Montana’s Blackfeet Tribe Welcomes Tourists Again After Risky Closure

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Millions of people will flock to Montana’s Glacier National Park this summer after the tourism slippage caused by last year’s pandemic, and they will once again be able to visit and camp near the recently reopened Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

The return of tourists is a relief for owners of restaurants, campgrounds and hotels forced to close last summer when Blackfoot tribal chiefs closed roads leading to the eastern part of the popular park.

These closures have fueled fears that a major economic engine for residents of the reserve could be crippled. But the tribe’s priority was to protect their elders and stem the spread of the coronavirus. It worked: Closures and strictly enforced stay-at-home orders and the tribe’s mask mandate led to a low daily case rate cited as an example by federal health officials. Now, with one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, the reservation is once again open for business.

Recently, at the Two Sisters Café, a stone’s throw from the eastern edge of Glacier National Park, workers stacked dishes and stored freezers in anticipation of a busy season as demand for the great outdoors national parks can. offer during the persistent pandemic.

Susan Higgins, co-owner of the cafe, said she has seen more traffic pass her front door than she has seen at this time of year in nearly three decades. Some passers-by stopped and stuck their heads through the front door of the restaurant known for its fresh blueberry pies, but left disappointed as the restaurant only opened for the season in mid-June.

The situation is nothing like last year, when Higgins and his sister Beth feared going into massive debt just to survive. With the help of government loans and other grants, they were able to cover their bills and keep their savings to grow their business.

“When it all happened, we were initially, of course, just concerned about getting to this year,” said Susan Higgins.

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Despite the uncertainty of the past year, Higgins has said she supports the strict measures taken by the Blackfeet tribal chiefs. The pandemic has disproportionately affected Native Americans, which Higgins is keenly aware of.

“With such a vulnerable population, I would have hated to see what would have happened last year if we had been open, especially with the issue of having people masked,” Higgins said.

Last year the number of visitors to the glacier plunged to 1.7 million after a record 3 million people visited in 2019. Those who came stayed and spent their money in non-Blackfeet communities on the west side of the Continental Divide.

Actions taken by the tribe slowed but did not stop the spread of COVID. Daily cases increased in September, following the Northwest Montana Fair and Rodeo in August and Labor Day weekend, leading to a strictly enforced stay-at-home order, the third in the tribe, issued September 28.

Daily cases then fell from a peak of 6.4 per 1,000 per day on October 5 to 0.19 on November 7, a 33-fold drop that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited as an example of how such restrictions.

Of an estimated 10,000 residents of the reserve, less than 50 members of the Blackfeet tribe have died from COVID to date. Kimberly Boy, director of revenue for Blackfeet’s revenue department and a member of the incident command team leading the tribe’s response to the pandemic, said she was certain their actions had saved lives.

“It was the hardest job I’ve had so far in my life,” Boy said. “We acted aggressively and extremely restrictively[ly] only because our main goal was to save as many lives as possible. “

The efforts saved time until COVID vaccines became available. Then the tribe mounted a serious campaign that resulted in around 85% of the total population – over 90% of adults – to be fully immunized, according to tribal officials. The national average is around 44%, according to the CDC.

The Blackfoot vaccination campaign then spread to Canada when tribal officials set up a border clinic for their counterparts in the Blackfoot Confederacy. The Blackfoot Confederacy, of which the Blackfoot Nation of Montana is a part, includes affiliated First Nations tribes who live on the Canadian side of the border.

The idea for the makeshift clinic was conceived after U.S. and Canadian officials rejected requests to ship vaccines across the border, said Blackfoot Confederacy Health director Bonnie Healy.

“We were kidding, and I said we’ll just have the Confederation Canadians standing on one side of the border and you will vaccinate us over the fence and we will,” Healy said.

Healy said that was exactly what had happened in a sense, and that the clinic was aptly called the “drug line vaccination clinic,” referring to what the Blackfoot and the Blackfoot call the Canada-US border that separates the different bands of the tribe.

Mark Pollock, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, and others said the high vaccination rate on the Montana reservation gives the tribe the confidence to open up to tourists this summer.

Pollock is hopeful that the season goes smoothly and that COVID can be eliminated among tribesmen or that cases remain very low. However, if cases increase, he said, the tribe could reduce the current 75% capacity limit at restaurants and bars, as well as reintroduce restrictive measures such as curfews and limits on gatherings.

“Whatever it takes to bring that number down, get it under control,” Pollock said.

Jackie Conway is the owner of Heart of Glacier Campground, near the east gate of Glacier, with her husband, Steve, a member of the tribe. Conway said even with her 40 RV and camping spots booked for the season, she still couldn’t make up for last year’s 100% loss. Government assistance has helped the company survive for the past year.

She is happy that there is a tourist season this summer, but knows deep down that the tribal chiefs could shut things down at any time.

“The tribe gets scared quite easily. So you just don’t know, ”she said.

Angelika Harden-Norman owns the Lodgepole Gallery & Tipi Village just outside Browning, the largest town on the reserve. Standing in the gallery filled with artwork from her late husband, Darrell Norman, and other members of the Blackfeet tribe, she said it’s up to business owners to protect guests and make sure may this pandemic tourist season run smoothly.

She used the grant money to move her art gallery from the center of her home to another room with better ventilation. She also renovated the bathrooms in both cabins for overnight guests so that they are no longer shared.

“I’ll do my best to take responsibility… by asking people to wear a mask when they come inside to check in, to have hand sanitizers,” she explained.

At the Two Sisters Café, Susan Higgins stood inside an unfinished drive-thru coffee stand just outside the restaurant. Higgins said she and her sister have thought about building a coffee stand in the past, but it was the uncertainty of how this season would unfold that prompted them to do so.

Higgins added that she is demanding that her workers be vaccinated and hopes this will allow her to avoid shutting down her business this summer. So for now, the coffee stand will serve as an addition to his business, but it’s also a Plan B if there were to be another stop.

“It’s mainly about making sure we have a continuous cash flow if we close again,” she explained.

This story was produced in partnership with Montana Public Radio and NPR. KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a non-profit news service covering health issues. This is an independent editorial program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


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