Montana Is Open, But For Now The Blackfeet Nation Is Closed

Jun 17, 2020
Originally published on June 19, 2020 4:43 pm

Montana has one of the country's lowest coronavirus infection rates and is welcoming tourists back again. Earlier this month, it dropped a two-week quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors put in place in March. But not everyone is on board with the decision.

The Blackfeet Nation, whose reservation borders Glacier National Park, is maintaining a two-week quarantine order and lodging restrictions for non-residents. Restrictions are set to expire at the end of the month, but tribal leaders have already extended them once and could do so again. That uncertainty has businesses dependent on the roughly $110 million local tourism economy looking for ways to survive until next season.

Lodgepole Art Gallery and Tipi Village owners Darrel Norman (left) and Angelika Harden-Norman in their home art studio. The Normans aren't rushing to get back to business. So far there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the reservation and they don't want to bring in the first case.
Aaron Bolton / Montana Public Radio

For more than 25 years, tribal member and owner of the Lodgepole Art Gallery and Tipi Village Darrel Norman has set up about a dozen tipis on his property, providing guests with a unique place to stay as they explore Glacier National Park about 30 miles away.

"Bookings are still coming in and all we can say is we're closed through June," Norman said. "We doubt we'll open the tipi camp after that. Costs, just all the things considered, it would probably not be the wisest thing to do."

He hopes to salvage his season by mostly selling traditional and contemporary Blackfeet artwork in his home art gallery. Still, he understands the tribe's caution in attracting tourists to the reservation.

Tribal leaders say restrictions are protecting reservation residents with limited access to healthcare, particularly elders, who commonly live with their children and grandchildren. So far there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the reservation.

"We don't want to be the ones who bring in the first case," Norman said.

But tribal member Nathan St. Goddard is pushing the tribe to open back up to visitors sooner rather than later. He owns Johnson's of St. Mary restaurant and campground, perched on a hill overlooking Glacier National Park's currently closed east entrance.

"Our authority is the Tribal [Business] Council and right now, they want to stay closed. And I think it's really frustrating on our end because I personally think social distancing enforcement is more realistic than total shutdown," St. Goddard said.

Cars line up at the west entrance into Glacier National Park on June 12. Montana is welcoming nonresidents back to the state.
Aaron Bolton / Montana Public Radio

He adds that if the reservation doesn't open back up to tourists or the east gate to the park doesn't open, he'll likely have to shutter the business his grandfather started 70 years ago for good.

As tourists flow into the west gate of Glacier, tribal leaders and park officials say they are negotiating when the east gate to the park, just outside of the reservation boundary, will open.

Glacier attracted a little more than 3 million people last year. Not all of those people crossed or stayed on the reservation, but Blackfeet COVID-19 Incident Commander Robert DesRosier says even a fraction of those numbers would pose a great risk to local residents. He says it's unclear what it will take to welcome tourists back.

"It's the million-dollar question as far as I'm concerned," DesRosier said. "I can't tell you we're going to open up fifth of July, fourth of July, sixth of July. It's impossible for me to say that."

DesRosier says he understands the tribe's decisions are causing economic pain, but he says it's his job to look at this as an issue of protecting human life and not an economic crisis.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Montana has one of the country's lowest coronavirus infection rates, and it is throwing the door back open to tourists. The state has dropped a two-week quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors. Not everyone is on board with this decision, like the Blackfeet Nation, whose reservation borders Glacier National Park. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND CHIMES)

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: For more than 25 years, Blackfeet tribal member Darrel Norman has set up dozens of teepee near his home on the reservation, providing guests from all over the world with a unique place to stay while exploring neighboring Glacier National Park.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND CHIMES)

BOLTON: Hello.

DARREL NORMAN: Come in. Let me get my mask.

BOLTON: Norman's home gallery is full of traditional Blackfeet-style paintings and art. It's normally bustling with tourists this time of year. But with the Blackfeet tribal government not going along with the state and maintaining a 14-day quarantine order and lodging restrictions on nonresidents, it's quiet now. And the future is unclear.

NORMAN: Bookings are still coming in, and all we can say is we're closed through June. We doubt that we're not going to open a teepee camp after. Costs, just all the things considered - probably not the wisest thing to do.

BOLTON: Tribal leaders say the population here is vulnerable to COVID-19 and that the restrictions have helped spare residents from the pandemic. While Norman hopes to salvage his season by mostly selling artwork, he understands the tribe's caution.

NORMAN: We don't want to be the ones who bring in the first case.

BOLTON: But tribal member Nathan St. Goddard says local leaders aren't listening to the economic concerns of businesses like his. He owns Johnson's of St. Mary restaurant and campground, perched on a hill overlooking Glacier National Park's east entrance.

NATHAN ST GODDARD: Our authority is the tribal council, and right now, they want to stay closed. And I think it's really frustrating on our end - is because I personally think that social distancing enforcement is more realistic than just total shutdown.

BOLTON: St. Goddard says without tourists from the park, he'll likely have to shutter the business his grandfather started 70 years ago. With things here at a standstill, communities on the other side of the park that doesn't border the reservation are welcoming back tourists. A park ranger says it's busy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We had the Lake McDonald Lodge parking filled up around 9:30 this morning, so pretty early.

BOLTON: Tribally owned businesses say they need either economic relief or to open again to tourists. Some are frustrated Blackfeet leaders haven't specified what it will take for the reservation to welcome visitors back. Glacier attracted 3 million people last year who spent more than $100 million in tribal communities.

Robert DesRosier is the Blackfeet incident commander.

ROBERT DESROSIER: It's a million-dollar question, far as I'm concerned. I can't tell you that we're going to open 5 of July, 6 of July, Fourth of July. It's just - it's impossible for me to say that.

BOLTON: DesRosier says he understands the tribe's decisions are causing economic pain. But he says it's his job to look at this as an issue of protecting human life and not an economic crisis.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton reporting from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.