Within Montana’s Lewis and Clark National Forest is the Badger-Two Medicine Wilderness. This land is cherished as an area of vital cultural significance for the Blackfeet Native Americans. In recent years, the American Forest Service has made agreements to lease parts of Badger-Two Medicine to companies in search of oil and gas resources. While this wilderness is designated as a sacred site to the Blackfeet, the area is also considered to be a refuge for endangered animals and ecosystems. Consequently, a coalition of local environmentalists, outdoors sportsmen, ranchers and Blackfeet traditionalists have worked together in order to suspend and prevent leases of Badger-Two Medicine to exploitative interests.
Commitment to ecological conservation is a natural part of religious culture among the Blackfeet. All mountains, rivers, plants and animals are interpreted as sacred spirits who offer guidance for human life. Blackfeet origin stories of humans and spirits are historically set in the Badger-Two Medicine wilderness. Na’pi, literally translated as “dawn-light-color-man,” is acknowledged as the creator of the Blackfeet people. In his representation as the color of dawn, Na’pi is associated with bringing forth the Sun. Na’pi was present within the area of Badger-Two Medicine and designated it as the homeland of the Blackfeet tribe in many mythic accounts (Vest, 463). Of the many ceremonies performed to honor the spirits of the natural world, Vision Quests are particularly important in order to come in contact with “other than human” guidance. By solitarily fasting and praying within this wilderness, one can receive messages from the Sun Creator through animal spirits. Wilderness is a necessary component of the Vision Quest ceremony.
Blackfeet people know the Rocky Mountains as the “backbone of the world.” Home to the thunder spirit, giver of the sacred ceremonial pipe, these mountains are of utmost religious importance (Vest, 472). Because it was considered unlucky to speak the word “bear” in the presence of the sacred pipe (perhaps because of this animal’s powerfully unpredictable nature), “badger” was used as a substitute. The Grizzly bear spirit is particularly powerful in this area, most likely because the land was named “badger” out of reverence for the thunder pipe. Accordingly, grizzlies still inhabit Badger-Two Medicine and are a major concern for wildlife conservationists.
The significance of this site to the Blackfeet people is legally represented by the Agreement of 1896. Little Bear Chief, a Blackfoot leader, signed the agreement to sell a portion of this mountainous land to the federal government. This decision was dependent on Little Beat Chief’s realization that European imposition over Native American homelands was inevitable. Agreements to “go upon” the land, hunt, fish and cut timber are established in this document; however, lack of understanding by the Forest Service in regard to the Blackfeet’s primary intentions of cultural preservation has created numerous conflicts. The 1896 Agreement states that “Indians shall have, and do hereby reserve to themselves, the right to go upon any portion of the lands hereby conveyed so long as the same shall remain public lands of the United States, and to cut and remove there from wood and timber for agency and school purposes, and for their personal uses for houses, fences, and all other domestic purposes: And provided further, That the said Indians hereby reserve and retain the right to hunt upon said lands and to fish in the streams thereof so long as the same shall remain public lands of the United States under and in accordance with the provisions of the game and fish laws of the State of Montana. (Nie, 2008).” Thorough analysis of the Blackfeet’s desire for domestic resources reveals that this document was signed with expectations of ecological preservation.
Jay Hansford Vest’s Traditional Blackfeet Religion and the Sacred Badger-Two Medicine Wildlands discusses the social hardship experienced by the Blackfeet during negotiations to sell the area. In an account of the dialogue between the Blackfeet and American Commissioner Pollack, Little Bear Chief states “Tomorrow I will go home, and if the Great Father wants to know how the majority came to the conclusion first in regard to the land north from Cut Bank, let him come to me and find out. The way they talk today makes me think of a lot of hounds tearing at each other (Vest, 482).” Disgust with the notion of selling land as property is apparent in the Chief’s commentary. The reserved rights on hunting, fishing and timber display how preservation of the wildlife is an obvious expectation from the native people. Emphasis on wildlife conservation made by Blackfeet negotiators of the 1896 Agreement is directly related to the area’s historical and spiritual importance.
Since the 1980’s, the Blackfeet have been working to prevent energy development disturbances in Badger-Two Medicine. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management leased parts of this land to oil and gas corporations. They soon sold their leases to smaller companies due to strong opposition from the Blackfeet nation and conservationist groups. In 1997, the USFS placed a ten-year moratorium on any further oil drilling, until 2002 when further resource investigations were made. In response, the Blackfeet Community College determined that the area was a Traditional Cultural District (TCD), and was unsuitable for leasing. Senator Baucus of Montana established a bill in 2006 that made the 1997 moratorium permanent. This bill also provided tax incentives to oil and gas companies that sold their leases to non-profit organizations (Browning Montana, Rocky Mountain Front).
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has helped tribal efforts by lobbying in Congress for prohibition of energy leases in sacred areas. Additionally, the National Trust and other preservationist organizations have worked to raise awareness about the potential TCD status of the land surrounding Badger-Two Medicine. From 2002-2003, the National Trust demanded reevaluation of land being applied for by leaseholders several miles north of Badger-Two Medicine. The Forest Service reevaluated the area due to these demands, and determined it as a Traditional Cultural District (Browning Montana, Rocky Mountain Front). Consequently, this proposed drilling area was preserved.
Assistance from conservationist groups has made the effort of sustaining the sacred Badger-Two Medicine wilderness possible. Though there are some leases still remaining, most have been prevented or sold to more suitable parties. The cooperation between many groups of different people in order to preserve this land has proved to be a hopeful act for the future. Badger-Two Medicine has positively affected people from all different paths, just as it always has for people of the Blackfeet tribe.
- Lia Bentley