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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Blackfeet Tribal Preservation crewmember Steve LaForge removes the caramel-colored iniskim delicately from its red pouch. The Blackfeet say because they are the only tribe to use the iniskim, finding the fossil here proves that they’ve lived on this land since time immemorial. Every morning, the crew says a prayer with the artifact and ask that their history be protected.

As part of the effort to preserve what remains of Blackfeet culture, the Tribal Business Council has asked the BIA to reconsider where it places the new dormitory. “We’ve got land available, infrastructure, everything,” says council member Roger “Sassy” Running Crane. “It’s just a matter of them saying, ‘Hey okay, let’s sit down at the table, let’s see what we can do ...”

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • The Boarding School Bison Drive Site is where Blackfeet used to direct animals off a small cliff and into a cottonwood corral.

Running Crane says the tribe isn’t looking for a fight, but they are prepared for one. The Blackfeet are aware of multiple legal precedents in their favor. When it comes to projects that stand to impact cultural resources, the federal government must reach a high bar when consulting with tribal governments.

In one example, the Pueblo of Sandia in argued that the government overlooked cultural properties in New Mexico’s Las Huertas Canyon, where the Forest Service was in the process of reconstructing a road and expanding recreational amenities such as picnic areas and sanitary facilities. That 1995 case, Pueblo of Sandia v. the U.S. Forest Service, resulted in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals deciding that the Forest Service was required under the National Historic Preservation Act to “take into account the effect of [any] undertaking on any district site, building, structure or object that is included in or eligible for inclusion in the National Register.”

The Sandia had conducted religious ceremonies in the canyon, as well as gathered herbs and plants to use in traditional healing practices. The Forest Service argued that it attempted to consult with the Sandia, mailing letters to the tribe and individuals who were known to be familiar with the area’s historic significance. Despite those efforts, the court found the government’s level of work depends on the likelihood that a historical landmark might exist. The 10th circuit opined “that the Forest Service did not make a reasonable effort to identify historic properties.”

Blackfeet officials say the BIA conducted even less outreach prior to embarking on the Cut Bank dormitory project than the Forest Service did in the Sandia case. They say the failure leaves them well positioned to sue if negotiations fall apart.

“If push comes to shove,” Running Crane says, “you betcha we’re going to litigate.”

To compensate for damage done during the water line excavation, Murray is asking the bureau to fund a new Blackfeet cultural center and also a study of the surrounding cultural landscape. Murray’s dream is to incorporate the findings into an educational curriculum, one wholly different from the schooling that he received.

He notes that while he was taught to feel ashamed about his roots, kids today are putting their Blackfeet names on their cars and license plates. The demonstrations leave Murray optimistic that there’s a cultural renaissance underway among Blackfeet youth. “Our culture is fractured,” he says, “but it’s still intact.”

Documenting the ingenuity and self-sufficiency employed by Blackfeet would fuel that resurgence, Murray says. That’s why he can’t help but feel protective as he looks out over the stalled dormitory project and the white foundation footings that rise up from the excavated earth.

“This right here is a slap in the face,” Murray says. “They’re still trying to civilize us.”

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