Features

No Place to Stay

The pandemic is pushing people into Montana — and others out

Intro by Mazana Boerboom

Story by Gerald Beeks

Photos by Collin Kuehn

Story by Asa Thomas Metcalfe

A few of the new homes that are quickly going up in the 44 Ranch subdivision, located off Mullan Road, about one mile west of Reserve Street.

Walking the streets of Missoula, Montana, someone might notice the quirky variety of homes and apartments:  Crumbling brick buildings, historic homes with  ancient trees in their front yards ­— architecture influenced by a multitude of locations and time periods. It’s an enchanting place to live. But it’s also becoming increasingly difficult for the people of Missoula to acquire and afford housing, especially after the pandemic pushed people out of big cities and toward Big Sky country. Missoula isn’t the only place in Montana suffering from this housing crisis. 

People are flocking to Montana like geese migrating north for the summer, but these people aren’t leaving in the winters. And they’re bringing the rising cost of living with them. The Bozeman Real Estate Group said the housing price index across the state increased by 10% in 2020, with the highest numbers in Missoula and Bozeman. According to the Missoula Organization of Realtors, the median price for a home in Missoula rose by about 35% since 2020, reaching almost $490,000 in September, 2021. The Montana rental vacancy rate stood at just over 4%, down 17% since last year, according to a nationwide study by iProperty Management. 

The roller coaster that is this pandemic has added a layer of complexity to this issue. There’s a need in the state for doctors and nurses to help in the hospitals more than ever, yet there’s less and less space for them. Also, there’s a need for those with solution-based mindsets to combat the skyrocketing cost of living and resulting homelessness.

These stories by no means cover the extent of the housing crisis in Montana. There are hundreds more narratives to tell, from the ripple effect of the housing crisis into other parts of the economy, to the trials faced by real estate agents in an oversaturated market, to rising homelessness in the wake of COVID-19. 

So, how have nonprofits and local governments been working to ease the rising costs of homes and provide affordable housing? And could this spike in the housing market bring more attention to the issue and give the fixers the boost they need?

They didn’t bring any houses with them

Story by Gerald Beeks

In the South Hills of Missoula off Miller Creek Road, there is construction of single-family homes.

Polson is a small western Montana resort town on the south shore of Flathead Lake, halfway between Missoula and Kalispell. Being right on the lake, it’s a popular destination in the summer. The population doubles from approximately 5,000 people to 10,000 during the tourist season, which starts in late spring and ends in early fall. 

On a recent September day, the lakefront empties out as boats are dry-docked for winter. A brisk wind blows and the smell of burning leaves hangs in the air — which is normal — but something has changed. This year, not all the visitors are going back home. A lot of them stayed here.

There has been a substantial increase in the number of people migrating to Montana from the rest of the country since the start of the pandemic. In an Aug. 19, 2021 meeting in Polson, discussing the housing shortage, Bill Barron, a Lake County Commissioner, reported 3,100 people moved into Lake County since April 2021.  

They didn’t bring any houses with them. 

This pandemic migration is causing a reduction of available housing due to new people buying and renting homes. The shortage is impacting workers in all parts of the economy. Some workers are moving out of the area as rentals are bought. The rent is raised by the new owners and tenants are priced out of affordable options. This causes a small but significant migration of workers out of the area. And now, like so many towns across the country, Polson is full of main street shops with “help wanted” or “now hiring” signs in the windows. 

Some of the more serious impacts are at hospitals and health clinics.

Housing for health care workers is quickly moving from a normal staffing problem to a crisis. The amount of housing that would normally be available in Montana for incoming and traveling doctors, nurses and other professionals has been reduced or has vanished altogether.  

Devin Huntley, Chief Operating Officer of St. Joseph hospital in Polson, said there is a serious housing shortage for his staff. St. Joseph is a 250-position hospital. 

“I currently have 40 staff positions open with no applicants, due to the lack of housing,” Huntley said. “One traveling nurse brought her own camper and parked in the parking lot during her stay.”

St. Joseph purchased four rental units for housing that “are filled up all the time.”  

Steve Todd, the CEO of St. Luke Hospital in Ronan, 11 miles south of Polson, also acknowledged that there is an ongoing housing shortage which has only gotten worse since the start of the pandemic. St. Luke has two residences on long-term lease for contingencies, one occupied by a traveling nurse and another by a new physician the hospital recently hired. 

Another new St. Luke physician is living in a remodeled basement that was placed for rent by a local homeowner. 

“We couldn’t find anything else, and we had to help him find even that,” Todd said. The doctor is still looking for a permanent place to live. 

Ed Meese, the Polson City Manager, and Juan Escano, the planning manager, have been looking for solutions since the Aug. 19, 2021 meeting. They are sending staff to Boise, Idaho, to meet with two manufacturers of prefabricated homes to look at pricing, quality of construction and speed of installation. This will help the city to assess the requirements needed for bids to bring in affordable housing. Meese said this addresses only part of the problem, but might help to pre-qualify bidders in the overall process of procuring affordable homes. Finding developers and providing incentives for them to build affordable housing and work out the infrastructure are other pieces of the puzzle.

The Polson City administration had two meetings with Kim Morisaki, the Executive Director of the Northwest Montana Community Land Trust, who created a formula and process to sell property as affordable housing and keeping it as affordable housing. It has worked with the City of Kalispell for over a decade providing low-income housing.  It also works with the City of Polson to offer more information on its process and work out a partnership. 

According to Meese, the meetings “went very well.” He said the city’s trust fund would buy the property, redevelop the houses and keep the land. “Just the house would be sold, not the property.”

Community land trusts (CLT) are not new. Versions of land trusts have been used in communities since the late 1800s. Some are still in operation today. The idea is based on community ownership of the land and individual ownership of the improvements. There are three organizational characteristics that define a community land trust:

1. The landowner is a private, nonprofit corporation with a corporate membership that is open to anyone living within the CLT’s geographically defined “community.”

2. A majority of the governing board is elected by the CLT’s membership.

3. There is a balance of interests on the governing board, where seats are allocated equally among directors representing the CLT’s leaseholders, directors representing residents from the CLT’s service area who are not CLT leaseholders and directors representing the public interest.

Some money can be applied for by a city or county government on behalf of the land trust. The land trust can use the money as directed by the organization that grants the funds, like buying existing houses, building houses, buying land, and rehabilitating houses.  Some grants allow for homes to be sold to people with up to 120% of area median income and others only allow for the homes to be sold to people with up to 80% of area median income.  

“Each grant has its own set of rules and we have to agree to use the money accordingly,” Morisaki said.

In some cases, the houses are already there and need renovation. Either way, the new or remodeled housing will be ready for sale at an “attainable” price. 

A contract between the trust and the new owner stipulates a 75-year lease on the land, where the owner buys the home only, through a mortgage with a local bank. Ownership of the land remains with the city through the trust. The agreement allows for the owner to sell the home back to the trust with the caveat that the selling price cannot be more than the price the owner paid plus up to 25% of any increase to the appraised value at the time of the sale. This keeps the home attainable for future buyers at an affordable price. This program creates “a one-time investment of grant or donor money to make the housing permanently attainable,” Morisaki said.

She said the Kalispell trust started in 2009 and resulted in 52 homes. Morisaki had four houses out of the 52 come back on the market last year, which resold for between $110,000 and $185,000.  This was just last year, during the wild pricing increases. She estimated that the annual turnover rate out of the 52 is around four or five homes. 

No one knows when the housing shortage and resulting upward spiral in pricing will start to back down. In the meantime, Montana residents not only have to deal with the upward spike in the COVID-19 pandemic, but at the same time try to find housing for those who have been displaced.

As Missoula affordable housing shrinks, land trusts offer refuge

Story by Asa Thomas Metcalfe

New construction on Burns Street in the Northside neighborhood aims to provide affordable apartments for Missoula residents.

The Burns Street Commons is composed of a block of 17 multi-colored townhouses and commercial space that cap the post-industrial edge of Missoula’s Westside. Pressed against the railroad tracks and a trailer court, the townhouses encircle a fenced communal lawn. Balconies overlook practical private gardens of flowers and kale. A blueberry vine winds up the corner light post. 

Across the lawn is the commercial space, Burns Street Center, which is occupied by three businesses: Western Montana Growers Co-op, Plant Perks and Burns Street Bistro, a popular place for brunch. Burns Street looks like a lot of old Missoula streets in the area — a combination of trailers, craftsman homes and historic railroad houses. But the Burns Street Commons, which was built in 2008 in response to public concern about affordability and homelessness, stands out.

The Commons is a community land trust project of the North Missoula Community Development Corporation (NMCDC). The nonprofit organization aims to provide affordable housing by holding land in trust and enforcing a resale restriction to keep those homes affordable in perpetuity. At a time when housing prices have skyrocketed and priced many working residents out of the market, land trust developments could be one of the few options for home security and ownership that residents have left.

Missoula saw a 35% increase in home costs in the first year of the pandemic as the demand for housing increased.

“There’s no room for regular people here anymore,” said Bob Oaks, executive director of NMCDC. “When I say regular people, I mean, people that have the jobs that Missoula provides.” 

NMCDC has three other properties in Missoula, some with single-family developments and some townhouses. In all, NMCDC has created 53 affordable homes, plus the Burns business space, and according to the organization, it has made housing affordable for more than 100 families.

“We have housing that is de-commodified,” Oaks said. “That is not subject to market increase and competitive bidding for purchase.”

Homeowners in land trusts pay a mortgage, which tends to be a lower monthly expense than an average rent. The home also appreciates 1.5% on the original value for each year the owner lives there. If they do eventually choose to sell the home, they recoup their original investment plus the accrued equity. 

“They’re not paying the landlord, they’re paying into their own equity,” said Brittany Palmer, the Community Land Trust Program Manager and Community Organizer at NMCDC.

Land trusts account for a relatively small amount of land in Missoula. They exist as islands in a tumultuous storm of real estate prices. Often, there are no land trust properties available for purchase and the waitlists for interested buyers are long. 

“Everybody knows somebody who needs housing,” Palmer said.

In limited-equity agreements, homeowners don’t stand to make as large of a return as they would on unprotected property. The land is owned by the trust. The buyers only own improvements to the land, not the land itself. Improvements to the land are sold to buyers who are income-qualified at specific income levels, which vary depending on the project. But unlike current housing market prices, the low prices of land trust homes are maintained at prices reflective of median income and within a bracket that is affordable to average Montanans.

“The only way we can preserve affordability in that way is by owning the land underneath,” said Hermina Harold, executive director of Trust Montana.

Trust Montana is another Missoula-based nonprofit working on land trust projects. Its focus is statewide, in collaboration with community leaders and housing advocates in Red Lodge, Livingston, Missoula, Belgrade and Helena. Its goal is to promote workforce housing and farmland affordability, among other assets across urban and rural places. 

According to the Pew Research Center, the annual income bracket for a middle-class single-person household in Montana is between $24,000 and $74,000. But in places where prices aren’t set to Montana’s median income, the housing costs are often too high for the Montana middle class.

In Bozeman, the average price for a single-family home is just under $780,000. Missoula reached more than $440,000 in fall 2021.

“There’s an inherent contradiction in housing being an investment commodity, and considering housing as a basic human right,” Oaks said. “Those two perspectives don’t meet somewhere.” 

Until 2020, many Montana cities were securing affordable housing with mandatory inclusionary zone policies, which required new developments to sell a small percentage of new homes for under market price. 

Inclusionary zoning ensured at least some housing would always be affordable, so no matter how the population grew there would always be an affordable percentage to match.

But in 2021, Rep. Sue Vinton (R-Billings) introduced House Bill 259, which banned inclusionary zoning across the state. Both Bozeman and Whitefish were forced to end current programs and look for new solutions.

“I went to people in Missoula. I asked the Chamber of Commerce Committee to oppose the legislation saying, you know, you’re not going to have any places for workers if you don’t create places for them,” Oaks said.

Labor shortages across the state have been linked to corresponding housing issues.

According to Oaks and Harold, the land trusts run mostly on donated land and funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is sometimes a shallow reservoir.

A 2007 bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Erickson (D-Montana) proposed a tax on sales and inheritances over $500,000, but it was voted down.

According to Harold, the proposed tax would not affect most Montanans, and the collected revenue could have been used to increase U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding.

“That’s how a lot of other states in the country fund housing, and we don’t have that option,” Harold said.

In 2010, a citizen ballot spearheaded by the Montana Association of Realtors amended the state constitution to ban real estate taxes across the state.

Harold said the current situation is finally turning heads and support for land trusts is increasing. 

“It’s supported because people who would normally be able to step up the ladder from rental to homeownership are stuck in the market,” Harold said. “That clogs up the rental market for people who aren’t looking to buy homes as well. It just kind of makes everybody stagnant.”

“I know that it had to get worse in order for that to happen,” she added. “And that’s kind of how things work.”

Promise and Peril

The potential impacts of universal preschool

Story by Clarise Larson

Photos by Michael Martello

Illustrations by Ella Musgrove

Liz Van Nice of Liz Van Nice Family Day Care, is in the basement of her home in Missoula, Montana which she turned into a daycare business after teaching kindergarten for several years.

Missoula Democratic Senator Shannon O’Brien has spent 25 years of her life teaching kids. She has a doctorate in Educational Leadership. She’s a mother. She believes in basic human dignity. She believes child care is a basic need in Montana. 

In the 2021 legislative session, O’Brien introduced a bill that would establish high-quality child care business development grants. It died.

O’Brien introduced a bill that would generally revise laws related to preschool programs in Montana. It died.

O’Brien introduced a bill that would provide child care scholarships. It died. 

In fact, all of her 2021 proposed bills to further child care aid in Montana died. 

Montana is one of just six states without publicly funded and provided child care, leaving a majority of low-income Montana families with no option for high-quality voluntary universal preschool programs, unlike the other 44 states that do. But that could soon change.

In April 2021, President Joe Biden announced a $200 billion bill on education funding that will direct the funds toward universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds across the country as part of a national partnership. If fully implemented, the White House estimates it will save the average family $13,000 annually and benefit 5 million children. 

In simple terms — think free care for any child 3 to 4 years old, no matter the circumstances. Along with the free aspect, all care centers across the country will be teaching the same curriculum for the kids in the care provided as stated in the proposal. 

“The basic — basic — needs of having spaces that are safe and appropriate for children are a huge issue right now,” O’Brien said about the child care crisis happening in Montana. 

O’Brien said in past years Montana has taken big steps in ensuring quality child care — whether it’s in-home, center-based, or school-based, but the main issue is lack of space available and the low wages for child care workers. 

“It’s unlivable. Who wants to go into child care when they’re making $8 an hour with no benefits working from eight in the morning to six every night?” - Shannon O'Brien, Missoula Senator

Liz Van Nice shows the bookshelf she filled with games and books for her daycare students.

“It seems to be a Republican versus Democrat issue at the expense of our families, children and our economy; and I honestly don’t understand why,” O’Brien continued. “We know that at-risk children who get high quality, early care and education are significantly less likely to be arrested for a violent crime.” 

Children who did not participate in the preschool program were 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18, according to the Economic Opportunity Institute.

O’Brien said the lack of statewide provided child care in Montana is not seen as an issue in the legislature despite the lack of care available. 

“There is not a consensus in the legislature that we need child care. That’s the uphill battle we’re dealing with,” she said. 

O’Brien said she hopes some change can be made because right now she considers Montana to be in an urgent child care crisis. 

“What is a government doing if we’re not helping the people?” O’Brien said. 

In Montana, 57% of households said finding affordable child care is a challenge, according to a report published by the Montana Department of Labor & Industry and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in 2019. 

 “Everyone knows that 12 years is not enough today,” Biden said at his “American Families Plan” address in April of 2021. “The days of our nation failing to support and invest in the future of our babies and toddlers are over.” 

The proposal of universal preschool offers a great resource of care for families in need, but in Montana’s landscape, where the child care system is falling apart, what will happen to the already existing child care providers?

Liz Van Nice Family Daycare sits along Walnut Street in Missoula, Montana, shaded by two broad trees in the front lawn. 

A door on the side of the house leads down to the three-room daycare. A wall with multiple-sized diapers faces the door. There are labels on everything: A “yellow wall” label hangs from the yellow wall.  Stacks of toys, puzzles and colorful drawings line the walls of each room. Abundant beaming colors make the basement daycare seem brighter than the sun shining outside. 

Liz Van Nice, 66, sits in her red cushioned rocking chair, the crinkles around her eyes evidence of her smiling beneath her mask.  Despite the smile, her  feet kick the rocking chair back and forth at what seems like an unnatural speed and her hands twiddle every few seconds. 

“I do feel that [universal preschool] is going to have an effect on us,” Van Nice said. 

Van Nice is worried about the bill because her livelihood is already being threatened due to the child care crisis. In past years, she was able to ask a reasonable charge to a set number of families that would be her only clients. It was steady pay, day in and day out. Now, she is rotating between multiple children to try and accommodate as many families as she can, but the prices keep rising and she said it’s hard to justify asking for more.

In December 2020, a family put down a $500 deposit to ensure their child would be able to start at her daycare at the beginning of October. 

Between 2017 and 2019, 60% of preschool-aged Montana kids were not enrolled in any kind of early childhood program. SOURCE: Kids Count Data Center. 

As nine months went by, not only did she painfully send back the deposit, in the same week she gave the heart-wrenching news that she would have to let go of almost half her clients and the income they bring to her. 

 It’s not just Van Nice who is affected, it’s the families who can’t find child care because there is nowhere to go or the costs are too high. 

According to a study published in 2020 by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, the average loss to household income because of child care costs for families with children between 0 to 5 years of age is $5,700 annually. Furthermore, 58% of Montana’s families with children age 1 to 5 are stay-at-home parents. For those who have jobs, 62% experienced time missed from work, according to the study. 

Van Nice has provided child care to two generations of families in Missoula for 36 years, and while she hopes that will continue, she worries the evergreen effects the White House boasts about universal preschool will actually compound the current child care crisis.

Now Van Nice can only legally hold three children per working adult at her facility. She has been struggling for months to find workers and has come up dry. In order to keep multiple families afloat, she has been rotating among children to give as much care as possible. 

If Van Nice loses her 3- and 4-year- old clients, she will be forced to raise the price for younger children significantly to make a survivable income and continue her business. 

“You can only have so many [children] — three per provider under the age of 24 months. I can’t afford to hire somebody at that rate. Rates are going to skyrocket for parents, so if people can be home to be with the little ones — they will,” Van Nice said. “It’s going to snowball.”

The stress has made her feel sick, she said. For the first time in nearly four decades, she will be legally required to pay her only employee more money than she herself will take in from the business. 

This is the first time in her 36-year-long career she has doubts that this profession will provide a livable income to her and her family. She no longer sees how providers are going to be able to stay in this profession and make money at the same time.  

“This has never happened to me before,” she said. 

Liz Van Nice explains how she takes her students’ temperatures every morning before they enter the building as a way to combat the spread of COVID-19. In 2020, her husband died from COVID-19, leaving her financially vulnerable and unable to hire long-term staff at her private daycare.

Beyond the financial and career issues she faces, Van Nice worries universal preschool isn’t going to be good for the needs of children aged 3 to 4. 

Van Nice acknowledges there is a child care crisis in Missoula, but she also said she doesn’t think universal preschool is the best option for the children’s wellbeing and development. Veteran child care providers like Van Nice worry the needs of children will not be met by making a large-scale preschool and child care system while also having to face the reality that 60% of preschool-aged Montana kids were not enrolled in any kind of early childhood program, according to a study done by Kids Count Data Center between 2017 and 2019. But Van Nice also doesn’t have an answer on how to stop the child care crisis from growing more out of control than she sees it now. 

“I don’t think it’s good for a child to have structure all day long, and I know some parents will not want their children to be put into a big classroom with a big group of kids at 3 years old,” Van Nice said. 

Van Nice has spent her whole life dedicated to children as a caretaker, friend and healer — but what happens when healers like her are forced to leave the field? Universal preschool might not be everyone’s favorite option, but it might be the only one. 

Dr. Rachel Severson is a professor at the University of Montana with a doctorate in developmental psychology and expertise in children’s social-cognitive development. Her research is primarily with children 3 to 9 years old. 

Severson said that, in principle, she supports the idea of universal preschool. But in reality, she has no way to know what will be implemented yet. Her biggest hope as a psychologist is that universal daycare provides high-quality care and consistency in the caregivers and facilities across the country.  

The talk around having a curriculum for young children has been a sore spot when it comes to universal preschool. From her knowledge in the field, Severson said her recommended type of learning for preschool age children involves interactive, physical, knowledge-based learning that eventually moves into conceptual knowledge. 

“When we​​ talk about curriculum, it’s not like some worksheets. It’s having kids doing things, physically manipulating objects and moving,” Severson said. 

Longitudinal studies — studies that assess a group of individuals repeatedly over a period of time — have shown factors in early childhood that are associated with outcomes in adulthood. Severson said, for example, preschoolers’ executive function skills, which are responsible for things like impulse control, planning and turn-taking, strongly predict their future academic performance, peer relationships and professional success. And, importantly, preschoolers’ executive function skills can be improved through early childhood learning.

“The disparities that we see in kids, later on, we can see through their developmental trajectory and see where they started to diverge. For so many skills, they happen really early,” Severson said. “There’s an opportunity early on to set kids on the right course for their social development and cognitive development but when that isn’t happening, that becomes the point we start to see the divergence that plays out over their lifetime.”

Severson said many of her friends ask her questions about her work in hopes to get some insight on the best way to help their kids. She said she gets asked time and time again if she could make one change to help kids broadly, what would it be? She always has the same answer.

“My friends say ‘Oh, you’re gonna say health care,’ but actually, no. I think it’s high-quality childhood education and care for all of pre-K. When we know that is quality, across the board, every child benefits,” Severson said. 

“Not to say that health care isn’t important though,” she added with a chuckle. 

Van Nice talks about the importance of hands-on learning as she shares a story about teaching kids regarding the life cycle of a tree and how to write a poem on the subject.

The effects of universal preschool are widely unknown, but the cognitive needs of children are not. 

Caitlin Jensen, executive director of the statewide office of Zero to Five, a nonprofit that works to build partnerships with child care systems to serve children and families all across Montana, said she thinks this universal preschool can be something great for Montana’s children. 

“I think what’s being proposed is high-quality care, at the root of it,” Jensen said. 

Zero to Five works to advance public preschool and access to affordable quality child care for young children.

However, Jensen said if the proposed preschool system is implemented, the nonprofit would offer extra specialization that would focus on child care while still remaining in the general education degree field. 

For Montana, this extra endorsement won’t come as a shock. 

“There’s an early childhood Higher Education Consortium, which is a partnership between the University of Montana, UMT and tribal colleges. Lots of the early education work to make sure that teachers are prepared, whether they’re going into work in child care, a facility in at Head Start or in a school district,” Jensen said.

 “So, what’s being proposed in this federal legislation is that there would be a lot of alignment when it comes to teacher preparation,” Jensen said.

In 2016, the Department of Education offered a grant to Montana that provided a minimal preschool program along with the educational endorsement for teachers. Though it is not enough to fix the statewide child care crisis, Jensen said the groundwork for universal preschool in Montana has already been established through that grant.

Jensen said preschools will be built in response if the bill gets passed, but part of the proposed $200 billion bill on education will also go to daycares and other child care facilities. The idea behind the spreading of funds is to provide the same guidelines of preschool learning, but offered in different settings. 

That means child care would still be available at in-home daycares, but also through school-district programs in school-based settings. It allows child care to be applied in a variety of settings across Montana.

But with this plan also comes extreme measures of coordination. Jensen said although the proposed program will give funding to child care providers outside of the built preschools, there is no guarantee the subsidies for outside care will be enough. 

Jensen said the bottom line is  Montana does not have the subsidy programs to ensure child care providers are financially stable.

“If parents are having to pay more and more, there’s a higher likelihood that they won’t keep their kids in care, because they can’t afford it,” Jensen said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

Liz Van Nice stands in her backyard that she converted into a playground for her daycare.

Jensen said the thing most people don’t know about the possible bill is it really won’t financially burden the average taxpayer in the U.S. 

“The current proposal doesn’t increase taxes on people making under $400,000. So the majority of Americans and Montanans don’t really need to be concerned about paying more in taxes,” Jensen said. 

In Montana, taxpayers lost $32,036,000 due to inadequate child care, according to the 2020 study by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Not only is the current system burdening the taxpayers, but the Montana economy has had major negative effects caused by inadequate child care across the state.  

The cumulative loss of household income across Montana to inadequate child care in 2019 was $145,146,000. The average cost to businesses because of parents’ child care problems is $54 million annually. 

If nothing changes, the economic burden to the Montana economy will go from $145 million lost from households to an estimated $907 million by 2028.

Pointing out the painting hanging above the knee-high table surrounded by chairs three times smaller than the average, Van Nice smiles at the out-of-line colorings and unidentifiable drawings her kids proudly made. But she remains uneasy. 

“I’m really upset for the families that I’m having to let go because there’s nowhere for them to take their children,” she said.

Whether or not government-implemented child care will help the people of Montana, Van Nice’s daycare doors will remain open to the few children she can still care for — until she is forced to leave the job that has become a part of her identity. 

Public Health Exodus ​

Local healers leave after divisive legislative session

Story by Addie Slanger

Photos by Joseph Evans

Illustration by MaKayla O’Neil

Matt Kelley was finishing dressing the turkey on Thanksgiving, 2020, when his wife called him into the other room. Peering out the window, he saw a small group of men on the sidewalk outside his home holding signs, a Weber grill and a live, white turkey on a leash.

The signs labeled Kelley a “tyrant,” and called for him to resign as lead health officer of the Gallatin City-County Health Department in Bozeman, Montana. The protestors weren’t happy Kelley had enacted a county-wide recommendation for families to have smaller holiday gatherings. Kelley found out the grill was for burning face masks. He still isn’t sure what the leashed turkey signified. 

Perhaps some holiday spirit. 

At the time, the COVID-19 pandemic was worsening in Bozeman. Dozens of people filled the hospitals and health officials were hoping Montana was experiencing the worst wave of the pandemic it would ever have to face. 

The small Thanksgiving protest marked the first of consecutive weeks of picketing in front of Kelley’s house from the same group of people. It was a hard time for him and his family.

Illustration by MaKayla O'Neil

“My kids were both under the age of 12,” Kelley said. “It’s hard for them to understand why there’s someone on the front sidewalk calling daddy a tyrant and demanding his resignation.”

Seven months later, Kelley left his role as top health officer in Gallatin County to join the Montana Public Health Institute as its first chief executive officer. He’s not the only Montana public health official to have left his position since the pandemic arrived on the shores of the United States. 

In the last year, more than a dozen Montana counties have lost their top health official, according to data from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS). This includes four of the state’s seven most populous counties: Missoula, Gallatin, Flathead and Butte-Silverbow. And this exodus hurts public health efforts in Montana, where important health action occurs at the local level, said Ellen Leahy, former director of the Missoula City-County Health Department for more than 30 years. The loss of established top health officials means the loss of important institutional knowledge.


At least 17 of Montana’s 56 counties — more than 30% — have seen the transition of their top health official; a trend occurring across the United States, labeled by ABC News as the largest exodus of public health officials the nation has ever experienced.

In Montana, much of the health officers’ frustration comes from the legislation passed in the 67th Montana Legislature, on the heels of a red wave in the 2020 election, said Jim Murphy, former bureau chief of the Communicable Disease Bureau for DPHHS. Legislators worked to strip the authority from local public health departments in the form of legislation like House Bills 257, 121 and 702. HB 257, now law, prohibits local health boards and officers from creating policies that “restrict the ability of a private business to conduct business.” HB 121 allows a government body to amend local health regulations and revises penalties allowed for the violation of a local health rule.

 

But of most concern to Leahy, Murphy and health officials around the state is House Bill 702, legislation that significantly impedes health officers’ abilities to regulate, mandate and keep track of vaccinations. The bill, which passed in April, during the final hours of the 2021 Legislative Session, prohibits public and private employers from “discriminating” based on vaccine status. It is the only legislation of its kind in the U.S., according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.

In a state where public health success is dependent on local authority, Leahy said, state legislation is working to limit the power of public health officials. Montana can’t afford more public health staff cuts or transitions, Murphy said.

“You lose a lot of institutional knowledge,” he said. “You know, when [top health officials leave], it’s a bad time to lose institutional knowledge during an event [like the pandemic].”

“There’s been political differences my entire career, but they have never been as divisive as they are now. We have pushed at the state level at every session. And this year we couldn’t stop it,” Leahy said of HB 702. “Again, you see that magnification of that divide. And that symbolism shows contempt for any type of public health.”

Eventually, Murphy said, top public health officers just got tired of the political war. 

“I think between the Legislature, between the perception … that public health is the enemy and not the virus, has led a lot of people to re-evaluate their options,” Murphy said. “You don’t need people threatening your family. You don’t need people protesting outside your house like Gallatin County had.”

Top health officials left their positions in Blaine, Butte-Silverbow, Carbon, Carter, Dawson, Flathead, Gallatin, Granite, Meagher, Madison, Missoula, Park, Pondera, Powell, Powder River, Ravalli and Sanders counties. An in-depth analysis of this trend points to a delegitimization of public health, and the steady stripping of its power.

The Pandemic and the Legislature

Over the last year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic has wracked Montana. The state has seen more than 2,000 deaths and more than 150,000 cases total. September and early October 2021 saw case peaks matching Montana’s highest-ever numbers from last winter.

In addition, the state has experienced a tidal shift in politics. In November 2020, Greg Gianforte was elected the first Republican governor of Montana in 16 years, and not a single statewide Democratic candidate won election.

The following legislative session saw a tsunami of conservative legislation passed that had previously been blocked by Democratic governors for years. Gun deregulation, anti-abortion measures and anti-transgender laws surged through the House and Senate for an expected Gianforte signature. Now, many of these new laws sit suspended in court as opposition groups challenge their constitutionality. 

Ellen Leahy is the former director of the Missoula City-County Health Department after holding the position for more than 30 years.

Rep. David Bedey, a state legislator from Hamilton, sponsored HB 121, the legislation that requires local government officials to approve any public health regulations. He worked closely with public health officers to draft the bill.

Ellen Leahy is the former director of the Missoula City-County Health Department.

The impetus for his legislation, Bedey said, was to ensure rules are actually implemented by those who are publicly elected. That is, since public health officers are appointed to their positions and not democratically elected, they should not be in charge of enforcing public regulations. 

Bedey agreed he saw a connection between Montana’s public health trend and the 67th Legislature’s impact. But he said he thought public health officials would be facing the same delegitimization regardless of any bills put forth by the Legislature.

“I suspect that there is some truth to the fact that there’s a legislative tie [to public health officials’ exodus],” Bedey said. “But I think that public health officials would be facing the same sort of dilemma right now, even in the absence of any legislation during the last session.”

For example, Bedey said, he had been working on his bill before the pandemic began. COVID-19 just provided a more dramatic environment. Now, with the hyper-partisan nature of the nation, he said he thought the state could be poised for something like this to happen.

In fact, he said, he wrote HB 121 in an effort to fight the concerning trends he’d been seeing.

“My primary motivation for writing 121 was not to neuter public health, but rather, provide them the legitimacy so that they could do the work they must do,” he said. “And the way I thought that legitimacy would be established, would be that any regulations that are promulgated in a county or jurisdictional setting would be approved by people that were elected.”

 

Still, perhaps no legislation was more difficult to reconcile, especially for public health officials, than HB 702, Leahy said.  She and the heads of other Montana public health offices had successfully fought legislation that rolled back immunization requirements, like HB 702, for over 15 years. But this year, amid widespread vaccine skepticism and public health under increased scrutiny, the bill passed. 

On Wednesday, Sept. 22, a lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Montana Medical Association and various other clinics and patients, challenged the legality of HB 702. And on Oct. 6, a law firm in Sidney, Montana filed a second lawsuit against the bill.

Checked or Checkmated: Health Officers’ Frustration

Nick Lawyer became the top health official of Sanders County in January 2021. He focused on his clinical work and enrolled in a class at the University of Montana to further improve his abilities as a public health leader.

But soon, Lawyer noticed legislation creeping through the Legislature that considerably impacted his ability to perform his job.

“In March, April, there were some bills that came through the Legislature that were very much presented as, ‘We are going to give control back to the community away from the tyrant officers across the state,’” Lawyer said. “And those bills had a pretty negative impact on our ability to do the job. And so you know, by April, by May, I found very quickly I had minimal ability to enact anything.”

That wasn’t a problem at first, Lawyer said. School was wrapping up, the vaccine had been made available to everyone, summer was on the horizon. In many ways, it felt like the light at the end of the tunnel.

Then things started changing.

Lawyer watched his position turn into a purely advisory role after the legislative session as the pandemic began to gain more steam. He wrote letters to the schools in his county and attended fair board meetings urging mitigation measures. He spread as many educational resources as he could. But he was met with mixed responses, hesitancy and disregard.

“Telling the schools, ‘you should consider masking because we know masking will reduce the spread of disease and will keep kids in school’ — simply telling the schools that caused consternation and irritation,” Lawyer said.

“So again, it’s very frustrating to be asked to fill this job, to be told this is an advisory role by the Legislature. And then when you give advice, it’s met with hostility from the community,” he continued.

The Missoula City-County Health Department located downtown on 301 W. Alder.

In a meeting in July, four women began questioning the Sanders County public health nurse about vaccine efficacy and credibility. Lawyer marked this as an important shift in his time as public health officer. After the July meeting, people started coming more frequently, asking the board to call for Lawyer’s resignation.

Then, a woman he had never met died from COVID-19 in his county. The woman’s family blamed Lawyer for her death, claiming his policies prohibited her from receiving unproven treatments like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.

“They asked the commissioners for a special meeting,” Lawyer said. “And the commissioners called that meeting and her widower stepped forward and said ‘Nick Lawyer killed my wife, because his policies and protocols wouldn’t let the doctors give my wife ivermectin.’”

From that moment, he was ready to be done, he said. His position had become political, not medical. He felt his hands were tied to begin with and the time he spent at the health department took away from the time he could spend at his own clinic. 

When the county commissioners requested he resign, he did so. 

“The job has become a political post,” Lawyer said. “It’s become an advisory political post, and you can’t really do anything, or enact public health measures. From a medical perspective, you are politicians.”

Lawyer’s experience is a microcosmic example of what many public health officials across Montana have faced. Lawyer, Kelley and other officers who have resigned or transitioned out of their positions, including the entire health department of Pondera County, were tasked with protecting their communities’ welfare while handcuffed by the legislation enacted in March, said Murphy, the retired DPHHS officer. It is a daunting assignment.

Each experienced nuanced challenges — and it’s impossible to point to one specific catalyst that prompted the exodus.  

“I think some of [the health officers] just, you know, came to the point where they felt like, whatever they would do, or whatever they could do, was going to be either checked or checkmated. And it was futile to try to keep doing the same thing,” Murphy said.

The vilification of the health officers didn’t help either, Murphy said. In the legislative session, public health officials were compared to brown shirts and Nazis. Lawmakers perpetuated myths about microchips in the vaccine, he said. 

The rhetoric was as bad as the actual legislation, Murphy said, and at a certain point, that became tough to navigate.

Public Health’s Prognosis

So what does this mean for the future of Montana public health? Each public health officer agreed the loss of institutional knowledge will be damaging for the state. Many of the public health practices are complicated, and require time to learn and improve.

And even more than that, legislation is much harder to reverse than public opinion. Murphy said the laws undermine the entire effort of local health officials. Once the bills become law, they’re hard to overturn.

Not only that, the anti-public health rhetoric has worked to slowly strip away the credibility of local health departments and officers. Once that happens, it’s hard to get that credibility back.

It’s the kind of thing an election and a new wave of politicians may not be able to fix, Murphy said.

“It takes a long time for that pendulum to swing back when you’ve codified some of this in statute,” he said. “So, even if the legislative body changes, or the governor’s party changes again, I’m not sure that’ll be enough.”

“We definitely lost past expertise. Definitely,” Leahy said.

“The consequences [of this politicization of public health] to medicine and to public health is a deep legitimization and a vilification of experts,” Lawyer added. “Not just in medicine, but in lots of things.”

However, many like Kelley are able to see past the difficulties to a Montana still full of health officials who care and work hard, despite the roadblocks, name-calling and dangerous rhetoric.

“What happened to me last November was really hard,” Kelley said. “But, you know, I had a lot of support. I can tell you I speak to elite health officials all over Montana … we’ll continue to work around [the challenges]. We’ll find ways to keep working for the benefit of our community.”

More than Superstition ​

A haunted prison fosters connection during COVID-19

Story by Luke Seymour

Photos by Aston Kinsella

Photos by Collin Kuehn

Illustration by Mariah Karis

An anatomical model of a skeleton located in the doctor’s office at the old Montana State Prison.
Cell 1 housed Paul Eitner, more commonly known by his nickname: Turkey Pete. He was arrested in 1918 for murder and brought to the Montana State Prison where he was put in charge of taking care of the prison turkeys. One day he sold the birds to a man for 25 cents apiece and gave the money to the prison. Eitner started losing touch with reality and believed he was the caretaker of the prison. They went along with it and gave him fake checks to hand out to employees. He was considered a model inmate and was the only prisoner to have a memorial service inside the prison. After his death, Cell 1 was retired. Now it holds a few of his belongings and a portrait of him when he entered the prison and a portrait when he died in 1967.
The brick building is where all the cells were located, and the adjoining white building housed the TV room, mess hall, showers, administration offices and chapel.

Out of the many feelings a person might experience when they lie in the well-maintained grass at the center of an abandoned courtyard of a supposedly haunted prison, one is a surprising sense of elation. 

There’s an enormous calming sense at the heart of the Old Montana Prison. It is not an empty calm, but a calm heavy with time — an atmosphere that swells with memory. 

The basketball court is bleach white, accessorized with skeletal hoops absent of netting. The vacant guard towers look like empty nests that once housed terrible birds of prey. In contrast, a square of pavement for hopscotch looks cared for, the numbers and shapes newly painted with vibrant pastel colors. An older couple walks slowly around the walls as they whisper to each other in a hush.

As 2021 comes to a close, a year defined by the anxiety that comes from COVID-19 politics — there’s something therapeutic about an escape into the past — to lie at the center of a prison of lost souls. 

The Old Montana Prison was established in 1871 in an effort described in the tour handbook as “an attempt to tame the wild west.” In 1959, a vicious prison riot broke out and shook the state of Montana with reports of violence, chaos and murder. 

The riot led to the destruction of one of the prison’s cell towers after a member of the National Guard fired a bazooka at the building to stun the prisoners. Three people were reported dead after the riot, including the Deputy Warden, Theodore Rothe. It is believed that the core reason for the riot was due to overcrowding, which was a problem that continued to be unaddressed until the prison’s closure in 1979. 

Since then, the prison has been converted into a museum and is a well known northwestern Montana tourist destination, and one of the main sources of revenue for the City of Deer Lodge, Montana. The museum hosts birthdays, car raffles and even performances from touring bands. The Hell’s Belles, an all-female AC/DC cover band from Seattle, performed on the concrete block in the middle of the prison courtyard in 2018 to an enthusiastic crowd.

However, there is one attraction that has earned the Old Montana Prison a reputation for being one of the spookiest destinations in the West. For decades now, it has gained steady notoriety for being a haunted hotspot, and as a result it has attracted attention from ghost   hunters all over the country. After being visited in 2012 by the hit  SYFY Channel TV show “Haunted Collector,” the prison started holding annual ghost tours. For a handful of nights each year, guests are treated to a tour through some of the prison’s alleged haunted facilities. Over the years, guests have reported feeling touched on their neck and shoulders and experiencing nausea.

The prison proved its lasting power in early 2020 after a brief three-month period where it shut down to clean and sanitize the facility in compliance with government mandates. It was one of the few businesses in Deer Lodge and in all of Montana that remained open during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It seemed like people just wanted to get out,” said Lisa Garcia, a longtime prison events coordinator and paranormal investigator. “We had people showing up right off the bat and people calling us when we were closed asking us ‘are you open? Are you open?’ I think people just needed to get out because they were already so tired of being cooped up for so long.” 

There’s a tempting observation to be made about the prison being as successful as it was during the middle of a pandemic: People rushing to embrace a timeworn prison to escape a prison of pandemic crisis. The image of guests pacing old, dilapidated hallways just because it beats endlessly pacing around their own living rooms, is both provocative and amusing. 

Illustration by Mariah Karis
Lisa Garcia is a paranormal investigator and the prison events coordinator.
Jennifer Keintz is one of the paranormal investigators who is in charge of leading the prison tours.

“Obviously you’re going to get a lot of people who are in it just for the adrenaline rush, right?” said Jennifer Keintz, a 25-year high school journalism teacher and one of the Old Montana Prison’s newest paranormal investigators and historic tour guide. “But I think outside of the thrill of dealing with the paranormal and seeing for yourself whether it’s real or not, the whole experience is really about stories: Both the ones that we write for ourselves and the one that we get to write with and interact with others. That kind of interactive experience can be really therapeutic.” 

On a cold and clear Saturday night in October, more than 20 strangers squeezed into a small wooden room to live the experience Keintz talks about. It was the very last tour of the season. After everyone was accounted for, Keintz addressed those gathered and announced that the room they were in was the administration offices. It was the room they usually saved for last because she considered it to be the most haunted part of the prison. The last time she’d brought a group here she said she heard a growl.

Keintz passed around electro-magnetic field detectors that could “sense spiritual activity” and would glow red and beep if there was a spirit nearby. She then asked for a volunteer to participate in what she called “The Human Pendulum.” The purpose of the activity was to have the volunteer who acted as the “medium” stand perfectly still between two other volunteers who would act as “spotters.” She would ask the spirits a series of yes or no questions.

If the ghosts answered “yes,” the spirits were instructed to push the volunteer forward. If they answered “no,” they would push them backward. 

The first volunteer was a young college student named Jeremy Jacobs who was there with a friend. Keintz asked the spirits if they wanted the group to be there or to leave— there was no response. But, when she  asked if the spirit was human or not, Jacobs lost his balance. Keintz rushed to thank the spirits and dismissed Jacobs. 

“I’m a big history buff, so that’s mostly the reason I’m here,” Jacobs said as he shrugged his shoulders. “This was really the first night I ever felt like I was connecting to something beyond what was here,” he said as he knocked his hiking boots against the ground. “Like — here — here.” 

The next volunteer, Deidra Beacom, was more shaken than Jacobs. She was holding her own hands to keep them from shaking. Keintz again asked if the spirit was pleased the group was there; Beacom let out a squeal and fell back. After she regained her composure, she remained shaking. Keintz said Beacom could opt out of the exercise, but Beacom insisted on continuing. After a few more questions that produced little effect, Keintz dismissed Beacom.

“I’ve always believed in the supernatural and I think that’s why it scared me so much,” Beacom said. “It was also a very powerful and humbling experience, that’s for sure.” 

Beyond the pendulum, the supernatural interaction was minimal. At one point, the group lined up against the jail cells and sang along to “Sweet Caroline” to “provoke the spirits into singing or whistling along,” Keintz said. Then the group moved on to the chapel to listen to a series of ‘80s radio hits in the dark while the tour guides set up sensory-activated music boxes to play whenever spirits were present. Other than a singular music box that played continuously, there was no apparent interaction. In the shower area of the prison, a group member claimed he felt cold water drip on his head when there was no source of water to be seen. Another said she felt the touch of fingers on the back of her neck. 

While each of these moments were captivating, whether truly supernatural or not, the most moving moment of the tour came at the end. Keintz ended the tour in the gift shop. She thanked everyone for coming and invited them to continue to explore the property and bid all of them a good rest of the year. The crowd dispersed into the parking lot to talk amongst themselves. A young college student asked Beacom about her Pendulum experience while Jacobs talked with his friend about his spooky showdown. Two men, one from Deer Lodge and one from Kalispell, exchanged photos they believed caught a glimpse of a
spirit. 

“People just want to feel connected with other people,” Keintz said. “Even if some of those people are, you know, not alive.” 

Welcoming Them Home

The return of native species is healing the land of the Aaniiih and Nakoda

Story and photos by Sarah Mosquera

On a cloudy night in September, a single spotlight cuts through the darkness. Jessica Alexander, a 38-year-old field biologist, drives her gray Toyota Tundra across the Snake Butte pasture. Her dog, Kouva, sits silently in the back while Alexander scans the horizon beyond the truck.  

“Sometimes I think I left her behind because she’s so quiet back there,” Alexander says laughing.

With the driver’s side window down, her left hand controls the spotlight suction-cupped to the roof of her truck. She sweeps the light back and forth, searching. Within the darkness, the spotlight catches the gleam of two emerald eyes. A long rectangular metal trap protrudes from a prairie dog hole. Inside the trap, a small ferret hisses. 

“Black-footed ferrets live in prairie dog holes after they eat them,” Alexander explains. “They run from hole to hole and as they stick their little heads out, it’s easy to spot their bright green eyes.”

Within the darkness, Alexander searches the ferret for a microchip, then quickly takes him to base camp, an old camper near the entry gate. She anesthetizes him on the fold-out dinner table and adds a chip to the base of his  neck. This allows her and other scientists to monitor the animal and document which vaccines it has received and when. Alexander administers the F1-V vaccine to protect the ferret from the plague. F1-V is only made in Colorado and has a two-week shelf life, so she must estimate how much she needs before going into the field.

Aaniiih Councilman Mike Fox.

Alexander is the owner of Little Dog Wildlife LLC. She works closely with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Fort Belknap Indian Tribes to help monitor and protect the prairie ecosystem. 

“The sylvatic plague was introduced by rats who came over on ships in the 1900s,” Alexander explains. “It’s transferred through fleas and will quickly wipe out an entire prairie dog colony.” 

Since black-footed ferrets are dependent on prairie dogs as a food source and for shelter, a bout of the plague would be detrimental to the highly endangered species. 

Once found throughout the Great Plains, the black-footed ferret population steadily declined since the beginning of the 20th century due to agricultural expansion, government-led poisoning campaigns and the sylvatic plague. After 30 years of reintroduction programs, the population is slowly increasing, but still less than 400 black-footed ferrets live in the wild. 

In 2013, the local tribes of Fort Belknap partnered with the WWF to reintroduce the endangered species back to Snake Butte, but it wasn’t their first attempt. In 1997, the ferrets were introduced to the same pasture, but were soon wiped out by the sylvatic plague. Beyond administering vaccinations, Fort Belknap Fish and Wildlife department dust the prairie dog holes to protect them from fleas. 

“Prairie dogs are a keystone species,” Alexander explains. “Without them this habitat couldn’t exist. In order to protect the ferrets, we must protect the prairie dogs.” 

Rising from the prairie, Snake Butte stands prominently within a sea of gold. The northern face of the butte is scarred and damaged from past extractive activity. Nearly a century ago, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) quarried the butte and hauled away columns of granite to construct the legendary Fort Peck dam. Along the butte’s southern face, the grunts of more than 800 buffalo can be heard as they wallow on prairie dog mounds: the tribes’ first reintroduction success story. Buffalo, scientifically called bison, returned to the Snake Butte pasture in 1974 thanks to the Aaniiih and Nakoda tribal members who live on the land.  

Field Biologist Jessica Alexander works nights at the Snake Butte pasture, capturing, anesthetizing and vaccinating black-footed ferrets in order to protect them from the sylvatic plague. Afterwards, she returns the ferret to its home.

In partnership with organizations like WWF, the Fort Belknap tribes have pioneered the way for wildlife reintroductions within the Great Plains ecosystem. Beginning with buffalo and moving on to black-footed ferrets and swift foxes, each native species is a necessary puzzle piece for a healthy prairie. The Aaniiih and Nakoda people are healing their land by bringing back the animals that belong there. 

On a windy autumn day in late September, George Horse Capture Jr. drives his white Ford F-150 through the Snake Butte pasture. As the truck creeps along the butte’s eastern perimeter, prairie dog whistles fill the cab.  

“You drive through this particular area and there’s so much life,” Horse Capture says. “The prairie dogs singing around, the buffalo grunting, the antelope and the coyotes running.”

The Aaniiih elder looks stylish in Wrangler blue jeans and a decorative Pendleton overcoat. Considered a “knowledge keeper,” the importance of the butte and its inhabitants is deeply ingrained in him. “Our knowledge is there’s a big rattlesnake that lives here. That lives inside [of the butte],” Horse Capture says.  

According to local legend, Snake Butte is home to a monstrous snake that has made its home deep within the crevice of the butte. 

“[The snake’s] got a lot of powers,” Horse Capture says. “Both tribes believe. My people say, stay away … It is not to be trifled with. Even good power. Good power, bad power, they’re not to be trifled with.”

George Horse Capture Jr. takes visitors on guided tours of the Snake Butte pasture and other significant landmarks. “We will take people all the way down to Yellowstone,” Horse Capture said. “This land used to all belong to us. So the tours don’t stop at the reservation boundaries.”

Both the Aaniiih and Nakoda tribes have local legends about the snake who inhabits the depths of the butte. Tribal members approach the landmark with respect and caution. The butte has long been a sacred area used by many Indian tribes for prayer, fasting and gathering medicinal plants. 

“The butte is a landmark,” Horse Capture says. “It could be spotted by Indians while they were traveling throughout the plains…They would stop here to pray or to fast. Many tribes respect this place.”

In the 1930s, the USACE began plans for one of Montana’s biggest construction projects, the Fort Peck dam. To construct the highest dam along the Missouri river, the engineers needed extremely durable rock. By 1931, they had spotted the impressive landmark. The massive granite columns of Snake Butte were exactly what the USACE needed for the dam being built over 100 miles away. They blasted the northern face of the butte, causing the prominent columns to crumble. A temporary railroad snaked through the prairie to haul away the riprap. Five years later, a black and white image of the dam’s spillway by photographer Margaret Bourke-White served as the first cover of Life magazine for a story about the dam’s construction.

Snake Butte is never mentioned in the story.

After construction of the dam finished, the world celebrated the marvelous new structure along the Missouri and the success of Roosevelt’s New Deal. There was a definite irony in the festivities. Bourke-White’s powerful images show men and women celebrating the project’s success in front of a sign that reads, “No Beer Sold to Indians.” Snake Butte still stood boldly, now with a prominent scar and surrounded by the rubble left behind by the USACE.  The blasts left the butte in a damaged state and the rail line — cutting through the otherwise pristine grasslands — was abandoned.

Remnants from the extraction remained on the Snake Butte prairie until 2003 when the tribes created the Fort Belknap Brownfields Program. They partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency and Technical Outreach Services for Native American Communities (TOSNAC) to remove the rubble and any potential toxins left behind at the quarry site. According to official documentation, “The highest priority was to return [Snake Butte] to a natural state.”

“I used to always think about those carrier pigeons that went extinct and think, damn that’s a real shame,” Councilman Mike Fox said. “Now we have a chance to prevent the same thing from happening to these animals on the prairie.”

The Fort Belknap Brownfields Program offered environmental training at the Aaniiih Nakoda College, helping the locals get jobs at the clean-up site. The program trained locals from Fort Belknap in environmental clean-up to protect workers from any hazardous waste left behind at the quarry site. Slowly the team removed rubble and riprap from the quarry site and then began deconstructing the metal rail lines from the prairie. Now, nearly a century later, the Snake Butte pasture is no longer covered in remnants of the collapsed columns. Water from a spring near the northwestern face runs clear, and many locals visit the site regularly to gather drinking water. 

“It seems to be okay again now,” Horse Capture said. “The water is tested regularly, and they haven’t found any toxins in there for a long time now.”

As Horse Capture turns his truck along the southern face of the butte, he sees more than 50 buffalo grazing in the pasture. The whistles of the prairie dogs are drowned out by grunts and snorts. A cloud of dust fills the air as a young female buffalo flops onto her back and rolls around on a prairie dog mound.

“I never get tired of this,” Aaniiih Councilman Mike Fox says while watching a swift fox through a pair of binoculars. “Every time we have one of these reintroductions, it’s like a family member is returning home. How could you get tired of that?” 

Fox has been involved in many reintroduction projects on Fort Belknap, from the buffalo to the ferret to the swift fox. 

“It just felt like the right thing to do,” he says. “This is where these animals belong. If we have an opportunity to bring them home, we should.” 

In 2020 the tribes began a five-year conservation partnership with the Smithsonian Biology Conservation Institute to reintroduce swift foxes to their land. The goal of the partnership is to create a self-sustaining population on the reservation. Fox says it’s been more than 51 years since the swift fox lived on their prairie. 

Swift foxes were declared extinct in Montana in 1969 and the remaining species in North America were divided into the northern population and the southern. As agriculture became more of a way of life in the state, grassland habitat was destroyed along with biodiversity. The beautiful chaos of the Great Plains ecosystem was replaced with militant rows of agricultural crops. As the habitat morphed outside of the invisible boundaries of Fort Belknap, species connectivity became more difficult to maintain. The foxes are far-ranging and by returning them to the Fort Belknap prairie, it will help to bridge population gaps. Species connectivity is essential to create a healthy swift fox population and ensure survival. 

George Horse Capture Jr. looks at a herd of buffalo as he drives past in his truck. The tribes reintroduced 27 buffalo to the Snake Butte pasture in 1974. The herd has now grown to more than 800.
Councilman Mike Fox watches a swift fox through a pair of binoculars on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. The tribes began reintroducing swift foxes to their land in 2020.
The Snake Butte prairie has long been a sacred site for many Indian tribes - not just the Aaniiih and Nakoda - for fasting, prayer and gathering medicinal plants. Rock circles have been left behind by visitors.

Beyond the ecological importance of each reintroduction, the animals help tribal members maintain a connection to the past. “Our people have always had a kit [swift] fox society,” Fox said. “The swift fox has important cultural significance for us. That society was created by our ancestors who lived on this land with the foxes.” By bringing the animals back to the Great Plains, tribal members are reconnecting to the land and healing alongside the ecosystem.

 Fox spent 10 years working for the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, where he helped tribes across the country bring buffalo herds back to their lands. In 1974, 27 buffalo were reintroduced to the Snake Butte pasture, now the herd is over 800 head. The Snake Butte herd is one of two on the reservation. The other, introduced in 2012, is further south and on the other side of the highway — those are genetically pure Yellowstone bison. 

“I never cared about the DNA testing for the buffalo,” Fox said. “They’re not genetically pure but that’s not an important factor. It’s like the blood quantum. I’m 9/16th Indian, I’m still an Indian. It’s the same for those buffalo.”

Cristina Eisenberg, an Indigenous ecologist from Oregon State University, explains that bison evolved with the grasslands. 

“Their hooves have formed in a way that prevents trampling of the grasses,” she said. “And they help make the grasslands more resilient to climate change by increasing biodiversity.” 

Buffalo and prairie dogs are essential for healthy grasslands and are both considered keystone species because they change the ecosystem and create habitat for other animals. The prairie dogs trim down the prairie grasses, which encourages new growth and makes it easier for bison to digest. Though swift fox and black-footed ferrets are not considered keystone species, they are indicators of grassland health.  Both species are important components of the Great Plains ecosystem. “The swift foxes are now back where they belong,” Harold “Jiggs” Main, director of the Fort Belknap Fish and Wildlife department said. “Along with the buffalo and [black-footed] ferrets.” 

George Horse Capture Jr. closes the gate to the Snake Butte pasture. He credits part of the health of the grasslands with the lack of human activity in the area.

Main has been director of Fort Belknap Fish and Wildlife for over 14 years. He has been involved in every animal reintroduction on the reservation. Lately, Main has been receiving a lot of phone calls from conservation groups interested in working with them. In April, the tribes won the Parker/Gentry award for their rewilding efforts. The award is given out every year by the Chicago Field Museum to honor excellence in conservation biology. Main, much like Fox, is honored, but sees their efforts as doing what’s right. 

“People keep wanting to talk to me, but I’m not the one doing all the work. The researchers from the Smithsonian are out there studying the foxes,” Main said. “Those scientists and the biologists here. They are the ones doing the hard work to protect these animals.” 

Main hopes bringing the animals back to their land will inspire the younger generations to develop an appreciation for nature and the wildlife. With so much pristine wilderness within reservation boundaries, the opportunities for young people to become involved with conservation efforts are becoming more abundant. With field technician training available through a grassland restoration program and a specialized ecology degree available at the Aaniiih Nakoda college, young people are taking more of an interest in conservation and in protecting their land. 

On a warm autumn day, beneath the shadow of Snake Butte, Fort Belknap tribal members gathered in the tall prairie grasses as WWF scientists prepared to release the black-footed ferrets. Among the crowd was a group of young children from the local White Clay Immersion School. As the cage door opened, the ferret tentatively poked its head out. It peered around at the onlookers before sprinting to a nearby prairie dog hole. The children cheered and raced after the ferret, eventually encircling the hole. Leaning forward, with their heads nearly touching, the children gazed into the dark tunnel searching for its new resident. Suddenly, the ferret sprang from the hole and barked a warning at the curious children. 

“They all screamed and fell back like a blooming flower in fast motion,” Main laughs, while throwing his hands into the air. “It was good to see something like that for our youth because they’ll probably remember it forever. And then they might take the time to understand a little bit more about the ferrets.”

Confronting the Past

Recovering from Native American boarding school trauma

Story by Griffen Smith

Photos by Antonio Ibarra

Illustration by 
McKenna Johnson


When the school bus dropped off then 15-year-old Bob Burns for the first time at the Cut Bank Boarding School, he had already heard about the bad reputation of government-run schools from his parents. 

Up until then, he had avoided boarding schools by living in the rural area of Babb, Montana, a small town cornered between Canada and the east side of Glacier National Park, where he could attend local schools. But Cut Bank was the only high school available to him. It was 1966 and the federal government had just transferred jurisdiction of the school to the Blackfeet tribe. Yet the legacy of oppressing Indigenous children remained.

The white instructors punished the students for anything they could. Once, after someone snatched a jar of peaches from the school’s kitchen, the teachers made Burns and every other student walk to the basement of the residential hall.

Everyone sat on a long concrete bench. Nobody could leave — even to use the bathroom — until the guilty student confessed. Burns watched the younger students pee themselves. After hours of waiting, he contemplated pretending to be guilty, but two boys eventually confessed. That was only half the punishment. 

1. St. Ignatius Mission School, St. Ignatius, Montana, 1864-1962 2. Willow Creek Boarding School, several miles west of Browning, Montana,1892-1909 3. Cut Bank Boarding School, Cut Bank, Montana, 1905-1960s, now known as Blackfeet Boarding Dorm 4. Holy Family Mission,Southeastern Blackfeet reservation, 1890-1936 5. St. Peter’s Mission, Cascade, Montana, 1860-1898  6. Fort Shaw Government Industrial Indian Boarding School, 20 miles west of Great Falls, Montana, 1893-1910  7. St. Paul Mission, Hays, Montana, 1884-2021  8. Fort Peck Boarding School, Poplar, Montana, 1881-1930s 9. Bond’s Mission School/Montana Industrial School, Custer, Montana, 1886-1896 10. St. Labre Indian School, Ashland, Montana, 1884-present  11. Tongue River Reservation Boarding School, 1904-1970s, Northern Cheyenne tribe reopened it as the Busby Tribal School in 1972, now known as Northern Cheyenne Tribal School, Busby, Montana 12. Crow Agency Boarding School, one of three locations, 1883-1921  13. Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy, St. Xavier, Montana, 1961-1965  14. St. Charles Mission School, Pryor, Montana, 1891-present 15. Pryor Creek Boarding School, Pryor, Montana, 1903-1919  16. Crow Agency Boarding School, one of three locations, 1883-1921  17. First Crow Agency Boarding School, one of three locations, 1883-1921  18. St. Xavier Mission, St. Xavier, Montana, 1887-1917. Holy James Mission, no known location.

Source: Archives & Special Collections, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, University of Montana, National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and “Indian Education for All” by John P. Hopkins 

“They made us all stand spread- legged,” Burns, now 78, recalled. “The [two boys] had to crawl between our legs and we took our belts o to give them a whack as they went through. If you didn’t give them a good hard whack, then you had to crawl through, too. Those were the kinds of shit they did.”

The school required every student to stay during the weekdays year-round. Some could not go home because of how far away they lived. Burns often ran away when the bus dropped him off, hitchhiking the 30-mile trek back to Babb. After a year, he convinced his family to let him do school from home, and never looked back.

It’s been 50 years since Burns left the Cut Bank School, now named the Blackfeet Boarding Dormitory. The dormitory pivoted from forceful education to giving enrolled Blackfeet children a stable place to live, all while encouraging more students to stay there.

Burns’ generation contained some of the last children to attend aggressive and assimilating Native American boarding schools, which were created by a U.S. government campaign to forcefully assimilate Indigenous children into white society during the 1800s and 1900s.

Founded in 1854 at the peak of the creation of boarding schools around the country, the St. Ignatius Mission operated as a day and boarding school in the Flathead Valley of Montana. The school housed more than 325 children from different Mountain West tribes.

Their goal: To use education as a tool to eradicate Indian culture by prohibiting Indigenous children from using their native languages, practices and cultures.

Many tribal officials and members agree the intergenerational trauma caused by Native American boarding schools has been hard to heal from. The immeasurable levels of abuse, neglect, death and cultural assimilation initiated by the federal government have largely been undocumented. The boarding schools have had long-term effects on Indigenous communities, limiting cultural knowledge and identity.

For years, Indigenous advocates have been working to heal these wounds, but they are making new strides now to tell the tales of boarding schools — to close the wounds of trauma through outreach, reclamation of the schools and giving survivors a space to tell their stories.

The Civilization Act passed by Congress in 1819 aimed to educate Native American tribes and authorized the “civilization process” of Indigenous communities. The act, which in part established the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), initiated the systematic opening of boarding schools across the country.

Built along the Two Medicine River in 1890, the Holy Family Mission operated by the Jesuits as a boarding school for grades one through eight until 1936. The elements have eaten away at the mission. The Mission was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The church is the only structure still standing to this day.

The options for tribal communities were slim. Many traditional food sources like buffaloalso had been eradicated by colonizers who overhunted, including some operations by the U.S. military. Disease brought by European colonizers left many Indigenous nations weak.

For some, the only way to keep their child fed was sending them to a boarding school. By 1926, 83% of American Indian and Alaska Native school-age children were enrolled in Indian boarding schools.

In Montana, 17 documented boarding schools operated in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS). Most revolve around the seven reservations in the state and can be divided into three types of schools: missions, government boarding centers and day schools.

The Fort Shaw Government Industrial Indian Boarding School, based in a decommissioned frontier-era fort 20 miles northwest of Great Falls, received its resources from the federal government. Like most government schools, the highly regimented programming taught English and industrial training like agriculture and metal work.

Many Indigenous children were taken without permission to government schools, according to tribal history committees. Some as far as Alaska came to Fort Shaw. Others from across the West were taken even farther to schools in the eastern half of the U.S.

Located in the heart of what is now Great Falls, the Ursuline Academy (now called the Ursuline Centre), originally known as the Ursuline Academy Boarding and Day School for children age five to 12, many of whom were from Indigenous tribes around the West.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, brought thousands of Indigenous children from across the U.S. Some tribal members still tell the stories of their grandparents walking hundreds of miles home after escaping the school.

More than half of the Montana schools were run by church groups. The missions often moved to locations in isolated countryside. They taught Christianity hand in hand with English. For some students, there was no going home.

One of the earliest boarding schools in the United States was the St. Ignatius Mission in the south of the Flathead Reservation. Founded in 1864, the school housed 325 children at its peak from different Mountain West tribes. Many did not get to leave except for a small break in August.

The mission lasted until the 1970s. By that point, generations of Mountain West Indigenous tribes had gone through the school. Many were abused. In 2011, 45 men and women sued the school for suffering physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The plaintiffs won millions of dollars in a 2015 settlement.

Opened in 1892 on an abandoned U.S. Army facility west of Great Falls, the Fort Shaw Government Industrial Indian Boarding School served as a school for Native American children until it closed in 1910. The school was intended for 250 students, but would house closer to 300 students, most of them Blackfeet. Parts of the fort still stand to this day with a memorial honoring and remembering the famous 1904 Fort Shaw Indian Girls’ Basketball Team World Champions. The fort’s strategic isolation discouraged runaways and was too far away from the Blackfeet reservation to allow for regular family visits.

In the St. Ignatius’ lawsuit, three other Montana boarding schools were listed as defendants. Patrick Matt Jr., a member of the Salish and Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes, recalled the time between the 1940s and ’70s when the missions recorded most of the abuse.

“The kids who were most at risk were the ones who never left,” Matt Jr. said. “If you’re an orphan, you don’t have anybody to go home to. It seems that then they became targets because nobody was picking them up for holidays. Nobody was picking them up over the weekends. And there wasn’t anybody to be accountable to.”

Matt Jr. is the director of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Families First Program. He’s filled the soft-lit walls of his Pablo, Montana, office with photos of his family, food drive flyers and posters of past concerts he planned for the families and young people across the Mission Valley.

During the summer, Matt Jr. and other members of the Mission Valley braved a heat wave on a July 4 evening as they gathered for a community-led vigil in the courtyard of the mission to remember lost children and survivors of Native American boarding schools.

Matt Jr. knows he’s been affected by boarding schools.

Patrick Matt Jr., a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and son of boarding school survivors, is the director of their Families First Program, which has been running for six years. As director, he is spearheading healing efforts from intergenerational trauma brought upon by boarding schools in his community.

At the vigil, he spoke of growing up as the child of boarding school survivors and how it affected him both culturally and personally. His father, Matt Sr., attended a school in Oregon in the 1950s. Matt Sr. returned to the Mission Valley, in many ways, Matt Jr. said, more mature than when he left. But he noticed his dad did not remember many of the tribes’ cultural traditions.

Instead, Matt Jr. learned the traditions from his grandfather. The degree of separation made it more difficult, but he still remembers the dancing circles and tribal stories from the past. The collective culture of the tribe brought him in, and now he hopes to continue educating those who did not get the same cultural knowledge as he did.

His work is practical. He drops off food to families in need and runs clothing drives. But he also runs cultural events, helping young people make regalia — colorful and detailed traditional clothing worn for tribal events. Matt Jr. said his time working with people in need has illuminated the longstanding issues on the reservation.

“There’s six million plus registered Native Americans in the United States,’’ he said. “A huge sector has no idea who they are. They may not be able to say anything in their tribal language, or they may know nothing about who their ancestors were because they’ve been so enculturated and assimilated and removed. A lot of that had to do with the boarding schools.”

Patrick Matt Jr. bows his head as he opens the healing circle with a prayer in both his native Pend d'Oreille dialect of Salish and English. Matt Jr. is the son of boarding school survivors. Both his father and mother were sent to the Ursuline Academy in Great Falls at a young age. He recalls his dad telling him stories about the abuses and harsh treatments he and other children received at these schools.

On a recent Wednesday night, Matt Jr. sat at the head of a long table in the back of The Spirit of Truth Church in Pablo. About a dozen tribal members gathered around the long table for a healing circle. Matt Jr. bowed his head and said a prayer to bless the food, both in his native Pend d’Oreille dialect of Salish and English.

The group relaxed, ate a dinner of homemade enchiladas and each took turns delving into their personal struggles from substance abuse to their work life. It was their second meeting ever, but that didn’t prevent the circle from being unapologetically honest. Matt Jr. said these groups are essential to healing.

Matt Jr. told them stories of their ancestors. How they liked to sit in a large prayer circle with a drummer in the middle, and how the pounding rhythm symbolized a beating heart for the Salish and Kootenai peoples.

The group smudged themselves, wafting smoke from a pine using an eagle feather, a long-standing tradition used in many Indigenous cultures. While there are many interpretations, Matt Jr. said the overall theme is to cleanse oneself, and to hold the time after the smudging as sacred.

Linda Malature, who is in her 70s, uses a lighter to burn a piece of pine before smudging herself with the smoke of the burning branch, a long- standing tradition in Indigenous culture with many meanings, to cleanse herself before taking part in a healing circle. Malature, a member of CSKT, is an Ursuline Academy boarding school survivor. She attended the school when she was 9.

“This time set apart is special,” he said. “We can all meet together and talk out our diffculties, many of which come from long-standing issues from past trauma.”

While Matt Jr. holds weekly meetings to help families through the healing process one at a time, the national movement to uncover the hard truths of boarding schools continues to pick up speed.

Last summer, the trauma Indigenous people have held onto for generations made headlines with the discoveries of children’s remains and hundreds of unmarked graves at boarding school sites in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the department’s first Indigenous head, announced in July a sweeping probe into U.S. boarding schools called the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.

Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, said the project will include gathering historical records to identify past boarding school locations, locating burial sites surrounding those schools and uncovering the names and tribal affiliations of victims.

Rows of unmarked headstones can be found at the Fort Shaw Military Cemetery. In the past, Blackfeet tribal leaders have gathered at the cemetery to take part in healing and cleansing ceremonies honoring the Blackfeet kids and other Indian children who were kept there between 1892 and 1910.

NABS has worked to illuminate the history and implications of boarding schools for the last eight years. The group, a nonprofit started in the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, wrote in an Indian Country Today Op-Ed that the schools played a large role in the loss of Indigenous language and culture, health disparities and mental distress that contributes to cyclical rates of addiction, suicide and sexual violence among tribes.

“We are in a moment in history where the wound of unresolved grief from Indian boarding schools is being ripped wide open. The truth is being unearthed and yet so much more is still unknown,” said Christine Diindiisi McCleave, CEO of NABS. “The Truth and Healing Commission on U.S. Indian Boarding School Policies will be the beginning of profound healing for the Indigenous peoples of this country.” 

The coalition hopes to collect data on all 367 boarding schools officially recognized by the organization. In a September press release, the group assigned seven researchers to create an interactive map by the end of 2021, and a central digital archive of every school by the end of 2022.

“What I am coming across is that any documents on the boarding schools are very much through a non-native, western lens,” said Ashton Smith, a graduate student at the University of Montana and researcher with NABS.

Smith, an enrolled member of the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma and a descendant of the Kiowa and Blackfeet tribes, started looking into every boarding school in Montana and some parts of Oklahoma and Alaska this fall.

Her goal is to track down the locations, names, active years and the tribes that attended the schools. She also identifies where cemeteries are located, a near impossible task with schools that moved frequently.

At the St. Peter’s Mission, outside of Cascade, Montana, a grid of small white crosses marks the area of unmarked graves from the mission starting in 1866, when the school moved to its final location.

Another boarding school, Fort Shaw, restored its cemetery in 2017. Many previously unmarked graves were remade with new headstones, and listed the names and tribes of some of the lost children, those who never came back to their families. Many were still unmarked.

The cemetery on the grounds of the St. Peter’s Mission houses numerous white crosses symbolizing unmarked graves. In recent discoveries of unmarked graves at other boarding schools in the U.S. and Canada, bodies of boarding school children were found.

NABS said in a study that less than 38% of 367 known Native American boarding school records have been located. Smith said some documents for these schools have been destroyed by fires, while others were kept private by the Mission schools. Instead, she has interviewed many elders who went to the schools.

She said only half of recovering from the trauma of these schools is uncovering the facts of the schools themselves. The other half is getting recognition from the U.S. of the atrocities the government sponsored.

“There hasn’t been acknowledgment from the president to our local officials,” Smith said. “They tried to get rid of native people, and I feel like the public continues to ignore that.”

As Smith continued to nail down the details of the tribal boarding schools, NABS continued to push the issue into Congress. On Sept. 30, 2021 the group endorsed a bipartisan bill titled “The Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act.”

Built along the Two Medicine River in 1890, the Holy Family Mission operated by the Jesuits as a boarding school for grades one through eight until 1936. The Mission was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The church is the only structure still standing to this day.

Reintroduced from the 2020 session by the co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, Reps. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.), alongside U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), the act would establish a 10-person federal body appointed by the U.S. president and other officials.

If the bill passes, the commission would continue the process of researching and obtaining documents on boarding schools. Eventually, many of the suspected mass graves would be recovered and those identified could be reburied in traditional funerals. For Smith, a true point of recovery is giving the lost children a proper burial.

“If you look at the way people have recovered bodies in the U.S., the retrieval of some kids in South Dakota, they had an Indigenous ceremony for each of the kids lost,” she said. “They weren’t buried by whoever, they could go home. That is important to recovery.”

Daryl Croff attended the Blackfeet Boarding Dorm on the Blackfeet Reservation in the 1980s, and still remembers the four-hour long cleaning assignments meant to discipline students. He quickly learned how to stay in line during his four years, and graduated from the school.

Daryl Croff went to the Blackfeet Boarding Dorm on the Blackfeet Reservation in the 1980s at the same site where the Cut Bank Boarding School once operated from 1905 to 1960. The harsh treatment and discipline he received at the dormitory still scars his memory to this day. But in 2000 he returned to the Blackfeet Boarding Dormitory to coach sports teams, teach and help manage children at the dormitory, which is now in tribal hands, from around the Blackfeet reservation.

But that wasn’t his last time at the east Browning school.

Croff returned to the center in 2000. He coached the sports teams, but also helped manage the children who stayed at the dormitory. After the start of the pandemic, Croff began filling in as the interim supervisor. His goal is to get more kids in the center.

“We are different now,” Croffsaid. “This is a safe place for our kids.”

After the school was shut down in the 1960s, the tribe began using remodeled parts of the school as a weekday dormitory for enrolled Blackfeet children, who were bused to the local high school. In 2016, the tribe upgraded the dormitory with a new building beside the old dorms.

Aarie Mad Plume, Blackfeet Boarding Dormitory counseling tech, is spearheading efforts alongside Daryl Croff to provide a safe and educational environment for children around the Blackfeet Reservation. One of the many goals of the Blackfeet Dormitory aims to promote cultural and traditional activities where kids can learn about tribal history.

As Croff walked down the dormitory hallways filled with Fatheads of superheroes and sports stars, kids mingled freely in television rooms and activity halls. The staff hosts an archery club in their back gym, and regularly take the kids on weekly swims and fishing trips.

There is also a dedicated cultural room where the students make traditional art and learn about tribal history. For the seven staff members, the school is a place for students who do not always have a stable home. Yet, the school has faced a problem with enrollment.

“We can comfortably fit 160 kids here, and only 40 are enrolled,” Croff said. “Some of the elders still think this was the same place as 100 years ago, and it’s not.”

The school is only open to enrolled members of the Blackfeet tribe, which Croff said is a barrier to children considered “descendants” of the tribe. The Blackfeet, alongside other tribes, require an enrolled member’s heritage to be at least a quarter from their home nation, a term called blood quantum.

The structure of the old Blackfeet Boarding Dorm stands next to the newly built facility. Daryl Croff and Aarie Mad Plume said the old building had asbestos problems among other things.

Croff suggested letting the tribe sponsor descendants to go to the school. But even if those students could come to the dormitory, Croff said he didn’t think every student would want to stay in the structured setting.

He said the strict rules negatively affected him and his classmates.

Bob Burns, who went to the Cut Bank School in the 1960s, agreed that the current dormitory has changed for good. He related it to a progression of independence the tribes received. Though he had to go to a boarding school for a year, he said his experience was not as harsh as his parents’ and grandparents’ experiences.

Burns’ mom was taken to a school in Nebraska when she was eight. She was not allowed to leave the school for holidays, weekends or summers, and didn’t return to her Blackfeet homeland for six or seven years.

Bob Burns, inside his home in Babb, Montana, a few miles south of the Canadian border, remembers the horrific events he experienced as a fifteen-year-old at the Cut Bank Boarding School in 1966. Fifty-five years later, the scars of his time at the Cut Bank school still run deep. Burns is also the son of boarding school survivors. His mom was taken to a school in Nebraska when she was eight and didn’t return to the Blackfeet homeland for six to seven years.

“It was cutting off the Indian identity,” Burns’ wife, Charlene, said. “The more you submitted to the Western identity, the better you got treated. Even in the agency, you got the best farmland and got everything if you did away with your Indian identity.”

Bob Burns still lives in Babb, now with his wife, Charlene. It’s Burns’ ancestral homeland. They own an isolated ranch and the local restaurant.

Charlene Burns said active healing is happening now because more people are making connections in the Indigenous community. There has been a reintroduction of bison, more young people attending tribal colleges and many cultural stories and traditions have been reestablished.

“You start realizing how beautiful our language is, the philosophy that’s maintained within the language, and in the end you begin to understand all of your own,” she said. “When we remembered who we were, then we could go out and get an education.”

The Saint Ignatius Mission and Church. Photo contributed by the Archives & Special Collections, Mansfield Library, University of Montana.

Inside the couple’s restaurant, now run by their kids, a long, painted timeline wraps the dining area, telling the history of the Blackfeet nation.

The couple said they are also healing by adding a second floor to their round barn. When it’s complete, the room will act as a meeting place and ceremony center for their extended family and neighbors.

And while the door to Native American boarding schools still hangs open, tribes, non-profits and individuals are doing their part to confront the realities of the school. With every harsh truth of the schools, members of the Indigenous community are making steps to process and heal from the 100-year school system.