For many Montanans, the Badger-Two Medicine is synonymous with one of the most significant grassroots conservation successes in recent decades. That story is about Blackfeet tribal traditionalists, political leaders, and conservation groups coming together to defeat oil and gas leases in one undeveloped expanse of wilderness in Montana. Now, the coalition faces thorny questions — what does long-term protection and management of the Badger look like, and who gets to decide?
Read more about the Badger-Two Medicine on the Blackfeet Nation’s website.
Find out about the documentary we referenced, Backbone of the World, here.
Listen to “Land Back” by A Tribe Called Red.
Nick Mott This is a Shared State, I’m Nick Mott. This season, we have stories about Montanans navigating sticky political conflicts. Our story today is about allies figuring out just how far that allyship can go. It comes from Aaron Bolton, a reporter at Montana Public Radio.
Nick Mott Where exactly did you record this tape?
Aaron Bolton I recorded this as I was hiking into the Badger-Two Medicine, which is this really important when 130,000 acre piece of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. It connects Glacier National Park, that’s to the north, and then the Bob Marshall Wilderness is to the South. But it’s also in the western edge of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. It’s really important to the tribe for a lot of reasons, including that it used to be owned by the Blackfeet Tribe or Piikani it’s also the source of many of their origin stories.
[Ambient Sound: Hiking]
Nick Mott And who’s this guy you’re out hiking with?
Aaron Bolton I’m hiking in with Tyson Running Wolf. He’s currently a state lawmaker from Browning. He’s a former Blackfeet terrible business councilman, but he’s also this member of this group called the Pikuni Traditionalist Association, which is this group of Blackfeet elders. It’s super easy to see Tyson’s personal connection to the Badger, you know, as we’re going along, he points out this really crazy shot he had a few years back during deer hunting season.
Tyson Running Wolf If you went right through that gap, that little rock gap up there, they just had that one shot.
Aaron Bolton I mean, like I mentioned before, this land is culturally and spiritually just extremely important to the Blackfeet tribe. One of the particular stories he told me is about this mountain that’s named Feather Woman.
Tyson Running Wolf Feather Woman is actually the true name of the mountain.
Aaron Bolton And it’s based on this story where this woman who is named Feather Woman…
Tyson Running Wolf He made a pledge to a star called Morning Star. He said, “I’m going to marry that star.” It was early in the morning. This guy was standing there, in all white buckskin, braided hair. And he said, “you made a pledge that you were going to marry me, well I’ll come here”.
Aaron Bolton As Tyson tells this story. Feather Woman goes to live among what he calls the sky people, but eventually she sees her family living back on earth.
Tyson Running Wolf She just was broken hearted lonesome for them, and she went back down prior to her going down, though, she was given a whole bunch of gifts from the sun and the moon and morningstar.
Aaron Bolton And as Tyson explains, that these are all components of what he calls the Sun Lodge.
Tyson Running Wolf And so for time immemorial, since she’s been back, we’ve practiced that ceremony. Every summer over a holy woman that comes and makes a pledge to put the Sun Lodge up, and then the community comes together and builds it for her, for the betterment of the people. That’s what that mountain’s name after.
Nick Mott It strikes me that Tyson’s relationship with his whole landscape is just so intimate. It sounds like that’s from his personal experience here, but also just what it means to the tribe.
Aaron Bolton Yeah, I mean, to Tyson and other tribal traditionalists, the Badger-Two Medicine is one of the last places they have to practice ceremonies like these that are tied directly into the landscape itself. But in the last 40 years, that spiritual connection has been threatened by something that has attracted a lot of media attention and political interest. And that was the possibility of oil and gas development on these lands. So far, that development hasn’t turned into an actual reality, largely because of this alliance between the Blackfeet Nation, tribal traditionalists and conservation groups.
Nick Mott In our last episode, we heard a story about collaborative conservation, the idea that everybody can give up a little to preserve the whole. Today, we have another story about allies working to preserve something and then finding their limits.
Aaron Bolton What happens when two groups working so hard to prevent oil and gas development in the badger to medicine can’t agree on how to protect the land for generations to come.
Nick Mott Aaron, where does this story start?
Aaron Bolton The Badger-Two Medicine has been this really contentious place for over 100 years, but the story of this allyship, it all starts in Browning and East Glacier in the early 1980s.
Lou Bruno The town was just taken over by helicopters that were going into the Badger and seismographing [sic] there.
Aaron Bolton This is Lou Bruno. He’s a non-tribal conservationist who learned about oil and gas interests in the Badger-Two Medicine when he saw these helicopters flying exploration crews into the area. After this summer of seismic exploration for oil goes on, Lou gets word that there’s this meeting put on by the U.S. Forest Service in East Glacier to talk about the first company that wanted to drill in the Badger, and this meeting was at the community hall in town.
Lou Bruno There were a lot of people there and that tension got really, really thick. You know, you could cut it with a knife.
Aaron Bolton They find out that there’s 50 leases covering the Badger-Two Medicine, threatening this really pristine wildlife habitat, and that really kicks off a ton of community organizing. So, Lou, other conservationists and locals, they formed this group called the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance to fight these leases. Blackfeet tribal traditionalists for the same reasons they form their own group, called the Pikuni Traditionalists Association. And these two groups, they really start working together. They file administrative appeals to stop the leases. The traditionalists also start taking oil executives into the Badger, trying to get them to understand its spiritual importance. Here’s Curly Bear Wagner, a cultural leader, talking about some of those hikes in the documentary called Backbone of the World.
[Archive Tape of Backbone of the World] Curly Bear Wagner You start walking all over and walking this way, walking that way, walking over this way. So I said “what are you looking for?” “Well, I’m looking for your church. Where’s your church at? Now you say this is a spiritual area. Where is your church?” And I said, “Well, you’re standing in the middle of our pew. This is our church.”
Nick Mott So we have these two different groups, conservationists and Blackfeet tribal members with the same goal. They want to stop oil and gas development, and they start working together to do it. Does that initiative get any traction?
Aaron Bolton Yeah. Drilling gets delayed one way or another. Eventually, in 2006, they got this bill through Congress that withdrew the Rocky Mountain Front, including the Badger from future oil and gas leasing. But the bill was also this watershed moment for getting rid of existing leases because there were financial incentives for oil and gas companies to give them up. And many of them did our creative blank. The leaders, like the late Chief Earl Old Person, were even invited to Washington DC by top U.S. government officials for a celebratory ceremony.
[Archive Tape of Earl Old Person] We are continuing doing the best that we can to find ways and means to help our people.
Nick Mott So some companies gave up their leases. But but not everybody.
Aaron Bolton There were some that didn’t. One company in particular called Solenex actually sued over the various ways its lease had been put on hold for decades. That happened in 2013. Several conservation groups, the Pikuni Traditionalists Association all altogether get involved in that case. And as that case is heating up, there’s another effort to block drilling led by a guy named John Murray.
Aaron Bolton John Murray is the Blackfeet Historic Tribal Preservation Officer and is also the current head of the Pikuni Traditionalist Association. For years, John and others have been using the tribe’s oral stories to argue that even one oil and gas well would diminish the tribe’s spiritual connection to the Badger-Two Medicine.
John Murray Basically saying, you know this, we’ve always been here. We’ve had occupation in this area for a long, long time.
Aaron Bolton And as the leases were still on hold in the 1990s, the federal government did conduct what’s called an ethnography, which basically documented the Blackfeet’s spiritual connection to the land. That led to a small piece of the Badger being declared something called a traditional cultural district. That means the federal government would have to consider how actions like oil drilling impact that cultural district. But the district boundary didn’t include many oil and gas leases. John felt like the whole thing really missed the mark.
John Murray This is not right. We didn’t think these ethnographers were adequate.
Aaron Bolton And so John gets a grant to do another ethnography. And in 2014, his ethnography is cited as the reason to expand the traditional cultural district to include all of the Badger. And his main point that even one will harms the tribe’s spiritual connection to the land, that point is one of the main reasons why then Democratic Interior Secretary Sally Jewell cancels the Solenex next lease a couple of years later.
John Murray The ethnography then gave us footing to be recognized in their world.
Aaron Bolton More companies had given up their leases, and by early 2017, the Badger, for the first time since the 1980s was oil and gas free. Solenex is still fighting this in court. Blackfeet leaders and traditionalist and conservation groups, they all decide they need to make a push for permanent protection through federal legislation. But finding a type of legal protection that meets both conservation and tribal interests, that proves to be a really difficult task.
Nick Mott More on that search for how to protect the Badger after the break.
Welcome back to shared state. I’m Nick Mott. Reporter Aaron Bolton has been talking about how Blackfeet cultural traditionalists, tribal council leaders and environmental conservationists worked hand in hand against oil and gas development in the Badger-Two Medicine for 30 years. Now that the Badger is free of active oil and gas leases, they’ve turned their attention to permanently protecting the land. But what exactly should be protected and how and who gets to decide? Aaron, that sounds almost as messy as that fight that brought them together in the first place.
Aaron Bolton Yeah, they’re still largely on the same page about protection that would shut the door on new oil and gas development. But there’s a history of Blackfeet treaty rights that make this complicated. Tyson Running Wolf, who took me on a hike in the Badger, says Blackfeet leaders were leery of attempts in Congress in the 80s and 90s because the tribe had already lost treaty rights in what’s now the east side of Glacier National Park when the park was formed. Blackfeet members still have those same rights in the Badger to hunt, fish and gather timber and don’t want to lose them.
Tyson Running Wolf Any new designation, we’re like ‘ha, nah another ploy,’ another ploy to try to eventually screw us out of the little we have now.
Aaron Bolton Finding the right designation to both protect the land and ease fears about losing treaty rights was really hard to do. For example, then Republican Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke actually suggested that the Badger become a national monument in 2017.
Nick Mott So making the Badger a national monument could add protections, but it could also impact treaty rights. And can’t national monuments also be downsized? Like, that’s what the Trump administration did with Bears Ears in Utah, right?
Aaron Bolton Totally. Conservation groups and tribal leaders all agreed a national monument wasn’t the right fit. Peter Metcalf, with the Glacier Two Medicine Alliance, says they all agreed that they had to carve their own path and write their own bill.
Peter Metcalf We needed to come up with something that fit the unique values of this landscape. You know, that honored treaty rights and honored the long history of the Blackfeet. And at the same time recognized the landscape’s importance for other people and that tried to move the needle forward in a way that there would be better cooperation and management of that area.
Aaron Bolton That bill was called the Badger-Two Medicine Protection Act.
Nick Mott What’s so special about this particular conservation bill?
Aaron Bolton Peter says the Badger-Two Medicine Protection Act would obviously ban all oil and gas development, but it would also accomplish a lot of run-of-the-mill conservation ideas.
Peter Metcalf In some ways, it was really conservative because it really frozen the status quo in terms of what’s happening on the landscape right now around motorized and road building and timber harvest and stuff.
Aaron Bolton The bill would also give the Blackfeet Nation a say in how the federal government managed the Badger, including the ability to say no to new projects and land use proposals. Everyone involved tells me this bill was really on the cutting edge of land use designation. And then in 2020, Montana’s Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester actually introduces the bill in Congress.
Nick Mott This is a time when the government is so divided, so partisan over this bill’s chances.
Aaron Bolton At the time. People like Peter Metcalf were feeling really good about the protection act’s odds of actually passing because as it got into December, near the end of the Trump administration, all these small bills that would struggle to pass on their own or riding on the coattails of a monster must-pass budget bill. But the Badger-Two Medicine Protection Act never made it in, meaning it was technically dead.
Nick Mott So all these local players seem to be on the same page to get this done, but it dies at the federal level. Can’t they just try again with all that support on the ground?
Aaron Bolton They could. But the Tribal Business Council also had an election and a change in leaders. This new business council, they pulled support for the bill. That took conservationists like Michael Jamison with the National Parks Conservation Association by surprise.
Michael Jamison We all knew all along the way that that original bill was going to have to change, lots of tweaks along the way. We did not know that they would rescind support for it fully at some point in the future. No one did. It was a whole different council.
Nick Mott So why did that council support breakdown?
Aaron Bolton There were a lot of reasons, but a big one was a communication breakdown between the conservation groups and this new council. The council had some particular issues with the language in the bill, but the more they thought about what they wanted out of that legislation, the more they came back to this idea of getting this land that had once been a part of their reservation back entirely from the federal government.
Nick Mott So switching from this, you know, federal congressional protection act to asking for land back entirely is a pretty big pivot. How and why did the tribal council switch directions?
Aaron Bolton That switch in direction all starts with one person named Joe McKay He is, to some, a controversial figure. He’s a tribal member who’s a lawyer. He led an unsuccessful push to rewrite the Blackfeet Nation’s Constitution. And at one point, tribal officials tried to bar him from practicing law on the reservation. But he’s one of the people who convinced this new Blackfeet Tribal Council that the Badger-Two Medicine Protection Act was not the path forward
Joe McKay Because it is a sellout, a denigration of the rights of my ancestors and their sacrifices to reserve those resources for me and for all of our children to come.
Aaron Bolton There are a lot of layers to why Joe is against the bill. On a practical level, he thinks it would conflict with the tribes treaty rights in the Badger, though there’s some legal disagreement on that point. He also takes issue with conservation groups involvement in trying to get some kind of protection status for the land.
Joe McKay I view non-Indian environmentalists’ interest in these areas and in the reservation as being, in my view, in the same nature as colonization, and that is because they elevate their own interests and concerns over the interests of my people.
Aaron Bolton He says the tribe’s connection to the land is more important than any other interest, and that’s why he sees getting the land returned to the tribe as the only path forward.
Joe McKay If it were up to me, just me alone, I would create a protection for it. I would designate a protected area. But 20 years from now, a new generation were to say ‘geez things haven’t got better, we need to do something to help our people.” And that they decided that they needed to develop somehow those resources. In my mind, that’s their call. That’s their choice.
Nick Mott So Joe is all about sovereignty. The Badger-Two Medicine should belong to the tribe, and the tribe alone should decide what happens on that land. How widespread is that idea?
Aaron Bolton There is larger support for this idea of the tribe deciding how the Badger-Two Medicine is managed if it were to get the land back. The core of that argument stems from the late 1800s when the Badger and parts of what’s now the east side of Glacier National Park were still a part of the Blackfeet Nation’s reservation. Both pieces of land together are called the ceded strip.
Lauren Monroe You know, we talk about oral history and how it was handed down to my families.
Aaron Bolton This is Lauren Monroe. He’s the tribal council secretary. He says the story about how the tribe actually came to sell this land depends on who’s telling it.
Lauren Monroe There’s a lot of older people that feel that, you know, it was stolen from us, just legitimately stolen.
Aaron Bolton So in the late 1800s, the federal government had interests in the ceded strip because they thought there was gold and copper and silver in the land. Recorded history says the government offered to buy the strip from the tribe for $1.5 million. But Lauren says the government already wasn’t living up to past treaty agreements.
Lauren Monroe We were supposed to be getting government rations and it wasn’t happening. They were often rotted and people were starving to death and we lost over 600 members.
Aaron Bolton Lauren says annual payments stemming from previous land deals were also due to end. At the same time, another campaign from the federal government had killed off most of the Blackfeet’s major food source, which was bison. So with little money and no food, Blackfeet leaders at the time felt they had little choice but to agree to sell the ceded strip.
Lauren Monroe Yeah, it was made under duress. You know it wasn’t their first choice, you know, they wouldn’t have done it. I know that.
Nick Mott So what started as a fairly narrow conversation about oil and gas development on one chunk of land has evolved into this much bigger conversation about, as people like Lauren see at righting historical wrongs. Has total return of land like this ever happened before is what the tribal council is asking for here even possible?
Aaron Bolton Yeah, it’s actually happened pretty recently. In December of 2020, the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota returned 11,000 acres it had wrongfully taken from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. In 2016, a handful of tribes in Nevada were able to get Congress to pass a bill returning 71,000 acres of public land. But return is not always the case. The federal government has tried to find other ways to settle. The most notable is a 40 year old court settlement for the illegal taking of the Black Hills in South Dakota from the Sioux Nation.
Aaron Bolton The tribes that make up that nation haven’t taken this settlement, which is now worth over $1 billion. Instead, they continue to push for full return of the land through legislation. All of these are pieces of a social movement called “Land Back.” Krystal Two Bulls is the land back campaign manager for Indian Collective, which is this nonprofit that is a leader of this social movement and organizes protests like these.
Krystal Two Bulls For us, reclaiming land and land back also means reclaiming everything stolen from us when we were forcibly removed from the land. And that means reclaiming language and ceremony and culture in our identities.
Aaron Bolton Think health care, health outcomes, job opportunities, you name it, she says all of this stems back to Native Americans being forcibly removed from the land by the federal government. So reclaiming lands is reclaiming what they had before first contact by Europeans. Krystal says there is a spectrum of what land back can look like. With private land it can mean tribal nations buying land back or people gifting land back to tribes. When it comes to federally owned and public lands, there’s also co-management between tribal nations and the federal government.
Krystal Two Bulls Co-management is definitely a valid way of reclaiming land and of land back. But for us, we only support co-management if it is part of a longer strategy to fully reclaim those lands.
Aaron Bolton So while there is this spectrum, to Krystal it should be all leading to one place and that’s actual return of the land to tribes.
Nick Mott So is this social movement actually getting the kind of traction that people like Krystal are hoping for?
Aaron Bolton To Krystal, it is, on one hand, the main way tribes can get land returned is through federal legislation, and getting things through Congress can be really, really hard. But there are some recent developments that make Krystal hopeful, like having Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first indigenous person in that position, leading some of these key federal agencies. Krystal thinks that makes the Biden administration more likely to support specific legislation
Krystal Two Bulls With all of the different indigenous peoples that have been placed within, you know, USDA with the Department of Interior, we’re in a very unique place where we actually can push really hard right now and reclaim these lands.
Aaron Bolton But law professor Monte Mills at the University of Montana says there are still plenty of barriers, even with a potentially sympathetic Biden administration.
Monte Mills Tribes asserting claims to return those properties to the tribes and to their original owners can present some real challenging political determinations for Congress and for others who may see the interests that have developed in public lands as too important to be disturbed.
Nick Mott Tell me a little more about those interests in public lands.
Aaron Bolton Monte means public lands are a really, really big deal, especially in the West. Businesses like outfitters, guiding services, equipment retailers, they all rely on access to these public lands. Counties with big areas of federally owned land they get payments from the federal government, so there’s also public funding at stake. Monte and Krystal also say some public land users are afraid that tribes will limit access or mismanage the land. All of those interests pose real hurdles to any land back push, and Monte says the Badger-Two Medicine is no exception.
Nick Mott It’s not like there might be this kind of intractable conflict between land back, at least when we’re talking about public land and public lands focused conservation groups. Do you see these two interests as in any way reconcilable.
Aaron Bolton People like Krystal say they can be at odds, but they don’t have to be. She says the fear that tribal nations will completely cut off access or mismanage lands are just unfounded. Structuring return of lands around public interest because of those fears, she says, is an extension of colonization.
Krystal Two Bulls We’re done being told how to manage our own lands and how to be on our own lands and be in relationship to our own lands. That’s that era is done with. We’re moving into an era of truly leaning into reparations and leaning into repair and leaning into demanding what is just and what is right.
Nick Mott How are conservation groups here in Montana feeling about a land back push happening with the Badger-Two Medicine?
Aaron Bolton So far, Blackfeet political leaders say they have been talking to the federal government about what this could actually look like. But those talks have been behind closed doors. Conservation groups say they haven’t been involved. I asked Peter Metcalf with the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance what he wants to see. He says the Blackfeet’s connection to this place, it really does need to be protected. But he adds, the tribe needs to work out what land return would actually look like with the federal government.
Peter Metcalf And then the federal government has to decide, you know, is this in the national interest? Is this something that serves the national interest to do? And that’s true with any of these sorts of shifts and management arrangements.
Nick Mott So on one hand, we have the Blackfeet Nation making this very concerted push to get the land back. And on the other, we have conservation groups saying the American public needs to say in how this land is managed, where do we go from here?
Aaron Bolton As of now, that’s a bit unclear. The two sides aren’t really talking. Lauren Monroe with the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council says the tribe would welcome support from conservation groups, but says whatever happens, the tribe needs to take the lead.
Lauren Monroe I think the future is that we will continue to manage our own, our own territory and be involved with decision making and continue leading and making decisions that will benefit us as Blackfeet people versus someone else, which has always been throughout history for Blackfeet. We had to accept what was decided for us. Going forward maybe Indian people, Blackfeet can make their decisions and make their own destiny.
Aaron Bolton Despite the holding pattern on the future of the mandatory medicine Blackfeet political and traditionalist leaders, as well as conservation groups, they say they will continue to engage where there are shared interests. And for now, that remains what brought them together in the first place — the ongoing fight to rid the Badger of the last remaining oil and gas lease owned by Solenex as that court case is still ongoing.
Nick Mott Shared State is a production for Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. This episode was reported by Aaron Bolton, edited by Nicky Ouellet and produced by Mara Silvers. I’m your host, Nick Mott. My editorial assistants from Corin Cates-Carney, Brad Tyer and Nadya Faulx. Fact checking by Jess Sheldahl and our sound designer is Gabe Sweeney.