WHEN YOU GAZE UP TO THE TOP OF CHIEF CLIFF, you can almost see, in your mind’s eye, the image of a Blackfoot Warrior gracing the horizon. Head held high, horse hooving the parched summer grass beneath him, he saunters about restlessly on the distant promontory of granite, surveying the shimmering lake and valley below. In the bronze afternoon light, you can see the sweat glisten on the musculature of his body, and perhaps, the occasional glint of an arrowhead; in the smooth summer wind that sweeps up from the lake, the soft, painted mane of his stallion flows loose.
Suddenly, though, the daydream is over. A tractor-trailer loaded with pine-logs rushes past on Highway 93, abruptly jolting you back to the present day.
The landscape remains unchanged, but the distant man has vanished. It is 2017, and the tribe of the Blackfoot Warrior- the noble, fierce nomads that once dominated a vast swath of the continent- has been dead for over a century, castrated by modernity’s onslaught, a faint shadow of it’s storied past.
I realize this fact with a mixture of fury and sad resignation every time I return to Montana. I’m reminded of it every time I find myself in the dusty, poverty-stricken plains of the Blackfoot Reservation, east of Glacier National Park, a forgotten corner of America now plagued with alcoholism and depression. The stark discord between the current sad state of the Blackfeet and their former glory is almost too painful to acknowledge; it is the one facet about Montana never ceases to break my heart.
Cultural amnesia is deeply entrenched in the American psyche; collectively, we have proven incapable of repenting for our past sins and acknowledging completely the full extent of the damage we have wrought on other people. And it feeds into our tradition of imperialism, of oppression; so long as we continue forward in a haze of half-forgetfulness, we will continue to make the same mistakes as we did in the past. A perpetual feedback loop of oppression and forgetfulness; “the struggle of the weak against the powerful,” Milan Kundera once wisely wrote, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
When I began writing this piece, I wanted to write a majestic eulogy, a paean to the lost glory of a vanquished horse culture. But along the way I realized that the Blackfeet, along with hundreds of other tribes squashed by American economic conquest, were but the canaries in the cave of our own self-destruction. Their demise was only the beginning of ours. Because the images of the starved ghosts meandering the pitiful ruins of their preservations in the 1890’s is not just an image of Blackfeet of that time, but an ominous warning of what we Americans would become, of our future self-destruction. So for our sake, I write this essay not just as a eulogy to the Blackfeet. I write it as a wakeup call for ourselves.
Before they were destroyed, the Piegan Blackfeet were a group of roving buffalo hunters who, for several hundred years, ranged the high plains of what’s now Northern Montana and Canada. Though modern anthropological evidence has suggested that humans have inhabited the region for several thousand years, the Blackfeet were known definitively to have existed for at least five centuries, having experienced a Golden Age that began with the Spanish introduction of the horse to the plains in the early 18th century and ended with the invasion of white settlers in the late 19th.
The Blackfoot Golden Age, despite its tragic brevity, was magnificent. They were the epitome of a Northern Plains Tribe: fiercely independent, vicious in battle, callously indifferent to the harsh climate of their homeland. For two hundred years they thundered to the ends of the earth in war parties of painted stallions, searching for enemy tribes or Buffalo. They were a feared tribe, a tribe looked up to in awe; the neighboring Flatheads apprehensively saw them as their greatest mortal threat, and early American fur trappers ventured into the region at their own risk, knowing all too well that foreigners who entered Blackfeet turf were apt to never return home alive.
People mirror the landscape in which they live, and the Blackfeet were no exception: to this day, the plains and mountains that the tribe frequented are harsh, desolate, and yet strangely and evocatively beautiful.
Their homeland, which extended eastwards over the plains several hundred miles from their heart in the Rocky Mountains, has one of the harshest climates of any locale in the lower 48. In the wintertime, swirling Arctic vortexes roar down from the north, the freezing winds flowing unabated over the featureless Canadian plains, the temperature plummeting towards -50 degrees Fahrenheit. Animals are often found dead for no reason, petrified by the freezing air, hapless victims to winter’s icy intolerance. Summers here are perpetually arid, the very air being so dry and dusty that breathing it in seems to make one thirsty. Vegetation is scarce, and except for the occasional gullies where there is shelter from the wind and a source of water, little can survive on the plains save sparse, thin prairie grass.
Most remarkable about the landscape of the Blackfeet, however, is its unrelenting, overwhelming largeness. The home of the tribe is mind-bogglingly vast, almost beyond comprehension. I remember once, while driving through the region on our way to backpack in Glacier, how we played a game in which we pointed out different hills before us and guessed how long it would take to reach them. We pointed out one particularly broad ridgeline in the distance and both estimated it would take five minutes to reach it; twenty minutes of fruitless driving later, and we had barely even reached the hills base.
Yet despite the intolerant brutality of the climate or the mind-boggling vastness of the geography, this region is still inexplicably, beautifully soothing to the eye. One cannot seem to look at it enough. Painters have agonized over it, photographers have sought endlessly to find the right shot within it, and yet none have captured fully the sandblasting grandiosity of it.
You don’t forget easily the first time you see this region with your own eyes. Approaching from the west through the high mountain passes, the sight of the vast, undulating plains is an experience akin to seeing the ocean for the first time. The sheer immensity of open space is overwhelming.
And if you approach from the east, the mountains are visible hours (or if you’re on horseback, days) before you come close to them.
They appear first as low, faint outlines etched against an empty horizon, so distant and hazy that you aren’t even sure they’re there; then, after doggedly nearing them across the swelling grasslands, they slowly materialize into their complete fullness, high, purpled, ice-bound peaks rearing thousands of feet up above the paltry Earth below.
It was in this fateful landscape that the Blackfeet rode, hunted, fished, lived; and it was in this landscape that the Blackfeet would eventually die.
Crucial to understanding the Blackfeet is the fact that they lived and died by a code of honor that valued physical courage above all other characteristics; everything else was trivial and lilliputian in comparison to the glory of bravery in battle.
One story proliferated in the early 1800’s of a particular fur trapper who, surrounded hopelessly by attacking warriors, was spared at the last second by the admiration of one of the chiefs, who was deeply reverent of the mans willingness to fight viciously even in the face of what was a certain death. The man was subsequently granted admittance into the tribe, offered several wives, taught the language; he would later become an uneasy diplomat between the hunters and the natives in the early stages of their doomed intermingling.
Needless to say, bravery was enough to save an enemy from the tribe, for bravery to them the culmination of all that was good in man. It was natural that it would be so valued in their culture, considering the benefits reaped for their survival in such a harsh world.
Like any other horse tribe, the movements of the Buffalo dictated the lives of the Blackfeet. The snorting, fur-heavy beasts had, before their near-extinction decades later, populated the Great Plains in numbers nearing the hundreds of millions, in herds so extensively vast that the Earth was said to have grown black with them. The Blackfeet depended on these animals as their main source of food and shelter and, more revealingly, as their spiritual icons; all survival revolved around this single, hooved beast.
In the early days before the horse, when the tribe was suspected to be far smaller than the massive later culture encountered by the first Americans, they made do hunting the Buffalo by approaching them slowly on foot, disguising themselves in the skin of a dead fox or deer so as to sneak up within arrow range.
They often employed a tactic that involved deliberately scaring the animals near a cliff or high promontory, directing them towards the edge in a stampede that would send them plummeting towards their deaths. These sites are today easily recognizable by the skeletal remains found in high numbers at their bases, and are known commonly as “Buffalo Jumps.”
But the introduction of the horse, which had inadvertently trickled northwards after escaping Spaniard hands in south Texas and Mexico, would completely revolutionize the way they hunted Buffalo- indeed, the entire way they lived.
Now they could give chase to the animals at high speeds, picking them off from
the herds with arrows and spears even as they thundered off in attempted escapes. And not only this, but with the horse they could now travel hundreds of miles in a single day, increasing their influence and allowing them to fight and trade with a larger array of tribes. With the horse, the feeble, ragged hominid who wandered the plains became suddenly powerful- man and horse would prove to be a deadly effective combination, for both warfare and hunting. The Blackfeet could not have been who they were, or would likely not have amounted to much of anything, were it not for the accidental introduction of the horse.
Coming of age for boys within the tribe meant, upon reaching an ordained age, to go wandering off alone in to the wilderness to discover what was known as their Vision. This would come to them in a supernatural trance, and would divulge to them their life’s ultimate purpose and meaning, their grand mission for their time on Earth, and perhaps a forewarning of what would befall the tribe in the future.
Such a trance was induced by severe exercises of self-inflicted starvation and dehydration, and to experience their vision often required journeying to distant places of spiritual significance. One such place was the mountain Nínaiistáko.
Nínaiistáko still towers, today, as it has for the past million years or so, at the northeastern corner of Glacier National Park, a few miles south of the Canadian border. Today, this particularly tall peak is named “Chief Mountain.” Two hundred years ago, it was dubbed “Tower Peak” by Meriwether Lewis, who viewed it from far to the south, and “King’s peak” by French explorers, who viewed it from the north. But names mean little compared to a mountains’ implacability; today, despite its historical name-changes, the mountain still stands in seemingly unchanging glory.
It is a remarkably large mountain, a huge, flat slab of granite jutting up from the plains like an ungodly massive barn door. A broad swell of steeply rising land draws up 5,000 feet to its base, which then gives way to a 1,500-foot wall of sheer, vertical rock. It stands distinctly apart from the other mountains, like a lonesome, ice-bound ship cast out upon a heaving sea of grass.
It was here at this mountain that the Piegan Blackfeet believed the creation of the world began. To climb it would have provided the most potent of visions for those few warriors brave enough to scramble up its frighteningly high walls. Evidenced by the uncanny presence of Buffalo and Elk skulls at the top of the peak, where it normally would have been impossible for such animals to climb, the presence of such vision-seeking youths, however rarely they came through, is hard to deny.
It must have been an incredible view at the top of such a peak; even today, climbers who reach the summit reportedly can see for over a hundred miles in any direction. Spiritual gratification had to have come for the courageous warriors who ambled their way to the top.
If a young Blackfoot, in the drunkenness of his trance, had foreseen accurately the tragic history that would befall the tribe in the 1800’s, he would have first seen the skirmishes, the first small bouts of warfare that would break out between the whites and the natives. He would’ve then seen the first buffalo hunters, invading the Plains like insects, slaughtering the herds of buffalo with modernized guns and subsequently leaving them to rot in the sun, having taking little more than their tongues or furs. He would’ve seen an increasing presence of U.S. troops patrolling the region, and then, in 1870, a contingent of such troops massacring two hundred innocent natives on the Marias River on a freezing day in 1870. He would have seen the hopelessly rigged negotiations between the technologically superior American government and the outgunned, outmanned Blackfeet, who were now, thanks to the rapid die-offs of buffalo, suffering massive periods of starvation. After all this, he would have seen the sad resignation of the tribe to the small, geometric reservation the government had forcibly allotted them, and after that, the sending of Blackfeet children to eastern prep schools, deliberately stripping them of their culture, identity, memory; they would have seen the inefficient practices of farming forced on the marooned horse culture, and, following the turn of the century, the lampooning of the tribe in Hollywood films as yelping, hollering, brain-dead savages. They would have seen the infiltration of alcohol, and later, drugs, onto the reservation, and the creeping fingers of poverty that to this day permeate their communities. He must have seen the dream that was vanquished, the dream of a culture that ultimately died. If he made it down the mountain alive, and made it back to his tribe, the gulf between his then current reality and his ominous vision of the future must have been astonishing.
This, then, is the culture that we have destroyed. To this day we have not fully recognized that on our hands lies the blood of a civilization that we mowed down- the U.S. government has yet to have issued an apology towards the beleaguered natives, despite over a century of time separating us from the Indian Wars.
As I said earlier, I’m filled with a pang of sadness every time I go through the Indian Reservations, the same regretful question always filling my heart: how many other Blackfeet’s in history- to use the metaphor- have we quashed in the name of economic and physical expansion? How many other cultures have we destroyed, how many people have we killed, simply because they were in the way, because their land had economic or spatial value that outweighed their existence in the eyes of the powerful? How much blood has been spilled at the expense of our greed? A question that has always haunted me, that I will never be able to answer; yet a question that we all inevitably have to ask ourselves.
You can look to the top of Chief Cliff, and try to imagine the Blackfoot Warrior gracing the high rocks, looking over the waters of Flathead Lake below. You can try as much as you want, but ultimately, it is to no avail. The old glory of the roving tribe has now been lost to history’s pages, and the warrior- noble, fierce, independent- is gone forever.