Glacier Memories: The Blackfeet

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“After political pressure, money and arm-twisting were applied, the Piegan (usually referred to as Blackfeet) sold the mountain portion of their land for $1,500,000 in 1895. It was half of what they wanted, but they were resigned to losing it anyway. This “ceded strip”represents all of today’s Glacier National Park east of the continental divide. The Blackfeet reservation abuts the park’s eastern boundary at the foot of Lake Sherburne.” – Malcolm R. Campbell in “Bears, Where They Fought”

Teepees in Glacier in 1933 as part of the railway’s publicity effort.

The historical lands of the tribes comprising the Blackfoot Confederacy (the term “Blackfeet” is also used) stretched from the continental divide in the Rocky Mountains in Glacier National Park eastward into present-day North Dakota, and on the north near present-day Edmonton, Alberta to the Yellowstone River in Montana. In the United States, this land would be reduced by the Lame Bull Treaty of 1855 to lands”

“. . .lying within lines drawn from the Hell Gate or Medicine Rock Passes in the main range of the Rocky Mountains, in an easterly direction to the nearest source of the Muscle Shell River, thence to the mouth of Twenty-five Yard Creek, thence up the Yellowstone River to its northern source, and thence along the main range of the Rocky Mountains, in a northerly direction, to the point of beginning, shall be a common hunting-ground for ninety-nine years, where all the nations, tribes and bands of Indians, parties to this treaty. . .”

Blackfeet Removal

William E. Farr writes in “The End of Freedom: The Military Removal of the Blackfeet and Reservation Confinement, 1880” in the Summer 2012 issue of “Montana The Magazine of Western History,” that the removal and confinement of tribes was facilitated in 1871 when Congress decided to no longer consider Indian Nations as sovereign. From that point on, landholdings were reduced by executive orders that required no negotiation or consent from the tribes involved.

To this end, President Grant reduced the size of Blackfeet lands by creating a southern boundary along the Missouri River through his orders of 1873 and 1874. The change in policy evolved with the discovery of gold and other minerals in present-day Glacier Park’s Swiftcurrent Valley and elsewhere, and the demands of frontier settlements and travelers on transcontinental migration routes.

Today, the Blackfeet (Southern Piegan) reservation lands begin at the eastern Edge of Glacier National Park. While the Blackfeet sold the eastern half of present-day Glacier to the U.S. in 1895, the enduring association of the tribe with the park (other than for periodic hunting trips) appears to be more a product of legend, imagination and publicity than recorded history.

The Southern Piegan were plains oriented, as C. W. Buchholtz notes in Man in Glacier. In addition to the 1895 land sale, he believes that the association of the Tribe with the park as a whole was based on legends that could have arisen during numerous migrations over the course of time from any mountain range, the Blackfeet place names assigned to park rivers and mountains by James Willard Schultz (Signposts of Adventure), George Bird Grinnell and others, and by the Great Northern Railway’s “Glacier Park Tribe” publicity campaign in the 1930s. (The railway built, and originally managed, the park’s historic hotels up until 1960.)

Present-day programs within the park honor the legends as well as Glacier’s Blackfeet neighbors headquartered at Browning. Since park visitors, especially those at Glacier Park Lodge on U.S. Highway 2, are only a few miles away from Browning, it’s easy to include the Museum of the Plains Indian in vacation plans.

You May Also Like: The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains by John C. Ewers, the Summer 2012 issue of “Montana The Magazine of Western History” (Montana Historical Society) and Place Names in Glacier National Park by Jack Holterman.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two contemporary fantasies partially set in the park, Sarabande and The Sun Singer. He served as an editorial assistant for the publication of the original edition of “Place Names in Glacier National Park.”

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8 responses

  1. I wish I could have lived in that area for awhile during those years. I would like to have seen first-hand what the tribes were like then. As I’ve seen more of them I’ve gathered a lot more respect for the Salish people of the Flathead Reservation.

  2. Yet another reason to absolutely love the U.S. Government. 8-( As you know, I talk about many others in my book, The Storyteller’s Bracelet. Then there’s the Cherokee removal from their Smoky Mountain homelands. We could both go on and on, couldn’t we?

  3. I find your last comment to be particularly moving because that *is* what the government did. After G. A. Custer was sent to dig a well in the Black Hills and found gold, the contract with the Indian nation was ripped apart. Even though Custer had been found guilty of shooting his troops, the government decided he should fight Indians. “Black Elk Speaks'” is an account of Custer’s idiotic attack in what is now called Custer’s Last Battle. He arrived with some of his troops, a photographer and everyone sang ‘Garryowen’ before they were slaughtered. I believe there is a place called Hell and it’s Custer’s permanent residence.