People Before The Park

Aug 25, 2015

Most Montanans have been to Glacier National Park, although few of us know about what went on in that landscape before 1910, the year the Park was created. But now, thanks to a new book published by the Montana Historical Society Press, we have stories about the people who lived there.

“A number of times a year, people crossed over those mountains and the stories are fairly unbelievable!” says Sally Thompson—archeologist, ethnographer, and ethnohistorian—and lead author of People Before The Park. During the last several years, she worked with members of the Kootenai Culture Committee and the Pikunni Traditional Association, helping each tribe gather and organize their stories.
"They have stories among the Kootenai people that take them back probably 8,000 years, and longer. But one story actually documents a connection with this region going back that far. A story about a time that ash fell from the sky and gathered so deep that it choked the life out of the plants, and then the animals died, and most of the people died. And the only ash fall in our region that would be deep enough to choke out plant life was when Mount Mazama exploded and created Crater Lake. And that was about 7,700 years ago."

In the process of creating this book, Thompson had to give up her ideas about presentation symmetry and just allow each group to tell their stories in their own way.

“The Kootenais started theirs with the creation story at Apgar, at the Winter Solstice. And they also have an introduction where they give some background about their spiritual orientation to the world. But they didn’t want to share any ceremonial information. And, in fact, if I came forward with some things I’d found in the ethnographic record they would say, “Well, we’re not putting that in there. Thank you. Okay.” So, working with the Blackfeet, they said they wanted to start their seasonal round in, March, basically. After first thunder, they open the first bundles—the thunder bundles. And that is around the time of the Equinox, the Vernal Equinox. And so that’s when they wanted to start. And they wanted to tell their story through the ceremonial cycle: the opening of bundles, the Okan, their medicine lodge, which is often mistakenly called their sundance. They wanted people to understand that their lives are dictated by the seasonal unfolding of their ceremonies. So, they’re very different, but I like that so much because they’re very different people. The Kootenais were mountain people and they were fishing people. And the Blackfeet, although they ended up having to eat fish, generally didn’t. It was not a food that was traditional for them; they were mostly bison hunters. So they’re very different worlds, so their chapters should look different. The similarity is that they are told through the cycling seasons.”

Thompson says the two nations also responded differently to reservation life. “The Blackfeet suffered a lot more. The expectations of the U.S. government for people to become farmers was a little bit more likely to happen in the rich lands of the Mission and Flathead valleys, and not on the lands that the Blackfeet occupied on the east side of The Divide.”

One story demonstrates just how convoluted communication was between the U.S. government and members of the Blackfeet Nation: “The word for buffalo in Blackfeet actually means ‘real food’ and the word for cattle, I’ve been told, meant ‘not real food.’ And so when the government came and said We’re going to bring you cattle the buffalo won’t always last, which is what Governor Stephens told them in 1855. Imagine if you translate that into Blackfeet and they’re being told Don’t worry! You’re not going to always have real food, but we’ll bring you not real food.

Kootenai duck hunter, 1910
Credit E. S. Curtis, photographer / Library of Congress

Thompson has worked with other tribes in the Rocky Mountain region and in the Southwest and says “Many of the stories are gone, because people have been relocated from their ancestral territories and the gaps are too big to recall.” But the Kootenai and the Blackfeet were in a good position to help write this book. “This story is not unique, but important because the tribal groups still live in their traditional homelands, and close enough to the Park to still have the memories. And, in some cases, to still have access.”

People Before The Park, written by Sally Thompson, Kootenai Culture Committee, and Pikunni Traditional Association, is available in area book stores and through the Montana Historical Society Press Web site.