John Murray’s lifelong work to permanently protect the Badger-Two Medicine from oil and gas drilling.
The Badger-Two Medicine is sacred ancestral land of the Blackfeet Nation along the Rocky Mountain Front in northern Montana, just south of the Canadian border. Here, 8,000-foot limestone peaks notch the sky and pristine rivers cut through deep canyons before spilling out onto the rolling plains. These lands are home to the principal origin story of the Blackfeet people, who trace their creation to the headwaters of Badger Creek and Two Medicine River; and even today, one can still see the same sweeping vistas, find many of the same wild animals, such as grizzly bears, lynx, golden eagles and cutthroat trout, and hear the same sounds as those who lived here 10,000 years ago—as long as the Blackfeet people have been here. It’s home to the spiritual Medicine Grizzly and where tribal members still practice traditional ceremonies.
For years, the Blackfeet have been fighting to save the Badger-Two Medicine from the irreversible fate of development. And one tribal member, John Murray, 72, has spent the better part of his life protecting these lands from the threat of oil and gas extraction that’s hovered over them for nearly two decades—although attacks to Blackfeet homelands started long before that.
Blackfeet territory once spanned from present-day North Dakota, west to the Rocky Mountains, to the mouth of the Yellowstone River and up the Saskatchewan River to Lake Winnipeg, John begins. He is speaking to me from his office in Browning, Montana, (population just over 1,000) on the 1.5 million-acre Blackfeet Indian Reservation. His tone is measured, which puts listeners at ease, and gently commands full attention. John is a masterful storyteller, often bringing a tale in such a graceful circle that, after you’ve become so immersed in the story itself, you’re surprised to find he’s carried you back to the original point—and delivered you there with a much greater understanding than you had before. His desk is laden with mountains of paper, including the US Forest Service proposals and industrial projects on tribal land that require his immediate consultation. Outside, beyond Browning, winter melts from mountains that had been Blackfeet homelands for a geologic timespan that dwarfs rushed bureaucratic deadlines. “That was land that in our origins was what we called our world,” he says.
In the 1870s, without negotiation, consent or payment, the US government took Blackfeet land by moving the southern border north, from the Sun River to the Marias River, through executive orders from President Grant. Then in the 1890s, prospectors began mining for gold without permission on Blackfeet spiritual land to the east in the Sweet Pine Hills (now the Sweet Grass Hills) and in what’s now Glacier National Park to the west. In 1895, United States commissioners appointed under the Indian Appropriations Act came to the Blackfeet on behalf of the Department of the Interior for more of their land—and the gold they believed was locked under it. On September 26 of that year, after several days of negotiating, the Blackfeet Nation ceded a wide strip of land that included the Badger-Two Medicine to the US government in exchange for $1.5 million to care for their people, who had been decimated by genocide, smallpox, starvation and the fast-shrinking borders of a once vast homeland. To this day, in accordance with stories passed down from the Elders, many in the Nation say the cession was only a lease: that when they signed the agreement, the Tribal Council understood their land would be returned to them after 99 years, when their youth had recovered to the Blackfeet’s former strength.
But in 1982, close to the 99-year mark, the Reagan administration sold 47 oil and gas leases for a paltry $1 per acre in the Badger-Two Medicine instead, without consultation with the Blackfeet or a proper environmental review. John was a young man on the Tribal Council then, when the council considered whether it should challenge the Department of the Interior for illegally leasing the land. In the language of the 1895 agreement, it’s clear to tribal lawyers that the Nation had only ceded the hard rock minerals of gold, silver and copper—not the land itself and certainly not undiscovered resources like oil and gas.
But like many tribes who’ve experienced treaties unilaterally broken by the US government, the Nation already knew agreement language was tenuous at best. “That power to make the rules, even change them right when you’re dealing with them—power to write policy, to write something and take our land,” John says. “It’s very oppressive.”
Evidence of that oppression has been seen every day for 111 years looking west from Browning to Glacier National Park. In 1910, the Taft administration designated the northern half of the ceded strip as Glacier National Park without consultation with the Nation, extinguishing treaty rights of the Blackfeet to hunt, fish and gather timber and ignoring the spiritual significance of that land to the Blackfeet. Saint Mary Lake on the east side of Glacier, which now sees millions of visitors each year, is the site of the origin story of Blackfeet painted lodges. Chief Mountain, what the Blackfeet call Nina’Stako, one half of which sits in the park and the other on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, is the site of a significant origin story. Now, “sites that were used for millennia are sterilized or unresponsive ceremonially,” says John, who grew up in a family of traditional religious practitioners and has now become an Elder—a person who’s had a transfer of knowledge, like a consecration, he tells me, who may then conduct certain ceremonies—after more than 30 years as a member of the religious sacred societies. “We don’t want the same thing to happen in the Badger. It’s relatively undisturbed. We need that land, and we need it to remain that way. It’s the Blackfeet’s last refuge.”
During the depths of culture loss in the 1950s and ’60s, after Blackfeet children were forced from their families and sent to boarding schools (“Cultivate the man and kill the Indian,” John recalls the slogan), the federal government outlawed tribal ceremonies and tried to stop the Blackfeet from speaking their language. So the Badger-Two Medicine was where people went to practice traditional culture and ways. There’s still a certain amount of shame that comes out of such historical oppression. “There are a lot of people ashamed to be Indian walking around Browning right now,” John says. “But younger people have picked it up, and there’s a resurgence, a rekindling of our natural way. The Badger-Two Medicine plays a role in that, a role in this universe that we have left.”
When the government started selling leases to drill for oil and gas in this last landscape of the Blackfeet, another violence of Manifest Destiny, the Nation had no choice but to fight them to ensure their cultural survival. “All [of a] sudden, someone wants to come in there and tear it up, rip it up, and for a few bucks,” John said in the 2016 film Our Last Refuge that documented the Blackfeet’s decades-long fight to protect the Badger from oil and gas development. “It’s like someone going to do something to your family. Obviously, you’re going to defend it.”
In the 1980s, while a state-wide movement coalesced to ally with the Blackfeet in fighting the oil and gas leases, some Elders asked John to study Western philosophy to prepare. “Elders would say things about our traditional knowledge system down through the ages, and about the Badger, that can’t be translated,” he says. “They asked me to study Western thought so that they could have the tools to articulate certain things.”
John studied at Montana State University in Bozeman, achieving bachelor’s degrees in bilingual education and Western philosophy, and eventually receiving a master’s degree in adult and community education in 1993. He went on to work on his doctorate. Although he completed the courses and comprehensive exams, he stopped just short of finishing the last two chapters of his dissertation and receiving the final degree.
“We have a very small community. I wanted to be known as one of the people instead of having a degree that would paint me in a corner in my community,” he said during a discussion with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. He tells me a story about the night that he received his master’s degree: He pulled up at the Town Pump in Browning to refuel after the drive back to the reservation from Bozeman, where he ran into some friends. They came over to hug him, saying they hadn’t seen him in a while, asking where he’d been. He told them he’d just gotten his degree that day.
“They backed up,” he says. “They said, ‘Now you’re going to be an asshole like the rest of them?’ That’s how it’s viewed. Not by everyone, you can’t brand us with little statements. But I was really torn receiving that doctorate degree. I thought about what it was for. One reason was to be a professor and the other to do research. And I was really after the knowledge. So [when] people say, where did you get your education, I say Montana State University. But I could say it comes from the land. Let me tell you a story.”
One morning not too long ago, he told me, a woman called his house at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. She told John that her son had been in a car accident. His brain was bleeding, and he was being flown to Great Falls where doctors would cut a hole in his skull. They didn’t expect him to live. She asked John to help him. “We’ll do our best, I told her. One of the ceremonies that’s been passed down, I went and did it.” Later that morning, on a trip to Great Falls for an errand, John’s wife asked him if he would go to the hospital to visit the young man. John told her, no; the young man would be alright. And at noon that same day, John recalls, the man posted on Facebook that he was being discharged from the hospital and coming home.
John can tell me these stories “from here to Monday,” he says. There’s the woman who went to the Elders asking for help with a growth on her kidney, who then went back to the doctor a few days later and was found to be totally healthy. And there’s also the man with cancer in his lymph nodes who accessed a certain ceremony, and by the same time the following year, he was cancer-free.
“You can’t learn that in medical school. It comes from the land—it’s an epistemological source of knowledge for us. The Badger-Two Medicine is that important to us. And for mankind, even. The Blackfeet knowledge system is privy to people who are Blackfeet, but it’s not secret. It can be used by non-Indians, if you transcend that role as a skeptic.”
John works with traditional knowledge and Western science, navigating between the two by “code switching”—a cognitive asset he sees in today’s youth who can go to school to learn the nuts and bolts of Western systems and immediately “code-switch” into the Blackfeet worldview. Underneath his graying ponytail lies an enormous intellect—although John, who’s a humble man and sees bragging as contrary to his cultural values, would never say that about himself. Rather, it’s Michael Jamison, a longtime friend and conservation ally with the National Parks Conservation Association, who likens John’s mind to a chess board made up of philosophy, strategy and understanding, where he’s imagining four or five moves ahead. It’s that kind of thinking, paired with John’s grace, humor and storytelling, that defines his successful work in protecting the Badger-Two Medicine.
In 1997, after sustained protests against the leases, the United States Forest Service (USFS) placed a 10-year moratorium on any drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine. But one company with a single 3,427-acre lease on Hall Creek, Louisiana-based oil business Solenex LLC, forced the moratorium under early review. One day in 2003, John walked into the council lobby in Browning to find a few USFS-uniformed personnel waiting to see the council.
“I recognized the district ranger from wildland firefighting, so I went over to talk to them,” says John, who had been superintendent of the Chief Mountain Hotshots (the elite Blackfeet Hotshot firefighting crew that he’d also helped to build in the ’80s). “The archeologist with them said, ‘Solenex has an approved application to drill, and we’re going to give them the notice to proceed. We sent a letter to the tribe, and we gave them 30 days to respond. And by the way, there are only 22 days left.’ That’s where I got involved. I went around and asked a lot of people who’d been involved in the first go around fighting the leases—a lot had passed away, and many were deeply involved in something else. They said, ‘John, you do it.’”
In 1993, the USFS had contracted a rushed ethnography study of the Badger-Two Medicine, one that didn’t even consult many Blackfeet Elders who knew the ancestral heritage of the area. But in the shortcoming of that study, John saw an opportunity.
“I was thinking at the time about the philosophy of art,” he remembers. “Say, Charles Russell, who would draw in a bar and trade it for a drink, that would be called ‘folk art.’ It’s not until it goes through a dealer that it becomes ‘art.’ Along those lines, we needed to take all those stories which the greater Americas would call ‘folk stories’—even though they’re true—and put them in a scientific document.”
John went on to do what no one else had done before: He facilitated the creation of a comprehensive ethnography over an entire landscape that proved, in scientific terms, that the Blackfeet people had occupied the Badger for more than 10,000 years and that oil and gas drilling posed an undeniable threat to a millennia-old culture. The study was submitted to the USFS as academic documentation that agencies couldn’t lawfully ignore, which ultimately resulted in the entirety of the Badger-Two Medicine, and some lands beyond it, being designated as a Traditional Cultural District in 2014.
Anthropologist Dr. María Nieves Zedeño, who worked with John to conduct the ethnography, says that it was the breakthrough for the Badger-Two Medicine protection campaign: verifying the crucial evidence in a manner that bridged the divide between Blackfeet and non-Indigenous world views. “John believes knowledge of the Blackfeet needs to be out there as a means to protect the culture and wants science to tell their story,” she said. “He strikes a beautiful balance between tradition, scientific approaches and diplomacy.”
Around the same time that John began the ethnography project, he heard about a workshop over in the Flathead Valley on how to create a Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO). It was a relatively new mechanism under the National Park Service designed to carry out Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires federal agencies to consult with tribes on undertakings on tribal lands. John wrote the plan and tribal resolution to adopt it, and the council appointed him the inaugural Tribal Historic Preservation Officer in 2003—a post that he’s held ever since.
Solenex was still gunning to drill though, suing the Department of the Interior for the delay on developing its lease. But now, because the Badger-Two Medicine had been designated a Traditional Cultural District, and because John had created the THPO, the Forest Service and the companies holding leases in the area were obligated to consult with the Blackfeet Nation under government regulations. Over the next years, in addition to spearheading paperwork and bureaucratic processes, John led policy-makers and industry into the Badger-Two Medicine to experience what was at stake. Some companies, like Devon Energy, voluntarily relinquished leases, saying “it’s simply the right thing to do”, even as Solenex and another company, Moncrief Oil, refused to concede. (Solenex didn’t respond to multiple requests for comments.)
In 2017, John invited members of the Department of the Interior to a site in the Badger where Blackfeet tribal members had put up a tepee. “All the people who hold sacred items, they sat in there and made testimony to the staff from the Interior, and I conducted the meeting. I was going to talk at the end,” John says. “But they said, ‘John, you don’t have to say anything. We already know.’ So, they went back to DC, and Secretary Jewell came herself, walked out to the well sites, went back to DC and canceled the leases.”
Not long after that, the Department of the Interior canceled all remaining leases in the Badger-Two Medicine—the first time in the history of the United States that such a cancelation had succeeded over the objection of leaseholders.
Solenex, though, immediately sued the government yet again to overturn the cancelation. In response, John took the lead for the tribe in helping, with conservation partners like Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance and National Parks Conservation Association, to draft the Badger-Two Medicine Protection Act that Montana Senator Jon Tester introduced in July 2020. This legislation would place nearly 130,000 acres of the Badger under permanent Congressional protection as the Badger-Two Medicine Cultural Heritage Area, a first-of-its-kind designation that could potentially usher in a new national system for protecting public lands that are culturally sacred lands. While the language of this bill is back on the drawing board with the tribe to shore up some technicalities, it’s already become another replicable tool—just like the ethnography project—for tribes across the country to protect traditional homelands from threats of industrial development.
“In occupying the complicated nexus between traditional and scientific knowledge,” says Jamison, “John is essentially at the forefront of the Indigenous renaissance that’s driving tremendous gains in environmental protections.”
There’s so much more to John’s story beyond the thread of this work: his teaching at the Blackfeet Community College helped instill the importance of traditional cultural values and historic preservation among youth and tribal leadership; the creation of a “university without walls” within the college—based on a similar program he built to teach wildland firefighting to other tribes across the country—that awarded 17 master’s degrees to people unable to make it to a higher education campus; and his facilitation of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office Field School that trains cultural-resource technicians to be present during any ground-disturbing activities, like new building and infrastructure development or resource extraction.
“I’m just another person here,” John says with characteristic humility. “Just being Blackfeet doesn’t mean we’re certain ways. Of course, we’re a product of what’s left of the dire straits of poverty caused by the system and the culture that came out of that. The oppression that caused the people to lose the culture, how they deal with nature, view nature—that all had to come back. It was always there because we never lost it. It transcended through the knowledge system, but it had to go underground, be protected. We can release it in such a way that it rekindles us, if we can protect the Badger-Two Medicine.”