By Katie Morrison Explorebigsky.com contributor
The land northeast of Glacier National Park is a place of raw, striking beauty.
Here, wildflowers form droplets of color amid tall grasses in summer, teal blue water refracts glacial sediment, and waterfalls pour over monumental cliffs. Winter storms replenish the mountains’ crisp white glaciers, and winds howl through dry plains surrounding the foothills.
Such wildness makes it hard to imagine that an entire people has inhabited this region in great numbers since the early 1700s.
The harsh climate requires strength to survive, and offers grand rewards for the accomplishment. This strength is a quality the Blackfeet Nation has demonstrated for more than 300 years.
Chief Mountain, elevation 9080 feet, sits between Glacier Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, near the Canadian border. It jets up from the surrounding foothills and is the first thing you see on the way to the reservation from Cut Bank.
“That mountain is very important to our people,” says Terry Tatsey, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe. “It marks the northern area of our summer hunting grounds.”
A sense of loss hangs in the air here, an unspoken knowledge that the nomadic lifestyle of his tribe disappeared in the late 1800s, with the near extinction of the American bison, which they hunted and relied on for their entire way of life.
Following this loss, the Blackfeet culture’s lifestyle was hampered by immobility and dependency. The tribe suffered from widespread starvation and illness.
The land today speaks to the stewardship of thousands of years, the way its people have treated it differently here. Unlike many other parts of the state, nearly all the plants are native on the reservation. With very few fences, the horses and cows graze together.
The clouds tend to linger on mountaintops, instead of being blown in by the gusty winds.
Combined with the slow, even cadence of Tatsey’s voice, it’s enough to transport you to another time, another culture, another place.
The reservation is headquartered in Browning, a town of 1,000. The tribe’s rich history and colorful past is not immediately evident here. Poverty seeps through the main street, reflecting a near 70 percent unemployment rate and the substance abuse issues that mire the community.
The Blackfeet Community College is a beacon of hope among the dilapidated buildings. Its recently built, LEED Platinum-certified Southwind Lodge stands as a symbol of what is possible.
Built as part of a 10-year master plan for the campus, the lodge also exemplifies BCC’s motto: “Remember our past, build our future.” The building embraces the historic Blackfeet tradition of living off the land – but does so through use of modern technology. The prospect of utilizing energy from the ground and sun are certainly not new ideas; rather, they are a return to what the Blackfeet people have always known.
“If you step back and think, they really have it right,” said Wayne Freeman, of CTA Architects, who is managing the project. “They know what is important to teach kids. Everything needs to have a green component to it – it’s part of their heritage to protect the land.”
The master plan also addresses other issues that create roadblocks to higher education. Onsite student housing, childcare, a student health and recreation center and common area will provide a supportive atmosphere and the resources that will allow students to finish their programs.
Students from the reservation who attend BCC before going on to a four-year university have a much higher success ratio than those who go directly from high school, according to BCC President, Billie Jo Kipp.
Future goals include constructing additional energy efficient buildings that emulate the Southwind Lodge. Planning for this expansion has included input from the tribe and the town of Browning on how to address community needs. Healthcare, unemployment, poverty, childcare and sustainable energy were considered, as well as education initiatives.
The vision: Upon graduation, students will have workforce skills immediately transferrable to growing industries in the region including green energy, ranching, land resource management, nursing and construction. Having an educated workforce will help individuals, Tatsey says, and contribute to a healthier community.
Katie Morrison loves the new perspective a different culture offers. She was excited to find such an adventure in the state she has always called home. Morrison is the Operations Director at Outlaw Partners.