“Far away in northwestern montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain-peaks, lies an unmapped corner— the Crown of the Continent.” – George Bird Grinnell
What naturalist George Bird Grinnell called an “unmapped corner” in 1901 is now Glacier National Park. With almost three million visitors in 2018, Glacier brought $92.7 million in tourist-related revenue to the area. Yet the people on whose land the park was established, the Blackfeet Nation, have yet to see any major benefit from this tourism economy. Today, the Blackfeet Nation wants to share in that prosperity by creating a tribal national park of its own.
The Blackfeet people of the Great Plains were bison hunters, who followed the animals over the wide-reaching region that was their tribal land. With western expansion came hunters, trappers, mining prospectors and speculators, all hungry for the land that the Blackfeet had called home for thousands of years. The bison population of the Great Plains was decimated by hunters and by the US government’s targeted killings, which reduced the herds and limited the tribe’s ability to provide for themselves. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Blackfeet faced dire food shortages. In their desperation, they agreed to the first of a series of treaties with the US. The 1855 Lame Bull Treaty ceded large swathes of land and confined the Blackfeet to a newly-stablished reservation in exchange for an annual allotment of food and other goods. The Blackfeet struggled against US forces, military and otherwise, but faced starvation and a loss of their ability to negotiate the terms of their existence.
By 1884, government-promised supplies were meager or non-existent. Hundreds of Blackfeet died. Shortly thereafter, the US policies of assimilation took hold. Blackfeet children were sent to English-only boarding schools. Communal living was threatened; private ownership was enforced by assigning allotments of land per individual household. By 1895, the continued struggle for survival led Chief White Calf to authorize what the tribe understood as a lease—but the US government treated as a sale—of almost 800,000 additional acres in exchange for $1.5 million. The tribe was to maintain usage rights to the land for hunting, fishing and gathering. It was in this area that George Bird Grinnell and his anthropologist-conservationist fellows focused their energy to preserve the majestic land. In 1910, they were successful—President William Taft signed a bill creating the park. The Blackfeet land had been effectively annexed into this US “national treasure.”
More than a century later, the Blackfeet Nation survives in northern Montana, with over 17,321 enrolled members and 10,000 residents on the reservation, which is completely bound by Glacier National Park to the west. While tourism supports the economy of the areas to the west of the park, visitors do not enter Glacier from the eastern side, through the reservation. The park’s attractions and programs do not focus on the history and culture of Indigenous people, so the nation has taken matters into its own hands, planning a major new initiative through its Agricultural Resource Management Plan. They are working to open a tribal national park on the reservation, on land that is directly adjacent to Glacier National Park. More than half of the national park was once Blackfeet land, and the border that they share showcases some of the park’s most amazing terrain. Following the example of the Navajo and Ute Nations, who operate parks on their tribal lands, the Blackfeet intend to preserve biodiversity, in particular to support the tribe’s effort to grow the free-roaming bison population. In addition, the Tribal Business Council, who will vote on the plan, is developing new avenues for keeping traffic in the area with hotels and other visitor attractions.
Ed DesRosiers, owner-operator of Sun Tours, was the first Indigenous tour operator to be granted a license to operate in Glacier. He has long been fighting for Indigenous representation in the parks. DesRosiers is a supporter of the efforts to increase the nation’s visibility and profit from these new efforts. “I think there’s no limit in benefits to the Blackfeet in keeping strength as a tribe to that powerful connection.”