By AARON BOLTON • JUN 23, 2021
Originally published on June 22, 2021 5:53 pm
Millions of people will flock to Montana’s Glacier National Park this summer after last year’s pandemic-caused tourism skid, and they will once more be able sightsee and camp nearby on the recently reopened Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
The tourists’ return is a relief to the owners of the restaurants, campgrounds and hotels forced to shut down last summer when Blackfeet tribal leaders closed the roads leading to the eastern side of the popular park.
Those closures fed worries that a major economic driver for residents on the reservation would be crippled. But the tribe’s priority was protecting its elders and stemming the spread of the coronavirus. It worked: The closures and the tribe’s strictly enforced stay-at-home orders and mask mandate led to a low daily case rate held up as an example by federal health officials. Now, boasting one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation, the reservation is back open for business.
Seeing most traffic in three decades
On a recent day at the Two Sisters Café, a stone’s throw from Glacier National Park’s eastern boundary, workers stacked dishes and stocked freezers in preparation for a busy season as demand soars for the wide-open spaces national parks can offer during the lingering pandemic.
Susan Higgins, co-owner of the café, said she’s seen more traffic whiz past her door than she’s seen at this time of year in nearly three decades. Some passersby stopped and poked their heads through the front door of the restaurant known for fresh huckleberry pies, only to leave disappointed because the restaurant didn’t open for the season until mid-June.
The situation is nothing like last year, when Higgins and sister Beth worried they would rack up massive debt just to survive. With the help of government loans and other grants, they were able to cover their bills and maintain their savings to expand the business.
“When everything happened, we were initially, of course, just concerned about just making it to this year,” Susan Higgins said.
Despite the uncertainty of the past year, Higgins said she supported the stringent measures taken by Blackfeet tribal leaders. The pandemic has disproportionately affected Native Americans, something Higgins is keenly aware of.
“With such a vulnerable population, I would have hated to see what would have happened last year if we had been open, especially with the issue of getting people to mask up,” Higgins said.
Last year, the number of Glacier visitors plunged to 1.7 million after a record 3 million people visited in 2019. Those who did come stayed and spent their money in non-Blackfeet communities on the western side of the Continental Divide.
CDC praises control measures
The measures the tribe took slowed but didn’t stop the spread of COVID-19. Daily cases surged in September, after the Northwest Montana Fair and Rodeo in August and Labor Day weekend, leading to a strictly enforced stay-at-home order, the tribe’s third, issued Sept. 28.
Daily cases then dropped from a peak of 6.4 per 1,000 per day on Oct. 5 to 0.19 on Nov. 7, a 33-fold drop that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held up as an example that such restrictions work.
Out of roughly 10,000 reservation residents, fewer than 50 Blackfeet tribal members have died of COVID-19 to date. Kimberly Boy, Blackfeet department of revenue director and a member of the incident command team that leads the tribe’s pandemic response, said she is certain their actions saved lives.
“It was the toughest job I’ve had so far in my life,” Boy said. “We had moved aggressively and extremely restrictive[ly] only due to the fact that our primary goal was to save as many lives as we can.”
The efforts bought time until the COVID-19 vaccines became available. Then, the tribe mounted a serious campaign that has resulted in about 85% of the total population — over 90% of adults — being fully vaccinated, according to tribal officials. The national average is about 44%, according to the CDC.
The Blackfeet’s vaccination campaign then stretched into Canada when tribal officials set up a clinic at the border for their counterparts in the Blackfoot Confederacy. The Blackfoot Confederacy, of which the Montana Blackfeet nation is a part, includes affiliated First Nations tribes who live on the Canadian side of the border.
The idea for the makeshift clinic was conceived after U.S. and Canadian officials denied requests to ship vaccines over the border, Blackfoot Confederacy Health Director Bonnie Healy said.
“We were joking, and I said that we’ll just have the Canadians from the confederacy stand on one side of the border and you guys vaccinate us over the fence and we’ll get it done,” Healy said.
Healy said that’s exactly what happened in a sense, and the clinic was aptly named the “medicine line vaccine clinic,” referencing what the Blackfeet and Blackfoot call the U.S.-Canadian border that separates the different bands of the tribe.
Vaccines boost reopening confidence
Mark Pollock, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, and others said the strong vaccination rate on the reservation in Montana is giving the tribe the confidence to open to tourists this summer.
Pollock hopes the season will go smoothly and COVID-19 can be eliminated among tribal members or cases remain very low. However, if cases rise, he said, the tribe could reduce the current 75% capacity limit on dine-in restaurants and bars, as well as reintroduce restrictive measures like curfews and limits on gatherings.
“Whatever it takes to get that number back down, get a handle on it,” Pollock said.
Jackie Conway owns the Heart of Glacier Campground near Glacier’s east gate with her husband, Steve, a tribal member. Conway said even with all 40 of her RV and camping sites booked for the season, she still can’t make up for last year’s 100% loss. Government relief helped the business survive over the past year.
She’s happy there will be a tourism season this summer but knows in the back of her mind that tribal leaders could shut things down anytime.
“The tribe gets spooked pretty easy. So, you just don’t know,” she said.
Angelika Harden-Norman owns the Lodgepole Gallery & Tipi Village just outside Browning, the reservation’s largest city. Standing in the gallery full of artwork by her late husband, Darrell Norman, and other Blackfeet tribal members, she said it’s up to business owners to keep guests safe and make sure this pandemic tourist season goes smoothly.
She used grant money to move her art gallery from the center of her home to another room with better ventilation. She’s also renovated the bathrooms of the two cabins for overnight guests so they are no longer shared.
“I will do my best to take the responsibility … by asking people to wear a mask when they come indoors to check in, to have hand sanitizers,” she explained.
At Two Sisters Café, Susan Higgins stood inside an unfinished drive-thru coffee stand just outside the restaurant. Higgins said she and her sister had thought about building a coffee stand in the past, but it was the uncertainty of how this season would go that pushed them to do it.
Higgins added she is requiring her workers to be vaccinated and hopes that will allow her to avoid shutting down her business this summer. So, for now, the coffee stand will serve as an addition to her business, but it’s also a Plan B should there be another shutdown.
“Primarily it is to assure ourselves of a continued cash flow should we get shut down again,” she explained.
Copyright 2021 Kaiser Health News. To see more, visit Kaiser Health News.
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Among the places in America opening up again after COVID-related closures is the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. It was closed to tourists for more than a year, and that’s a big deal because it borders Glacier National Park and relies on tourist spending. As Montana Public Radio’s Aaron Bolton reports, local residents are more than ready to start greeting visitors again.
AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Blackfeet tribal member Susan Higgins owns Two Sisters Cafe, just down the road from a park entrance. This spring, when it was still unclear whether the reservation would be shut down for another tourist season, she was worried.
SUSAN HIGGINS: It’ll put us in the hole, and we will struggle desperately for another season in order to just get open.
BOLTON: At the time, she was building a drive-thru coffee stand in case tribal officials wouldn’t allow people inside her restaurant. Now she’s excited to welcome visitors back.
HIGGINS: I am so ready to go back to work. I am not a person who does well without a schedule. I need tasks. I need a plan.
BOLTON: Kimberly Boy, a member of the team that leads the tribe’s pandemic response, says they knew that closing for the summer tourist season was going to be a hardship. The University of Montana says the year before the pandemic, visitors on or near the reservation spent $120 million.
KIMBERLY BOY: We had moved aggressively and extremely restrictive only due to the fact that our primary goal was to save as many lives as we can.
BOLTON: That included shutting down tourism-related businesses all year and imposing strict stay-at-home orders off and on, like in September when a large fair in a neighboring county caused a spike in COVID cases. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked into whether the orders were effective.
BOY: When I read that report, I really let out a sigh of relief.
BOLTON: It found that cases fell more than thirtyfold after the stay-at-home order was issued. Nationwide, the pandemic has hit Native Americans disproportionately hard, but fewer than 50 Blackfeet tribal members have died of COVID to date. An aggressive vaccination campaign has helped, too. The tribe launched that before the vaccines even arrived from the state and the federal Indian Health Service, or IHS, in December. The tribe put this video on its website, featuring a puppet dog asking local health experts about the rollout.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So what kind of vaccine is IHS going to give me?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: At the moment, the IHS has ordered the Moderna vaccine. Hopefully, the first supply of the vaccine will be available by the end of 2020.
BOLTON: Today, Tribal officials say about 85% of the total reservation population is fully vaccinated. That’s nearly twice the rate for Americans overall. The tribe’s Kimberly Boy.
BOY: We’re feeling pretty confident about being able to open up. Because of the vaccine, you know, we feel like we finally have some type of defense.
ANGELIKA HARDEN-NORMAN: Hello.
BOLTON: How are you doing?
HARDEN-NORMAN: Doing good.
BOLTON: Angelika Harden-Norman owns the Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Village in Browning, the reservation’s largest city. She sells Blackfeet artwork and rents a couple of cabins.
HARDEN-NORMAN: I have to show you the common room for the cabin guests.
BOLTON: Harden-Norman was able to weather the 15-month closure with the help of grants from the tribal and federal governments, but says she needs to have a successful season this year in order for her business to survive. Despite the financial hardship, she was supportive of last year’s shutdown and the tribe’s vaccination campaign.
HARDEN-NORMAN: The tribe did really a tremendous job to keep us all safe. They really did an excellent job.
BOLTON: She had added incentive to stay closed last year, as her now late husband, a Blackfeet artist, was battling cancer. And she says tribal leaders were worried that the COVID pandemic would wipe out large numbers of Blackfeet people, as other diseases like smallpox did in the past. For the last several weeks, though, cases on the reservation have not exceeded the single digits. Tribal officials say they are monitoring COVID indicators and are ready to take action again should the virus surge.
HARDEN-NORMAN: All this history made them very alert. And I can only say, I try my best. I don’t want history repeating itself.
BOLTON: Harden-Norman is still requiring masks in her gallery and has set up an outdoor gathering space for guests staying in her cabins. She doesn’t want to fuel an outbreak that could lead to another shutdown.
For NPR News, I’m Aaron Bolton, reporting from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.