Why all of Indian country is fighting a new Montana oil well


Consider this scenario: One man is hell-bent on drilling for oil through the floor of a church that has stood for generations.

This church is part of the social fabric that ties one generation to the next. Thousands of baptisms, marriages and funerals have occurred there. It teaches charity, forgiveness and other values that bind the community. The church is more than a building; it is also a living thing with a several-thousand-year-old history. Now, look beyond this single community to see an entire people. Trade the church pews for endangered species and the holy water fonts for headwaters, and then you might get a sense of how the people of the Blackfeet Nation feel about Sidney Longwell, an oil developer from Louisiana, who is suing the federal government so he can drill for oil in the Badger-Two Medicine.

The Badger-Two Medicine sits within the Lewis and Clark National Forest in northwestern Montana. It is surrounded by the Blackfeet Reservation, Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and is home to grizzlies, wolverines and westslope cutthroat trout. The National Register of Historic Places has listed it as a Traditional Cultural District. In a brief filed on behalf of the oil developer in 2014, however, the Mountain States Legal Foundation simply dismisses that designation, repeatedly referring to it merely as "alleged," "purported" or even "suspicious."

Longwell's proposed oil well would be drilled on a small ridge above a tributary of the Two Medicine River, in a landscape the Blackfeet have used for thousands of years. In pooh-poohing the tribe's desire to preserve the area, the developer's lawyers made a bizarre argument: They suggested that the Blackfeet oppose the well only because someday they might want to drill it themselves.

During a series of meetings last summer, Mountain States Legal Foundation lawyer Steven Lechner cited decades of research contained in no less than three ethnographic reports, detailing the uses, sites, ceremonies, stories and language that connect the Blackfeet to the Badger area. He then clearly described Longwell's proposed project, which includes five miles of road, a new bridge wide enough to haul a drill rig over the Two Medicine River, and a well pad. Then he said that all this development could not possibly harm any of the spiritual values outlined in the ethnographic reports.

Longwell, wearing a long-suffering expression, added: "We don't even know where the rock is that's supposed to be religious in order to avoid it." His lawyer rolled his eyes and leaned back in his chair in agreement.

The Blackfeet are not giving in. In a meeting held last October in Browning, Montana, leaders and elders from all four bands of the Blackfoot Confederacy joined leaders from tribes across Montana and Wyoming to sign a proclamation formally demanding that the U.S government cancel all oil and gas leases in the Badger. The event was well covered by the media, though no one could quite capture the feeling of pride and sense of honor that filled the room as tribal members introduced themselves and spoke about how pleased they were to be together, united in action over such an important cause.

Since last fall, the effort has grown and attracted supporters, including Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, the National Congress of American Indians and the rock band Pearl Jam. A Change.org petition, asking Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to cancel the leases, has collected thousands of signatures.

In April, Chief Earl Old Person, who has led the Blackfeet since 1954, and who has met with every U.S. president since Harry S. Truman, wrote to President Obama, asking for help. "The Blackfeet Nation has been able to successfully contest the legitimacy of these leases and drilling proposals for over three decades," wrote Old Person. "Many responsible oil companies have recognized the sanctity of these cultural headwaters, voluntarily changing their holdings for opportunities on federal lands elsewhere — yet a handful of these leases remain. At this time, I respectfully request that we work together to fully put an end to these remaining leases and stop all threats to our cultural-spiritual heritage."

Sidney Longwell may never understand the profound relationship between people and place that exists in the Badger-Two Medicine. Yet despite himself, he's accomplished something important. Because he threatens one of the places that are most sacred to the Blackfeet people, the whole of Indian Country has come together in an effort to stop him. People are united, and that is a wonderful thing to see.

Casey Perkins is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She is a field director for the Montana Wilderness Association based in Choteau, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Jul 21, 2015 05:47 PM
Looks like the concept of 'native sovereignty' is only skin deep and doesn't grant tribes ownership of mineral rights, which makes them only slightly more 'sovereign' than the average individual property owner. Heaven help them if gas is located deep in the rocks under the rez.
Joseph Large
Joseph Large
Jul 22, 2015 11:28 AM
Consider this scenario. in the 1880's An Indian tribe is granted by treaty a reservation that is half in the Great Plains and half in the Mountains. In 1896 the tribe agrees to sell the land in the mountains back to the US government because as one council member put it "This land is of little use to us as we wish to learn to raise cattle in the plains". The natives took government officials out to show them mineral veins and oil seeps to prove the value of the land to them. Imagine also that in the next 75 years thousands of prospect holes are dug for minerals and oil. Full blown mines are put into production and several oil wells are dug. Several towns pop up and a dozen homesteads are claimed, railroad tracks and highways are laid down straight through the middle of this land. Now imagine that in the early 1980's the government decides to auction off existing mineral rights to people. During this Auction the Indian tribe that sold the land sets up a contract with Forest Oil to lease and drill these mineral rights (tribal resolutions still exist proving this) but they loose out to other people in the auction. Now suddenly this land that other tribe members 130 years ago called "useless" is sacred and untouchable (except for the existing homesteads, railroads, highways, power transmission lines and 2 gas pipelines, of course. This land includes what is today the badger 2 medicine area as well as Glacier National Park. And though they claim rights on the B2M National Forest area they claim no such rights of Glacier Park or the dozen existing Homesteads, which were all part of the original deal.

The entire scenario is detritus tauri. They want something for nothing and are trying to maneuver enough control of the area that they can profit from it. and Miss Dedon, there IS oil and gas under the rez rocks and they have hundreds of wells drilled there over the last 100 years, some within a 100 yards of this "sacred land" AND they offered to trade Mr Longwell his acreage for acreage on the reservation......because they profit from that and not from him drilling in the B2M. I know this was an opinion piece but there was obviously absolutely no time put into researching the history of this area or this situation. I would suggest people spend a little time establishing their opinions in facts. It might not change your opinion but at least you will be able to express it without sounding like a tool.