About Our Site
Blackfeet: Land and Language is the Heritage
by Andreas Knudsen
[ Original pagination indicated in slash marks, e.g. /4/ indicates the end of page 4.]
Reprinted from Indigenous Affairs, January/February/March 1996. Published by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.
The original homeland of the Blackfoot Nation contains the so-called Northern Rocky Mountain Front, the largest woodland of the USA outside of Alaska. Part of the Front is the 500 km2 large Badger-Two Medicine which the Blackfoot Nation regards as their “Jerusalem” because of its religious importance for them. Many events which are decisively important for their mythology and religion have taken place in the Badger area. It borders directly on the Glacier National Park, which is part of the UNESCO International Convention for Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The region is the last are of retreat for over 270 species of animals and plants, e.g. grizzlies and the grey wolves.
The Blackfoot Confederacy lost the Badger-Two Medicine area in 1895. The tribes were weakened after a smallpox epidemic and a year of famine and desperately needed governmental help. They got it, but at the cost of a new agreement under which the area in question became public property. The Blackfeet were deceived by the American negotiators, who used a misleading translation for their purposes. While the government talked about a take-over of the land, the Blackfeet meant to lease the Badger area for 50 years to Washington with an official guarantee ensuring them the right “to go across the land.” This was an official euphemism for continuing their religious practices, which were forbidden. Since the United States Supreme Court denied relief to traditional Californian tribes (the famous “Go Road Decision”) in 1988, the right of religious freedom, which is protected by the Free Exercise of Religion Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, has been in real danger (see IWGIA Document 62).
Regardless of the key religious, cultural and environmental role of the Badger area, the US-American Chevron group and the American subsidiary company of Belgian Petrofina have decided to drill for oil in the area, although experts of the US Forest Service estimate the chance of finding oil at only 0.5 per cent. One wonders if so much effort is necessary when the prospect of finding oil is so slim. The companies want to create a precedent with this case for opening up Alaska’s great oil reservoirs, which lie mostly in natural reserves (Alaska Natural Wildlife Refuge).
The consequences of drilling approval would be fatal. Over 7,000 acres (approximately 30 km2) of the Badger-Two Medicine area and the border territories (the southern part of the Glacier National Park is only 7 km away from the planned drill-hole) would be destroyed by deforestation, road construction, industrial noise, pollution and leaky pipelines.
In January 1993, the Bush Administration gave Fina permission to drill for oil by enacting a law. The following Clinton Administration achieved a delay because of a loophole in the legislation. The Bush Administration “forgot” to install a “contradiction right” into the already insufficient US Forest Service’s report, which was unconstitutional. Because of this mistake and the protests of a coalition of traditional Blackfeet and local environmental groups, the final decision has been postponed until June 30, 1996. The postponement has not completely undone the Bush permission. The interests of the Blackfoot Confederacy were “perceived” by the corrupt and incompetent Tribal Council which does not represent the traditionals.
All parties involved, the industry and political representatives of Montana on the one hand, and environmentalists and the traditional Blackfeet on the other, have tried to carry their interests with the help of a bill in connection with the Wilderness Act. This act was passed in 1964 and protects landscapes in order to keep them in their natural conditions. According to their needs, the bills differ. The industrial companies and representatives’ aim is to keep some parts of the Northern Rockies without this protection or, at least, to publish a study which will help in deciding whether permission can be granted or not and whether the /24/ region might be used economically. The favorite Williams Bill (one of the bills supported by industrialists and representatives) ignores the need for protection of the Badger-Two Medicine area on which Fina has drill permission.
Opposing this lobby are the traditional Blackfeet and the environmentalists who want all of the Northern Rocky Mountain Front under protection. The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) is the only bill which guaranties complete protection of the northern Rockies. The bill was prepared in a collaboration between scientists, biologists and environmentalists. It considered the wishes and desires of the traditional Blackfeet. The NREPA includes the Blackfeet in all commissions, which is based on Article 27 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guaranteeing the rights and protection of ethnic minorities. This part is not included in the Williams Bill. The majority of Montana’s population wants the NREPA. Having been accepted by the House of Representatives, the Williams Bill has taken the first hurdle. However, the Senate and the government are yet to agree to it. The new spirit in the Senate under Newt Gingrich’s leadership is not promising for large-scaled environmental protection.
The danger of losing their homeland has activated the traditional Blackfeet. Under the leadership of Floyd Heavy Runner, the traditional Blackfeet Brave Dogs Society was refounded in order to organize the resistance of the traditional Blackfeet against all those who would destroy the sacred Badger-Two Medicine.
Originally, the Brave Dogs was a religious and warrior society which also had some police functions within Blackfoot society. Under the renewed threat of losing their identity, the Brave Dogs have decided to fight against the oil companies and to preserve their language, Pikuni. Highly respected Floyd Heavy Runner speaks both the ancient Pikuni, spoken before the tribe’s language was influenced by whites, and the modern version. Heavy Runner’s main political aim is to re-negotiate the Treaty of 1895 so that the Blackfeet Confederacy’s interests receive consideration and there is a fair settlement and peace. Furthermore, an official apology for the Massacre of Marias River is an important demand for traditional Blackfeet.
Under the leadership of Heavy Runner, the Blackfoot nation adopted the Pikuni Code of Education, Language and Culture, in 1994. The main aims of the code are:
oThe official language of the Blackfoot Confederacy is Pikuni, English can be used for the nation’s external relations; oBlackfoot pupils are bilingual to a high degree; oEminent persons/elders settle the standards of both spoken and written Pikuni.
The Blackfoot Confederacy, which consists of the Siksika, Kainah and Piegan tribes, started the Aamskapi-Pikuni Radio in 1995. The radio was founded in order to preserve Pikuni, transfer knowledge of Blackfoot Elders, strengthen the Blackfoot Confederacy and promote Pikuni music and storytelling. The decision to establish a radio station was based on the fact that the Blackfoot nation has an 80 per cent rate of illiteracy, Pikuni is a dying language and the Pikuni-speaking Elders are isolated and need a way to become involved in contemporary Blackfoot society. The Aamskapi-Pikuni Radio still lacks equipment, finances and promotion.
The Blackfoot approach to maintaining their land, culture and language is unfortunately riven by a split between traditionalists and Christians. Many traditionalists complain that people of mixed blood have taken over power in the Tribal Council. Business council woman, Marlene Walters, a full-blood who grew up on the reservation, says; “Over the years, I have observed a certain amount of racism. Most of that racism comes from mixed-bloods who have adopted white ways and is directed toward more traditional full-bloods.” The Brave Dogs Society under Floyd Heavy Runner wants to establish a kind of Senate which represents the Elders and traditional chiefs and controls the Tribal Council. However, relations between the two factions are not good.
In 1990, two of Floyd Heavy Runner’s brothers and a sister-in-law, who worked closely with him, died in a suspicious car accident. Heavy Runner’s tribe-owned house was confiscated and his meadows were leased without his knowledge. He is now homeless. A year later, his daughter’s shop was set on fire and then an uncle disappeared and was found dead two months later.
It will be necessary for the traditional Blackfoot and environmentalists to keep close ranks in the future. The strength of their future negotiating position depends on their alliance and their ability to organize powerful public campaigns. It has already made an impression on e.g. Petrofina, whose Belgian parent company was prepared to talk to Floyd Heavy Runner in September 1995 while he was in Europe. Although these were not serious negotiations, the traditional Blackfeet were for the first time accepted as equals. /25/
For further reading: The Last Stronghold by Bob Yetter, available through the following two contact addresses:
Floyd Heavy Runner
Blackfeet Brave Dogs Society
P.O. Box 98
Heart Butte, MT 59448
Europe: Verein zur Untersttzung nordamerikanischer Indianer e.V.
Blackfeet Support Group
c/o Marten Briese
Andreas Knudsen is a member of the IWGIA Danish National Group.
“The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) is an independent, international organization which supports indigenous peoples in their struggle against oppression.” IWGIA publishes Indigenous Affairs four times a year. Subscriptions in 1996 are US $30 for individuals and US $50 for institutions. Contact: International Secretariat, IWGIA, Fiolstraede 10, DK-1171, Copenhagen K, Denmark. E-mail [emailprotected]