, when the 99 years was up, the Reagan administration sold 47 oil and gas leases on it instead, an action that galvanized the Blackfeet into a 30-year fight to protect their sacred lands. “We have our political divides or disagreements across communities,” says John Murray, Blackfeet Historic Tribal Preservation Officer. “But the Badger-Two Medicine has been the one thing that unites the Nation down through the years.”

The issue united many others across Montana as well, from ranchers to business owners to students, who joined the Nation in protesting the leases. Conservation groups were even formed around it, aiming to be allies with the Blackfeet. “Some oil companies voluntarily backed down after visiting the area,” says Murray. “They said the right thing to do is to leave it as it is.” No company progressed to actual drilling, and in January 2017, the Interior Department canceled the remainder of the leases. Many celebrated the victory as the end of the three-decade saga.

Until Solenex sued the government to reinstate its lease to drill in the Badger-Two Medicine, with Pendley representing the company in the ongoing lawsuit.

Joe McKay, a Blackfeet Nation citizen and well-respected expert in treaty law, asserts the leases have always been illegal, given that the government doesn’t own those resources per the 1895 agreement. The articles of agreement, supported by the century-old meeting minutes between the commissioners and the Blackfeet and the transmissions from the commissioners to Congress, clearly that the Blackfeet only ceded the rights to mine the hard rock minerals of gold, silver and copper that the U.S. government believed was locked in that land—not the land itself, not the oil and gas under it, and certainly not the timber rights, water rights, and rights to hunt and fish that the agreement explicitly reserved unto the Blackfeet.

“At the time, we didn’t have a concept for a lease,” says McKay. “It’s just a modern way of describing what we think took place, between language barriers, different interpreters, and how they got the council to sign the agreement.”

McKay, whose father was a nation leader, learned the history when he was young, from members of the negotiating party who were still alive. “I grew up around the last of the People who knew about the ceded strip and how it all came to be,” he says.

William Perry Pendley. Photograph courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior.

In the 1890s, he begins, as the Gold Rush swept across the West, three white commissioners came to negotiate with the Blackfeet Nation for their territory. Prospectors had already been mining for gold illegally on Blackfeet spiritual land. According to the stories passed down from the elders — and the minutes recorded by the U.S. government — the Blackfeet Nation ceded the strip on September 25th, 1895, after several days of negotiating and across a chasm of language differences that doubtless made some concepts impossible to translate.

In the minutes, Chief White Calf is recorded as saying, “The mountains have been my last refuge. We have been driven here and now we are settled. From Birch Creek to the boundary line is what I now give you.” He goes on to state that the Nation will retain the timber, grazing, hunting, and fishing for their children who will need it in the future. “We don’t want our land allotted,” he concludes definitively. “If you come for any more land, we will send you away.” The commissioners agreed.

In 1910, the Taft administration designated the northern chunk of the ceded strip as Glacier National Park, and the explicit treaty rights granted to the Blackfeet by the 1895 agreement to hunt, fish, and gather timber were extinguished by a U.S. District Court in 1932, despite the spiritual significance of the land to the Blackfeet. Saint Mary’s Lake on the east side of Glacier contains the origin story of Blackfeet painted lodges, for example. Chief Mountain, one half of which sits in the park, is the site of the origin story of the seasons. “The spirituality is still there, but it’s been overrun,” says McKay. “When I was a young man, there were maybe 500,000 visitors the Glacier. Now it’s three million. You can’t park, the trails are full of hikers. The Badger Two Medicine, what remains of the ceded strip, represents one of the last undeveloped, completely untouched areas in the northern U.S. That’s why it deserves protection, besides the great spirituality of it.”

To lose what remains of the spiritual lands of the ceded strip in the Badger-Two Medicine would be horrific, says Murray. “Our knowledge system evolved over thousands of years of interaction with nature, empowered with the spirit of things,” he says. “People believe that Jesus walked on water, but for some reason they can’t believe our connection to the Badger-Two Medicine.”

As Pendley switches from his role in suing for oil and gas leases to head of the BLM, McKay and the rest of the Blackfeet Nation are well aware of the urgency at hand to protect this place. The devastating examples of Bears Ears and Standing Rock, where prolonged protests failed to stop an oil pipeline from crossing Sioux ancient burial grounds and the clean water source of the Standing Rock Reservation, have spelled out the need to create a new mold for protecting sacred indigenous lands.

“I’ve made a decision that in this world maybe you have to do things differently,” he said. “Standing Rock taught us a lesson. There will never be a well drilled in the Badger-Two Medicine without Blackfeet permission as long as I am alive. If there’s one last thing to stand up for in my life, then that would be it.”

The Blackfeet Nation is currently working on a proposal for permanent protections that would do just that, a version of Zinke’s recommendation for national monument status, but with a clear directive: “It will say right up front that treaty rights remain unblemished,” says Murray. Rather than going through a presidential proclamation as Obama did in designating Bears Ears, the Nation is aiming for the strongest action possible: legislative action that requires two-thirds majority by both houses of Congress and a presidential signature — and requires just as much to be undone. It’s a distinctly modern and groundbreaking way to finally reclaim the ceded strip, as the elders had hoped more than a century ago.

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