Saturday, October 31, 2009



Only a few miles north of Valier along Birch Creek which is the southern boundary of the Blackfeet Reservation, is a place called “Willow Rounds.” Via Google you can find some wonderful photos of the place because the ranch called that is currently for sale. You’ll see other info related to real estate matters. But what we are concerned with is how the place got its name: the “rounds” in question are tipi rings.

Tipi rings result from the edges of lodgeskins being weighted down with rocks. Since the glaciers carried in melon-sized and sorta melon-shaped stones from far to the north, the supply is endless and it makes more sense to find new ones than try to transport the stones from the last place. Anyway, the Blackfeet didn’t wander aimlessly: they moved through the seasons from one place to the next is a rather predictable pattern. They were in many ways migrant pickers, except that what they picked was wild. The seasons and terrain dictated what was ready for picking: camas now, berries then, and so on.

So the People came back to the same general location and often put their lodges up where they had been before. Instead of driving pickets around the edge of the lodgeskin -- which might be moved up and down in the course of a day as the need shifted from fresh air to warmth from the fire. One can find tipi rings in all sorts of likely camping spots, but rarely will there be only one by itself. The basic unit was not so much the nuclear family as the extended family growing into clan. So the tipi rings might themselves be in a big circle.

Tom Kehoe, who was the curator of the Museum of the Plains Indian and who (way back in the mists of time) was married by Bob Scriver to the woman who became the redoubtable Alice Kehoe, a noted anthropologist in Milwaukee, wrote an interesting paper about a phenomenon he found. Some tipi rings had lines of stones extending out from their edges in various directions and of various lengths. No one living could explain this. Tom’s theory was that they might have been like those signposts one sometimes sees at crossroads pointing in every direction, saying “Helsinki x miles” and “Mexico City x miles” and “Boston x miles.” The idea was that the line was code and the length of the line suggested the distance. I liked this idea so much that I put it into one of my “Twelve Blackfeet Stories.” (For you to Google would be better than for me to link, since some of these articles are only in academic databases.)


The broad and complex stone circles that seem to record sidereal events or maybe the course of the sun through equinoxes and solstices are quite well known. Some have names and regular pilgrimages. But New Age people who claim them and “own” them or create their own figures or add labyrinths and so on, are a pain in the patootie to scientists. As usual, there is tension between those who want to preserve and study, and those who want to inhabit and renew.


The v’s that mark the edges of a run leading to a buffalo jump that is several miles away can be subtle since they were not so much cairns as anchors and markers for clumps of brush meant to move in the wind or stations for people waving branches or robes or blankets enough to spook a buff. The book about “Head Smashed In” piskun which is available online from the University of Athabasca, a virtual university, is a revelation in this regard. “Imagining Head Smashed In” by Jack Brink. (

Another little-known stone artifact discussed in that book is the chamber dug into the ground and filled with hot rocks to melt the fat and marrow out of the debris and bones left after butchering the animals killed by the fall over the cliff. The researchers have now found the “factory floor” where the animals were processed a little distance from what must have been a fairly repulsive stinking fly-ridden mess at the base.


Cairns themselves, sometimes considered to be “Sun Worship Altars” in Christian terms, will likely be on the tops of ridges and hills and if there are trees nearby they will be decorated like Christmas trees with small offerings of fabric or fetishes. There's one near Starr School.

The name is Gaelic but the practice is worldwide and for some reason often related to heights or crossroads or meant to look like a person standing. Sometimes a body or ashes are interred. When some young adventurers from Babb, Montana, which is one of the tourist towns on the Blackfeet Reservation, went to Africa, they took some small stones from the top of Chief Mountain, a natural marker of the boundary between Canada and the US, and left them on Mt. Kilimanjaro. They brought back some small stones from that mountain and when the matriarch of the family died, she was buried with a stone from each “istuka” (Blackfeet for mountain) in her red patent leather purse.


The glaciers brought along with the strewn “cobblestones” the occasional massive boulder that was finally stranded on the prairie when the ice melted. These puzzled the early prairie people who told a lot of stories about them coming to life and chasing Napi as though the latter were Harrison Ford in an archeology movie.

Once they were left, the boulders functioned a lot like a tree: a place to get up high for a hawk (there are often white marks), a sun porch for a mammal (our bobcats used to love the one along Willow Creek near Parsons), and a travelers’ landmark. The one on the road from highway 89 along Birch Creek to Heart Butte has become an altar, with small offerings left on it or at the base. Some call them “buffalo stones” and indeed that’s what they look like. In the old days the buffs would appreciate a good place to rub off old dead fur and their friction would polish the sides of the boulder smooth even as their hooves cut a bit of a moat around the bottom, which held moisture so that a small variant ecology would take hold there.


Hugh Dempsey, the emeritus scholar of history in Calgary who is also a noted prolific author, tells the story of a warrior who blundered and was consequently killed and left on a hillside where his people found him. In his honor, they marked the outline of where his body fell, like a crime-scene outline. Like so many things, it has since been disturbed and overbuilt.

Use, the Canadian Amazon list, to find books by Dempsey or his son. The book with the effigy story (photo included) is “The Amazing Death of Calf Shirt” by Hugh, published by the U of Oklahoma Press. The relevant story is called “Peace with the Kootenays.


Another important use of stones was the “dream bed” high on the mountains where shale was either piled up New England fence-style or propped up on edge to make a wind break for a person fasting and praying for a vision. Arlo Scari in Chester, Montana, can sell you a book with photos of the “dream beds” in the Sweetgrass Hills. ( Proceeds go to save the hills themselves, which contain gold and are the target of cyanide heap leach miners, who want to grind up the WHOLE HILL!! Since there are many uses and stories about those hills, they could be considered “artifacts” or at least “material culture” in themselves.

These artifacts are not so collectible as arrowheads, nor so attractive. One must take a photo, though the defenders of Indian artifacts will object even to photos of Chief Mountain or the Sweetgrass Hills on grounds that they are sacred and photos profane them, lowering them to the status of tourist items. Actually they are in the most danger from developers, careless uses, and contemporary blindness and ignorance. Those forces have long since obliterated the gardens going on without the gardeners that Tim haunted in his youth. Still, there are seed-savers who can re-plant.

(to be continued)

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