Was Keeping Tourists Out the Only Way to Survive?

On the Blackfeet Reservation, at the border of Glacier National Park, businesses needed visitors. The tribe needed to protect people from Covid.,

David Flamond, a Blackfeet tribal member, owns several businesses near Glacier National Park. He estimates it will take $15,000 to $20,000 to reopen them.
David Flamond, a Blackfeet tribal member, owns several businesses near Glacier National Park. He estimates it will take $15,000 to $20,000 to reopen them.Credit…Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times

Was Keeping Tourists Out the Only Way to Survive?

On the Blackfeet Reservation, at the border of Glacier National Park, businesses needed visitors. The tribe needed to protect people from Covid.

David Flamond, a Blackfeet tribal member, owns several businesses near Glacier National Park. He estimates it will take $15,000 to $20,000 to reopen them.Credit…Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times

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ST. MARY, Mont. — In a regular spring season at Johnson’s of St. Mary, the R. V.s would be pulling into the more than 150 sites with sweeping views of Glacier National Park. Campsites would start filling up. The kitchen would start churning out homemade soup and bread.

But last spring, everything was quiet at this tourist destination in the corner of northern Montana, where the Blackfeet Reservation meets Glacier National Park. It had to be.

The Blackfeet Nation’s tribal Business Council closed the eastern entrances of the park, which sit on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, in an effort to protect the tribe from further exposure to the coronavirus. The pandemic, which has ravaged Indigenous communities across the country, has taken a devastating toll on the Blackfeet Nation and Native Americans in Montana. On the reservation, where fewer than 10,000 people live, 47 have died from the virus. Statewide, Native Americans make up one-third of Montana’s more than 1,400 Covid deaths, according to the state public health department, despite being just 7 percent of the population.

Nathan St. Goddard, a Blackfeet tribal member who runs Johnson’s, is hoping for a better spring this year. On March 17, the business council voted to allow him to open — with vaccination rates of eligible people on the reservation reported close to 95 percent.

“The best part about my business is the history,” Mr. St. Goddard said. “My grandparents ran it, my mom ran it, and I want to keep the legacy going.”

The 30 or so businesses here rely on visitors to Glacier National Park, and owners spent the precarious past year with their livelihoods pitted, in part, against the council’s priority: to keep everyone as healthy as possible.

“We lost people,” the business council chairman, Timothy Davis, explained at a February meeting. “We didn’t want to lose anymore.”

Other losses had piled up though. Last May, Jennie Walter, who owns Rising Sun Pizza in St. Mary, posted a video on Facebook pleading with the council to reopen: “Please, see us. Know us. We are a small, proud business and we need your help.”

The long year has been, Mr. St. Goddard said, a “no-win situation.”

“I risked looking insensitive to make a dollar, which isn’t true,” he said. “I just wanted to open safely and feed my family.”

Now that the council has opened the entrance, the business owners are gearing up for the spring and summer season, cautiously optimistic that coronavirus infection rates will stay low enough to safely stay open.

And, as Stephen Conway, a Blackfeet tribal member who runs Heart of Glacier RV Park, put it, their corner of the world might be particularly appealing now.

Visitors, he said, “come to our area to get away from crowds and people.”

ImageNation’s Burger Station, in Browning, Mont., has been closed since September. The normally year-round business depends on tourism in the summer to pay for the debt incurred during the winter months.
Nation’s Burger Station, in Browning, Mont., has been closed since September. The normally year-round business depends on tourism in the summer to pay for the debt incurred during the winter months.Credit…Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times
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Rachael Nation, a non-tribal resident of the reservation, and her husband have operated the burger restaurant for 11 years. Her main concern is her business becoming a hub for the virus. “I would feel really terrible if I knew that we were the center of an infection that cost the lives of someone’s family member,” she said.Credit…Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times
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Every July, the rodeo grounds in Browning draw people from across the country to celebrate the Blackfeet culture with the North American Indian Days, including a powwow and rodeo. The tribe canceled the event last summer.Credit…Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times
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After a successful 2019 season, Mr. Conway, a Blackfeet tribal member, decided to make some improvements to his Heart of Glacier RV Park. Now, the renovations are half-finished. He did not open in 2020 and is paying the bills with retirement funds. “I could get by perhaps one more year,” he said.Credit…Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times
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Johnson’s sits above St. Mary, Mont., on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. When the pandemic shuttered indoor dining, the owners, Nathan St. Goddard and Kateri Couture, turned to to-go orders, but the cost outweighed the demand of the local economy. They estimate 99 percent of their business comes from tourism. Credit…Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times
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Mr. St. Goddard and Ms. Couture’s business includes a cafe, rental cabins and campsites near the east entrance to Glacier National Park. The couple said this past year was a complete loss.Credit…Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times
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Mr. St. Goddard asked the Blackfeet Business Council to reopen the reservation by March 1. For business owners, the uncertainty around whether they would be able to open meant delaying necessary work to prepare for the 2021 season.Credit…Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times
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Jennie Walter, a Blackfeet tribal member, stands outside her home in Babb, Mont. Ms. Walter’s business, Rising Sun Pizza in St. Mary, was open only for to-go orders last summer. She estimates she lost 82 percent of her revenue.Credit…Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times
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A sign announcing the closure of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to nonresidents in front of a popular scenic turn-off outside St. Mary.Credit…Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times
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Snow blowing across Highway 2 between Browning and East Glacier, Mont. Severe conditions make it difficult to attract tourists in the winter season. Many businesses near the entrances of East Glacier operate seasonally and have not made a profit since the summer of 2019.Credit…Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times
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