John Murray, the Blackfeet Tribe’s historic preservation officer says the Badger-Two Medicine is sacred land. As he walks through the tall dry grass here, he refuses to give life to the idea that this land will be disturbed in search of natural gas.
The Badger-Two Medicine area is 165,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land adjacent to Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
A Louisiana town councilman who owns an energy company called Solenex has a lease to develop oil and gas in the Badger-Two Medicine area. He’s now pressing for permission to do exploratory work, after decades of legal battles.
For John Murray it's about protecting the history and future of the Blackfeet people.
"I don’t think we are just going to turn the other cheek, or roll over and play dead for a Louisiana town councilman. I don’t think that is going to happen... It's not an option. It wont happen," Murray says.
The Badger-Two Medicine is the site of many Blackfeet ceremonies. Mountains on the landscape are named after characters in their creation stories.
"And this area, this landscape, this solitude, this inextricably inalienable relationship we have with the Badger-Two Medicine would be destroyed if they came in here and started drilling, building pipelines, roads and bridges…electrical power lines. They would destroy that… For what?" Murray asks.
An 1896 treaty with the U.S. Government removed the Badger-Two Medicine land from the Blackfeet reservation, making it part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
Some members of the tribe say the land was signed over to the U.S. government under the assumption it was a lease, for 99 years. Similar agreements had been made between the Blackfoot people and the U.S. government.
As Murray leads the way on what is sometimes a path through young trees, and sometimes an open field, he occasionally stops to catch his breath and says people need to be more mindful on how we live on and use land.
The wind starts to blow as he overlooks a small valley and points across to a forested hill.
"If we don’t change our way about that soon, we’ll be looking for another planet. The well is just at the top of that hill over there."
He’s pointing the land leased to Solenex.
The Badger-Two Medicine’s northern border touches the Blackfeet reservation.
At a cafe in the reservation town of Browning, 28-year old Kendell Edmo says she’s just now starting to appreciate the significance of the land. She says the Tribe is strong and resilient, but that drilling would be another great cultural loss for the Blackfeet.
"And so I think if the Badger-Two Medicine is drilled it would take a huge emotional toll on everyone here."
When Edmo was in school she studied the Blackfoot language. She learned how to count to ten, recite basic colors and say hello. Edmo didn’t grow up around a lot of Blackfoot cultural teachings. She didn’t go to ceremonies. She didn’t know a lot about the cultural history of the Blackfeet.
"I think there is a perspective out there, and I certainly held that belief before I started working, that culture wasn’t as important as I thought it was today. And I would really like the younger generations to know more about our culture because it is important and I just wish I would have known that at an earlier age."
Edmo says the Badger-Two Medicine opened the door for her education in the culture of the Blackfeet.
What’s at stake if drilling is allowed in the Badger-Two Medicine, she and Tribal Historian John Murray say, is a physical symbol of their struggle to keep Blackfeet culture in living memory. They don’t want to lose what keeps their community bound together, just when it is starting to come back to life.
"Having a community, you need a community I think, everyone does, they need a community to belong to as a support system and to thrive and to grow as a human being…It's really important to have that community," says Edmo.
In the decades that span the land dispute in the Badger-Two Medicine John Murray says more young Blackfeet have come to that understanding.
"But now you are starting to see this revival, this resurgence, this renaissance… re-flowering of Blackfoot value knowledge system. For me to live this long and to see that in kids… it makes me happy."
Murray was a young man when joined the effort to keep drilling out of the Badger-Two Medicine. He’ll turn 69 on his next birthday.
On Wednesday, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation is offering a public meeting in Choteau to take comments on the suspended permits to drill in the Badger-Two Medicine.
See the first part of this series: Making Sense Of The Decades Long Badger-Two Medicine Drilling Dispute