For the last three months the Blackfeet Nation has seen its government come to a screeching halt much like that of the federal government did in October.
Gridlock among Blackfeet Tribal Council members has created dire situations for many of the tribal citizens. For those in need of food assistance or help with electrical bills that often cover heating there has been nothing. With the dead of winter hitting northwestern Montana, and seeing temperatures below zero for days at a time, the lack of assistance has seen citizens sitting in their cars just to stay warm.
“We had three families with small kids living in their cars to stay warm because they had their utilities turned off. You don't know if you were going to work day to day, even get paid, or be fired. And it still continues and there's no resolution in sight,” according to one citizen who requested not to be named.
The Blackfeet Constitution requires a quorum of six council members to make decisions regarding the tribes finances. Some of the infighting council members are currently under federal indictment for corruption. According to the Great Falls Tribune, the “dispute within the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council has divided its membership down the middle, with neither side of the nine-member body retaining enough votes to approve resolutions or authorize public expenditures.”
“I deal with the communities a lot. This government here has really affected our people,” says tribal elder Clayton Arrowtop Knot, one of the medicine bundle keepers of the Blackfeet Nation.
“We got hundreds of people that couldn't pay their electric bills—including elders. A lot of people go sell and pawn every valuable thing they own just to keep their lights on.”
Repeated calls to the Blackfeet Nation council and chairman Willie Sharp were not returned.
With an unemployment rate of 70 percent according to the BIA, Arrowtop Knot describes how a hierarchy of sorts associated with the tribal government has created riffs among the community.
“They won't help none of our children, they help their own. Somebody won't even be able to afford school clothes or food, while the kids next door whose parents and relatives are in the tribal council are driving around in brand new dually pick-up trucks and brand new 4-wheelers. It's so corrupt here and so bad here,” Arrowtop Knot says.
“But we're used to hardship. The only way we get out of this is if we start helping each other because those others care less about us. If we speak out we go to jail.”
Although there have been donations sent from across the country to help get lights turned on to those deemed neediest via the Hopa Mountain non-profit organization, there are still a lot of people without essentials.
Arrowtop Knot himself has donated extra blankets to those without heat, money, clothes, and food. He says, “And I'm a good hunter so I gave them elk and deer meat, and I'd do arts and crafts and sell it to help out some more.”
Tyrone Whitegrass says he was one of those without electricity. “It's total chaos right now,” he says. “I just got talking to three individuals who were wondering when the tribe would ever have a meeting with Glacier Electric Cooperative. Unfortunately, I think it's going to get worse before it gets better.”
The Cooperative, according to its website, was established in 1945 to provide electrical service to the rural areas in and around Glacier County and currently serves nearly 5,000 members. The cooperative purchases its power from the Bonneville Power Administration based in the Pacific Northwest.
Grateful, Whitegrass notes mid-January temperatures have recently been seasonably warm compared to temperatures that average well below-zero but that will undoubtedly change quickly.
Although he has little himself, Whitegrass helps out however he can. “I had $15 [recently], and I gave it to a lady with a couple of young children. At least she got her electricity back on [that day].”
All donations to help Blackfeet tribal members without electricity should go directly to Glacier Electric Cooperative. Call GEC at (406) 338-5400 or Hopa Mountain at (406) 586-2455.