Illegal Oil Leases Cancelled on Blackfeet Nation Sacred Land

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Justice prevails for Blackfeet Nation after 30 years of fighting to protect its homeland 

Published November 17, 2016

BROWNING, MONTANA—The U.S. Department of the Interior Wednesday announced it would retire 15 of Devon Energy’s undeveloped oil leases in the Badger-Two Medicine region, a federally-recognized Traditional Cultural District encompassing 130,000 acres along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. The area is sacred to the Blackfeet Nation, containing many of the tribe’s traditional foods and medicines. It’s also home to the tribe’s creation story.

“We’re grateful that this administration and the leadership at Devon Energy have taken such a visionary step toward permanent protection of this area,” said Harry Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Nation Tribal Business Council. “The Badger-Two Medicine is like a church—a divine sanctuary—to our people.” 

“The Badger-Two Medicine is our land, it is everything to us,” Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person said. “Many years ago, our ancestors turned down payment for this area that is still the best traditional area that we have to hunt and gather medicine.” 

Devon Energy was the largest leaseholder remaining in the Badger-Two Medicine, with more than 32,000 acres in the heart of the region. The retirement of Devon’s leases is critical to protecting the area’s profound cultural and natural heritage. 

Thirty years ago, the Badger-Two Medicine was leased illegally without tribal consultation or assessment of environmental impacts. In March 2016, Sec. of Interior Sally Jewell, with the unanimous support of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, decided to cancel one lease in the area, due to impacts on the Blackfeet Nation’s cultural and religious practices. Sec. Jewell subsequently issued an order requiring the federal land agencies under her watch to better cooperate with tribes when assessing projects that might affect significant traditional or cultural sites. 

“We’ve opposed the development of this area for decades,” Barnes said. “We’ve had some high-powered support from friends like Senator Jon Tester and Montana Governor Steve Bullock, and now the Department of the Interior. With today’s announcement, Secretary Jewell has again acknowledged that drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine would cause devastation beyond repair.” 

“Secretary Jewell and the directors at Devon Energy have made a decision to right a wrong that was done to our people decades ago,” said Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray. 

Still, the fight to permanently protect Blackfeet sacred sites continues. At least one leaseholder has filed suit, asking the court to reinstate its lease so the company can begin drilling. The court has yet to rule, though initial briefings have been filed. Two other leases, covering 11,622 acres, remain in the Badger-Two Medicine. 

“We will continue our battle until all of the remaining leases are cancelled and the Badger-Two Medicine is permanently protected,” Murray said. 

Permanent protection involves returning sacred animals to the area as well. The Blackfeet Tribal Council recently passed a resolution to reintroduce wild bison to the Badger-Two Medicine. 

“We need to retire these leases because it’s essential to our culture and spirituality,” said Tyson Running Wolf, secretary of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. “This is important to our future as a nation.” 

On Thursday, November 17 at 4:30 p.m., Blackfeet Nation leaders will host a screening of “Our Last Refuge,” a documentary about Blackfeet’s 10,000-year history and connection to the sacred Badger-Two Medicine. The film screening will be held at the Elmer & Mary Louise Rasmuson Theater of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. A panel discussion with Blackfeet leaders will follow. Members of the media are invited to attend and can RSVP at or call 703-864-7770. 

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