The Blackfeet Nation and conservation groups are working to protect stolen Badger-Two Medicine lands and restore Blackfeet right to manage their homeland.
Rivers were always a big part of Jessy Stevenson’s life. Today, she’s the Montana Public Lands Fellow with American Rivers, a non-profit focused on protecting rivers, so it’s no wonder she describes the Badger- Two Medicine Area* near Glacier National Park as a confluence.
A river confluence is a powerful place. Here, two bodies of rushing water become one. At times, the meeting point is chaotic — rapids may form, different colored waters swirl and churn. The force is palpable. But then, journey downstream a bit, and suddenly the two have become one. Something larger and grander for the sum of its two parts.
The Badger-Two Medicine Area is a cultural confluence. To the north, it’s hugged by Glacier National Park. To the east lies the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and to the south, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. This pristine region is almost entirely roadless. Its mountains and valleys, its wetlands and rivers are strikingly beautiful and provide critical habitat for plants and wildlife.
Like two mighty rivers meeting, Badger-Two Medicine brings together the Blackfeet Nation’s long-standing area roots and conservation groups’ commitment to protecting this magical part of the Rockies.
The Blackfeet Nation, with support from conservation organizations such as the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance and National Parks Conservation Association, are working to codify protections and gain their right to co- manage this area with federal land managers.
Through innovative legislation, they’re aiming to preserve the area’s cultural heritage, protect the landscape through permanently banning things like oil and gas extraction and road construction and restore Blackfeet rights to management of this land.
Badger-Two Medicine is the cultural backbone of the Blackfeet Nation. This land is sacred. It’s the Blackfeet’s source of knowledge and wisdom. Here, their origin stories were born, their ceremonies are held. But the land means more to the Blackfeet than simply Spirituality.
“It’s a living cultural landscape,” says John Murray, the Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer whose work over the years in partnership with Dr. Maria Zedeño, has scientifically proven that Blackfeet presence on the land goes back at least 13,000 years.
It’s the last unmarred place the Blackfeet have to continue their way of life.
In the early 1800s, the Blackfeet Nation extended all the way from Saskatchewan in northern Canada to present-day Yellowstone National Park. Today, their land comprises a 1.5-million-acre reservation east of Glacier National Park.
By 1895, the mighty Blackfeet Nation was dwindling. Bison had been driven to near extinction, thanks to overhunting by white settlers and the Blackfeet had been forced to give up much of their land. The U.S. government suspected there was gold and copper in the mountains around Glacier National Park and offered to buy the land, including Badger-Two Medicine, from the Blackfeet for $1 million.
The tribe’s original price point had been a $3-million lease, but facing starvation, they agreed to a $1.5-million lease of the land with hunting, gathering and fishing rights, according to Tarissa Spoonhunter, a Blackfeet assistant professor at Central Wyoming College.
While Federal Indian law states that ambiguous treaties should be interpreted the way the tribe understood them at the time, the U.S. government denied the Blackfeet their understood rights and treated the treaty as a cession, according to Joe McKay, a Blackfeet attorney. By 1910, Glacier had become a national park. The bill which created the park did not mention the Blackfeet and their rights to the land.
“It’s a complicated relationship,” says Stevenson, whose family tree includes both Blackfeet ancestors and national park and forest service veterans. “I love recreating in the park, but it was founded on the colonial conquest of my ancestors.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a better embodiment of the confluence Badger-Two Medicine represents than Jessy Stevenson.
Stevenson’s mother is a descendant of the Pikuni Blackfeet and traces her lineage on land near Browning, Mont., as far back as her family can remember. Stevenson spent her summers visiting family in Browning and along Lower St. Mary’s Lake on the reservation, hunting for arrowheads and learning to respect the land.
Stevenson’s deep ties to this land come from more than just her Blackfeet heritage, however. Her white great grandfather, the son of a miner, was the chief engineer for the Glacier Park Hotel Company. He raised her grandfather in East Glacier, fostering a love of the land in him that turned into a 40-year career with the U.S Forest Service. Stevenson’s father worked as a wrangler and trapper in his younger years and later started his own woodworking and carpentry business, instilling the importance of conservation in his daughter from a young age.
“In Badger-Two Medicine where the mountains meet the prairie, the two sides of my story overlap,” shares Stevenson. “It’s a deeply sacred landscape and it’s where my roots are the deepest. Coming here feels like coming home.”
In the late 1890s, Stevenson’s great, great, great Blackfeet grandmother was issued a wooden bread bowl by the U.S. government as part of an effort to dismantle Native American culture and forcibly assimilate the Blackfeet to Euro-American culture, including “American” foods. The bowl was passed down the generations, used to make bread and sometimes butter. It eventually ended up in the hands of Stevenson’s mother.
“It’s an important reminder of the pain and trauma my family endured and a reminder of the duality of my own heritage,” Stevenson reflects. “As a white-passing tribal descendant, it’s a reminder of the privilege I’ve grown up with and simultaneously a reminder of the oppression and hardship that part of my family still lives with.”
Oil and Gas Threat
Starting in the 1980s during the Reagan era, oil and gas leases were sold in Badger-Two Medicine. This created the confluence we see today of the Blackfeet and conservation groups working together to fight each incoming lease.
“The Badger-Two Medicine has been a unifying force on the reservation and throughout the area,” says National Parks Conservation Association program manager Michael Jamison.
In 1997, all leases were indefinitely suspended in the area, but it wasn’t until2017, that the U.S Department of Interior permanently cancelled all lease sales. One of the lease holders, Solonex, sued to reinstate its lease. In June 2020, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals denied reinstatement of the lease. Solonex’s lead legal council? William Perry Pendley who was then the soon-to-be appointed director of the Bureau of Land Management by the Trump administration.With all oil and gas leases gone, it has brought forth the opportunity to permanently protect the sacred Badger-Two Medicine area.
A bill was introduced by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana in 2020 to create a new designation for Badger-Two Medicine, a cultural heritage area. The bill didn’t gain any traction in Congress and upon deeper review in 2020, the Blackfeet Nation withdrew their support. Joe McKay, a Blackfeet attorney who is working on drafting new legislation for protecting the area, sees the Blackfeet desire for legislation as more than a way to codify their spiritual connection to the land.
“We want inherent rights to manage the land,” says McKay. “Previous attempts at legislation have only given us consultation rights. We have legal, moral and political interests in this area. We have the right to co-manage it.”
Conservations groups agree.
“We want to make sure any legislation does what it needs to do for the Blackfeet,” Jamison says. “Most of the conservation is already in place for the area. New legislation would codify it, but what really matters about this movement is tribal sovereignty. We’re glad to get another opportunity to see how we can make it better.”
Restoring Blackfeet Rights To Co-Manage the Land
The Blackfeet are working towards a solution that permanently protects the land from threats like oil and gas drilling and motorized and non- motorized vehicles, such as mountain bikes, but also grants the Blackfeet co-management rights, not simply consultative roles.
“When there was a push to designate one of the rivers as a Wild and Scenic River, I said, ‘Scenic it is, but wild it isn’t,’ ” muses Murray. “We’ve been managing this land for over 13,000 years. It isn’t ‘wild.’”
Our current public land protection designations have often fallen short. For example, the highest designation of protection in the U.S., often considered the “gold standard,” is a Wilderness Area. The Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, is best described by its author, Howard Zahniser, “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
In theory, wilderness areas were designed to prohibit motorized travel, resource extraction, commercial enterprises, roads and other human impacts on the land.
Yet there are flaws in wilderness areas that future designations aim to remedy. For example, wilderness areas still allow dams to be built under certain circumstances.
Stevenson hopes that any future designations in Badger- Two Medicine would also explicitly protect rivers and streams, prohibiting water development and dams.
“New designations, such as cultural heritage areas, aren’t a threat to public lands,” Stevenson explains, addressing controversies over the legislation. “They’re the opposite. They’re an opportunity to implement what works well in designations like Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers and create something even better and more equitable.”
Another important piece that’s missing in the Wilderness Act is Indigenous participation.
“We’ve never been given power to help co-manage our ancestral homelands,” says Spoonhunter. “We’ve been denied our rights to this land for so long, but we still have the relationship to it.”
The Blackfeet’s story isn’t unique. Across the United States, land we now call public – national parks, forests, wilderness areas – were stolen from their Indigenous owners. New designations take a step in bringing Native voices back into the conversation.
“We’re so proud of our public lands in this country,” says Stevenson, “and we should be. They represent decades of hard work and commitment to wild places. But while we celebrate them, we must also acknowledge the darker parts of their history and sit with that discomfort. It’s okay to be uncomfortable, that means there’s opportunity for growth. We all belong to the land and it’s our responsibility to work toward change.”
Be a Responsible Public Land Owner
There are so many resources dedicated to helping white people learn about the history of public lands, such as Native Land Digital and Montana State University’s Native Land Project.
When Stevenson’s out hiking in Montana, she asks herself whose land she is on. Whose stories were born in these places? Why is this trail or lake named this? What was it called originally?
“There’s often this mentality that being outdoors is a solo activity, a time for us to write our own stories,” Stevenson muses. “But I think it’s important to keep in mind that mine is just one story rooted in the place I’m experiencing. My experience feels so much richer knowing that I’m not alone.”
Stevenson is using wisdom gained from her ancestry to work toward creating something that, like when two rivers collide, is more than the sum of its parts. “We’re always surrounded by other stories, ” she says. “We just have to listen for them.”
Badger-Two Medicine is not well developed or easily accessible. Bathrooms and well-maintained trails are not available. Visitors to the Crown of the Continent are encouraged to respect Blackfeet ancestral homeland and recreate in the nearby areas of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness rather than in Badger-Two Medicine.
Support legislation to protect the area by donating to the Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Office, P.O. Box 850, Browning, MT 59417 or online at the Glacier Two Medicine Alliance at GlacierTwoMedicine.org.
*Some Blackfeet prefer to call the area the Blackfeet Unit of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, but since the Blackfeet Nation website still refers to it as Badger-Two Medicine, and it is widely referred to by this name, we have chosen to use it.