Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation

By JACK McNEEL

The Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana, just east of Glacier National Park, is the 13th largest reservation in the U.S. at about 1.5 million acres. Roughly 85 percent of the residents are Native Americans.

Archaeological discoveries in the St. Mary River drainage date their presence back over 13,000 years. Historically, their land area was much larger and even included what is now Glacier National Park. The Canadian line forms the northern border.

And yes, they are Blackfeet, not Blackfoot.

They are part of the Blackfoot confederacy, located largely in Canada, but are the southernmost of the four bands.

Jack Gladstone described it very simply, saying “all Blackfeet are Blackfoot, but not all Blackfoot are Blackfeet.”

Gladstone, a tribal member, musician, and historian, is often referred to as “Montana’s Troubadour.” If you visit a campsite in Glacier, he may be providing the entertainment through history and song.

Tribal headquarters are located in Browning. The town has changed considerably in recent years. It doesn’t rival towns like Great Falls or Missoula, but the update of Glacier Peaks Hotel and the adjoining casino provide a decent place to stay and play, and it’s only 20 miles to Glacier.

A variety of other lodging sites are also available in Browning and East Glacier, but it’s still advisable to book a room well in advance.

Visitors at Glacier Peak have a very short walk to the Museum of the Plains Indian, a good place to update your knowledge of native history.

A modern hospital sits on the north edge of town, and Blackfeet Community College is located in the southeast part of town. Even the college is changing with hopes and plans to offer four-year college degrees in 2020.

If you should want a more unique lodging opportunity, the Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Village is only a couple of miles west of Browning, where you can spend a night in a tipi.

Darrel Norman has operated this facility, along with the adjacent art gallery, for 25 years. The tipis are comfortable, with fireplaces in the center. Combined with the gallery, they provide an excellent introduction to Blackfeet life and history.

It’s a great place to take kids, or grandkids, for a unique educational experience.

Two tours are available and highly recommended if your time permits. Sun Bus Tour takes visitors on the Going to the Sun Highway through Glacier National Park. Ed DesRosier, a tribal member, owns the business, now in its 26th year.

Glacier became a National Park in 1910 but was homeland for the Blackfeet people for centuries before. They refer to it as “the backbone of the world.”

Sun Bus Tour is a great way to see Glacier while hearing tribal history, a slightly different version than one gets with other tours. The coaches are air conditioned, seat 25 passengers, and run as early as May 15 through as late as October 15, depending on the weather conditions. The Sun Highway will no doubt be closed by snow until late June or July.

DesRosier said they now offer private catered trips even when the Sun Highway is closed. For that purpose, they’ve added a high-end limo coach for those who desire such accommodations.

The other tour is a self-driving tour to the south and east of Browning. The tribe has erected 15 attractive wooden signs along this tour, which covers about 70 miles. These signs tell of events that happened near these sites over many decades, some going back prior to the arrival of trappers and settlers.

The tour begins just south of town on the road toward Heart Butte and winds through beautiful country with mountains forming a backdrop to pasture and rangeland with scattered herds of cattle and horses.

A lot of history is associated with Blackfeet territory, both before and after the arrival of people with European ancestry. Two young Blackfeet teenagers were killed here by the Lewis and Clark Expedition when they suspected the boys were stealing horses. They were the only natives killed anywhere by that expedition. Camp Disappointment is also located here, the northernmost point reached by that same expedition.

The Old North Trail passed through here along the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains. That trail ran from the Yukon to the Mexican border and was used for 10,000 years by indigenous people.

Information signs also highlight more recent events, such as the introduction of the Catholic religion in 1889 and the beautiful church still in use, the Fort Shaw-Fort MacLeod Road, which opened in 1874, and numerous others.

Buffalo were extremely important for centuries, and this driving tour leads past cliffs used as buffalo jumps, where buffalo were lured or driven over the cliffs and killed.

Buffalo were the main food staple for the Blackfeet, who also depended heavily on buffalo for other uses. They used hides for tipis, clothing, parfleches and moccasins, but even the bones had various uses as well.

The area had been outstanding buffalo range until about the mid-1800s, with perhaps the highest density of buffalo anywhere, but millions of the animals were nearly exterminated. The tribe now maintains a buffalo (bison) ranch a short distance west of town along Highway 2.

Plan the better part of the day to travel this tour route, and consider taking a snack and water. The road is mostly paved and in good shape. Traffic is low, but you won’t find many opportunities to buy lunch.

North American Indian Days is a big, annual event, which will be held July 12-15 this summer. This is a huge gathering, not only for the Blackfoot Confederacy but for many other tribes as well.

It’s an outdoor event right in Browning, and many, tipis will be set up adjoining the dance pavilion. Everyone is invited, and there’s no fee to come and observe.

The only advice is to show respect and essentially do as others are doing in terms of standing and clapping. Photos are generally allowed with an occasional exception where visitors will be so notified. A small fee is required if you plan to take photos.

Dancers will be wearing traditional tribal regalia for age-old tribal music. Visitors may also want to watch the stick games competition, a form of gambling that goes back before recorded times.

An all-Indian rodeo takes place, as well a relay horse racing.

The relay entails riders jumping on a horse, bareback, for a trip around the arena, then leaping off at nearly full speed onto a second horse held by a teammate. Then they circle the field again, repeating the cycle two more times.

Awaiting horses tend to be jumpy, and the transfer can be pretty wild and one of the most exciting sports to watch.

I had a non-Indian bronc rider tell me it was the only event he would climb up on the fence to watch. It should be on your bucket list of things to do in Browning. MSN

Jack McNeel was born and raised in Idaho. His working career was spent with Idaho Fish and Game Department but after retirement he launched a career as a free lance writer and photographer for many publications, primarily about Native American subjects, hunting, fishing, and travel. He now lives in
Hayden, Idaho.

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