Saturday, August 04, 2018


When one drives onto the reservation from the south after dark, or more dramatically flies over it, one sees each river is traced by a line of farm lights marking Blackfeet homesteads.  By family rather than by clan, these rather recently developed ranch allotments have been built by the tribe as a  better alternative for families after problems developed in clustered housing developments.  With space for horses at home and modern internet-connected buses on paved roads for getting to school, kids in particular do much better.  There is room for gardens, but it's still possible to get to jobs in town.

The Marias River is the southern boundary of the reservation.  The Marias River is a tributary of the Missouri River, approximately 210 mi long, in the U.S. state of Montana. It is formed in Glacier County, in northwestern Montana, by the confluence of the Cut Bank Creek and the Two Medicine River.  These are East Slope streams arising from snowpacks and underground streams seeping through soil and stone, occasionally coming to the surface as springs.  Some say it takes years for summit snow water to reach the prairie underground.

Cut Bank Creek arises at the continental divide of the Rockies and flows for 75 miles before it joins the Marias.  "Cut banks" are steep and unstable, the area of a stream where the water is flowing the fastest at a higher pressure and often deeper, making them rather dangerous.  The water erodes the banks quickly and drastically when water is high.

Two Medicine River is sixty miles long. Birch Creek runs into it, and then "Two Med" joins Cut Bank Creek, and after twelve more miles runs into the Marias.

"The Willow Creek drainage flows west to east from its headwaters in the foothills east of Glacier National Park, between the Cut Bank and Milk River Drainages. The watershed is entirely within the Marias River Basin and the Northwestern Glaciated Plains EcoRegion (DEQ 2006). 

"The watershed drains an area of 92,600 acres (Blackfeet Environmental Office (BEO) 2007) and its three main water bodies are Willow Creek, Depot Creek and Flatiron Creek. These streams originate in the foothills east of Glacier National Park and are first, second and third order streams. Primary land uses in the watershed vary from recreational and low density cattle grazing in the upstream reaches and headwaters to residential, commercial, and wastewater treatment closer to Browning."

Ironically, the Town of Browning was founded on the banks of Willow Creek and has struggled with low flow and swampy land ever since.  Nevertheless it was good enough until population rose and serious studies were begun.

Marias River has been the location of intense incidents, not least of which was begun when a dam was built just below its headwaters.  The scene of the plot to do so was downriver at Robaire, where the saloon was next to the sanctuary, but the village was too wicked to exist.  When the dam broke, which is the climax of this story, the remnants of Robaire were washed away.  Some might say finally cleansed, without indicating whether they meant religion or booze.

Next is near, but not quite at, the Marias.  On July 26, 1806. Meriwether Lewis, George Drouillard and the Field Brothers, Joseph and Reubin, left Camp Disappointment on Cut Bank Creek to return to the Marias River and continue on.  They camped overnight with a group of young horse-herding men.  At dawn the youths tried to steal the guns of the adventurers, who killed two Blackfeet.

On January 23, 1870 the US Army mistakenly imposed massacre on a peace chief's band camped on the Marias River during a bitterly cold dawn morning.
The event has several names: that of the commanding officer, Baker; or that of the location, Marias River; or that of the tribe, Piegan.

Events from zillions of years earlier created "Rock City" just north of the Town of Valier.  The formation is soft stone cut by the Marias into mysterious and evocative shapes that look like buildings or maybe hoodoos like those carved elsewhere.  One cames upon it in back country with no warning, which increases its mysteriousness.

A bit downstream from there is a place called "Willow Rounds," a favorite campsite of the People for many years.  They say the "rounds" don't refer to the many stone circles in the area, but to the rounded meadows themselves.  The circles were formed by weights on the buckskin edges of the round-bottomed lodges.  Many ask why the Piegan were called "Blackfeet."  My own idea is that it was because when a lodgeskin was worn out, the dark smoked top of the skin was tough and waterproof enough to make good moccasins.

As the river passes on, it carves through limestone formations that not only look architectural but also mystical, like white ramparts and castles high up above.  This area is popular for floats in rubber boats, the floaters camping overnight in the undeveloped agricultural land.

"Two miles before its end, the Marias takes in the Teton River, itself a product of the Rocky Mountain Front. Together they flow under the U.S. Highway 87 bridge at Loma and turn over their waters to the Missouri. . .

"On June 2, 1805, Lewis and Clark began a 10-day stay at the then-meeting of the Missouri and Marias rivers. In 1950, a flood diverted the course of the Marias, forcing it to enter the Missouri nearly one mile further upstream, thereby altering its physical location in history. The former channel is still visible."

The explorers stayed so long because coming from the south they couldn't decide which fork to take, Marias or Missouri.  The Hidatsa directions they had were correct, but the group argued until they split so as to take both.  Naming the camp "Decision", they were too early in the exploration to predict the camp they would call on return "Disappointment" which was on Cut Bank Creek, where they could see plainly that the Louisiana Purchase would end at the 49th parallel, not the 50th.  They didn't know the territory so they must have just been in love with the nice round number, just as they loved the straight line of the surveyed border.

All these numbers and lines meant nothing to the original people living there.  Marias Pass and Marias River are named for Meriwether Lewis' cousin, Maria Brown, but she had nothing to do with the place.  Marias Pass is exited on the east by the headwaters of the Two Medicine River before it comes to the Marias.  The Two Medicine River refers to various versions of a Blackfeet story about two ceremonial Thunder Medicine lodges involving a lightning strike that killed a woman who was not worthy.  Lewis knew nothing about this story.

Otherwise.Jack Holterman says that the Blackfeet name for the Marias River was Kyaiyaisisaahtai (Bear River).

All these names have political weight, with the difficulty that everyone has to agree on at least one name in order to put the name on a map or use references to it when speaking.  Clearly, what mattered to early Euros was straight lines and their own family, even Meriwether Lewis' cousin, Maria Brown.

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