The Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana is bordered by Glacier National Park on the west and Canada on the north, and was the traditional range for massive herds of buffalo. About 86 percent of the residents of the reservation are Native Americans. It has been greatly reduced in size from the historical dimensions but is still the 13th largest reservation in the U.S. at approximately 1.5 million acres in size. Tribal headquarters are located in Browning where Earl Old Person serves on the Tribal Business Council and as honorary chief.
Recent years have brought changes to Browning. A modern hospital sits to the north overlooking town. On the south end of town is Blackfeet Community College with a campus of 13 buildings. The proximity to Glacier National Park has created a tourist industry and a number of lodging options are available in or near Browning including the opportunity to stay in a tipi at Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Village. Glacier Peaks Casino is adjacent to Holiday Inn Express on the western edge of town, further enhancing the tourism industry. Good highway access from all four directions makes Browning very accessible and Amtrak’s Empire Builder train passes through as well.
Tourism, ranching and farming, plus oil and natural gas leases, are the major sources of outside income.
But this is still a Native American community. North American Indian Days will celebrate its 65th year next July. It’s a major event for the Blackfeet Nation. Many dancers don’t register but 1,200 to 1,500 dancers are normally present and dozens of tipis are erected adjacent to the powwow grounds. A massive horse parade through town prior to the powwow with the horses moving at a gallop kicks up the excitement and illustrates the importance of horses to the Blackfeet people.
ICTMN talked with historian and “Montana’s Blackfeet Troubadour” Jack Gladstone who, along with prominent tribal member Darrell Norman and Patti Bartlett, jointly selected the 10 things others should know about the Blackfeet Nation. Gladstone described below, why each subject was selected.
Blackfoot or Blackfeet – “All Blackfeet are Blackfoot, but not all Blackfoot are Blackfeet. Historically, the Blackfoot Confederacy consisted of four bands. From north to south are the Siksika, or Blackfoot, next the Kanai, or Blood, then the Apa’tosee or Northern Pikuni and southernmost are Montana’s Blackfeet Nation, the Amskapi Pikuni.”
Origin of the Blackfeet name – “Before the horse arrived in the 1730s French fur traders observed indigenous people who had walked through a prairie fire and called them pen wa, the French word for black foot, after observing the blackened bottoms of their moccasins. An alternate identification originates from our ancient association with the buffalo whose hooves are black. We are the people of the buffalo, Blackfoot people.”
Language – “The late Darryl Kipp was instrumental in the resurgence of the Blackfoot language. Darryl researched innovative teaching methods in both Hawaii and New Zealand and adapted those models in the foundation of the “Cuts Wood School,” the first language immersion school on the Blackfeet Reservation. Speakers of the original Blackfeet language are now growing and reaffirming Blackfeet tribal identity.”
Blackfeet are recipients and holders of the Beaver Medicine Bundle – “This is the largest, oldest, most complex bundle of its type in North America, containing over 600 songs and dances representing each animal person being in our territory. This was also a drumless bundle. In ceremony, rattles were tapped on the rawhide side of animal skins. The beaver (k)sis-t’uki, was one of the three original animals in Creation, and is considered the most sacred because of his role in the orchestration and allocation of water.”
How long have the Blackfeet been here? – “The Blackfeet are among the oldest prehistoric residents of the northwestern plains. Archaeological discoveries by the University of Alberta in Edmonton, reveal campsites in the St. Mary River drainage dating back over 13,000 years. Traditional Blackfeet elders maintain we have always been here.”
How large is the Blackfoot territory? – “The Blackfoot territory at its maximum expanse was around 28 million acres extending as far north as Edmonton, Alberta and the North Saskatchewan River and as far south as the Yellowstone River in southern Montana. The territory ran from the ‘Backbone of the World,’ the Rockies, in the west and eastward onto the Great Plains a couple of hundred miles.”
Contact with Lewis and Clark – “The only blood shed between the Lewis and Clark Expedition and any Native American Tribe was with the Blackfeet. In late July of 1806, on the Two Medicine River, Lewis and a small recon party encountered eight Blackfeet teenagers returning from a horse-capturing mission. Through sign talk, Lewis revealed to the boys that the Great White Father now controlled this land and the Americans would soon open up trade and supply firearms to the neighboring enemy tribes. The next morning the boys attempted to relieve Lewis’s party of some horses and guns and were easily overcome by the ‘American Special Forces.’ Two of the teenagers were killed. Lewis then hung the Jefferson Peace Medal around the neck of Side Hill Calf, one of the dead teens. This precipitated a quarter century of hostility between the Blackfeet and U.S. commercial interests in which hundreds of American trappers and traders ‘disappeared’ into the wilderness heart of the Blackfeet homeland.”
The landscape and buffalo– “Blackfeet territory had more buffalo per square mile than anywhere. With an abundance of cold, pristine glacial water from the ‘Earth’s Backbone’, coupled with the cyclical arrival of warm Chinook winds, there evolved a high-protein species of fescue grass. This grass supported the richest buffalo ecosystem in North America. The Blackfeet diet consisted of 80 percent fresh meat, with adults consuming five to seven pounds per day. Blackfeet considered buffalo ‘real food.’”
Glacier National Park – “The eastern half of Glacier National Park is the opportunistic political dividend of the 1895 Agreement with the Blackfeet Nation of Montana which transferred the title of the eastern portion of the Rocky Mountains to the United States in anticipation of mineral exploitation. After the collapse of the buffalo culture, the Blackfeet tribe settled for 1.5 million dollars and retained the right ‘to go upon the land’ and to hunt and fish and to harvest sacred plants and wood. After mining booms went bust this landscape became Glacier National Park in 1910. The status of Blackfeet rights in what is now called ‘the ceded strip’ is still being interpreted, negotiated, and sometimes litigated, in regards to tribal rights and economic status in the 21st century.”
Triple Divide – “Traditional Blackfeet Territory encompasses a hydrological apex of North America. Triple Divide is a mountain on the Continental Divide where water is delivered to three major watersheds: the Gulf of Mexico through the Missouri and Mississippi River complexes, the Pacific through the Flathead and Columbia River drainages, and to the Hudson Bay through the Saskatchewan and Nelson River complexes which has an outlet to the Arctic Ocean. The Blackfeet Nation of Montana still maintains a vigilant watch on the headwaters of our North American continent.”
This story was originally published November 19, 2015.