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country, where a bitter lawsuit was under way over a controversial drilling lease. There were 18 inches of fresh snow on the mountains, and the face of the Front was lit rose pink by the morning sun, which was rising in a fireball over the prairie. When I pulled up at the Glacier Peaks Casino, it was 23 below. New Breast showed up a few minutes late, apologetic. “Couldn’t get my car door open,” she said. “It froze shut.” Then she grinned. “But at least you didn’t get our usual 35-mile-an-hour breeze.” If one defining feature of this wild landscape is its beauty, the other is wind. Once upon a time, when the Blackfeet were masters of this territory, all the way from the North Saskatchewan River, 300 miles north of the Canadian line, down to Yellowstone Lake, it was said that the wind blew so strong along the Backbone of the World that it could knock a warrior clean out of his saddle. Montana ranks second in the nation (after Texas) in wind energy potential, and nowhere does the wind blow harder than on the reservation. A few years ago, up on Snowslip Mountain, the wind gauge clocked a record gust of 164 miles an hour. When New Breast arrived, Lawrence and I had already been chatting for a while with Earl Old Person, the 84-year-old chief of the Blackfeet and a 60-year veteran of the tribal council, who had stopped by on his way to a college football game in Missoula, the Montana Grizzlies against the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. It was a slow day, he said. Council business was paralyzed by an acrimonious dispute that has dragged on for almost two years now, with personality clashes, charges of financial malfeasance, and a series of controversial suspensions of council members. Old Person said he’d never seen anything like the current dysfunction of the tribal leadership. Back in the 1950s, he told me, he’d acted as interpreter for the elders. “They didn’t speak English, they had no education,” he said. “But they had better sense.” The casino was closed for the day, he explained, to mark the passing of Dewey Heavy Runner, a respected elder and descendant of the chief whose smallpox-ridden camp on the Marias River was wiped out by the U.S. Second Cavalry in January 1870, on a subzero morning much like this one, leaving 173 dead and putting an end to any further thoughts of resistance to white settlement. After that came the extermination of the buffalo, the suppression of the Blackfeet language, and the terrible “starvation winter” of 1883–1884, when a chief named Almost-a-Dog kept track of the deaths by cutting notches in a willow stick, until he reached 555 and ran out of space. In exchange for these privations, the Blackfeet were instructed in the raising of beef cattle, encouraged to plant vegetable gardens, and taught their ABCs. Since the white man arrived, in other words, they have rarely been the architects of their own choices. Oil companies have been in and out of the rez for decades, but it’s always been a tale of boomlet and bust, as it has along the rest of the Front. Old Person told me a story that was emblematic of this cycle, about a famous strike in the 1950s at a well that had been leased from 87-year-old Otter Woman Morning Gun. “That was a big celebration,” he said. “The old lady busted out champagne over the rig and all. But it only lasted a couple of weeks, and then nothing else happened.” It turned out that New Breast was one of the heirs to the Morning Gun site. A new well pad was being laid there, she said, and I saw it later, tucked away behind a low ridge west of town. She’d refused to sign a new lease on the property, but she’d been in the minority. While she was no fan of the oil and gas industry, she said she understood the economic pressures that drove people into its embrace. “My great4 8 onearth

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grandmother used to say, don’t blame no one,” she said. “Some of my relatives barely have enough for gas money and food. Come and sign; here’s a $20 bill. And around here a $20 bill is a lot of money.” By 2010 the royalties from oil had begun to flow again. Three companies—Denver-based Anschutz and two Texas outfits, Newfield and Rosetta—had leased almost every acre of the reservation. The Newfield and Rosetta leases alone had brought in $22 million, I was told later by Roger “Sassy” Running Crane, who had negotiated the deals as the tribe’s chairman of economic development. But then, last March, Anschutz pulled out of all but five of its wells (one of which was on the Morning Gun site). The company issued a rather delphic statement, saying only that the yield was not enough to justify continued investment. Dan Lindseth, back in Choteau, surmised that Anschutz, like others before it, had been stymied by the difficult geology. These folded rocks were just too tough to drill. Despite their limited scale, the fracking operations had unnerved a lot of people on the reservation. They worried especially about the safety of their water. That refrain is echoed in every fracking field in the country, but here there was a difference: water is sacred. In Browning there were all sorts of alarming rumors about the technology, New Breast said, but no one had ever explained it clearly to

OnEarth Spring 2014  

Hog Wild, by Ted Genoways

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