Down to the bones 

A historic discovery on the Blackfeet Reservation runs the risk of being lost amid another showdown with the federal government

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On July 8, Virgil “Puggy” Edwards hustled down to the Cut Bank Creek Boarding School after the Blackfeet Agency Superintendent alerted the Tribal Preservation Office that BIA contractors had found something. Edwards, a cultural resource field technician who works with Murray, estimates that the water line excavation unearthed 200 feet of bone-laden soil before contractors notified the tribe’s superintendent. “I found bone material all along the water line,” Edwards says.

On Sept. 17, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council declared the processing site a traditional cultural property and voted to have the BIA shut down dormitory construction. The Blackfeet say that the BIA broke ground without sufficiently consulting tribal officials. They further allege that the bureau didn’t thoroughly research the Cut Bank site’s cultural significance, as mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act.

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“What they’re saying, in a sense, is that they don’t have to follow federal law,” Murray says.

In response to those claims, the BIA has produced a series of letters and emails sent during a two-year period prior to breaking ground on the dormitory. In one letter dated April 25, 2011, BIA Office of Facilities Management and Construction Deputy Director Emerson Eskeets informs the tribe that it is poised to investigate the potential impacts of a new dormitory “in accordance with all applicable federal, state and local codes.”

Nearly a year later, on March 23, 2012, another letter provided by the BIA from Eskeets asks the Blackfeet if the tribe wants to hire contractors to construct the new dormitory or leave that responsibility to the Office of Facilities Management.

The bureau produced two additional letters discussing the historic relevance of two buildings associated with the boarding school.

To date, however, the bureau has not provided the Tribal Preservation Office or the Independent any documentation indicating that it researched the area’s cultural history.

Murray and the archaeologists and anthropologists interviewed by the Independent say that had the BIA researched Cut Bank Creek, it would have found that in 1953 former Museum of the Plains Indian Curator Thomas Kehoe excavated what’s called the Boarding School Bison Drive Site, roughly 75 yards from the recently discovered processing area. During that dig, Kehoe unearthed bones and tools that archaeologists estimate were used to hunt and process bison as many as 1,200 years ago.

University of Calgary archaeologist and professor emeritus Brian “Barney” Reeves notes that because the drive site marked the first major buffalo jump excavation of its kind in the Northwestern Plains, scientists commonly used it as a reference point. “It was a very key site for everybody to understand bison drives,” he says.

When the Independent asked the BIA if it intends to go forward with the project, despite the Tribal Business Council’s September decision to halt construction, bureau spokesperson Nedra Darling said in an emailed statement, “We have not had discussions with the Tribe regarding the completion of the dormitory project.”

When responding to allegations that the bureau didn’t comply with federal law prior to breaking ground, Darling said, “We met with the Tribe and understand the Tribe’s concerns.”

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