Wednesday, June 14, 2006


For a couple of days Ray Djuff stayed on the campground in Valier so that he could use my library for his next book, which will be about Two Guns Whitecalf and the other “400” (in Mrs. Astor’s pattern of naming the truly wealthy and prominent social families) of the Blackfeet Nation whose lodges used to appear on the long sloping lawn of the Big Hotel so that the dignified inhabitants could welcome trainloads of tourists and entertain them at night in the lodge around a fireplace that was carefully designed to look like a campfire, a kind of firepit with a hood. Guests sat in elegant Windsor rocking chairs, the elder ladies in their formal wear.

My hostess gift was a book, of course, a Djuff book: “View with a Room, Glacier Historic Hotels and Chalets” published by Far Country Press in 2001 and written with Chris Morrison. ISBN 1-56-37-170-6. It gathers up much memorabilia and information -- to say nothing of many rare photos of by-gone times.

Glacier National Park is the reason I ended up here. My father, raised in South Dakota and then Manitoba flat country, was quite convinced of the cathedral nature of mountain country. And as a Prairie Humanist, with its valuing of civic and national patriotism, he believed in National Parks and always longed to visit a few more than he already had, so after my graduation from college in Chicago, we came back through Glacier. But I’ve spent little time in Glacier.

The Park’s origin is shadowed, entwined as it is with the story of the starvation of the Blackfeet which forced them to sell the mountains. It is also divided, rather in the way the Blackfeet still are, both by political and geographical forces. First, there is parkland on both sides of the US/Canada border and though they are specifically designated as “peace parks” that are continuous, there have always been sticky events taking advantage of the “Medicine Line,” whether whisky runners, drug runners, or arms runners in this terrorist age. So it’s possible that you might have to empty your car and trailer at the border while armed guards stand by. President Bush wants you to have to buy a biometric identity card (a scan of your eye) and pay a fee to cross the border by 2008. Ray Djuff wants you to understand and love the Waterton Peace Park and the Prince of Wales Lodge where one can take high tea while looking out over exquisite scenery. This is where he spent four summers as a young employee and was forever smitten.

The Continental Divide might seem to be only a high pass (Going-to-the-Sun) and a low pass (Marias) but it marks the difference between the east side of the Rockies (low rainfall, economic struggle, reservation) and the west side of the Rockies (valley ecology, much timber, high density population). The national park headquarters are on the west side, by the lake where Charlie Russell and other notables once had pleasant cabins. The historical society, small but graceful galleries and museums, good shopping, and so on mostly are on the west side. The east side is cowboy country as much as Indian reservation -- long vistas of wind-swept grass and (in summer) billowing cumuli. This is where you might pass a herd of bison or mustangs.

There is another divide in time. In the Twenties and Thirties well-to-do people came by train to “rough it” in European style with nicely presented meals in chalets joined by hiking trails. The vigorous outfitted themselves with lace-up boots and jodphurs, maybe dusters, and were “good sports.” Winold Reiss’ art school thrived on the east side where he guided a covey of aspiring youngsters while they made paintings and sculptures of Blackfeet. Reiss and his brother were tolerant, generous, bigger-than-life people who embraced Blackfeet, both old and new and produced advertising images that have proven more durable than the chalets (mostly gone now) or even the railroad itself. (The Great Northern became the Burlington Northern and then the Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe -- with every year the threat of losing Amtrak passenger service.)

Another split is a laminated one between the formal US government stewardship of the terrain and wildlife and access for citizens through the services of concessionaires. Although the tourist travel here never rivals the Industrial Scenery traffic of Yellowstone or Yosemite, it still puts pressure on what is a unique megamammal corridor that extends from the Bob Marshall Wilderness up the cordillera into Alberta, the refuge of grizzly and wolf. In the old days that Djuff and Morrison describe, bears ate from dumps and didn’t bother people, even when they came to sit on bleachers to watch the gobbling and food fights among the bears, and wolves were simply shot. Now the management of the interactions between people and bears is much more complex. (Recently there was a surprising and unaccountable incident in which a bear charged three young female hikers, who dropped and rolled up, and kept them pinned down by rushing at them, even putting paws on them but not hurting them.)

All these contrasts and cross-purposes keep the level of emotion simmering in Glacier Park, but they are not what Djuff and Morrison emphasize. Rather they are interested in nostalgia: the elegant near-Victorian times when one roughed it with good plumbing and a white tablecloth. The book Djuff was researching in my library may break that benign mold because of a deep shift in the way we understand the Indians on the long sloping lawn of the Big Hotel in East Glacier, their lodges next to an English border with stunning delphinium. Splendid in white buckskin and Sioux eagle-feather headdresses, and as carefully mannered as any diplomats, these folks were actually near-penniless and much in need of the tips and food -- aside from their modest salaries.

Looked at from a post-colonial point of view, they were victims. Yet they are the people who have been made famous by writers, artists, and many a photo. Generously, they gave out authentic-seeming names to Euro-royalty, movie stars, and little children. Their reputations were of value in Washington, D.C., when they went to lobby, and in Browning where they were doing better than most of the others. They had a lot to do with creating the mystique of the Indian Princess and the wise old Chief. Yet youngsters here on the rez will recount with anguish that they were forced to eat table scraps scraped from guest plates, like dogs. (I suspect the truth -- which Ray is pursuing -- is that they ate from the below-stairs steam tables after the guests had been served. It’s clear that they complained that the meat -- which is what they preferred to eat and digested best -- was always about gone, so that they mostly ate side-dishes and baked goods. Still superior to commodity cheese.)

The truth is a many-sided phenomenon, though most people tend not to understand that. Glacier National Park is an excellent place to contemplate this complexity. Maybe while sitting in a windsor rocking chair on one of the deep high porches of the Big Hotel in East Glacier where one can regard “Squaw Mountain,” now called “Dancing Woman” mountain to get rid of the odious squ**w word.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I appreciated the things you wrote. Growing up in Fort Benton, now living in Philadelphia, PA, my encounters with the Blackfeet were incidental - driving through, going to BB and football games, etc. My family has a deep connection to Glacier Park - going back to the 1920s and 1930s. My great-uncle, Otto Thompson, was Chief Engineer for the Glacier Park Hotel Company - overseeing all the lodges and chalets in the Park in the 1920s - he died in 1929. My grandfather, Arne Sorkness was engineer at Many Glacier from 1924 to 1930 and at Lake McDonald from 1930 to 1942 when the NPS closed the Park. My grandparents, Arne and Nettie, lived year-round at both places. It was rough wintering over at both, but Many Glacier was much worse.

Your comparison between the east side and west side very much resonated with me. I've never put it into words, but you have certainly captured the "divide" - so to speak.

You should write more about this - maybe you have. I ran across this somewhat randomly.

Tom Sorkness