On Friday, October 30, the Blackfeet Nation’s cultural leaders took a powerful stand on behalf of their traditional religion and sacred sites.
With support from partners in the conservation, hunting and angling communities, the Blackfeet Pikuni Traditionalist Association and Brave Dog Society took steps to challenge the legality of an energy lease and drilling permit granted in the Badger-Two Medicine region, an area of critical importance to Blackfeet heritage. Recognized as a Traditional Cultural District in honor of its many ancient cultural sites, the Badger-Two Medicine is home to the Blackfeet Nation’s origin stories and Sun Dance.
In Friday’s action, the Blackfeet cultural leaders requested that a federal district court in Great Falls, Montana reopen a lawsuit originally filed in 1994 that seeks to protect Blackfeet heritage and the region’s wild nature against the threat of oil and gas development. The lawsuit was administratively closed in 1997 after the federal oil and gas lease that it challenges, which is held by Solenex LLC, was subjected to an indefinite suspension of operations and production by the federal government.
The lease and the lawsuit have both remained in limbo since that time, but now Solenex has filed its own lawsuit in Washington, D.C. in an effort to force the government to lift the suspension of its lease so that it can begin exploratory oil and gas drilling within the Badger-Two Medicine region, possibly as early as next summer. As a result of a court order issued in Solenex’s lawsuit, federal officials must decide by November 23 whether to lift the suspension or instead begin a process to cancel the Solenex lease.
With the prospect that the suspension may be lifted and drilling may be authorized, the Blackfeet cultural leaders asked the Montana court to reopen their lawsuit that challenges the legality of any such drilling.
In so doing so, the Pikuni Traditionalist Association and Brave Dog Society emphasized that they appreciate that the federal government has been engaging respectfully with the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council concerning the Badger-Two Medicine leases. However, the Pikuni Traditionalist Association and Brave Dog Society do not represent Tribal government. Rather, these groups represent Blackfeet religion, culture and heritage. Re-engaging this legal matter reflects unwavering dedication to cancelation of the challenged lease. History has proven this to be a complicated issue, and the keepers of Blackfeet culture and tradition must explore all possible options and follow every lead to resolve the lease conflicts.
Solenex’s legal effort to force industrial access to this sacred land is active in a Washington, D.C. courtroom. However, the D.C. court has denied outside requests for participation in the case. As a result, the history and future of Blackfeet culture are being debated between the people who gave the lease and the people who received the lease. Currently, the Blackfeet Nation, Blackfeet traditionalists, and their partners are not at the table. Re-engaging this legal matter in Montana provides a seat at the table for Blackfeet and Blackfeet culture.
Conservationist, hunting, angling and stock user groups have joined the legal action in support of the Blackfeet cultural societies leading this effort. As the original 1994 plaintiff list shows, these partnering groups have long sought a lease-cancelation remedy. They have chosen to re-engage this historic fight here at home in Montana.
The Blackfeet Nation, Blackfeet cultural leaders and their partner plaintiffs are not against responsible oil and gas development. In fact, the Blackfeet Nation has issued many oil and gas leases on the reservation, and the Tribe’s cultural leaders have supported many of those decisions. Cultural and Tribal leaders are not, however, willing to pursue such development at the cost of the Blackfeet’s cultural identity and the lands that support that identity. The Blackfeet position is that appropriate development must be balanced with other concerns, including fundamental cultural interests. While oil and gas development is important, there are places—such as the Badger-Two Medicine—where other values clearly take precedence.
Tim Preso, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9699
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.