Leaders of the Blackfeet Nation joined Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at the headquarters of the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., on November 16, 2016. Photo by U.S. DOI

Blackfeet Nation scores victories on sacred sites and water rights

It's turning out to be a banner week for the Blackfeet Nation of Montana despite uncertainty in the political climate.

After decades of work, the tribe scored significant victories on two fronts. And both actions took place on Wednesday as a contingent of Blackfeet leaders were in the nation's capital to take stock of their long-overdue achievements.

"I came late to the dance and left with the prettiest girl," Chairman Harry Barnes said at the headquarters of the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.

Barnes was referring to the Obama administration's brokering of an agreement to protect the sacred Badger-Two Medicine Area from energy development. The land, which sits adjacent to the Blackfeet Reservation, was opened up to oil and gas drilling during the Reagan era more than 30 years ago.

"I'm sorry it took so long to get to this point," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, acknowledging the tribe's fight to reverse a series of decision that were made without prior consultation.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Blackfeet Nation Ceremony at the Interior Department

As a result of the agreement, Devon Energy Corporation canceled 15 leases it held on land with the sacred area. President and CEO David Hager said the decision was part of his company's efforts to "always do the right thing ... even when nobody is looking."

"It truly is a win-win situation," Hager said during the signing ceremony.

As Barnes, Jewell and Hager put their pens to paper, another Blackfeet leader was watching a different branch of the U.S. government take action. During a markup session that concluded Wednesday morning, House Committee on Natural Resources approved a bill that ratifies the tribe's water rights settlement.

Although H.R.5633, the Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act, still has some steps to go before it becomes law, the committee's move represent significant progress. It's the first time in more than six years that the bill has gotten this far in the legislative process.

Indianz.Com on YouTube: Blackfeet Nation Council Member Roland Kennerly Jr. [Video courtesy Rep. Ryan Zinke]

"It’s a great day for the Blackfeet," council member Roland Kennerly Jr., said on Capitol Hill in a video provided by the office of Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana), the sponsor of the bill. "It has been a long process --- many, many years, you know."

"My father worked on it, Earl Old Person worked on it throughout the years," he said, in reference to his late father, a former council member who passed away in 2004, and Earl Old Person, the tribe's 87-year-old chief. "We are just joyful that we got it through the markup."

With just a few weeks left in the 114th Congress, time is running out for lawmakers to take final action on the measure. But on the Senate side, the settlement has already been added to S.2848, the Water Resources Development Act, so it stands a good chance of becoming law by the end of the year.

"This is a giant step forward, truly historic. The Blackfeet have waited the longest and given up the most," Zinke, who won re-election to a second term on November 8, said in a press release.

Badger Creek in the Badger-Two Medicine Area in Montana. Photo by Blackfeet Nation

Back at Interior, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), who pushed for the water settlement in his chamber, noted that two leases remain active for drilling in Badger-Two Medicine. One of those has been mired in litigation for years and he pressed Jewell to try and resolve those remaining disputes.

"That might be the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae," Tester said.

In March, the Obama administration canceled one of the leases in Badger-Two Medicine but Solonex LLC has returned to court in hopes of overturning the decision. The company is represented by Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative group with ties to prior Republican administrations.

Republican president-elect Donald Trump has vowed to lift "restrictions" on energy development within his first 100 days in office. Despite the uncertainty, Chief Old Person, who has previously served as the tribe's elected chairman and on the council, offered some guidance as he delivered a prayer at Interior.

"Of all the things we are confronted with, all the things that are happening today, we don't know where we are going from here," Old Person said. "But we can still be strong."

Blackfeet leaders will participate in a screening and discussion of the film Our Last Refuge: The Badger-Two Medicine Story on Thursday afternoon at the National Museum of the American Indian. The documentary details the tribe's efforts to protect Badger-Two Medicine.

House Committee on Natural Resources Notices:
Full Committee Markup (November 15, 2016)
Full Committee Markup (November 16, 2016)

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