Montana's Blackfeet Tribe is an innovator in indigenous planning efforts. The tribe discussed its land planning and sustainability efforts at the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues this spring. MSU’s Native Land Project provided assistance during the Blackfeet Tribe’s presentation. Photo of Amskapi Pikuni, Niitsitapi Territories pow wow grand entry in 2017 courtesy of Christopher Carter / MSU Native Land Project.

Blackfeet Nation discusses land issues at United Nations

MSU collaborates with Blackfeet Tribe on presentation to U.N. forum on indigenous land issues
By Carol Schmidt
MSU News Service

BOZEMAN – When scholars from the United Nations this spring invited Loren BirdRattler of Montana’s Blackfeet Nation to discuss the tribe’s innovations in land planning and sustainable agriculture, BirdRattler reached out to research partners at Montana State University for support.

Christopher Carter, an instructor for the Native American Studies department and researcher in MSU’s Native Land Project, was a member of the team when BirdRattler, project manager for the Blackfeet Nation’s Agriculture Resource Management Plan, spoke at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York City in April. Carter said BirdRattler’s 13-minute presentation was so well received that the tribe has been invited back to speak more about its work to the U.N. General Assembly this fall.

“This was an incredible opportunity for the Blackfeet Nation and Montana State University to showcase our partnership at the global scale,” said Carter, who joined a small Blackfeet delegation that included two Blackfeet youth.

Carter, who has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, geography and visual communications from MSU, helped create the graphics that BirdRattler used in his presentation on “Piikani Solutions: The Role of Integrated Resource Management and Indigenous Planning.” Carter also recorded and broadcast BirdRattler’s talk live to the Blackfeet Tribe.

“I think the members of the forum were impressed with Loren’s presentation and the systems approach to planning that the tribe is using,” Carter said.

According to BirdRattler, the tribe can redefine natural and agriculture resource management by “inserting indigenous methodologies that are derived from traditional ecological knowledge and the practice of who we are as Blackfeet People.” He said this will let the tribe create new management concepts that mix the tribe’s core values with Western science. And the tribe’s partnership with MSU's Native Land Project is integral to helping the Blackfeet define what that looks like in today’s society, he said.

In addition to the U.N. presentation, the visit allowed the Blackfeet to network with other global indigenous groups facing similar issues, including Scandinavia’s Sami, the Maasai of Africa and the Inuit. The group also presented to the Indigenous Peoples Organizations and at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Both BirdRattler and Carter also were invited to be part of a working U.N. group on setting indigenous sustainable development goals.

“The presentation to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues expanded the possibilities to help get many of our initiatives underwritten, identify new partnerships and projects, and to represent all Montanans in an international forum,” he said, “I think we stacked up pretty well."

“We have a bigger network now,” Carter said. “We got to be part of unparalleled access to leading a new generation in ideas and global innovation.”

The Native Land Project started about two years ago to show how university-based research can align with indigenous priorities, according to Kristin Ruppel, MSU Native American studies professor and project director.

Ruppel said the Native Land Project follows indigenous research methods: Research is initiated only at the request of tribes and is driven by the indigenous objectives. Under the Native American Studies department, which is in the College of Letters and Science, the program strengthens skills and abilities in everyone from university researchers and students to reservation-based partners.

To that end, Ruppel, Carter and MSU students travel to Browning about once a month to work with and report to BirdRattler, as well as Blackfeet Tribal Councilman and MSU graduate Terry Tatsey and others on issues ranging from water rights to the production of sustainable food on the reservation. BirdRattler and Ruppel serve as co-principal investigators on several related projects.

“This multi-pronged approach comes out of an indigenous way of looking at things,” Ruppel said. “We’re just pleased to be involved in something that’s seen as positive work on an indigenous agenda. It’s a model for how to conduct useful research with a native community.”

Carter’s own work with planning in indigenous communities began with a directed interdisciplinary degree as an undergraduate in the MSU Honors College. The degree intertwined his interests in film, Native American studies and health. He worked with Beth Rink, a professor in MSU’s College of Education, Health and Human Development on National Science Foundation-funded work in Greenland and on the Fort Peck and Northern Cheyenne reservations.

While earning a master’s degree at the University of British Columbia, he trained in planning around natural resources and disaster resilience. In graduate school, he was a staffer for a U.N. committee focused on the loss and damages statement of the 2015 Paris Agreement. That experience served him well during the U.N. forum this spring, he said.

Carter said the Native Land Project is gearing up for a busy fall. The Blackfeet ARMP - Native Land Project partners in early September to attend the Indian Land Working Group’s 28th annual symposium with BirdRattler as keynote, and in October at the American Indigenous Research Association conference. Carter hopes to return to the U.N. with the Blackfeet for their second presentation, and he also plans to attend the U.N.’s climate change meeting in Poland in December.

“The Blackfeet are doing some really amazing things” in a systems approach to land planning, Carter said. And, when you think about it, he said, that only makes sense.

“Who knows the land better than indigenous people?” Carter said.

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