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.