Just south of the Canadian border, in the northwest corner of Montana, lies the town of Browning, which sits at the heart of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Today, the town of Browning is the largest community on the reservation and is home to around 9,000 members of Blackfeet nation.
It is estimated that the Blackfeet people have occupied the Rocky Mountain region for upwards of 10,000 years, long before Lewis and Clark explored the Great Plains.
Two hundred years ago, the four bands that make up the Blackfeet – North Piegan, South Piegan, Siksika, and Blood – roamed the northern plains as nomads in pursuit of buffalo.
Today, this way of life is far from reality for the Blackfeet people.
While treaties have since restricted the range of the Blackfeet people, this is just one of the challenges facing the community today.
The people of the Blackfeet Nation are suffering.
Their community is plagued by poverty, high unemployment, a failing education system, suicide, drug abuse, discrimination, violence, inadequate healthcare, and a culture that could disappear if it is not steadfastly protected.
It’s impossible to pinpoint a single reason why these issues exist on the reservation.
While alcoholism, corruption, drug abuse, and long distance commutes all exacerbate the problems, John Koppisch, Forbes staff writer, has a different view “… those are just symptoms. Prosperity is built on property rights, and reservations often have neither. They’re a demonstration of what happens when property rights are weak or non-existent.”
Native American reservations are unique in that they are considered sovereign nations, but the balance between larger government control and self-governing is still out of tilt.
Though the community is suffering, there are leaders within the community who are working towards social change.
The De La Salle Blackfeet School, a LaSallian San Miguel school, is providing an option in a community where having choices is uncommon.
The school, which hosts Manhattan College students for the annual L.O.V.E. Montana trip, provides a safe haven and supportive community for students in Browning.
Robert ‘Smokey’ and Darnell RidesAtTheDoor, native Blackfeet, consultants, and educators on the Blackfeet world view, are also doing their small part to preserve the culture and heritage of a people whose language and cultural traditions are at risk of being lost.
By meeting with immersion groups, student groups that visit the school to provide classroom help, both Smokey and Darnell are dispelling cultural taboos and providing insight into the cultural traditions of the Blackfeet people.
By sharing their creation story, the many facets of Native American spirituality, and the influence that policy has had on the Blackfeet nation, the story of the Blackfeet people is kept alive.
The Piegan Institute is another catalyst for social change.
The institute’s mission is “to serve as a vehicle to research, promote, and preserve Native Language.”
Because of the foundation of the Cuts Wood School, a language immersion school on the Blackfeet reservation, the number of Blackfeet language speakers is growing, along with a sense of cultural knowledge and positive change within the community.
While small changes take time for their impact to be felt, it is these efforts of community-based change that will hopefully influence larger policy change, advocacy, and awareness, about a community that is fighting for a voice.