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Montana Is Open, But For Now The Blackfeet Nation Is Closed


Montana has one of the country's lowest coronavirus infection rates, and it is throwing the door back open to tourists. The state has dropped a two-week quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors. Not everyone is on board with this decision, like the Blackfeet Nation, whose reservation borders Glacier National Park. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports.


AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: For more than 25 years, Blackfeet tribal member Darrel Norman has set up dozens of teepee near his home on the reservation, providing guests from all over the world with a unique place to stay while exploring neighboring Glacier National Park.


BOLTON: Hello.

DARREL NORMAN: Come in. Let me get my mask.

BOLTON: Norman's home gallery is full of traditional Blackfeet-style paintings and art. It's normally bustling with tourists this time of year. But with the Blackfeet tribal government not going along with the state and maintaining a 14-day quarantine order and lodging restrictions on nonresidents, it's quiet now. And the future is unclear.

NORMAN: Bookings are still coming in, and all we can say is we're closed through June. We doubt that we're not going to open a teepee camp after. Costs, just all the things considered - probably not the wisest thing to do.

BOLTON: Tribal leaders say the population here is vulnerable to COVID-19 and that the restrictions have helped spare residents from the pandemic. While Norman hopes to salvage his season by mostly selling artwork, he understands the tribe's caution.

NORMAN: We don't want to be the ones who bring in the first case.

BOLTON: But tribal member Nathan St. Goddard says local leaders aren't listening to the economic concerns of businesses like his. He owns Johnson's of St. Mary restaurant and campground, perched on a hill overlooking Glacier National Park's east entrance.

NATHAN ST GODDARD: Our authority is the tribal council, and right now, they want to stay closed. And I think it's really frustrating on our end - is because I personally think that social distancing enforcement is more realistic than just total shutdown.

BOLTON: St. Goddard says without tourists from the park, he'll likely have to shutter the business his grandfather started 70 years ago. With things here at a standstill, communities on the other side of the park that doesn't border the reservation are welcoming back tourists. A park ranger says it's busy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We had the Lake McDonald Lodge parking filled up around 9:30 this morning, so pretty early.

BOLTON: Tribally owned businesses say they need either economic relief or to open again to tourists. Some are frustrated Blackfeet leaders haven't specified what it will take for the reservation to welcome visitors back. Glacier attracted 3 million people last year who spent more than $100 million in tribal communities.

Robert DesRosier is the Blackfeet incident commander.

ROBERT DESROSIER: It's a million-dollar question, far as I'm concerned. I can't tell you that we're going to open 5 of July, 6 of July, Fourth of July. It's just - it's impossible for me to say that.

BOLTON: DesRosier says he understands the tribe's decisions are causing economic pain. But he says it's his job to look at this as an issue of protecting human life and not an economic crisis.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton reporting from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.