In 1992, Ed DesRosier wanted to offer visitors to Glacier National Park an experience that didn’t yet exist. Tourists learned about the park’s wildlife and the history of the iconic red tour buses that carried them to the park’s most breathtaking views. But the stories of the people who were connected to the landscape centuries before it became a tourist destination were not mentioned.
So DesRosier, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation in northwestern Montana, made it happen. But before he could become one of the few Indigenous people in the country licensed to operate a tour business in a national park, he would be arrested and have to fight in court for the right to tell the stories of his people and their home.
Despite once owning half of Glacier and now sharing a border along some of its most breathtaking terrain, the Blackfeet Nation has not yet tapped into the booming national parks tourism economy in any significant way, though such tourism generated $18.2 billion in park gateway communities last year.
It’s easy to imagine DesRosier, whose energy belies his 65 years, captivating tourists at the helm of one of his 10 Sun Tours buses, which have become ubiquitous on Glacier’s main roads in the summer. His official business came after many not-so-official tours; the corporate entity in charge of concessions in Glacier refused to give him a license to tell the Blackfeet stories he knew, but he gave tours anyway. DesRosier was responding to a common problem: Despite the fact that they comprise the ancestral lands of hundreds of tribes, few national parks offer visitors the sort of nuanced Indigenous view that DesRosier wanted to provide.
The Blackfeet want to fix this problem, and others, in a dramatic way. The tribe is working toward that goal through myriad avenues, including a plan to become one of the few tribes in the country to open its own national park, a way to assert the tribe’s place in the region’s history, protect its natural resources and provide new economic opportunities to its members, mostly in Browning, home to approximately 1,000 people and the largest community on the Blackfeet Reservation.
“The invisibility of the Blackfeet has a way of eliminating our connection,” DesRosier said. He sees taking advantage of the park tourism economy as more than just a chance for his tribe to reassert its connection to the park, but also as an economic opportunity. Despite once owning half of Glacier and now sharing a border along some of its most breathtaking terrain, the Blackfeet Nation has not yet tapped into the booming national parks tourism economy in any significant way, though such tourism generated $18.2 billion in park gateway communities last year. That’s where Blackfeet tribal members see an opportunity.
Surrounded by rolling plains, Browning’s western horizon is dominated by Glacier’s iconic craggy peaks. The eastern half of the park was once part of the Blackfeet Reservation, the first official boundaries of which were delineated by the federal government in the Lame Bull Treaty of 1855. The park’s northern and southern areas were occupied by Kootenai and Salish people, respectively. Both tribes were moved to the Jocko Reserve about 100 miles south of Glacier, to what is now the Flathead Indian Reservation, after the 1855 Hellgate Treaty.
The lure of potential mineral extraction in the Blackfeet territory’s western mountains brought the government back to the tribe’s doorstep in the 1890s. To earn funds for desperately needed food and supplies, the Blackfeet Nation ultimately agreed to sell the mountainous region and natural resource rights to the federal government for $1.5 million, as long as the land remained public. That sale, or lease, as many tribal members maintain, was negotiated in the still-contested 1895 Agreement. When the land was declared a national park in 1910, Blackfeet hunting and fishing rights were revoked, but gathering rights remained. Since then, Blackfeet people have been arrested and challenged in court while attempting to assert some of their treaty rights. Park and tribal officials alike say meetings between the groups rarely end without a discussion about Indigenous rights in Glacier.
According to the Missoula-based Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, non-resident spending in Glacier County, where the Blackfeet reservation is, totaled $92.7 million in 2016. On the west side of Glacier National Park in Flathead County, though, non-residents spent $505.5 million. Not all of that money is related to park tourists—the National Park Service said Glacier generated $275 million in gateway communities in 2017—but the disparity is glaring, nonetheless. After revitalizing a nearby campground, the Blackfeet tribe increased profits from the site 25 times in a single year, and tribal members see an opportunity there.
In a small corner office on a quiet Browning street, Blackfeet tribal member and the tribe’s recreation and tourism director, Stephanie Vielle, juggles strategies to improve the reservation for tribal members as well as tourists. Many Glacier visitors stop in Browning only for gas or to spend the night in a tribally-owned hotel before heading into the park early in the morning, she said. The trick is figuring out how to get them to stay longer.
“It’s kind of the big open question,” Vielle said. “I thought we didn’t really have a lot to offer at first, but now that I’ve been here and I see what’s going on, I see that we have a lot.”
According to Loren BirdRattler, project manager for the Blackfeet Nation’s ambitious Agricultural Resource Management Plan, that’s true. He said around 55 percent of Montana’s biodiversity is present on Blackfeet Nation’s 1.5 million acres. The management plan, including a proposal for a Blackfeet national park, is still being finalized and will go out for public comment in mid-February. BirdRattler said he and his team plan to put the plan in front of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council by May 1 for a ratification vote.
“When you think about how we utilize our ecology to augment our lives and practice traditions of the Blackfeet people, those would not only be preserved,” he said, “but would also underwrite other efforts in cultural preservation.”
Tribal parks are rare entities in the conservation world, but there are a few models to inspire the Blackfeet. The Navajo Nation controls a couple of parks open to tourists, and Ute Mountain Tribal Park is open to visitors accompanied by Indigenous guides. A tribe in Wisconsin is working on creating a park to protect a watershed–only part of it is open to the public, the rest is just tribally-accessed.
Plans are still in the conceptual phase, but BirdRattler said he imagines the tribal park could span a northwestern slice of the reservation all the way up to the Canadian border. Confident the plan will pass, Birdrattler and his team are working on a feasibility study to identify biodiversity protection hotspots in the area and quantify the potential economic benefits of a new park.
Some areas of the proposed park could also serve as an important piece of habitat for bison, an animal many Blackfeet tribal members hope will attract more tourists. The Blackfeet Nation has been leading the effort the reintroduce free-roaming bison to the Rocky Mountain Front, and a herd that descended from the animals who once roamed free in the area just returned to their reservation in 2016. BirdRattler said a new park would also protect the land, flora and fauna for future generations of Blackfeet.
DesRosier is glad these tribal leaders have taken a serious interest in developing a tourism economy, but he doesn’t think they’re moving fast enough. He also thinks Glacier National Park should be required to offer more opportunities to Indigenous people, an idea that compelled him to fight for his business all those years ago. He fought at negotiation tables and in appeals courts for two years before a judge ultimately expunged the charges against him, and Glacier Park Incorporated, the corporation that controlled park concessions at the time, offered him a full concession license.
At the zenith of his successful court battle, DeRosier’s legal team planned to base their argument on the rights ensured in the 1895 Agreement. Back then, hunting, fishing and gathering fueled livelihoods. He maintains that a modern interpretation of those rights includes business ventures like his. “What is livelihood and survival nowadays,” he asked. “Business opportunities, economic growth. When it was afforded to corporate America, it certainly should have been afforded to Native America.”
That said, DesRosier and many other Blackfeet tribal members agree that the park’s new superintendent, Jeff Mow, has helped shift the tides. Mow came to Montana for the Glacier job in 2013, following a long career in Alaska’s parks and Indigenous communities, an experience he said helped prepare him for his new role in the lower 48. He’s a vocal advocate for giving Indigenous people a seat at the table. In 2017, he agreed to move some of the park’s Native America Speaks programs onto the reservation for the first time and decided to open the tourist season with a Blackfeet blessing ceremony.
Mow thinks sharing a border with an Indigenous people living on their ancestral homelands puts Glacier in a unique position. “I can demonstrate what the best relationship between the park service and a tribe could be,” he said. In the future, if the Blackfeet tribe succeeds in opening a tribal national park, Mow said he’d like to include it in the existing international peace park, the first of its kind, which encompasses Glacier and Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park.
Though the Blackfeet Nation’s hold on a tourism economy hasn’t reached its full potential, DesRosier is optimistic that a stronger connection to Glacier could help reverse a century of Indigenous invisibility in the park.
“I think everybody could do better,” DesRosier said. “We have to have a presence in the park to move forward. I think there’s no limit in benefits to the Blackfeet in keeping strength as a tribe to that powerful connection.”
Samantha Weber is an M.A. candidate in the University of Montana’s Environmental Science & Natural Resource Journalism program. This story was edited by Graham Brewer and produced as part of the Crown Reporting Project at the University of Montana. It originally appeared at High Country News.