Sunday, April 22, 2018


Marias River

The rest of this book I'm accumulating -- this post is chapter three at present  -- is centered on the Marias River, which is the southern boundary of the Blackfeet Reservation.  In fact, it is at least the third boundary since cattlemen began pushing it back north.  The sequence of boundaries begins with Fort Benton on the Missouri River where there was early contact, then goes north when the agency is moved to Choteau, then briefly to Badger Creek Old Agency, and finally to Browning on Willow Creek, a small brook as water courses go.  

To follow this discussion easily, one needs a "Montana Atlas and Gazetteer", a topographic map book available from Delorme, online   Keep it with your Rand McNally road map.  The detail includes oil wells, but they are not the subject of this post. If you are interested, there is an intriguing historical report about oil at

The Marias River begins high in the Rocky Mountains as an array of trickles through the caved-off rock and then on down, consolidating through the tree line.  Finally it becomes a stream with a name.  Actually, it has a lot of names, depending on the namers, and it begins formally as two rivers: Two Medicine arises in the Badger/Two Medicine sacred lands  and Cut Bank Creek comes just off the Hudson Bay Divide in Glacier National Park.  The Hudson Bay Divide is the northern limit of the watershed that determined the boundary between the United States and Canada.

(For a discussion of the names of this river consult "Let the Mountains Sing: Place Names of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park" by Jack Holterman.)  Clarke gave the name, "Marias," in honor of his cousin. 

In its 170 miles the Marias traverses — west to east — the Blackfeet Reservation boundary; an early dam that became a terrible flood; an historical Lewis and Clark location where a couple of Blackfeet were killed; the site of a later mistaken massacre of a band of “peace” Indians; a complex of eroded hoodoos called “Rock City’’; twenty miles of impounded irrigation water called “Lake Elwell”, created by Tiber Dam; and a stretch of peaceful scenery with limestone features.  It ends in the Missouri just before that river is in confluence as the “Three Rivers”.  The three rivers, west to east, were named by Meriwether Lewis in late July 1805 for President Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison, and Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin.

The Marias is crossed by north/south roads requiring bridges.  The one farthest west is on the “nine mile road”, an unpaved connector between Heart Butte and Dupuyer.  Do not drive it without good tires.  Then there are the bridge on Highway 89 and the larger bridge on I-15.  If one’s vehicle is a rubber boat, traveling from west to east, the river is brisk but never really whitewater rapids.  Spring high water is quite different from August when it might be possible to cross by fording.

On the south side of the Marias is Pondera County where most roads are grids because the land is flat.  I live in Valier on the south terminus of Highway 358 to Cut Bank, but if you ignore the abrupt turn to the west and continue straight north, you will end at the Rock City erosion area.  

The Sullivan Bridge road also includes a bridge over the Marias, a favorite meeting spot for teenagers, and passes the turnoff for Willow Rounds, a ranch named for an ancient campground that is a little obscure now because plants have overgrown the circles of anchor stones that were brought to hold down the edges of lodges.  But the “rounds” themselves, which were the roughly circular meadows where the camps were located, still remain and can be seen from the top of nearby bluffs.  Small streams thread through the terrain.

Molly’s Nipple Road gets its name from a landmark hill with the shape of woman’s anatomy which was assigned by jokers to a good-natured rancher’s wife.  Buffalo Ridge is a marker for oil wells.  Nearby, the Two Medicine River joins the Marias.  There are competing stories about where the name of Two Medicine originated, both of them referring to the major religious ceremony of the Blackfeet which requires the erection of a skeletal round-hall of poles around a center forked trunk, everything at first embellished with boughs of cottonwood.  This framework is left standing.

The center figure of this ceremony must be an entirely virtuous old woman who fasts for days at risk of her life and keeps over the entrance to her small lodge her digging stick, polished by a lifetime of gathering roots and rhizomes.  This is a high prestige role and awarding it to a lesser woman can cause disaster.  One story is there was a competition between two ceremonies and another is that protocol was broken some other way.  The disastrous conclusion is a fatal lightning strike, very believable in Spring when storms go through, dragging virgo shadows of rain.

As a boundary, the Marias River is fickle, shifting with floods and erosions.  The biggest modern tragedy is that Swift Dam had been built on the Marias to supply the irrigation system that is the key to the local economy.  The torrential rains of 1965 caused — directly or indirectly, since some say the problem was a stuck overflow valve that could have relieved pressure if it hadn't rusted shut — the collapse of the earthen dam.  The resulting wall of water killed over thirty people, mostly Blackfeet ranchers who lived along the river.  It has been rebuilt. Two other major dams were overwhelmed, one at the impoundment of the Two Medicine north of East Glacier, and the other near St. Mary’s in a watershed farther north.  Both of these were in Glacier Park.

The irrigation projects on the Blackfeet side never quite seemed to work out, but the canals on the Pondera County side were effective.  Canal riders on horseback used to travel them constantly, but now move along on all-terrain vehicles.  Big plastic sheets of florescent red are used as dams to divert flow in or out of side canals according to entitlement to the water.  Sometimes those sheets escape and one sees them caught in fences or floating in water.  It must be the wind that moves them, but I’ve never seen one in the air.

Also traveling the canals are the grizzly bears, who sleep all winter under the snow in the Rockies and then come down the ecotone along the streams and canals, where berries grow and small animals abound.  They, like the old Medicine Women, are diggers of roots and corms with their long claws.  They are naturally prairie animals and not equipped for trees except aspen copes for sleeping, but they appreciate frozen and drowned carrion along the east slope in spring, which is the water season.

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