Security on the Blackfeet Reservation goes largely unsupported by federal government

CUTBANK—WhenRobertDesRosierlooksnorthintoCanadaandeasttowardtheBlackfeetIndianReservation,headmitsthatifhewereasmuggler,orperhapsaterrorist,hewouldtakeadvantageofthereservation’slackofsecurity.

DesRosier,atallandeasyspeakingman,isoneofjusttwotribalmembersworkingtosecurethereservation’s65milesofinternationalborder.It’sadauntingtaskandoneDesRosiersaysgoeslargelyunsupportedbythefederalgovernment.

“Thethingsthatcomethroughherecouldaffecttherestofthenation,”hesaidafterascoutingflightovertheborder.“ButoneofthethingsthataffectsusthemostwithHomelandSecurityisthatwedon’toftengetthemoneytooperateormaintainagoodborderprotectionprogram.”

DesRosiertookontheBlackfeetNation’sHomelandSecuritymissiononeweekaftertheterroristattacksonSept.11,2001.Heandhispartner—aBlackfeetmanwhoaskedtheIndependentRecordthathisnamenotbeused—representthesumtotalofthereservation’sefforttosecuretheborder.

Theprogramhasmadeprogresssinceitsinception.Relationshipshavebeenforgedwithnearbylawenforcementagencies,includingtheGlacierCountySheriff’sDepartmentandtheU.S.CustomsandBorderProtection.EventheBlackfeetTribalCouncilsupportsthemission,helpingoutinapinchifDesRosierneedsit.

ButDesRosieradmitsthathisprogramhastakensmallstepsbackward.Ithasn’tgrownmuchduringthepastsixyearsandthatleaveshimfrustrated.What’smore,hesaid,itcontinuestostruggleforfunding.
“We’dliketohaveafull-timeprogramthatputsBlackfeetpeopletoworkonthenorthernborder,”hesaid.“I’dliketosee10to12peoplewhoarefull-timeemployeesworkingHomelandSecurityfortheBlackfeetNation.I’dliketodorotatingshifts,andthatmeansvehiclesandequipment.”

DesRosierandhispartner,alongwithahostofNativeAmericanagentsfromsouthernArizona,havegatheredinCutBanktoflytheborderwithadruginterdictionpilotfromtheMontanaNationalGuard.Doingso,DesRosierhopes,willrevealtheillegalcrossingpointsthatlieinvisibletothoseontheground.

Knowingwheretheroadsandtrailsliewillhelphisteamdeviseabetterplan,onehemaydeploywithlimitedmanpower.

“Itdoesn’ttakearocketscientisttoknowthatfundingisn’tgoingtothereservationslikeitistotherestofthecountry,”hesaid.“IfIwasasmuggler,Icertainlywouldn’tgothroughthePortofSweetgrassorthePortofPiegan.It’scommonsense.Thesmugglersaren’tdumb.Theyknowwhat’sgoingon.”

DesRosier’swordsmirrorthosespokenbyHillCountySheriffGregSzuderatwoweeksearlier.The14portsofentrydottingMontana’snortherntierarewellsecured.Butthe545milesbetweenthemarelonely,openmileswithonlyfarmersandahandfulofBorderPatrolagentskeepingwatch.

“Puttingmyselfintheshoesofdoingcriminalactivity,it’satoss-upwhetherI’dtrytocrossatabusystationoratalocationwithlimitedpersonnel,”SzuderasaidathisHavreoffice.“Ipersonallywouldtaketheriskofdoingitinalocationwithasmalleramountoftraffic.”

That’swhathasDesRosierconcerned.Asidefromtheweatherandexpansiveterrain,there’slittletostopsmugglersandillegalaliensfromcrossingthereservationandreachingthehighway,wheretheymaydisappearintotheMontanapopulation.

Smugglershavebeenknowntoflydrugsacrosstheborderanddropthemforcollection.Othersmoveonfour-wheelerorfoot.Theysettheirpackagebyatrailorroad,markingitinsomeunsuspectingwayforfuturecollection.Inlandthisbigandrugged,catchingthem,saysoneNativeAmericanagent,isagameofluck,goodintelligenceandplanning.

“We’veseenincreasedactivityontheborder,”theagentsaid,shakinghishead.“You’llseeroads,illegalcrossingsontheborder.Ifsomebodywantedtogetacrosstheinternationalboundarybadenoughtogoaroundaportofentry,itusuallymeansthere’ssomethingontheirmind.”

DesRosier’steamhaswonsmallvictoriesinsecuringfundingforbordersecurity,mainlyasmallgrantfromtheDepartmentofJusticeandfundsfortwo-wayradios.Still,hesays,thetriberemainsatadisadvantageduetothewayHomelandSecurityfundingisdistributed.

Forstarters,hesaid,thetribemustapplyformoneyatthestatelevelwhilethestate,incontrast,getsmoneydirectlyfromthefederalgovernment.There’snomoneyfortribalsalaries,nothinginthetribalbudgettopaypersonneltoactivelypatroltheborderordoHomelandSecuritywork.

“We’vealwaysmaintainedthatweneedtohaveafundingpathinplacedirectlytothefederalgovernment,”hesaid.“Nottosaythatwe’regoingtobecompetingwiththestates.ButthefederalgovernmentmustrecognizeIndianCountry’sneedswhenitcomestoHomelandSecurity.Wedon’tthinktheyadequatelyaddressthatnow.”

Asaresult,DesRosierfearsthatsmugglersandillegalalienswhowanttocrosstheinternationalborderwilldosoonthereservation.

Othersagree.Uphere,tuckedagainsttheriseofGlacierNationalPark,lawenforcementisthinatbest.Whatofficerstherearekeepbusywithcrisismanagement.AsDesRosierputsit,tribalpolicedon’tevenhavetimetoworktraffic.

“Ithinkthecriminalelementwilltargetareservationbecausethere’snotadequatelawenforcement,”hesaid.

Duringhisflight,DesRosiermarkedtheGPScoordinatesofeachillegalcrossingdiscoveredbelow.Theyfoundthreeonthismorning.Backatbase,heandhismengatheredaroundacontourmapofnorthcentralMontana,markingthecrossingsonthemap.

These,saysDesRosier,aretheplaceshe’llbeginwatching.He’lltaketoasecretvantagehighinthehillstodoso—onethatlendsanexpansiveviewoftheborder.

WhileDesRosierremainshopefulthatfundingwillsomedaycomehisway,heknowshowthegameisplayed.Headmitsthatthenorthernborderisnothinglikethesouthernborder,atleastwhenitcomestothelevelofactivitystreamingacrossit.Hecalledthedifferencesignificantandonehecan’tcompetewith.

Still,hewantstospreadthewordtosmugglersandillegalaliens—ifyou’relookingtoentertheU.S.throughMontana,theBlackfeetIndianReservationisn’ttheplacetodoit.

“ByfarthemostimportantthingtomeistheHomelandSecuritymission,”DesRosiersaid.“It’simportantfortheBlackfeetNationthatwemaintainouridentityasfarasournorthernborder.We’reoneofthemostuniquetribesinthenationbecausewehave65milesofinternationalborder.Wetrytoremainveryobservant.”

ReporterMartinKidston:mkidston@helenair.comor447-4086.


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