Documentary chronicles lives of Blackfeet Nation members after 1964 flood that killed 31

Closeup of Butch New Breast.
Butch New Breast still rides Birch Creek looking for the bodies of his mother an sister, swept away by the wall of water during the 1964 flood, which permanently changed the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana.

A new documentary exploring the impact of Montana’s most devastating natural disaster on a rural Native American community is being shown at WSU Pullman this Thursday.

The Blackfeet Flood, directed by Ben Shors, chair of journalism and media production in the WSU Murrow College of Communication, will be shown at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 7 inside Room 21 of the Goertzen Communication Addition in Pullman in coordination with Native American Programs. A panel discussion and reception will follow.

The documentary follows Butch New Breast, who was a teenager when the 1964 Birch Creek Flood swept through the Blackfeet Reservation community. Historic rainfalls and significant snow melt compromised an earthen dam upriver from the reservation, sending a wall of water 40 feet high onto the reservation’s residents who lived along the creek bed.

“It was one big wall of water,” Butch said, describing in the film how trees and other collected debris were clearly visible amid the rush of water.

Damage from the flood totaled an estimated $62 million, or $474 million today, per the U.S. Geological Survey and the state Department of Natural Resources and Conversation.

New Breast’s mother, father and two-year-old sister were swept away in the flood. Only his father’s body has ever been recovered. He left the reservation soon after, and didn’t move home until a half-century had passed. The documentary chronicles his efforts to live on the reservation and cope with the loss and continued heartache suffered by him and members of the Blackfeet community.

New Breast tells the audience he’s never talked about the tragedy, saying that he never intended to stay on the reservation, later changing his mind after feeling a sense of homecoming. He is seen camping along the creek banks and washing his face in the river that swept up his family toward the end of the film.

It’s the latest in a series of projects on the flood from Shors, who grew up in a town neighboring the reservation. After recording 25 oral histories from Blackfeet members, Shors and his team developed an app where students can view stories corresponding to significant locations on the reservation. He and his co-producer Torsten Kjellstrand then opted to take Butch’s story and expand it into a half-hour documentary for WGBH, the Boston PBS affiliate. It debuts nationwide on Nov. 25.

The Blackfeet Flood
Butch New Breast on his ranch just west of Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation. New Breast still rides Birch Creek looking for the bodies of his mother and sister, swept away by the wall of water during the 1964 flood.

A desire to tell the story of the disaster inflicted on the Blackfeet drove Shors to pursue the project. While a series of stories in the Hungry Horse News on the flood won a Pulitzer in 1965, it was focused on impacts outside of the reservation.

“There was almost no coverage of the flood itself,” Shors said, “or of the 31 people who died. While this piece won the Pulitzer, it almost missed entirely the true tragedy of the flood.”

Looking back and ensuring a complete picture of a story is told, including as many perspectives of those impacted as possible, is vital for journalism and its role in chronicling history, Shors said.

Lailani Upham, who was born and raised on the Blackfeet Reservation, served as a co-producer and cultural adviser on the project. She was taught nothing about the flood growing up. The only reference she heard was when tribal housing communities affected by the disaster were referred to as “flood houses.”

“It’s an untold story,” Upham said. “The people of the Blackfeet community were, in a sense forgotten, and it’s important to acknowledge the lives that were lost and the effect it’s had on survivors. It’s a story of the resilience of the Blackfeet people.”

Upham will join Shors and Kjellstrand in Pullman for the screening and panel discussion.

“In Native American Programs, we’re happy for the opportunity to help sponsor the showing of this film,” said Kenneth Lokensgard, assistant director, of WSU’s Center for Native American Research & Collaboration. “It relates an important story, told from the perspectives of those most impacted by it. However, the documentary also serves an excellent example of what collaborative work with tribal members and communities can produce. We hope the audience will be inspired by what Shors, Kjellstrand, and Upham have accomplished. We are excited, too, that our Native students at WSU Pullman will have the opportunity to visit with Upham and others to hear their reflections upon the importance of collaboration.”

Visit the documentary website for more information on the 1964 flood.

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