Friday, July 08, 2011


The chain of hills that runs approximately along the 49th parallel, including Milk River Ridge, determined the boundary of the United States.   Thomas Jefferson had "bought" from the King of France the whole of Louisiana, which was defined as the drainage of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.  Lewis and Clark were sent out on their expedition to find just how far north the drainage went.  Along  Highway 2 on the road between Browning and Cut Bank is the location of Camp Disappointment where Lewis finally realized that the headwaters did not reach to the fiftieth parallel as they had hoped.  These days the commemorative obelisk is much abused and marked with graffiti.  
On July 22, 1806, Lewis -- who had separated from Clark in order to go take a look north -- wrote in his journal:
"This plain on which we are is very high;  the rocky mountains to the S.W. of us appear but low from their base up yet are partially covered with snow nearly to their bases.  There is no timber on those mountains within our view;  they are very irregular and broken in their form and seem to be composed principally of clay with but little rock or stone."
Today this part of the east slope is called the "Lewis Overthrust."  Lewis was standing on what would become the Blackfeet Reservation.
"I believe that the waters of the Suskashawan approach the borders of this river very nearly.  I now have lost all hope of the waters of this river ever extending to N. Latitude 50º though I still hope and think it more than probably that both white earth river and milk river extend as far north as latd 50º."
After a few days of enduring a rainy and hungry camp, Lewis and his company moved on, encountering several deserted Indian camps with the poles of lodges remaining.  He noted,  "We consider ourselves extreemly fortunate in not having met with these people."  Then their luck ran out.  On July 26, a Saturday for what that is worth, they met a small band of young Piegan Blackfeet and cautiously shared a camp with them.  The American explorers were on Birch Creek, the southern boundary of the modern reservation.  On Sunday morning there was a ruckus which ended in the death of at least one, probably two, Blackfeet and so panicked the small party of explorers that they galloped all the way to the Great Falls over what had once been a seabed and is today wheat fields.  By the end of September the explorers were safely back in St. Louis, attending a dinner and ball.
The Blackfeet, for their part, were aroused to ferocious resistance against all invaders, whether other tribes or whites.  By acting strongly, they managed to postpone the breaking of their way of life until very late, almost the turn of the 19th century.  The last of the buffalo herds lingered around the Sweetgrass Hills.  
Relations with the Canadians went better, as had interactions with the early European traders.  The Blackfeet were not beaver trappers, but revered the beaver and organized their major Sacred Bundle around that creature and other water denizens.  Instead of trapping, the Blackfeet accumulated horses by stealing and breeding, and then used those horses for hunting buffalo and buying women for extra wives.  At first they acquired weapons and other paraphernalia by provisioning trappers with pemmican, which their women made.  Later they sold buffalo robes, which their women also prepared.  The real wealth of the Blackfeet was women and they knew it.  Lodges became much bigger and finer, and even a single woman could make a living by creating elegant beaded clothing and bags.  Today men still acquire ranches by sending their wives to town to work as teachers or shopkeepers.  Of course, now they are legally allowed only one wife at a time.
When in 1824 Jefferson laid out his topographical theory of the world, he started with the Blackfeet and then rhetorically moved East.  He saw the distance in hierarchical terms with the high slopes of the Rocky Mountain front as the paradoxical depths of savagery and his own swampy capitol as the height of sophistication and culture.
"Let a philosophic observer commence a journey from the savages of the Rocky Mountains, eastwardly towards our sea-coast.  These he would observe in the earliest stage of association living under no law but that of nature, subsisting and covering themselves with the flesh and skins of beasts.  He would next find those on our frontiers in the pastoral state, raising domestic animals to supply the defects of hunting.  Then succeed our own semi-barbarous citizens, the pioneers of the advance of civilization, and so in his progress he would meet the gradual shades of improving man until he would reach his, as yet, most improved state in our seaport towns.  This, in fact, is equivalent to a survey, in time, of the progress of man from the infancy of creation to the present day."
Today we might be more inclined to see the romanticized Indian as the highest state while the swamps of Washington, D.C., represent the moral depths of civilization.
Something about the east slope of the Rockies makes it feel numinous, sacred, mysterious.  Maybe it is the altitude or maybe it is instinctive in humans from early grasslands times.  Many people find the Blackfeet Reservation spiritual -- yet dangerous.  It is not really possible to understand the Blackfeet Reservation without reflecting on the geography.  The topography, the climate, the soils and minerals, the fossils and wildlife, the transportation and communication networks are keys to both prosperity and institutional life.  They dictate where there is work, where you can live, what you can grow, how much of your life is going to be tied up in getting supplies and services and what school district your children belong in.  Occasionally, where you are becomes a life-and-death question.
If you drive north-to-south on Highway 89 from the Canadian border to Dupuyer (roughly along the Old North Trail), or east-to-west on Highway 2 from Cut Bank to the Continental Divide (which may have been the edge of the glacier for a long time) , you pass through Browning at roughly the midpoint of the Blackfeet Reservation, where the two highways run on top of each other.  This is the capitol of the reservation.  Main Street of the town is cut twice, once by the combined Highways 2 and 89 which swing around to get perpendicular, and once by Willow Creek which separates the Bureau of Indian Affairs Square from the town.  In the early days of Browning,  on the lawn of Government Square every spring Blackfeet girls in white dresses wound through a Maypole dance in the ancient British custom, though they probably did not realize it was derived from a pagan fertility ceremony.  
Today few tourists slow down enough to see that there is a Main Street, unless they need the post office or bank, which are still at the old town square alongside Willow Creek.  In the days of my in-laws' youth, there was a pond where the livery brought their horses for water.  

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