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Page 14 ■ Thursday, March 22, 2012


Nation & World Oil exploration plans suspended at Blackfeet sacred site in Montana

By TRISTAN SCOTT For the Associated Press

leases across much of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s western edge has suspended plans to drill a well near a culturally sa- cred ridge, halting the operation after tribal members voiced concern that it would spiritually denude the site. The ridge, called Red Blanket Butte, is

located northwest of Browning and about six miles from Glacier National Park’s eastern edge. It has long been honored as a spiritual reservoir and burial ground by Blackfeet traditionalists who still visit the site on vision quests, for fasting and to observe other cultural ceremonies. The Denver-based Anschutz Explora-

An energy company with oil and gas

cultural value, decided to organize oppo- sition to the drilling operation. “Growing up in a traditional setting,

preserving our culture is important to me,” Falcon said. “I fi gured if I got the word out I could help stop it, but I knew I had to act fast.” Armed with a knowledge of federal

regulatory acts such as the Native Ameri- can Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the Executive Order of Indian Sacred Sites, Falcon was aware that federal agencies are required to rec- ognize and accommodate the ceremonial use of culturally signifi cant areas. “I started spreading the word and

once people were aware of the proposal they really responded,” he said.

tion Corp. proposed drilling an explor- atory oil and gas well on a 640-acre lease unit near the ridge, called Red Blanket 1-13, and recently conducted an environ- mental assessment of the project. As the public comment period drew to a close last week, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Blackfeet Agency’s Tribal Historic Preservation Offi ce received strong oppo- sition from tribal members who argued that the drilling would infringe on the religious site. “We work closely with regulators, the

“Growing up in a traditional setting, preserving our culture is important to me. I fi gured if I got the word out I could stop it, but I knew I had to act fast.”

tribe and the community to address these issues when they arise,” said Margot Tim- bel, Anschutz senior vice president, in a prepared statement from the company. “The environmental assessment process worked as it was intended. It identifi ed a critical issue to be addressed by the agen- cies and Anschutz.” ■■■■■

Tribal Business Council to lease land along the western edge of the reservation for oil and gas exploration allows Anschutz to drill exploratory wells on a 400,000-acre tract of reservation land, which abuts Glacier Park’s eastern boundary. Ron Falcon, who is studying environ- mental science at Blackfeet Community College, said he learned of the proposed Red Blanket well site in an environmental law and ethics class. The Blackfeet man said he comes from a traditional family background and, recognizing the ridge’s

A 2006 resolution by the Blackfeet

– Student at Blackfeet Community College Ron Falcon

ter opposing the energy project is Annie Belcourt, who grew up near Red Blanket Butte and whose family owns land in the area. Belcourt said her grandparents, sis- ter, aunts and uncles are buried at the site. Her ancestors documented the cultural signifi cance of the site in ethnographic histories that provide accounts of Okan ceremonies, or Sun Dances, which the Blackfeet hold in the highest regard. “This area has cultural, ecological,

spiritual and familial importance to my family and the Blackfeet Tribe. This area is only six miles from Glacier National Park and is home to the headwaters of the Cut Bank and later Missouri rivers. It is one of the most beautiful and culturally signifi cant areas of the nation,” she wrote.

One tribal member who wrote a let-

“The cultural and spiritual legacy of our children is too precious for us to jeopar- dize for short-term profi ts.” Woody Kipp, a Blackfeet Community

College instructor and journalist, was a founding member of the Pikuni Tra- ditionalist Association, and along with other tribal members fought to keep the United States Forest Service from allow- ing oil and gas development in the rugged and remote Badger-Two Medicine region, a 139,000-acre area named for the two rivers that fl ow through it. Kipp was also instrumental in passing

a resolution that banned development, in- cluding oil and gas exploration, on Chief Mountain, which holds deep cultural and religious signifi cance to the Blackfeet. To- day, drilling is prohibited within a mile of the mountain’s base. ■■■■■

Reservation’s 1.5 million acres leased for oil and gas exploration, and renewed in- terest in development on a tract of land directly adjacent to Glacier National Park’s eastern border, Kipp said the stakes are higher today. At the same time, unemployment

But with virtually all of the Blackfeet

ring on the reservation. Known as “frack- ing,” or hydraulic fracturing, the process involves mixing chemicals with millions of gallons of water and forcing the slur- ry into underground rock formations at high pressure. The fracking process breaks apart rock beds and creates path- ways to draw out the oil and gas deposits contained within. Destini Vaile, a tribal member who has studied the fracking process for sev- eral years, opposes full-fi eld development on the reservation. She recently started a Facebook group called the Blackfeet Anti- Fracking Coalition to help disseminate information about the oil and gas devel- opment and inform the public. ■■■■■

word about Red Blanket Butte and ulti- mately halt the operation, which he views as a success. But, he said, it remains im- portant to recognize that development is widespread and affects more than isolated patches of land. “Just because a well isn’t directly on

among reservation residents hovers around 70 percent and the deal could be a fi nancial windfall for a tribe badly in need of resources. “It’s what you call a conundrum,” he

said. “And it’s hard to put up a defense. “These are sacred sites, culturally and

environmentally,” he continued. “They go way back into our cultural history. My brother slept up on that ridge for his vi- sion quest. If you were to drill at a place like Red Blanket, that’s an encroachment on God’s territory. People and their sto- ries are buried up on that hill, and we go there to contact them. But a very small percentage of Blackfeet people under- stand that signifi cance today, and even if they did they might not have much con- cern for protecting it. I’m 66 years old and I don’t see many people picking up on the activism we started 40 years ago.” Increasingly, a group of young and

informed tribal members have been ramping up efforts to inform the Black- feet community about the controversial method of oil and gas extraction occur-

top of a site doesn’t mean there is no im- pact,” he said. “They’re drilling vertically thousands of feet, and then drilling out horizontally up to 10,000 feet.” The technology is at odds with the re-

Falcon, 31, used the site to spread the

quirements and guidelines of the Tribal Historic Protection Offi ce, he said, ex- plaining that companies are allowed to build exploratory wells as long as they are not within 150 feet of culturally sig- nifi cant sites, called “traditional cultural properties,”

cairns and tepee rings. Not far from the recently suspended

including buffalo jumps,

well site is another well called Red Blan- ket 14-1, which Falcon said is built in an area where stone alignments, burial sites, buffalo jumps and tepee rings have been discovered. Other stakeholders are raising ques- tions about what safeguards are in place to protect the land’s natural resources as well as its cultural signifi cance. Anschutz, one of the fi rst companies

to lease a large part of the Blackfeet Res- ervation, recently renewed its interest and is actively looking for oil and gas, having hydraulically fractured its fi rst well in

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