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Culture Over Economy: Blackfeet Nation Feeling The Impacts Of COVID-19 Closures

Signs warning about activity restrictions on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation due to the COVID-19 pandemic stand on all roadway entrances to the reservation, September 2020.
Rob Chaney
The Missoulian

Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana is one of the most-visited parks in the country. But this summer, the Blackfeet Nation made the unprecedented call to close the park’s eastern entrances in hopes of keeping COVID-19 off its reservation.

Victor Yvellez brings us this look at the economic fallout of the tribe’s decision.

When the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park opens for the summer, tourists from across the world flood in, bringing tourism dollars vital to the region’s economy. In a normal year, it attracts around 3 million visitors. But this year wasn’t normal.

This summer, only the occasional vehicle would pass by Frogs Cantina in St. Mary’s, which borders the eastern edge of the park.

"Right now we have absolutely nobody going by. And there would be normally a string of cars going by."

That’s Cantina owner, David Flamand.

Visitation to the park this year was down 48 percent according to National Park data. Since the start of the pandemic, all visitors came in through the park’s western entrances; none came through the east, where Flamand operates.

"Normally we'd have 30 cars in the parking lot, if not more."

Flamand is just one of around 8,000 members who live on or near the Blackfeet Reservation, and his business falls within reservation boundaries, along with the eastern edge of the park. When the pandemic hit the U.S., the tribe paid attention from the get-go. James McNeely, interim Public Information Officer for the tribe, explains why.

"As you know, we went through the smallpox epidemic back in the latter 1800s, which wiped out two thirds of the Blackfoot confederacy in its entirety. Then, of course, the Spanish Flu that came in 1918."

McNeely estimates that the Blackfeet Nation is down to less than 20 fluent speakers, and has been in danger of losing its language for more than 30 years. McNeely says with the onset of the virus, the tribe focused on protecting its culture over its economy. 

"The late Darryl Robes Kipp said it best, that if we ever lose our language, we lose our identity."

On March 16, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council voted unanimously to reaffirm an emergency declaration issued the day before by Tribal Chairman Tim Davis. In the following days, the council implemented a stay-at-home order, shut down all non-essential traffic and vacation rentals, and closed the five eastern entrances leading into Glacier National Park.

It was a bold move by the tribe. And they knew it. Stacy Keller, a member of the Council, describes it this way.

"... Closing the park, it wasn’t something we did lightly. We felt that there's no way that we could control even half of that population that came in."

Just weeks after the tribe’s initial lockdown. The Tribal Business Council had to decide whether to re-open with the state or keep their borders and the east entrances to the Park closed.

On June 29, the Council made the call, effectively closing the eastern entrances to the park for the remainder of the tourist season.

Both Native and non-Native businesses took a hit.

Mark Howser, and his wife, Colleen O’Brien, own and operate the Glacier Park Trading Company, the only general store in East Glacier.

"Colleen you ran some numbers last night, what was our net loss so far? Was it 85 percent," Howser asks.

"It’s actually 90 percent," Colleen says.

The decision to close the east entrances to Glacier National Park severely impacted their usually thriving business.

"A normal year, pre Corona, we employ 27 employees," Howser says. "This year, of course, with the virus, we are only able to offer two employees part time employment."

A photo from June 06, 2020 shows the closed St. Mary entrance into Glacier National Park, which borders the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The Blackfeet Nation has maintained travel closures longer than Glacier Park or the state of Montana.
Credit Aaron Bolton / Montana Public Radio
Montana Public Radio
A photo from June 06, 2020 shows the closed St. Mary entrance into Glacier National Park, which borders the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The Blackfeet Nation has maintained travel closures longer than Glacier Park or the state of Montana.

They say they supported the tribe’s decision not to reopen for the rest of the season, but admit their business outlook is grim without further government aid. State economic stabilization grants have been set aside for East Glacier businesses affected by the shutdown, but are only a stopgap measure.

"Having Glacier Park's entrances closed, is probably the single most damaging aspect of the tribe’s shutdown. We do count on those tourists," Howser says.

Roughy $110 million in non-resident spending occured in Glacier County in 2018, according to the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. As the full economic impact of the tribe’s decision hit home, Councilwoman Keller says the tribe knew the stakes.

"Yes, we affected many businesses, including our own local people that depend on that summer income. We weighed all the factors."

She says that economic loss is one thing, but losing lives is another.

"It was really a tough decision. But in discussing the matter with an individual, he made my mind up. He said, ‘There's gonna be casualties either way, but you can only recover from one.’"

Last week, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council voted to continue a stay at home order on the reservation until November 8. The east entrances to Glacier National park remain closed.

This story is the first in a three-part series supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, The Missoulian and the Montana Media Lab at the UM School of Journalism.

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