Blackfeet tribal officials, residents reflect on impact of COVID-19

Browning mask sign.jpg
Posted at 9:47 AM, Mar 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-15 11:47:31-04

BROWNING — A memorial sits outside the Blackfeet Nation tribal offices -- poles in the shape of a tipi, attached are strips of cloth emblazoned with the name of a tribal member lost to COVID-19.

In less than a year, the Blackfeet Tribe lost 47 members to the virus and recorded 1,383 cases of COVID-19 on the pandemic as of March 11.

“You don’t have time to grieve, you don’t have time to heal,” Browning resident Dustin Boggs said. “Every person, you’ve had a running with them or a story to tell about that person.”

The Blackfeet Nation has been under a state of emergency due to COVID-19 for nearly a year, and the year has not been easy.

“You could have probably heard a pin drop through down during that time,” Blackfeet Tribe public information officer James McNeely recalled. “People were scared of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

After the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Montana, Blackfeet tribal leaders acted quickly.

McNeely said they shut down everything except grocery stores and the hospital, closed the east entrance of Glacier National Park and installed a curfew.

Boggs said the change was immediate and noticeable.

“Part of the joy of living here on the reservation is going to to see one another, see other people,” Boggs said. “It strained a huge depression, a dark cloud over the reservation.”

While cases of the virus rose across Montana, the situation remained under control on the Blackfeet Reservation with low case numbers until a spike in September and October.

At its height, there were 390 active cases of the virus on the Blackfeet Reservation. In a span of just 10 days, the number of active COVID-19 cases nearly tripled.

“It was spreading like wildfire,” McNeely said. “We were in panic mode, thinking ‘oh no, what if we all go down as a community.’”

During that time, Boggs said he stayed away from his family in Browning, afraid to get his parents sick.

He remembered watching in fear as cases climbed around him and on the other side of the mountains in Flathead County -- his young son lives in Kalispell.

COVID-19 kept Boggs and his son apart for months on end. “It really threw the emotional state of me, it threw me for a loop,” Boggs said.

Months removed from the COVID-19 spike on the reservation, and a year out from Montana’s first reported case, the situation looks very different.

As of March 11, Blackfeet COVID-19 Incident Command reported no active cases of the virus on the reservation.

McNeely attributes the current situation to people sacrificing and following COVID-19 restrictions for so long.

“They cherish their loved ones, their elders, their children,” McNeely said. “That’s where they really bought in.”

The vaccine has also played a role. McNeely said the reservation is on track to be fully vaccinated by mid-May.

“It’s a beacon of home, it truly is,” Boggs said of the vaccine. “It’s almost like we made it.”

People are ready to go back to some semblance of normal, but the impact of COVID-19 still lingers.

“Between everybody, it’s really distant,” Boggs said. “It’s going to take a long time before we go back to normal.”