ST. MARY, Mont. — In a regular spring season at Johnson’s of St. Mary, the R. V.s would be pulling into the more than 150 sites with sweeping views of Glacier National Park. Campsites would start filling up. The kitchen would start churning out homemade soup and bread.
But last spring, everything was quiet at this tourist destination in the corner of northern Montana, where the Blackfeet Reservation meets Glacier National Park. It had to be.
The Blackfeet Nation’s tribal Business Council closed the eastern entrances of the park, which sit on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, in an effort to protect the tribe from further exposure to the coronavirus. The pandemic, which has ravaged Indigenous communities across the country, has taken a devastating toll on the Blackfeet Nation and Native Americans in Montana. On the reservation, where fewer than 10,000 people live, 47 have died from the virus. Statewide, Native Americans make up one-third of Montana’s more than 1,400 Covid deaths, according to the state public health department, despite being just 7 percent of the population.
Nathan St. Goddard, a Blackfeet tribal member who runs Johnson’s, is hoping for a better spring this year. On March 17, the business council voted to allow him to open — with vaccination rates of eligible people on the reservation reported close to 95 percent.
“The best part about my business is the history,” Mr. St. Goddard said. “My grandparents ran it, my mom ran it, and I want to keep the legacy going.”
The 30 or so businesses here rely on visitors to Glacier National Park, and owners spent the precarious past year with their livelihoods pitted, in part, against the council’s priority: to keep everyone as healthy as possible.
“We lost people,” the business council chairman, Timothy Davis, explained at a February meeting. “We didn’t want to lose anymore.”
Other losses had piled up though. Last May, Jennie Walter, who owns Rising Sun Pizza in St. Mary, posted a video on Facebook pleading with the council to reopen: “Please, see us. Know us. We are a small, proud business and we need your help.”
The long year has been, Mr. St. Goddard said, a “no-win situation.”
“I risked looking insensitive to make a dollar, which isn’t true,” he said. “I just wanted to open safely and feed my family.”
Now that the council has opened the entrance, the business owners are gearing up for the spring and summer season, cautiously optimistic that coronavirus infection rates will stay low enough to safely stay open.
And, as Stephen Conway, a Blackfeet tribal member who runs Heart of Glacier RV Park, put it, their corner of the world might be particularly appealing now.
Visitors, he said, “come to our area to get away from crowds and people.”