In the Beginning There Was Only Water: The Blackfeet Nation

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By Diana Dellinger:

In America today, there are over 660,000 American Indian and Alaska Native people who lack access to clean and reliable water sources or basic sanitation.[1]   Because of this, Native peoples and communities find themselves in a perpetual battle against poor health, unstable economies and inconsistent education for Native children.

Many Native nations, including the Blackfeet Nation of northwest Montana, continue to fight to survive daily without water, one of humankind’s most essential elements.  Prior to U.S. colonization, the Blackfeet Confederacy consisted of four powerful tribal nations. Their homelands encompassed millions of acres, extending as far north as the Saskatchewan River in Alberta, south to the Yellowstone River in southern Montana, the Rocky Mountains to the west, and eastward onto the Great Plains.[2]

From its very beginning, life on a reservation proved to be difficult for the Blackfeet.  By 1882, as the buffalo became extinct, due to the over-hunting by Euro-Americans, many Blackfeet people began to starve.[3]  As a means to promote an economy and self-sustainability, the U.S. government encouraged the tribal members of the Blackfeet Nation to become farmers and ranchers.  In the arid environment of the plains this would prove to be a difficult task.  The government’s promise of building irrigation systems never came true and by 1919 a drought ended the economic hopes of the Blackfeet.[4]  Income from oil and gas production has provided aid to the economy of the Blackfeet Reservation, yet the U.S. government continues to avoid the issue of water.

In 1908, [5] The Blackfeet Reservation sits among 518 miles of streams, and 180 bodies of water, (including 8 lakes).[6]  Lower St. Mary’s Lake is one such body of water, yet little water from this lake remains on the reservation.[7] In 1906, the U.S., through a Bureau of Reclamation project (the Milk River Project), diverted waters from St. Mary’s Lake, away from the reservation, in order to provide water to non-Native peoples.[8]  This project was done without the permission of the Blackfeet Nation.

It is inconceivable to think that while surrounded by some of America’s most naturally beautiful lands and waterways, and all that Mother Earth has to give, the people on the Blackfeet reservation live without the security and comfort of something many Americans take for granted, that being a stable and clean water supply. And, how can it be that agriculture is what drives Montana’s economy, but not the economy of the Blackfeet Nation? Issues and questions such as these reveal the attitude of the U.S. toward the Blackfeet people, and they speak volumes as to the trust relationship between the two.

For more than thirty years the Blackfeet have been working to resolve their waters issues with both the state of Montana and the U.S. government.[10]  Since the 1970s, like the swing of a pendulum, Blackfeet water rights have passed back and forth between state and federal laws. Sadly, with little resolve, and, while 30% of the people residing on the Blackfeet Reservation live without complete plumbing or kitchen facilities.[11]  In 2007, the state of Montana and tribal leaders of the Blackfeet Nation came to an agreement, and together wrote the Blackfeet-Montana Water Rights Compact, with state ratification occurring in 2009.[12] This compact could provide the tribe with a reliable long-term water supply, which will assist the Blackfeet with domestic, commercial, industrial and municipal needs.[13] Unfortunately, the compact has continued to wait almost a decade for congressional approval.[14] During this time, homes and reservation facilities have not had safe drinking water or sanitary waste disposal systems.  Because of this, schools are often closed, and unemployment remains excessive due to a lack of irrigation infrastructure, which would allow agricultural pursuits and jobs for the Blackfeet people. For over one hundred and sixty years, the U.S. government continued to ignore its trust responsibilities to the Blackfeet Nation, but on December 16th, 2016, President Obama signed into federal law the Blackfeet-Montana Water Compact.[15]  If tribal members agree to the compact, it will be up to the U.S. government to keep its word, and give back water which has always belonged to the Blackfeet Nation.

Today’s Blackfeet people believe they belong to their lands, and water is the foundation of their creation story.  The Blackfeet believe that before either land or people, there was only water.[16]  Carol Murray, Provost of the Blackfeet Community College states:  “Inherently, in the ancestral memory of our people, they know that we were placed here with the clean water.  We know Creator put us here because of our ability to stand up for what we believe in.”[17]  Water Resource Manager of the Blackfeet Reservation Jerry Lunak believes that, “we could fix ourselves with this…if we get this allocation and put our minds to work.  It must be why the old guys picked this spot for us.”[18] Regardless of the lush green fields outside the reservation, which is in stark contrast to the brown rangeland inside its boundaries, the Blackfeet will continue, just as their ancestors before them, to fight for their lands and waterways. Water is from where they began and the Great Plains of Montana has been their homeland since time immemorial.

Bibliography

Blackfeet Nation.  “Frequently Asked Questions About the Blackfeet Water Compact and Settlement Act.”  Accessed on April 23, 2017.  blackfeetnation.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/bf_FAQr105.pdf.

Blackfeet Nation. “Our Culture.” Accessed on March 19, 2017. blackfeetnation.com/our-culture/.

Blackfeet Nation. “Our Lands.” Accessed on March 21, 2017. blackfeetnation.com/lands/.

Blackfeet Nation.  “Water Compact.”  Accessed on April, 23, 2017.  blackfeetnation.com/watercompact/.

Blackfeet Nation.  “Water Compact:  Chronology.”  Accessed on April 23, 2017.  Blackfeetnation.com/watercompact/chronology/.

Grijalva, Raul M.  “Water Delayed is Water Denied:  How Congress has Blocked Water for Native Families,” 2016.  Accessed on March 17, 2016.  blackfeetnation.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/House-NRC-Water-Report-Minority-10-10-16.pdf.

Manatanka American Indian Council. “The Blackfeet Nation.” Accessed on March 20, 2017. htps://www.archivemanatanka.org/My Webs/page255.html.

Maclean, John.  “Blackfoot Mythology.”  The Journal of American Folklore.  Vol. 6, No. 22 (Jul.-Sept.,1893):  165-172.  Accessed on April 23, 2017.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/533004.

McNeel, Jack.  “10 things You Should Know About the Blackfeet Nation.”  Indian Country Today.  April 6, 2017. Accessed on April 23, 2017.  https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/history/people/10-things-you-should-know-about-the-blackfeet-nation/.

Snider, Annie. “Western Water:  Struggling Tribe Pins Hopes on Congress.” E&E News. December 24, 2015. Accessed on March 21, 2017. www.eenews.net/stories/1060030004.

[1] Raul Grijalva, “Water Delayed is Water Denied:  How Congress has Blocked Water for Native Families,” 2016, accessed on March 17, 2017, blackfeetnation.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/House-NRC-Water-Report-Minority-10-10-16.pdf.

[2] Jack McNeel, “10 Things You Should Know About the Blackfeet Nation,” Indian Country Today, April 6, 2017, accessed on April 23, 2017, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/history/people/10-things-you-should-know-about-the-blackfeet-nation/.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Blackfeet Nation, “Our Lands,” accessed on March 21, 2017, blackfeetnation.com/lands/.

[7] Annie Snider, “Western Water:  Struggling Tribe Pins Hopes on Congress,” E&E News, December 24, 2015, accessed on April 23, 2017, www.eenews.net/stories/1060030004.

[8] Blackfeet Nation, “Frequently Asked Questions About the Blackfeet Water Compact and Settlement Act,” accessed on April 23, 2017, blackfeetnation.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/bf_FAQr105.pdf.

[9] Annie Snider, “Western Water.”

[10] Blackfeet Nation, “Water Compact:  Chronology,” accessed on April 23, 2017, blackfeetnation.com/watercompact/chronology/.

[11] Raul Grijalva, “Water Delayed is Water Denied.”

[12] Blackfeet Nation.  “Water Compact:  Chronology.”

[13] Blackfeet Nation, “Frequently Asked Questions about the Water Compact and Settlement Act.”

[14] Raul Grijalva.

[15] Blackfeet Nation, “Water Compact,” accessed on April 23, 2017, blackfeetnation.com/watercompact/.

[16] John Maclean, “Blackfoot Mythology,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 6, No. 22 (Jul.-Sept., 1893):  165-172, accessed on April 23, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/533004.

[17] Annie Snider, “Western Water:  Struggling Tribe Pins Hopes on Congress,” E&E News, December 24, 2015, accessed on March 21, 2017, www.eenews.net/stories/1060030004.

[18] Annie Snider, “Western Water.”

About the author: Brian King

Brian D. King lives in Oklahoma and is a writer and blogger who studies and teaches English. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Brigham Young University, and he is currently working on his graduate degree in English in Oklahoma.

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