Blackfeet Nation Closes Border of Glacier National Park in Response to Rising COVID-19 Cases
After a two-month closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, Montana’s Glacier National Park reopened its gates to visitors in early June. However, the neighboring Blackfeet Nation made an agreement with the National Park Service to keep the eastern entrances to Glacier closed for the rest of the tourist season in an effort to protect its residents from the state’s recent rise in coronavirus cases.
The Rocky Mountains intersect Glacier National Park from north to south, so access to the park is only possible from entrances on the western or eastern sides. The Blackfeet Reservation lies east of the park, and normally tourism traffic can pass directly through the reservation. However, the vote by the tribe’s Business Council to ban traffic through these eastern entrances resulted in an overcrowding of visitors on the park’s western side.
The Blackfeet and Kootenai Native American tribes first inhabited the 1.5 million acres that would become Glacier National Park. Though it retains most of its original native plant and animal species, its active glaciers have diminished in number from 150 to 26 over the past 70 years, and scientists estimate that the rest will disappear by 2030 if our current climate conditions continue. But visitors may just have to wait until next year to view some of them —including the Old Sun Glacier, named after the great sun priest ‘Naato’saapi,’ or ‘Old Sun,’ of the Blackfeet Nation.
While national park rangers manage the high volume of traffic on the western side of the park, Blackfeet crews patrol the roads that run through their reservation, keeping all outside traffic moving through and allowing non-residents to stop only for gas, and only if they are wearing masks and gloves. On July 15, the Blackfeet Covid-19 Incident Command posted a poll in which 80 percent of its people voted to set up checkpoints at the entrances of the reservation.
Aside from some angry voices from tourists on social media, there has been no serious pushback in response to the Blackfeet’s decision to close the eastern border of the park.
Boat and bus operators, as well as other tourist companies, have also shut down for the summer in recognition of the Blackfeet’s concerns. But this comes at a price. Tourism is one of the leading industries in the state of Montana. In 2018 alone, visitors brought $110 million to Glacier County, which encompasses much of the Blackfeet Reservation. Concerns to restore this economic activity had many Montana residents eagerly awaiting the park’s reopening.
The decision by the National Park Service to back the Blackfeet and re-close the park’s eastern entrances and attractions was surprising to some. “It’s interesting to me, that the Park Service, which is actually historically pretty anti-Indian — it’s a pretty colonial type of institution — that they’re supporting the Blackfeet’s decision to close the borders and that they’re working with them on that,” said Paul Nadasdy, an expert on Canada’s Yukon Territory and a professor of anthropology at Cornell University. This support builds on recent efforts to repair the relationship between the park and the reservation.
In an interview with GlacierHub, Rosalyn LaPier explained the history of her tribe’s land and how it contextualizes the current moment. LaPier is a professor in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Montana, as well as a Blackfeet tribal member. When school is not in session, LaPier lives on the reservation, up on Chief Mountain, right across from Glacier National Park. She sat gazing across Saint Mary’s Lake toward the high peaks of Glacier National Park while she spoke.
“Historically, there’s been a long, contentious relationship between the park and the reservation, partly because the majority of Blackfeet believe that the park lands were taken illegally,” she said.
Facing starvation in 1895, the Blackfeet were essentially coerced into selling part of their land, which they call the “backbone of the world,” to the United States government for $1.5 million. This 1895 agreement was supposed to secure the region as federal forest land, and the United States government had agreed that the Blackfeet would always have access to it for hunting, fishing, gathering, and other uses. But in 1910, the northern half of the territory was turned into Glacier National Park — which had not been written into the original 1895 agreement. Once this happened, the Blackfeet no longer had access to hunting or gathering there.
And gathering has great cultural significance. This activity is carried out largely by women. “We need wood for burning, for our wood stoves, for building things with — things like teepee poles, because a lot of people here stay in teepees in the summertime,” LaPier said. They also harvest roots and berries for food and use a variety of other plants for medicinal purposes. Gathering restrictions are not an issue solely for the Blackfeet, but also for most other North American tribes living next to national park land that was once their rightful territory.
While relationships between the National Park Service and the Blackfeet have historically been contentious, they have grown better in recent years. Nowadays, “the superintendents work really hard to meet with different tribes, like the Blackfeet Tribe, the Kootenai Tribe, the Salish Tribe — and so it’s different,” LaPier said. Because communication is better between the superintendent and the tribe, the Blackfeet are able to urge the park to honor some of their wishes, like keeping its eastern border closed to protect their tribe from COVID-19.
“But, having said that,” LaPier added, “we still cannot hunt. We still cannot gather [legally] on Glacier Park land.” Hunting is hard to hide from park rangers, but some Blackfeet can get away with hunting in Glacier during the winter. Gathering, on the other hand, can be done alone and quietly. “Tribal members believe it’s their right to gather on that land, and so they do,” she said.
LaPier acknowledges that there are other places on their reservation, as well as on the federal forest lands, such as the Badger-Two Medicine region to the south, where the Blackfeet can go to collect plants and other resources. However, La Pier explained that it’s simply more efficient to go to the usual places where resources are certain to be found. Plus, there are services in the park, like restrooms, paved roads, and coffee shops. For this reason, some Blackfeet women had hoped the eastern entrances would remain open.
The decision to close the park’s eastern border does not only affect the gatherers or third-party tourist industries. Tribal members themselves own businesses that are dependent upon summer tourism — and they are taking severe financial hits.
For instance, Darrell Norman and his wife Angelika own a teepee village and art gallery near Browning, Montana, just miles away from Glacier National Park. They entertain visitors with traditional meals, ancestral song and dance, teepee-tending lessons, and educational stories about their tribe’s history. Though these kinds of local businesses are suffering due to closures from COVID-19, Angelika told the Washington Post that the pain is necessary for keeping their people safe.
Those most at risk to coronavirus are the vulnerable elders. They are “the keepers of the culture,” Robert DesRosier, the leader of the Blackfeet’s COVID-19 response team, told the Washington Post. “We can’t afford to lose them.”
Indigenous tribal communities have higher rates of underlying health conditions and generally live in multi-generational and communal households where diseases can easily spread. The Spanish flu of 1918 hit American Indians over four times harder than the general U.S. population. And today, the Navajo Nation in the Southwest is one of the country’s worst coronavirus hotspots.
Historically, North American governments had a concerted effort to remove tribes from wilderness lands to create parks. “In some cases, it was the military. They were forcibly removed — sometimes several times,” said Nadasdy. When reservations were first created, documented evidence showed that the Canadian and United States governments intentionally starved Indigenous people to death. In addition, these governments purposely did not provide healthcare to Indigenous people. The Blackfeet were still becoming sick with smallpox, cholera, and other treatable diseases well into the twentieth century. It wasn’t until 1921, under the Snyder Act, that the United States federal government finally took responsibility for Native American health care.
Today, the Blackfeet — as well as all other Native American tribes in the United States — receive medical care through the Indian Health Service (IHS). “We have a hospital here, and it is underfunded. So, if you want to address a health issue, whether it is diabetes, or heart disease, or hypertension, or etcetera, you’re going into a system that’s underfunded. So yes, the U.S. government could be providing medical services, but they don’t. So that means that Indigenous people today have a lot of medical issues — and the reason they have these issues is because they can’t get them addressed,” LaPier explained. People with underlying conditions are more likely to suffer dangerous effects from COVID-19, so the decision by tribal leaders to close the borders is an effective response.
The Blackfeet managed to steer clear of the virus throughout the winter and spring, but just days after tribal leaders announced the border closure, nine Blackfeet tested positive. As of last week, one death has been recorded. The elderly woman was flown from the IHS hospital on the reservation to Kalispel, where there is an intensive care unit, just over a week before she passed.
“No one is immune to COVID-19 — no one in the entire world — because we don’t have a cure for it, we don’t have a vaccine for it, and we don’t have a treatment for it,” said LaPier. “So, on the one hand we are just as susceptible as everyone else is in the world, but we have a different history, and it’s because of that history that the tribal council and the leaders here are being extra careful.”