Blackfeet Nation Reopens For Tourism As Vaccination Rates Climb
The Blackfeet Indian Reservation is opening up for the tourism season as droves of visitors head to Glacier National Park. The reservation was closed to tourists for more than a year, and that’s a big deal because many residents rely on tourist spending. Local residents are more than ready to start greeting visitors again.
Blackfeet tribal member Susan Higgins owns Two Sisters Cafe, just down the road from the St. Mary park entrance. This spring, when it was still unclear whether the reservation would be shut down for another tourist season, she was worried.
“It’ll put us in the hole and we will struggle desperately for another season in order to just get open,” Higgins says.
At the time, she was building a drive-thru coffee stand, in case tribal officials wouldn’t allow people inside her restaurant.
Now the stand is nearly finished, and Higgins is excited to welcome visitors back. She hopes the coffee stand will serve as an addition to her business rather than a backup plan.
“I am so ready to go back to work. I am not a person who does well without a schedule. I need tasks. I need a plan.”
In March, members of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council voted to reopen roads leading to Glacier National Park, and park officials reopened the park’s eastern entrances.
Kimberly Boy, a member of the team that leads the tribe’s pandemic response, says the team knew that closing for the summer tourist season last year was going to be a hardship. The University of Montana says the year before the pandemic, visitors on or near the reservation spent $120 million.
“We had moved aggressively and extremely restrictive only due to the fact that our primary goal was to save as many lives as we can,” Boy says.
That included shutting down tourism-related businesses all year, and imposing strict stay-at-home orders off and on. For example, in September the Northwest Montana Fair & Rodeo in Flathead County caused a spike in COVID-19 cases on the reservation. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked into whether the orders were effective.
“When I read that report, I really let out a sigh of relief,” Boy says.
The report found that cases fell more than 30-fold after the stay-at-home order was issued, and fewer than 50 Blackfeet tribal members have died of COVID-19 to date.
Nationwide, the pandemic has hit Native Americans disproportionately hard, and according to state data, Native Americans account for 10% of COVID-19 cases while making up 7% of the state population.
An aggressive vaccination campaign has helped the Blackfeet tribe keep its death toll down, too. The tribe launched that before the vaccines even arrived from the state and the federal Indian Health Service in December. The tribe put this video on its website, featuring a puppet dog asking local health experts about the rollout.
Today, tribal officials say about 85% of the total reservation population is fully vaccinated. That’s nearly twice the rate for Americans and Montanans overall.
“We’re feeling pretty confident about being able to open up because of the vaccine. We feel like we finally have some type of defense,” Boy says.
Angelika Harden-Norman owns the Lodgepole Gallery & Tipi Village in Browning, the reservation’s largest city. She sells Blackfeet artwork and rents a couple of cabins.
Harden-Norman was able to weather the 15-month closure with the help of grants from the tribal and federal governments, but says she needs to have a successful season this year in order for her business to survive. Despite the financial hardship, she was supportive of last year’s shutdown and the tribe’s vaccination campaign.
“Because the tribe did, really, a tremendous job to keep us all safe.”
She had added incentive to stay closed last year, as her now-late husband, a Blackfeet artist, was battling cancer. And she says tribal leaders were worried that the COVID-19 pandemic would wipe out large numbers of Blackfeet people as other diseases like smallpox did in the past.
For the last several weeks, though, cases on the reservation have not exceeded the single digits. Tribal officials say they’re monitoring COVID-19 indicators and are ready to take action again should the virus surge.
“All this history made them very alert, and I can only say I try my best. I don’t want history repeating itself,” Harden-Norman says.
Harden-Norman is still requiring masks in her gallery, and she has set up an outdoor gathering space for guests staying in her cabins. She doesn’t want to fuel an outbreak that could lead to another shutdown.