Wednesday, July 17, 2019


(This is part of a document that is a book available at

At one time the Blackfeet territory extended roughly from Edmonton to Yellowstone and from the Rockies to the Black Hills. The “tribe” was a loose confederation of similar people who based their culture on the buffalo. Because they ate well -- plenty of meat plus many roots and berries -- they were big, healthy, handsome people who had time for talk, games, ceremonies and the embellishment of their fabrications like their clothing and lodges. The basic unit was not the “tribe” which is mostly a category thrust upon them by white people, but rather affinity bands of about a hundred folks knit together by friendship, culture, and genetics.  Sometimes one strong male leader was chief, but often a small leadership group more or less traded the job of “riding point,” depending on the task at hand, whether war, hunting or locating a new camp. 

The bands had relationships with other bands, “cousins” so to speak, and more or less grouped into what first-encounter whites called “tribes,” based on language, customs and ceremonial groups. The four major Blackfoot tribes belonged to an over-arching confederacy that dominated the area from today’s Edmonton, to Yellowstone, from the Rockies to the Black Hills. A related group was the Gros Ventre. Annually all the tribes gathered for the talking and ceremonial feasts that bonded them together. Necessarily, the biggest group met in the spring when grass and meat were abundant. 

The Blackfoot Nation ended up on both sides of the 49th Parallel. In Canada the reserves were much smaller, more protected, leaving the culture intact. Assets were left tribal, held in common. These people have changed much less than the Montana group and act as a welcome reservoir of old ways and the Blackfoot language. (Canadians say “BlackFOOT” and spell the name of the name of the Montana band as “Peigan” rather than “Piegan.”) 
Returning to the American side, it is useful to note that the Southern Piegan or Amskapi Pikuni reservation is bounded on two natural lines. One, to the north, is the complex of glacial moraines and volcanic extrusions that determined the 49th parallel when Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase, which was defined as the drainage of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. The other, to the west, is the Rocky Mountains that form a natural barrier of ramparts and stone curtains. But the eastern and southern borders of the reservation, originally set as nearly half of Montana, have been steadily pushed back by white settlement. 
In 1855 the Lame Bull Treaty was signed with a “chief” more or less designated by whites. 
In 1873 an Executive Order moved the southern boundary up to the Missouri River. 
In 1874 an Act of Congress moved that border north some more. 
In 1888 the land now called “the High Line” after the Great Northern railway line was “sold.” The buffalo were gone and Blackfeet were starving. 
In 1896 the part of the reservation in Glacier Park was sold. This also gave the Great Northern Railroad access to Marias Pass. 
Somehow, mysteriously, the eastern boundary drifted farther west so as to leave oil fields off the reservation. 
These boundaries have been contested ever since. The most controversial at the moment is the Badger/Two Medicine at the SW corner of the reservation, between East Glacier and Heart Butte, part of the so-called “Ceded Strip.” There is thought to be oil there, but it is definitely a spiritual resource as well. 
The best map to use is a topo map like the Montana Atlas & Gazeteer because so many of the roads conform to topography so that it’s easier to see the logic of them. PRIMARY Highways 
Two natural paths travel perpendicularly across the reservation. One is the Old North Trail, an ancient braided N/S trail along the east side of the Rockies, originally worn as game paths and nomadic trails that stretch from the Arctic Circle all the way down the Americas. It is so worn into the land that one can still see travois marks in places. On the US side the Highway 89 roughly parallels this route, in Canada the route becomes the Al-Can Highway and gives access to Alaska. 
The other natural path must have originally been the edge of the glacier, where it was melting enough to support vegetation, which would attract grazing animals, followed by predators including humans. Today this path, as it might have been at one point in time, is roughly traced by Highway 89 and also what was built as the “High Line” of the Great Northern Railroad. 

To trace the Montana reservation through its past, the original Indian agency was at Fort Benton, because it was as high up the Missouri River that riverboats could travel. The original adobe Fort Benton is now reconstructed. 
The next agency was just north of Choteau where there is an historic marker by the highway. No buildings remain, but local historians have placed some huge boulders to mark the site. Also, it’s possible to see the vague indentations of graves from smallpox epidemics. 
The next Indian Agency was on Little Badger where it crosses Highway 89. Here again no buildings remain. The sixty people who died in the Starvation Winter were left on the top of Ghost Ridge, unburied as in the old time way at first, but then covered with blown dust where bushes took root.  At some point the BIA agent had the area burned.   
Today’s Indian Agency is Browning, for many years an "island of jurisdiction" where the schools and town operated according to Montana law.  Today it is no longer an island and even technically no longer a town.  The schools remain as state entities but have been joined by independent immersion and religious schools, plus the Blackfeet Community College, which belongs to the tribe though it means standard academic evaluations.
Just south of Browning, Highway 2 comes in from the east and continues on top of 89 to the other side of town. There are three stoplights on this stretch. The one farthest east, by the concrete tipi, controls access to the Duck Lake Road, a much less steep and winding road to Babb and along Duck Lake. 
The second is where the old main street of Browning intersects the highway. To get to the real town or to the hospital, turn north there. To get to the schools, turn left. The third stoplight is by the strip mall. If you turn north one block, you will see the Methodist church to the left and the Catholic Church of the Little Flower to the right. The Methodist church has “picture” stained glass windows by Brent Warburton, showing a stream running from Chief Mountain . The Catholic Church has more abstract windows by King Kuka, depicting the Stations of the Cross. 
Past Browning Highway 89 continues on to the west until it gets close to the mountains and veers north. Kiowa Kamp is a little tourist crossroads where Highway 49 cuts across to East Glacier. This highly scenic route is called “Looking Glass Pass,” but it is a little scary for flatlanders. If you are worried, traveling from East Glacier to Kiowa Kamp (west to east) will keep you on the inside of the road.) 
After that, the intersection with the Starr School road is on the east just ahead of the west trail into the Cut Bank campground of Glacier Park. One can follow the Starr School road back to Browning. There are a growing number of home-site access roads that branch off from 89 and one should not assume campers or even sightseers are welcome. This is not wilderness. 
Next Highway 89 crosses Milk River Ridge and the Hudson’s Bay Divide. North of this divide the water runs north and east until it empties into Canada’s Hudson’s Bay except that historically some water was diverted to the US side along the High Line. You will be able to see a pyramid-shaped mountain called “Triple Divide.” A raindrop in the right place on that peak will split into three drainages: down the Missouri/Mississippi complex to the Gulf of Mexico, up and east to Hudson’s Bay, or west into the headwaters of the Snake River and then the Columbia. 
Down the long incline that enters the St. Mary Valley and lakes, called the “Inside Lakes” by the Blackfeet, is St. Mary the town. Through St. Mary to the west is “Going to the Sun Highway” which crosses Glacier National Park at Logan Pass. Highway 89 continues through St. Mary along the east edge of the lower lake. About halfway along the lake one can see across the lake a peak that looks a bit like the profile of St. Mary. 
Babb is at the north end of the lake and is the entrance to Many Glacier. That road travels along the north edge of Sherburne Lake and ends at Many Glacier. On the other side of Babb, Highway 89 continues along the west side of the Saint Mary River. The scenery will be dominated by Chief Mountain, which is nearly on the border. 
In summer, Highway 17 branches to the West and goes to the Port of Chief Mountain while Highway 89 continues to the Port of Piegan, called Carway on the other side of the border. The first town of any size in Canada will be Cardston, closely associated with a Blackfoot reservation, but also with a strong Mormon presence.
Highway 2 enters the reservation just west of the bridge across Cut Bank Creek outside of Cut Bank and then continues west parallel to Cut Bank Creek. Lewis and a hand-picked group of his men came this way to discover the limit of the headwaters that defined the Louisiana Purchase.  They followed Cut Bank Creek. An obelisk by the Highway marks the vicinity of their “Camp Disappointment” where they realized that the border would be the 49th parallel rather than the 50th. 
A grain elevator marks Meriwether Road, named for Lewis, which crosses the Canadian border at Del BonitaGrass Winds Veterinary Clinic is run by Ethel Connelly, DVM, a Blackfeet woman veterinarian from a noted cowboy family. The wheat fields along here are called Seville Flats. 
Before coming to Browning the highway passes what’s left of the little town of Blackfoot. At the turn of the nineteenth century, this was as far as the railroad went. Since the machines and crew had to stay over and turn the train around, a complex of boarding houses, cafes, mercantile stores and bank grew up. As soon as the railroad found its way through Marias Pass, the little town withered and died. Most of the buildings have been moved or lost due to fire or other destruction. 
Highway 2 joins Highway 89 just south of Browning and the two continue joined on the way through the town. Watch carefully for wind since the conjoined highways enter through a pass and bridge combination that produces sudden high side-winds. Highway 2 continues on to the west on the other side of town, leaving over a high ridge and another railroad bridge -- a second place the wind pounds hard. This location is sometimes in the national news because of overturned trains and semi- trucks. 
The last town before leaving the reservation (or the first if coming the other way) is East Glacier, a town created as a resort for the railroad, marked by a huge log lodge. Just a short distance past is Summit, where there is a statue of the first white man, Stevens, to discover Marias Pass, which made the Great Northern railroad possible. 
The boundary created when Glacier National Park was ripped out of the side of the Blackfeet Reservation, caused three small towns to form, each serving in its own way the tourists who are their economic core. 
East Glacier is unique because of the “high-line” of the historic Great Northern Railroad which enters Marias Pass on the east side of Glacier Park and emerges at the west side of the Park, mostly tracing the southern boundary. It was the discovery of this pass that allowed the High-Line tracks to be built, just in time to keep the transportation business from migrating across the Canadian border to the Canadian railway. 
At the end of the road that follows the Two Medicine River to its origin, Two Medicine Lake where there is a campground in summer and the launch site for a boat tour. There is a small camp store with a cafe. It's a deadend.
You can take a look at St. Mary right this minute (if it’s daylight and the camera is working) by going to the Glacier Park webcam system:   Last summer there was a forest fire almost directly in front of the camera. The webcam shows the entrance to the Going to the Sun Highway. 
Babb supports a school, two churches (Methodist and Catholic), an Emergency Medical Tech team, a year-round grocery store, and a post office. Nearby Duck Lake is surrounded by seasonal and permanent homes where many Canadians as well as locals love to ice fish all winter. 

Browning is complex, intriguing, historical. Some people drive through, not stopping, and remark that it is “so depressing.” Others are curious about what they take to be poverty, suffering, drunkenness, and lawlessness. Some of them stop and try to be part of the action, or at least take photos of some colorful Third World person. Neither observer is really seeing what is there: story upon story upon story, some universal and some unique. 

The Dawes Act, which split up reservations into allotments the same way homesteading did and allowed individual Indians to take title, which made some vulnerable to swindles, had another dark side. When the first owner died, his allotment was divvied up among his descendants. When they died, the land was divided again. Today some city lots in Browning are owned by more than a hundred people, some of whom haven’t been seen or heard from for decades. Some of the land was put back into trust by regular owners, so they wouldn’t have to pay state or county taxes. Land with a multitude of owners could only be handled by keeping it in trust and any profits sent to the various owners. IF they were sent and we now know that records and diligence were seriously deficient. If there were liabilities, everyone ducked. This is such a prevalent problem that a special commissioned court has been established to re-establish consolidated ownership of individual properties. When settlements formed and Dawes Allotments were signed, two communities were the choices of many old-timers: Heart Butte and Starr School. Both were in foothills of the Rockies where there was still game and water was abundant. They were isolated by unpaved roads and widely separated from each other. 
Since the old-timers couldn’t speak English, they were dependent upon interpreters. Strangely two brothers, estranged from each other, became leaders of these two communities. Their grandfather was Isidore Sandoval or Sanderville (depending on who kept the records) and their father had the same name, Isidore, which also confuses records. This family was originally Mexican, coming up the Mississippi and Missouri drainanges, but became increasingly Blackfeet, occupying a much needed interface between full-bloods and whites. 
This family complex is interwoven with almost every major white name in Blackfeet history. George Starr, for whom the community of Starr School was named, was among them. Isidore the younger was staying with Malcolm Clarke when the man was murdered. 

Before you drive to Heart Butte along the north side of Birch Creek, you might want to note the location of a town that no longer exists except in stories, but what stories! The town was created on the south side of Birch Creek when the Methodist Indian Agent threw both the bootleggers and the Jesuits off the reservation. They set up their cabins side-by-side and both did brisk business. The Big Flood of 1964 wiped out the last traces of building and the owners of the land do not appreciate trespassers, but the old access remains.
(More to come later.)

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