Blackfeet Nation Is Taking Back the Food System

A tribal-led plan to build a meat-processing facility on the Blackfeet Nation reservation in Montana will help invigorate the local economy, safeguard cultural traditions, and protect community health and the environment.

Community encampment along Willow Creek in Browning, Montana, during North American Indian Days, an annual Blackfeet tribal event

Credit: Courtesy of Christopher Carter/Piikani Lodge Health Institute

A simple cup of tea or a few servings of fresh vegetables don’t always come cheap for residents of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana. For the Blackfeet Nation, one of the 10 largest tribes in the United States, whose 1.5 million acre homeland is roughly the size of Delaware, there are only two grocery stores, both in the tribal seat of Browning.

At the local stores, a box of tea or a head of cauliflower can cost $10 or $11, more than double what one might pay elsewhere. “And with $11,” says Danielle Antelope, co-chair of FAST (Food Access and Sustainability Team) Blackfeet, “you'd probably rather buy a pack of meat so that you can cook some dinner for your kids.” Residents on the reservation are known to travel up to two hours to shop at a more affordable grocery store.

According to a 2017 assessment, 69 percent of people on the Blackfeet reservation struggle with food insecurity—compared to the national average of 12.5 percent—due in large part to poverty caused by widespread unemployment. Fresh food is particularly hard to come by, and nutrition assistance programs can be out of reach, too, as a result of limited transportation options and unreliable internet service in this remote area just east of Glacier National Park.

Ō’yō’·ṗ’ Food Pantry delivery volunteers
Credit: FAST Blackfeet Ō’yō’·ṗ’ Food Pantry

Organizations like FAST Blackfeet have been doing critical work to remedy the problem, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when, beginning last spring, demand for food at its Ō´yō´•ṗ´ (“We Are Eating”) Food Pantry jumped to 4,000 pounds per week from 400 to 600 pounds prior to the public health emergency. The group seeks to ensure that tribal members have access to fresh meat and produce, as well as medicinal herbal teas.

Meanwhile, the Blackfeet Nation has, for the past several years, been focused on mapping out a longer-term plan for addressing food access issues, such as enabling tribal members to raise more plants and livestock, in order to regain their food sovereignty. In addition to feeding local families, these initiatives would help boost the local economy, create jobs, and even help address the impacts of climate change through building healthier soil—a critical tool for sequestering carbon—and by reducing the greenhouse gases associated with trucking in groceries from long distances.

The Blackfeet Nation’s process to create its Agricultural Resource Management Plan (ARMP), which incorporates some of FAST Blackfeet’s efforts, kicked off in 2017 and is currently in its final stages. The 10-year blueprint to improve the tribe’s agricultural management—which includes input from ranchers and farmers from each of the Blackfeet Nation’s five watersheds—is the first such plan to be developed by a tribe itself. Among other initiatives, it is paving the way for the creation of a beef- and bison-processing plant owned and operated by the Blackfeet Nation.

Leaders of the ARMP expect the proposed $10 million facility to start by processing 20 head of cattle per day. The idea, similar to a beef-processing plant owned by the Quapaw Nation in Oklahoma, aims to create a pathway for sustainable economic development for the tribe by creating jobs and putting more money in the pockets of local ranchers, who lose a lot when they sell their livestock to out-of-state processors that finish the animals on an unhealthy grain diet before being processed at a massive corporate facility. (A mere four companies control a whopping 80 percent of beef processing in the United States.)

“If we had a local processing plant where people wouldn’t get ripped off, it might also encourage more producers to switch over from cattle to bison,” which is an ancestral food, Antelope says. The plant, coupled with a FAST Blackfeet–planned food resource center that would have a USDA-certified kitchen, would be a big step toward creating a local food system for the Blackfeet, she adds.

The Blackfeet Nation’s bison herd
Credit: Joseph Pecora

Not only does the current system impact the tribe economically, but it also costs them in health: Nutritionally, corn-fed beef pales in comparison to grass-fed bison or beef, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids, as are many traditional Blackfeet foods. And with rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease significantly higher on the Blackfeet reservation than in the rest of Montana, this difference is especially critical.

“That [mass-produced] beef might seem cheap until you start to incorporate the public health costs, the animal health costs, the climate costs,” says Becky Weed, chair of the Montana Organic Association. “Then it’s not cheap—it’s extremely expensive.” Weed, who also operates an organic sheep ranch and wool mill north of Bozeman, Montana, says industrial agriculture has had serious consequences on the health of local ranchlands too. “It’s a monopolistic setup, which has helped to derail and disassemble what used to be an extensive decentralized meatpacking system throughout the country,” she says. “Tribes experience even more extreme consequences because they’re frequently in remote areas and at the end of the supply line.” This centralized system that bypasses communities in more remote areas partly explains the dearth of grocery stores in places like the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

Beef moving down the production line at an industrial processing plant
Credit: Adobestock

The COVID-19 pandemic put other troubling drawbacks of the current system on full display: With the ever-present possibility of major processing bottlenecks, large companies often refuse to slow down, despite the risks, which results in exploitative and even deadly work conditions. “Everybody ends up making money except the people who are actually putting in the majority of the work,” says Will Seeley, acting director for the ARMP.

By keeping the animals on the reservation, grass-finishing them, and processing the meat locally, tribal ranchers would be able to sell their products directly for a higher price in regional urban markets like Bozeman or Seattle. To aid in marketing efforts, the tribe is already at work developing its own Blackfeet-made brand, and once the processing facility is up and running, it will use distinct packaging labels. Seeley is also leading a Blackfeet effort in which the tribe establishes its own organic and grass-fed standards—an important policy shift in the journey toward food sovereignty.

Cattle grazing on a Blackfeet Nation ranch
Credit: Joseph Pecora

In developing its ARMP, and specifically the plan for its meat-processing facility, the Blackfeet Nation is also hoping to incentivize conservation and climate adaptation efforts like regenerative grazing methods and other historically Indigenous practices.

In the end, says Jill Falcon Mackin, an Anishinaabe doctoral researcher for the MSU Native Land Project and a doctoral candidate at Montana State University, whose work centers on Indigenous food systems, it’s about repairing relationships and re-establishing a connection between people and place. These ties have allowed Indigenous People to live a very sustainable life for more than 13,000 years, she adds.

Mackin notes that the current food system fails to keep Indigenous People or lands healthy. “We have a long way to go in reversing some of those health disparities and reconnecting with the plants and animals that are the relatives that have sustained us,” she says. But she is clear about not wanting to return to the past, either. “What we're looking at,” Mackin says, “is how do we take the values that come from our way of life—values like reciprocity and relationship, respect and responsibility—and apply them to developing a vital 21st-century Indigenous food system?”

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