Ed DesRosier's Sun Tours caters to tourists in Montana's Glacier National Park
EAST GLACIER PARK, Mont. - Ed DesRosier didn't think it would be so much trouble starting up a new business.
But the Blackfeet tribal member's plans to run culturally correct tours in Glacier National Park ran into several snags - including a trip to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"It ended up really being a political battle for me," he says.
DesRosier's saga started in the early 1990s, when he decided that visitors to the park should be exposed to an accurate accounting of his tribe's history and culture. He believed more tribal members could benefit economically from the park, which attracts millions of visitors each year at the Blackfeet Indian Reservation's rugged western boundary.
"I saw that a lot of visitors were funneled too narrowly into just a few non-Indian businesses," he explains.
DesRosier says he approached National Park Service officials about setting up a Native interpretive guide service. He relied in part on an 1896 agreement that allows tribal members to "enter into the park unrestricted," but was told to talk to the main concessionaire, Glacier Park Inc.
At GPI, DesRosier says, "they simply offered me a job as a bus driver." He decided that wasn't good enough.
Instead, DesRosier went to the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, which endorsed his business plan. He obtained a tribal business license and began operating his Sun Tours company without the blessings of GPI and the Park Service.
"They didn't know what to do."
Soon, however, park officials cited the company for illegally operating a concession. The park won the first round, but after DesRosier appealed to the 9th Circuit, the government agreed to dismiss the case and offer Sun Tours a subcontract through GPI's concession agreement. The business was officially sanctioned in 1993.
"All of that took much negotiating from myself and the tribe. We kind of got it all straightened out."
Today, DesRosier and his employees run two, 25-seat tour buses, as well as a 10-person van, in and around the park "as a cultural-historical Blackfeet tour."
"All of our narration is about the park through the eyes of the Blackfeet, past and present," DesRosier says. "We identify what is unique about it, what is sacred about it, and how the Blackfeet related to it. It's almost always tied to the Blackfeet," but also to the Salish and Kootenai and other tribes which roamed the area in generations past.
DesRosier said the tribal interpretation is needed, in part, because many non-Indians falsely believe that Native Americans avoided the ice-sculpted peaks and valleys of Glacier because they were supposedly afraid of "evil" spirits that lurked there.
He says the information, spread for decades by non-Indian tour guides, couldn't be further from the truth.
Sun Tour presentations, given daily during the spring, summer and fall, begin about 10,000 years ago, DesRosier says, and incorporates the interaction of various tribes, as well as the story of the buffalo, eventually wiped out by greedy white hunters.
"We try to interpret the connection the Blackfeet have with the land, not just in Glacier, but throughout the region," he says. The company is set up to handle about 60 tourists a day.
DesRosier, 47, an avid outdoorsman, was born and reared on the reservation. He gained a strong cultural background from his family, especially his grandparents.
"I was fortunate to have a family and parents who introduced me to the natural world," he explains. "We spent a lot of time, summer and winter, outside. We always recognized that (our ancestors) had been there before us. We were always taught a great deal of respect with the natural world. I think that was the foundation for me later as a businessman."
While DesRosier would like a longer term on his contract, he operates year-to-year. Each season park officials evaluate the business, as they do all other sanctioned concessionaires. This typically includes ride-alongs on the buses, vehicle inspections, a look through the books, and a review of rates and fares.
"We've always gotten very good evaluations," DesRosier says. "They do very good monitoring. We're proud to get them, and (the inspectors) learn a lot on our trip. We've never gotten a bad one."
Still, he says, "there's some indecisiveness there about the future." In contrast, GPI operates under a 20-year contract, and is working through Congress to expand the next agreement to 40 years.
"It's taken a while for the park to recognize us," DesRosier says. "It's only for the past couple years that we've been recognized as a legitimate enterprise."
He says he's honored that park officials recently asked him to help put together a brochure that describes the Blackfeet Tribe and its colorful and often tragic history.
The business has grown every year and DesRosier would like eventually to double his capacity. He'd like to team up with more tribal businesses across the country to work cooperatively. He's pursuing larger tour companies to get on more of their itineraries.
Making service a top priority, he says, has brought the firm lots of compliments.
"We work hard to go that extra mile," he says. "It's really a broad-based clientele. I think we get a clientele that wants more than what's on the surface. There seems to be a big market there.
"They feel enriched more if they learn something meaningful on their vacation. And I think we have a lot of meaningful things to offer. I think we can share a lot with them and introduce them to a part of history they probably didn't get in high school or college."
DesRosier has kept the business "fairly low profile." He advertises in a few select markets and lets word-of-mouth do a lot of the selling. Visitors who choose Sun Tours range from college students to retirees, he says, and many foreigners sign up, especially Europeans.
No matter who rides, each trip starts with a Sun Tours guide speaking in Blackfeet. "It immediately introduces them to another world," DesRosier says. "It opens their eyes a little wider. You start talking a different language, they get interested.
"I think we have helped get the Blackfeet role in Glacier Park better defined, but we've got a ways to go to tell the whole story."
Sun Tours caters to tourists in Montana's Glacier National Park.