Blackfeet Nation to build $20M wellness center


After months of back-and-forth with the Indian Health Service, the Blackfeet Nation has secured $20 million to build a new wellness center without the help of the federal agency. 

The Blackfeet Nation has alleged that the Indian Health Service (IHS) did not follow through on a commitment made in 2019 to fund a wellness center. Tribal leaders argue a wellness center would help mitigate harm caused by former IHS pediatrician Stanley Patrick Weber, who was convicted of sexually abusing boys on the reservation in the 1990s.

IHS has not issued a comment on the matter.

Lyle Rutherford

Lyle Rutherford, of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, points to blueprints for a new 91,000-square-feet wellness center to be built in Browning.

In June, tribal leaders turned down a visit from IHS, saying the trip would be “hollow.” In November, IHS reportedly tried to schedule a “last-minute” meeting with Blackfeet leadership at the Bozeman airport, which tribal leaders declined, saying it was disrespectful. Later, the tribe formally called for the removal of national and local IHS leaders. And while IHS leaders traveled to Browning to meet with tribal leaders in December, Councilman Lyle Rutherford condemned the agency for not following through on its alleged commitment.

“Now, we’re working on a congressional level to get it done,” Rutherford said at the time.

And that’s exactly what the Blackfeet did. 

Earlier this month, the Blackfeet were allocated $20 million for the wellness center via the Consolidated Appropriations Act, an omnibus spending bill recently signed into law. 

In a March 2023 letter to the House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kay Granger, Congressman Ryan Zinke requested funding for the multi-use tribal center, saying it would provide a safe space for youth and fill other community resource needs. He also brought subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole (Chickasaw) to the reservation in July to meet with the council about the wellness center. 

Sletten Construction Companies, which has offices across the Mountain West, won the contract to build the 91,000-square-foot wellness center, which will sit just outside Browning at the junction between the town and Cut Bank.

Rutherford said they’re expected to break ground in about a month, and the project should take about one year to complete. 

The wellness center will feature space for activities, including a pool, hot tub, lazy river, climbing wall, exercise equipment and basketball, volleyball and pickleball courts. It will also house tribal health department services, including a pharmacy, dental offices, behavioral health and other medical services. 

Rutherford said the wellness center will fill several community needs — providing a gathering place, improving access to care and promoting healthy lifestyles. 

Right now, if someone on the reservation wanted to exercise in a gym, Rutherford said, they’d have two places to go — the old Dollar Store or the Glen Heavy Runner pool in Browning. But the old Dollar Store, he said, is running out of space, and the pool gets crowded, too. 

While the community response has been positive, Rutherford said people are also hesitant to get their hopes up.

“This (wellness center) has been proposed since when I was young,” he said. “People have always wanted to build something like this, something for the community. There’s excitement, but people are also like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to happen.’”

These fears, Rutherford said, will likely be assuaged when the construction company breaks ground. 

As for the tribe’s relationship with IHS? Rutherford said it’s still “rocky.”

IHS leases land from the tribe at a rate of $1 per year, Rutherford said. The agency is due to sign a new lease, and Rutherford said “we’re not coming to the table” until IHS considers a list of suggested improvements.

“The list is about a page and a half long,” Rutherford said. “More providers. Quality of care needs to be addressed. Services for patients need to be improved.”

Tribal wellness centers becoming more popular


Isaiah Bighorn plays basketball while working out at the Thundering Buffalo Health and Wellness Center in Poplar on the Fort Peck Reservation on Oct. 23, 2023.

Several tribes have built new wellness centers in the last few years both to bring community members together and to combat persistent health disparities.

In 2020, the Fort Peck Tribes in northeastern Montana began construction on the 50,000-square-foot Thundering Buffalo Wellness Center in Poplar. The $23 million facility opened two years later and includes a basketball court, exercise equipment, pool, medical offices and other services. 

On a Monday evening in October, the wellness center was packed. Nineteen-year-old Isaiah Bighorn shot hoops on the basketball court while his 52-year-old father, Maurice, walked laps around the track above. Maurice comes to the gym three times a week. He used to run in high school, but as he said, “I got away from it.”

“It feels good to get back into it,” he said, as he walked. “I got overweight and this is like a second chance we never had.”


Deyo Four Bear, 23, and a few of his friends work out at the Thundering Buffalo Health and Wellness Center in Poplar on Oct. 23, 2023. Four Bear has been coming to Thundering Buffalo Health and Wellness Center since it opened two years ago. He comes to the gym almost every day to stay healthy. “Since I’ve started coming, I’ve seen a lot of progress.”

Wearing a white tank top with the face of a tiger, Deyo Four Bear, 23, lifted with his buddies on an October evening. He comes to the wellness center almost every day. 

“I never knew how to work out before this,” he said. “Ever since I started coming, I’ve seen progress. I do this for a healthier lifestyle — it’s just a good outlet.”

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