An energy company with oil and gas leases across much of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s western edge has suspended plans to drill a well near a culturally sacred 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 Exploration Corp. proposed drilling an exploratory oil and gas well on a 640-acre lease unit near the ridge, called Red Blanket 1-13, and recently conducted an environmental 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 Office received strong opposition from tribal members who argued that the drilling would infringe on the religious site.
“We work closely with regulators, the tribe and the community to address these issues when they arise,” said Margot Timbel, Anschutz senior vice president, in a prepared statement from the company. “The environmental assessment process worked as it was intended. It identified a critical issue to be addressed by the agencies and Anschutz.”
A 2006 resolution by the Blackfeet 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 environmental 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 cultural value, decided to organize opposition to the drilling operation.
“Growing up in a traditional setting, preserving our culture is important to me,” Falcon said. “I figured 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 American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the Executive Order of Indian Sacred Sites, Falcon was aware that federal agencies are required to recognize and accommodate the ceremonial use of culturally significant areas.
“I started spreading the word and once people were aware of the proposal they really responded,” he said.