Primordial Forces created the Ground of Blackfoot Being
Human beings and their culture are created by the land on which they live, which present the conditions under which they must shelter, eat and tell their stories. Forces that shaped this planet and the continents floating on its surface are still having impact on lives today. As one drives through the reservation, the traces that record millenia long gone can still be seen.
The east side of the Rockies are a long gradual incline from east to west and the reservation also goes from the foothills of the Rockies (5,000 feet and more) to the flats (3,500 feet or less). This means that the area is an “ecotone,” shading from one ecology to another. The high side next to the mountains is good for grazing in summer and supports evergeen timber as well as aspen groves. The low side is flat, though dotted with prairie potholes in some places, and suitable for grasses such as small grains. The high side has access to cold swift snowmelt and the low side is mostly dry. Ranchers and farmers here, sometimes unable to drill a well, must sometimes depend upon underground cisterns for domestic use to which they haul water from town systems. Crops are dependent on rainfall or irrigation canals.
The consequence of this difference is that when the old-time Blackfeet were forced to stay on a reservation, they preferred to be close to the mountains where there was still game and summers were more pleasant. Winters were even survivable so long as Chinook winds, warmed by their compression to get over the mountains, blew fairly often. The young Blackfeet were willing and able to go down to the flats and learn to deal with a bank or other lender in order to get and operate machinery. They tended to be of mixed blood, so this intensified the political differences of the two sub-groups of the reservation. When the original Dawes Act allotments were made, some people had split entitlements with homesteads on the hillsides or in the river valleys, but another acreage on the flats which turned out to be impractical.
A. Inland Seas
At one point the whole interior of the continent was slightly below sea level so that it formed a shallow sea full of marine life of various kinds. When the water drained and evaporated entirely, the land was bitter with alkali, colored with copper and iron concentrated by colonies of sea vegatation, and seeded with “buffalo stones,” the remains of little creatures rather like octopi or squids whose bodies were tucked into spirals (ammonites) or cornets (baculites) of shell. When the petrified sediments inside the cornets erode and separate into segments, they look uncannily like small buffalo in graduated sizes. This attracted the attention of the early Blackfeet who always felt that there was a connection between things that seemed similar, and who told a story about how these small stones, if protected and rubbed with fat, might “call” real buffalo to eat. Today it’s possible to buy baculite and ammonite remains in rock shops, such as the Trexler shop in the old church in Bynum, but the historically owned ones are protected as Native American artifacts and removing found examples from the reservation is illegal.
Other more local seas formed when the glaciers intruded onto the land and trapped melt water along their southern edge. Lake Great Falls put the present location of the city underwater by 600 feet, though it is built on the crest of the Sweetgrass Arch, a formation of rock bowed slightly upward. These lakes rivaled today’s Great Lakes. Icebergs broke off from the edges of the glaciers and floated out onto the water. Since they had rocks -- sometimes huge boulders -- embedded in them, when they melted they dropped the rocks in piles or singly. When the lakes dried up, these boulders became welcome scratching surfaces for itchy bison and perches for hawks who encrusted the top with their droppings. The circling bison wore small trenches which became moats when it rained. Small mammals dug their burrows under the the rocks, especially appreciating the jumbled piles of smaller rocks.
Under the surface of the land, whereever there were gravel beds and limestone with watercourses worn in it, exist aquifers. These underground lakes, which wells try to tap, move water -- over thousands of years and miles -- from mountains to lakes. Most of the water under Montana seems to be moving from the southwest corner of the state to the northeast corner and on up across Manitoba to the major lakes up there. That is, regardless of what the surface water is doing, the drainage of the state is generally towards Hudson’s Bay.
Giant Springs is a place where the ground is broken up enough that the aquifer underneath breaks through to the surface. In early days people had no concept of the limitations on underground water and if they punched a hole in the surface, they let the results flow freely or even, in the case of artesian rise in a fountain, whether they needed it or not. Today we are exquisitely aware that this water can be exhausted and projects have sought to find and cap the many wells now unused.
On the surface the Blackfeet Reservation has three drainages which meet in Glacier Park at Triple Divide Mountain. One drainage goes north to Hudson’s Bay, one goes east to the Mississippi River and one goes west to the Columbia River. It is the southern edge of the Hudson’s Bay drainage, largely determined by the southern edge of the glaciers, that determined the northern boundary of the United States when Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase.
B. Marine Sediments
The huge limestone deposits that accumulated from the skeletons of many small shelly creatures when the land was covered with sea are white and when eroded can take fantastic shapes. Lewis & Clark as well as modern boaters are always impressed by the “White City” castles and battlements along the Missouri River where limestone is exposed.
Marine fossils of many kinds can be found throughout the state whereever the land is eroded enough to expose the layers of the land that were once underwater.
C. Volcanic Sediments
Even when Mt. St. Helens exploded in 1980, the fine silvery dust sifted down in Montana. When the Cascades were catastrophically erupting as volcanoes, the results must have clouded the skies. This is the origin of “gumbo,” a sticky expanding and contracting soil that makes wheels useless. Sometimes called “caleche” or “bentonite,” some of it is pure enough to be valuable as a saleable commodity if one could get it to market cheaply. It is often used to block wells, rolled into dry balls and dropped down the wellshaft, because when it gets wet, it expands greatly and plugs up the space efficiently.
Wet, the stuff is extremely slippery and slimy. Some have suggested that the way the pyramids were built was by using caleche as a lubricant to slide the huge blocks of stone up inclines. Sometimes it’s hard to stand up in gumbo. Even harder is walking, since it is as sticky as it is slick, and in a few steps one’s feet weigh fifty pounds each -- whether or not one’s footgear stays on.
The practical consequence of gumbo is that the village of Heart Butte was for many years only accessible when the weather was dry in summer or frozen in winter. The roads were impassible when the the gumbo was wet. Since the small settlement tended to be old-timers, their children were not anxious to attend school past Heart Butte grade school graduation when they could legally quit, but if they did want to attend high school, they would either constantly be making up absences or would have to attend a boarding school somewhere -- maybe far away.
When the road to Heart Butte was built after the Flood of 1964, which nearly erased the small cluster of houses and forced many residents out, people were suddenly able to return home while still commuting to jobs and school in Browning. Heart Butte became a housing center in the Nineties but since its infrastructure didn’t keep up, times were chaotic. Now it is somewhat defined as a “satellite agency” with a medical clinic.
D. Aeolian Sediments
People visiting the Blackfeet are always impressed by the wind and the amount of dust it carries. Some of the dust has been traced to its origins as far away as China, and it comes high enough and in big enough amounts to affect the climate by screening sunlight.
In the millenial geologic times when the east side of the Rockies has been so dry that nothing could grow, wind has removed all small particles and left only a stony pavement, which has become the gravel beds that carry today’s underground water. When rain allows vegetation to return, the silts and particles once more built up into topsoil.
More recently, plowed soil can create brown-outs so complete that traffic must stop; roads are closed. Since the terrible Dust Bowl of the Thirties in the midwest, people have become more cautious and take steps, like strip plowing and no-plow seeding, that prevent so much dust from blowing. When one looks at these strips, the green planted crops are obvious and so are the brown plowed strips. Gold strips are those left fallow with grain stubble and silver strips are those being “chemical fallowed,” which means that the vegetation has been killed to prevent weeds. It remains to be seen whether dust or herbicide is worse.
E. The Eruction of the Rockies
Underneath the continents, floating in huge plates or islands of the sixty-mile thick lithosphere, are mammoth sections that carry the continents like froth as they move around the planet. At one time the west edge of the Rockies was the coast of North America and was underlaid by a crack between plates. Then the crack, which earlier had pulled China and Mongolia away from Montana so that land once continuous and still similar was separated by the Pacific Ocean, reversed itself but now was pushed under the edge of the land that became the Rockies. Where layers of sediment had quietly built up, the land was now forced on edge and even into somersaults, clearly visible now in the various colors of the sedimentary rock.
The raising up of these mountains, which stretch all the way from Canada down through both North and South America, had profound consequences. “The Backbone of the Continent” formed a palisade against which the Blackfeet could take their stand against the rising tide of cultural change that trapped them there. It was the height of the Rockies that created the “katabatic” warm winds. They provided a refuge for game. In the years when there was good snowpack, they fed the streams that cross the reservation from west to east.
F. Cretaceous Swamps: fuel and fossils
All along the edges of the huge lakes and small waterways left by the inland seas and glacial melts, were swamps, The depositor of today’s fuels and dinosaur fossils. Dead animals and especially vegetation lived and died along those fertile places and added their carboniferous remains to the land in lodes of peat which became coal and then gas and oil. Gas and oil will ooze upwards, since they are lighter than stone, and accumulate where they are trapped in places like the Sweetgrass Arch.
Discovery of oil and gas along the higher grounds of the reservation greatly increased the value of the land as well as the corruption and dissension that always follows big money. Early on, the effect of the wealth split the reservation population again between those who wanted to make quick money and those who wanted to learn how to manage their own assets. More recently the split has been between those who see the land as sacred and inviolable and those who want to aggressively explore. The first wave of exploitation has ended but there is always the hope that there are other reservoirs of wealth.
G. Glaciation: The Old North Trail
At various times when the glaciers withdrew or formed, they left a passage down the east slope that was not covered by ice for long periods of time. These grasslands became covered with a kind of braided trail that people and animals have used ever since. Traces of the Blackfeet travois are still visible in some places. Highway 89 vaguely parallels this extremely ancient way.
H. Watercourses and Aquifers: Run-Off Country
Modern topography shapes a system wherein snow piled up in the mountains becomes streams feeding the prairies. The reservation is defined by rivers running west to east: the farthest north (Milk) and the farthest south (Birch) are shared by white irrigators and create political problems of international dimensions as water diversions age and tribal people become more willing and able to develop irrigation. The Winters Case has now determined that when the US Government creates some kind of land category -- whether it is a nature preserve, a bombing range, or an Indian reservation -- the legal presumption is that whatever its water needs are will take precedence over all state laws. But how does one determine those water needs when the population of the reservation has both grown and has changed its practices so that it needs far more water? This is a source of much anger and worry.
The Blackfeet Reservation is greatly gifted because it lies across the eastern drainages of the Rocky Mountains. Since state water law is based on who was using the water earliest and who is farthest upstream, the Blackfeet tribe is rich in water, one of the most basic necessities of life. At one time, the reservation included the Rocky Mountains, but at the turn of the 19th century when many people were starving to death on the reservation, the tribe was offered a million dollars to give it up. They asked for three million dollars, but in the end, in order to survive, they agreed on one-and-a-half million, thus creating Glacier National Park.
When the lines were drawn, a little piece just south of the Park boundaries ended up with ambiguous status. Today it is often referred to as the Ceded Strip, and its ownership is contested because of the possibility of oil or natural gas in that area.) This is the location of the proposed Badger-Two Medicine drilling site that has been vigorously opposed.
Though the original treaty describes the east/west interface between the Park and the Reservation as going from peak to peak of the mountains, if you are looking at an ordinary road map, the boundary goes roughly from the Canadian line to Babb to St. Mary, to East Glacier to Heart Butte.
Drainages formed when the overland glaciers withdrew to the north and the mountain glaciers melted back into the high country. A mighty valley like Two Medicine was formed by huge quantities of water which spread floodplains and carved cliffs that Blackfeet soon learned to use for piskuns (bluffs backed by flat land where bison could be stampeded over the drop-off, killing them, before there were any horses -- carbon dating shows that the oldest ones are the same age as the Egyptian pyramids) and winter campgrounds. Today there is still “run-off” from the Rockies, though the glaciers which are the remnants of the original sheets of ice, are much diminished and may disappear. Now this water irrigates crops and supplies the settlements.
The northwest corner of the reservation is drained by the St. Marys Lakes. (The earlier name for them was “the inside lakes” but there is a clear profile of St. Mary visible across the lake which beguiled early explorers.) Since the waters empty to the north, it has been natural for Babb and St. Mary to look to Canada. Cardston, Alberta, is the birthplace of many of the children because it is the closest hospital and in winter spares a long and risky drive over the Hudson’s Bay Divide. The ambulance EMT’s carry a key to the border gate. For some years, the children in St. Mary’s valley went to school in Cardston.
For a long time this was a quiet resort area which gave access to Going to the Sun Highway over Logan Pass, which is what many tourists think of as Glacier Park. Hugh Black and his descendents still run a resort hotel here and many reservation people have cabins in the area. The Thronson family has operated a small store and tourist cabins in Babb for decades. As the climate has warmed and the population has thickened, more and more people have begun to live in the valley year-round.
Hudson’s Bay Divide separates water in the St. Marys River, destined to eventually join Hudson’s Bay, from the Milk River complex (several forks combine) which drains east along the Canadian border, takes a loop into Alberta, and then, returning to Montana east of the reservation, finally rejoins what becomes the Missouri. Milk River country is broad and grassy, the location of many an old-time ranch and not a few outlaw hideouts. This has become a politically charged area when it was realized that though the branches of the Milk River arise on the Blackfeet Reservation, the treaty that addresses the water rights is only between Canada and the United States. Long ago an elaborate canal and siphon system was built that carries water far along the High Line to the east where communities have become dependent on it, but delayed maintaining. Now it is on the edge of catastrophic collapse but no one has the millions of dollars needed for repair.
In the central part of the reservation, Cut Bank Creek begins in forks coming out of Glacier Park. The south fork passes Kiowa Camp, a tourist facility on Highway 89. The northern fork goes east past Starr School, a little town originally populated by old-timers and anchored by the Starr School School [sic], and then passes the more recent Government Boarding School. Eventually Cut Bank Creek, before it reaches the Glacier County seat of Cut Bank truly IS flowing through cut banks.
Browning, the biggest town and the capital of the Blackfeet Reservation, is on Willow Creek, which is ironically one of the least suitable drainages for supporting a large population. Willow Creek is a modest stream. which continues east through Blackfoot before it eventually joins Cut Bank Creek and then drains into the Marias. In part, Cut Bank Creek marks the eastern boundary of the reservation.
Still crossing the reservation from west to east, but farther south, there are three major rivers, each paralleled by a road. One of the most powerful and various is Two Medicine, which begins in southern Glacier National Park in the Two Medicine Lakes, continues in spectacular fashion below Looking Glass Pass through the town of East Glacier, and then curves through foothills and into ranch country. By the time it crosses the southern reservation, it has carved a broad valley with bluffs for piskuns (buffalo jumps) on one side and cottonwood stands along the water. This is where the Holy Family Mission complex stood -- a little east of Highway 89 -- and grew good crops in the fertile flood plain. Only the small church remains. The river continues on until it joins the Marias.
Badger Creek runs roughly parallel to Two Medicine but a little farther south. At one time it was the Old Agency where it meets Highway 89. Further on, where it joins the Two Medicine River, is the corner where eastern Glacier and Pondera Counties meet. A section of the reservation here and another piece to the west around Heart Butte are both in Pondera County. All the rest of the reservation is in Glacier County.
Birch Creek is the southern boundary of the reservation, beginning at Swift Dam. In June, 1964, there was a terrific flood during which Swift Dam failed and sent a wall of water downstream that killed whole families, more than thirty individuals. Birch and Badger also turned into killer torrents and the St. Mary drainage was devastated. Two Medicine and Sherburne dams in Glacier Park also collapsed. These three dams were federal but had not been inspected or maintained. All highways in every direction were washed out. Decades later some of the rafted flood debris is still easy to identify, but the brush has grown back.
Another smaller stream, Blacktail Creek is just a little north of Birch Creek. It’s headwaters are just east of Heart Butte. Eloise Pepion Cobell, a descendant of trapper Polite Pepion and herself a banker who dared to take on the United States government to demand that they straighten out the mess they had made of Indian Trust Funds, grew up in a modest ranch house on this creek and still lives there.
Heart Butte is the farthest upstream community on Birch Creek and is quickly growing into a secondary agency. Just south of Birch Creek so it would be off the reservation, just a little west of Highway 89, was a rough community called Robaire (if you’re French) or Robert (if you’re not) in the early days, . Several saloons stood beside the Catholic missionary, who had been ejected when Congress officially assigned the Blackfeet to the Methodists. Today very little is left of the buildings but the memory is still vivid.
Considerably downstream on Birch Creek is Willow Rounds, circles of rocks that are the remnants of old Blackfeet campsites and which was the location of an early trading fort, and even more downstream is “Rock City” where Two Medicine and Birch Creek merge into the Marias, a main branch of the Missouri/Mississippi complex that was an important “highway system” in the exploration and development of the prairie West.
I. Fire, thunderstorms, grass and bison
The key to an ecology is the way the most basic forces balance each other, creating a constantly renewed source of energy that ultimately draws on the sun. Once the prairie was established as a sheet of grass, it was able to sustain huge herds of bison, which grazed intensively in one spot and then moved on. The kinds of grass evolved in response to this occasional “mowing and fertilization.” Thunderstorms played into this in two ways: the electrical charges of lightning created substances in the land that contributed to fertility and the fires the lightning set acted in somewhat the same way as the bison, removing old dead grass while carbonizing it so that plants could use the ash.
J. Volcanic Blisters
Not every volcanic upwelling from deep in the earth results in what we think of as a “volcano” with a top that spews lava and ash. Some magma extrusions never break through the overlying rock, but form blisters that raise the earth high into landmark “mountains,” which are navigational aids, storage for snowpack that feeds springs and wells, and -- in the time of the major glaciers -- “refugia” from the grinding ice. Even now they offer a welcome respite in hot weather and popular hunting locations. The Sweet Grass Hills strike everyone as special to the point of sacredness.
The name of the Sweet Grass Hills is a misnomer: the original Blackfeet word means Sweet Pine, which is balsam fir. Little sweetgrass grows in the hills, but sweet pine abounds. The sweetness of both is from coumadin which many of us know as a blood thinner. Holterman gives katoyisix (accent on the first “i”) as an animate (living) plural for sweet pines. McClintock used katoya to translate balsam fir, sweet pine or abies lasiocarpa. But he calls sweetgrass sipazimot(i) and says it is Vanilla Grass or sevastana odorata. Katoyis (accent on the “i”) is also the name of Bloodclot Boy or Monster Slayer. Old timers call the same formations “the Bloodclot Hills.” The forms of the complex of three major hills are about the same shapes a blob of clotted blood from a bison carcass might take.
These volcanic upwellings, depending on a number of variables, might carry valuable mineral deposits to the surface or even precious stones like the famous Montana sapphires. Gold (that monster creator) was discovered on the center butte in 1884 and almost instantly whites thought of a hundred reasons why the Blackfeet would have to give up those hills. The government didn’t care that it was the last holdout of the buffalo, who liked to calve in the sheltering folds of the coulees. Title changed hands in February, 1887, but it was not until late in the twentieth century that the compensatory “Big Claim” payout arrived in the hands of the tribe.
There was a little ghost town around the gold mine, but the local ranchers got tired of animals getting trapped in the buildings and prowlers coming to pry in the remains, so they bulldozed the place flat. Today’s threat to local people (How often do the ranchers follow the same paths as the Indians before them!) was the invention of cyanide heap leach mining: If one makes a lake, lines it with “impermeable” membrane, heaps up gold ore in the middle and pours cyanide over it, one can recover tiny traces of gold. Of course, there is NO membrane that doesn’t leak, and the Sweet Grass Hills (still full of value after the buffalo and gold are gone) is the watershed for wells for many miles around -- cyanide would poison them all. Even worse, by the time the whole butte is chewed up and “leached,” there would no longer be anything to which one can lift one’s eyes when in need of spiritual renewal.
A search engine such as Google is exceptionally rewarding if you look for “Sweet Grass Hills.” For one thing, there is excellent photography so that you can see for yourself the “signature” horizon line of these volcanic peaks. For another, one can make contact with the organization that works to block any more moves towards cyanide leach pads. Not least, students at Chester High School have posted essays about what the Hills mean to them. And John Holt, Montana writer, has written about the blue fire he claims to see there.
Spanish Basque sheepherders also lost their hearts to the Hills when they pastured bands of sheep there. They built tall stone cairns from the moraine stones that abound. But there are far more ancient and mysterious structures.
The U.S. Government, in the course of the Big Claim, tried to refute the claim of the Blackfeet that the place was sacred by saying that there was no church there, no altar or Stonehenge to prove that anyone ever worshipped there. This is a false notion, since to the Native American peoples all land and life was sacred. Still, a place so distinguished was a “power center,” a place a little more holy than others. And the “proof” turned out to be low stone walls just about the right outline for a man to lie down in and just about high enough to make a bit of shelter from the wind. They are for vision-fasting.