Hall Creek Oil and Gas Exploration:
Impacting the Sacred Badger-Two Medicine Wildlands
As we stood milling about the Hall Creek site, Curly Bear began curiously poking around what appeared to be a pile of weather-shorn wood. Noticing his interest in these sticks, I asked him: “What you got there Bear?”
“There is something familiar in the pattern of these poles, notice how they are fanned out like a tipi.”
Sure enough I could see the tipi pattern crumpled on its side, “so what do you make of it?”
“You know our scouts used to come up here to keep an eye out for those Kootenais. Make sure they did not steal our horses.”
“That was long ago,” I suggested.
“Yes, but this wood weathered well under the snow here in these mountains. I’m thinking it might be the remains of a war lodge, used to keep watch against their crossing into our lands.”
An Anthro was edging closer while pretending not to be listening to our conversation. Earlier she had told us there was nothing significant to this site, but she had remained nearby while we looked for clues of traditional use of the place. Within the Badger-Two Medicine wildlands, the Pikuni-Blackfeet maintained the entire province was sacred and held to be inviolate in their oral traditions. There were many legends to support their claims but the Forest Service acting under pressure from the Reagan administration had leased the site in the early eighties for oil and gas exploration. Thirteen exploratory wells were planned for the Badger-Two Medicine wildlands sacred to the Pikuni-Blackfeet. My research had laid a framework of affirmation to their traditional claim upon these wildlands. Mythic narratives enveloped the entire region giving it the character of a sacred place associated with mysterious power affirmed by the spirits or Nature Persons. It was something I had tried to explain to the Anthro but she just could not grasp the meaning of myth and its power to affirm place and tradition. She was hung up on the literalism of a rational world bereft of spirits and mythic encounters with the sacred.
When Curly Bear later suggested the pile of sticks might be a war lodge, the Anthro flew into a rage. “War lodge,” she cried, “you’ve got to be kidding me. Anything from those times is long gone rotten and pushing up grass today.”
The Anthro’s words echoed in the little canyon, but like the spring lilies growing nearby she did not seem to hear her words in the air about us. The creek murmured quietly about us while the Anthro’s echo subsided. If only she had learned to listen to the solitude, I thought to myself.
We were back in Browning giving a report to Buster and some of the old elders. “You can’t tell them anything. They will not listen to anything we have to say. They live in books as if all of our traditions are long gone and reduced to print on a page in the whiteman’s words,” offered Curly Bear.
“What did you see there,” inquired Buster.
“There was a pile of poles and wood that looked like a fallen tipi turned on its side.”
“A war lodge,” shot Buster, “that’s how they look when they have broken down over time.”
“She wouldn’t listen,” I explained, “a war lodge for her is something the Plains Indians used long ago, an artifact of the past described by John Ewers.”
“There’s no war lodges today,” she had said and her words echoed in my ears, “the Blackfeet gave that up long ago.”
“Doesn’t she suppose that we still know something of the old ways?” offered Buster.
“Its all history to her — buried in the past like the artifacts of time she covets.”
We had come to interview the old woman, she was over one hundred years and no one really knew how old she was. Molly her “granddaughter” was leading the inquiry but we all knew this testament extended to the buffalo days when the black hooves roamed freely on the northwestern plains.
“Grandmother, can you tell us about the stories from the Two Medicine?”
“That place up there is home to Grass Woman. It’s the story of our Okan (Sun Dance) medicine,” she replied.
“Grandmother do you mean, the story of Grass Woman (Soatsaki) encompasses the entire region?”
“Yes! It is a holy place — all of it. In the Two Medicine, we held Sun Dances when the short coats forbade our medicines but it was older still.”
“Can you tell us about the Chief Woman?”
“The Old Woman’s pishkun (buffalo jump) is up there — just below Mt. Henry. It’s where N’api (the Old Man) teased Kipataki (the Old Woman). You can see her image looking out over the place up at the Park. It is the story that brought men and women together.”
She spoke of many things that afternoon but these remarks affirm the mythic significance of the Hall Creek site. Referring to the story of Soatsaki (Feather Woman) who had married the Morning Star in the long ago time and given birth to Star Boy who became Poia (Scarface or Blueface), the old lady’s life had mirrored the mythic tradition as her descendants continued the old ways among the traditional Pikuni-Blackfeet. In that long ago time, Star Boy / Poia journeyed to the Sun’s Lodge and returned with the rites sacred to the Okan (Sun Dance) that honors Natos (Sun) each year in the traditional Pikuni-Blackfeet ritual life. The very essence of this ritual is affirmed in the origins of “Two Medicine Lodges River” that includes Hall Creek.
In the second case, her mention of Kipataki (Old Woman / Moon) affirmed a direct linkage to the time of origins when men and women began to live together. This affirmation marks Hall Creek as a sacred place essential to Pikuni-Blackfeet tradition just as the Holy Land where Jesus walked is to Christianity.
Born of vision and dream, myth serves to empower place; it records the deeds and actions of the spirits or nature persons in their origins. In this way myth is metaphoric and grounded in an organic referent characteristic of an ecology of place. To comprehend myth, one must study the folk motifs that reveal life ways, mores, morals and ethics as well as identify and discern the arresting mythic metaphors or mythologems as affirmed in nature. Hence, myth reveals organic power — not so much as in a scientific rationalism but as a mystical insight into nature-based relationships. In this way, myth serves as sacred narrative empowering place as a sacred geography. It is mnemonic of creation and ongoing ecological process in an eternal interaction of wildness. Myths divulge this essential wildness through mystical insights into nature. In this context, myth is not a lie but the greatest truth we may ever know.
Traditionally Native peoples have sought mythic insights though vision and dream quest activities where nature is unimpaired and most potent in its wildness; anywhere else is lacking and unsuitable in revealing these eternal verities. When myth is recovered through a myriad of dream / vision sequences identifiable as mythologems, mystical insights into the very essence of creation are revealed. To these insights, a primary oral tradition emerges when they are enjoined within the folk motifs of culture. Woven into these sacred stories there are mores, morals and ethics that serve to remind a people of the good – as in morality. Reflected through the sacred geography of place, myths serve to moralize the landscape and generate a mnemonic moral association with place. Hence within an oral tradition, the secrets of creation and a people’s morality are ensconced in a sacred geography essential to the culture’s perpetuity. When such places are violated and disturbed with ecological interdiction and alteration, the people’s culture is radically altered and its inevitable demise is insured. Among the traditional Pikuni-Blackfeet, the Badger-Two Medicine wildlands is exactly such a place; this landscape is steeped in the mythic lore and moral meaning central to the Pikuni-Blackfeet cosmogony. Without the essential wildness of this sacred place, the traditional Pikuni-Blackfeet spirituality and religion are doomed with an eminent demise.
In my earlier work, I have articulated the scholarly dimensions of these claims as a means of affirming traditional Pikuni-Blackfeet spirituality and religion. As previously noted, the Reagan administration leased the sacred wildlands for oil and gas exploration in the eighties. Despite Pikuni-Blackfeet treaty rights that surely include a spiritual usufructuary right in gathering mystical power from the sacred landscape, thirteen devastating oil and gas wells were authorized by virtue of these leases. Conservationists joined Pikuni-Blackfeet traditionalists to oppose this desecration of the sacred Badger-Two Medicine wildlands. Working together they appealed the Lewis and Clark National Forest Plan. My earlier work was central to this appeal, which resulted in a hiatus of development activities pursuant to the oil and gas leases. During the Clinton administration, twelve of these leases were swapped out for oil and gas rights in the Gulf of Mexico. A traditional cultural district affirming Pikuni-Blackfeet sacred geography was identified and implemented for much of the area. However, the northern most district, known as the Two Medicine, was omitted from this plan despite sharing a rich cultural spirituality and religious significance to the Pikuni-Blackfeet. Significantly, the thirteenth lease held by a Louisiana oilman is within this area on a site known as Hall Creek. Despite his roots as a Cajun oilman, this lessee refused an alternative Gulf lease and he is today in court seeking legal action to force the activation of his exploratory lease at Hall Creek.
In response to this looming threat to traditional Pikuni-Blackfeet sacred geography, I offer this paper as a means of sharing some of the insights that I learned from the Pikuni-Blackfeet traditionalists during the eighties and nineties when I sought to document the religious significance of the Badger-Two Medicine wildlands. The focus herein is given to the Two Medicine district with specific attention to Hall Creek as an integral part of Pikuni-Blackfeet sacred geography. On my honor as an eminent scholar of Native American and particularly Pikuni-Blackfeet religious traditions, I affirm the authenticity of these accounts as presented herein and it is my sober recommendation that no disturbance be permitted to these wildlands and their intrinsic worth as Pikuni-Blackfeet sacred geography.
Some years later when trying to get a firmer grasp upon the old lady’s comments, Bob and I were visiting George and Molly Kicking Woman. “Kicking Woman,” it was an odd surname for such a kindly couple, which had once prompted George to explain to me that it was a Napikwan (white man) truncated translation of the original expression that described the Old Woman (Moon) — Kipataki — as she throws her leg out or over. Embedded within the notion, there is a referent to the phases of the moon as they parallel the menstrual cycle. It no doubt reflected creation and the very place threatened with the destructive oil and gas exploration plan. It was with this spirit of understanding that we approached the old couple — keepers of the Long Time Pipe, the most ancient of the Thunder Pipe bundles.
As we exchanged greetings, old George acknowledged our activism on behalf of the traditional Pikuni-Blackfeet and the Badger-Two Medicine wildlands. “You boys are giving us a lift with this,” declared the old man as he assured us of his deepest gratitude. We in turn explained the threat to Hall Creek as it stood outside of the reluctant appeasement – traditional culture area — that the Forest Service applied to the Badger region. It appeared the Two Medicine area, specifically Hall Creek, was to be sacrificed at the altar of a ravenous short-sighted energy consumption. Despite the Pikuni-Blackfeet sacred narratives encompassing the area, the avarice of the leasee stood out as gluttonous as any “mythic” monster seeking to destroy the people – both human and other-than-human. In response, we were bent on calling upon the echoes of the monster slayer — Kutoyist (Blood Clot Boy) — to stave off this new demon. Our only tools being the stories and oral traditions of the elders as they affirmed the traditional sacred geography and Pikuni-Blackfeet moral right to the land that is the Badger-Two Medicine wildlands.
Old George had acknowledged our quest with his kindly remarks and he proceeded to share more of his wisdom with us during that cold December evening. He and Molly had just returned from a “Sing” or “Big Smoke” ceremony held during the previous night and I am sure they were both anxious to get some sleep but they generously gave their time to us.
At first, George explained the origin of the Two Medicine River saying: “Its name is linked to the long ago times.” He was affirming its mythic origins within the Okan (Sun Dance) tradition and he continued: “When I was a boy, our people were forced to move the Okan from the prairie into the mountains so as to escape the prying eyes of the ‘Short Coats’ [Methodist Minister / Agent] who had forbidden our traditions.” His remarks gave reference to the damaging influences of US Grant’s “peace policy” when the Christian sects, in this case Methodists, were given plenary authority over tribal nations in a blatant denial of indigenous religious liberty.
Old George continued: “Two medicine lodges (Okans) were erected in the mountains, one at the head of each fork of the river” — hence Two Medicine Lodges River. Images of the one in the Park are found in the Glacier archives and it has long been associated with old man Yellow Kidney who starred along side the child prodigy Shirley Temple in the thirties epic — Susannah of the Mounties. A perniciously vague claim had surfaced among the Anthros that this Sun Dance had been staged for the movie, so I inquired: “Grandfather some people say that the Sun Dance in the Park was posed solely for the movie.”
“No, it was real,” responded the old man. “Both Sun Dances were real, I recall riding in the wagons hauling our goods into both of them. Those lodges represent something about that place older than I can remember.” With this emphatic reply, he assured us that each fork was sacred to the Sun long before his time. Indeed, it was part of the oral tradition as it echoed from the earliest times.
“There is another story,” he added. “Some people, the Seven Persons, were coming from the north. They were walking the backbone [Continental Divide] south. Along the way, they would stop and shout. They did it four times and on the fourth time they came to the Two Medicine. They stopped there, turned and shouted out above the Badger Canyon. They carried a pipe with them and we still use it today.”
It was the story of the sacred tobacco planting ceremony as given to the Pikuni-Blackfeet in the long ago time. Earlier I had been told, the pipe keepers conduct a tobacco planting ritual in the mountains — in the spring it is planted in the gullies and they return in the fall to harvest it. Old George was affirming this ancient mythic protocol telling us they used the Two Medicine to recreate this annual tobacco planting/harvest ritual. Without the integrity of the place, they would be reduced to a “smokeless” pipe ritual; hence, the Badger-Two Medicine including Hall Creek is essential to the sacred pipe rituals and there is no replacing this land as sanctified in the mythic association with the Seven Persons (Ursa Major).
Referencing the collection of plants and minerals, Molly was saying: “We go there to gather our medicines.”
“Grandmother,” I responded,” are these activities specific to Hall Creek?”
“Yes,” she replied, “it is like when Grass Woman (Soatsaki) gathered the sacred turnips, we scattered about the area and take only a little of what we find.” Here Molly was referencing the story of Feather Woman gathering turnips in the sky world where she was instructed by the Old Woman / Moon (Kipataki) not to disturb a great turnip, which mythically symbolized the seed turnip essential to regeneration of the species. In the oral tradition, moreover, this metaphoric expression constitutes a conservation ethic whereby you never harvest all of the turnips within a given locale so that there will be more. Hence Molly was affirming the entire region as sacred in usufructuary activities as central to Pikuni-Blackfeet ritual life. She had also mentioned specific minerals used to make paint that were found in the area and essential to the people’s ritual practices.
In our quest to learn more about the spirituality engaged in the Two Medicine, Bob and I thought to visit Floyd Ryder who lived up near the Park. He was a ceremonial drummer for George’s pipe openings. While I did not know him well, someone had pointed out his home to me. Upon our arrival, Floyd kindly acknowledged me telling Bob: “I don’t know you but I have seen him [pointing to me] at the pipe openings.” We explained to him the need to affirm the Two Medicine in the face of the oil and gas threat and he proceeded to open up to us. In the process, he told us an account of his personal history with the area explaining a heart attack and his recovery through traditional medicine. “The doctors told me I needed open heart surgery if I was to live. They asked me when I was going to come in and schedule the procedure. Well, I wanted a second opinion.” Afterwards he revealed how he had gone out into the Two Medicine country to fast. During his fast his vision directed him to an herb — rat root — that he gathered and began to use. “I been using that root and going out to fast there for the past seventeen years and I am still alive.”
Pointing out the nearby Mount Henry, Floyd affirmed the pishkun (buffalo jump) where the chief woman watched over the place of mating that is the Two Medicine Valley. “These places are sacred to us. They give us life.”
As we thanked him for so kindly sharing his wisdom with us, I was reminded of another vision quest in the area. Earlier, a young elder told me in confidence of his interest in the suyitapi — underwater people — who inhabited the Two Medicine drainage. He described a place that matched the Hall Creek site. Telling me he was a member of the Horns Society – the traditional governing body of the Blackfoot Confederacy, he had earlier reminded me of the Brave Dogs — warrior society — traditional use of war lodges. Sometime afterwards I learned he had become a keeper of a Beaver Medicine bundle and thereby realized his interest in the water persons. The connection with Curly Bear’s find fairly well knocked me over as I realized the Hall Creek site was the place of his empowering vision. Hence the contemporary Pikuni-Blackfeet were using this very site for their continued devotion to their medicine / spirit powers.
Acknowledging these traditional religious practices, we should affirm that the Two Medicine is home to many species sacred to the Pikuni-Blackfeet. In my earlier work, I have averred to document the wolf and grizzly bear among these sacred nature persons and found within the Badger-Two Medicine wildlands. That these sacred species are rare and endangered, gives cause for concern and alarm among the traditionalists who seek to keep a moral reciprocity in effect with these spirits who require this untrammeled place.
When the Pikuni-Blackfeet go to the Badger-Two Medicine to gather power as in the vision-dream quest, they are practicing a spiritual usufructuary right upon these wildlands. It is only in such an untrammeled place that such spiritual right can be acquired, hence the place is sacred and its protection is obliged by tradition affirmed as religion.
In addition these Two Medicine headwaters serve the Blackfeet Reservation and, indeed, the nation. They are a reservoir of pure water essential to the life of the Pikuni-Blackfeet people reserved under the Winters Doctrine of tribal water rights. Yet there has been little or no discussion of the devastating impact of oil and gas activity upon these reserved water rights. Many of the traditional Pikuni-Blackfeet religious activities, including particularly the Beaver Medicine, involve these waters. When in 1964 a devastating flood struck the Reservation on Badger Creek, there was much reflection from the old elders concerning neglect of the Beaver Medicine and its role in the catastrophe. The same concern remains among Pikuni-Blackfeet traditionalists as they contemplate the effects of oil and gas exploration upon these sacred Two Medicine wildlands.
Old George reminded us of another activity that long ago night associated with the Okan — Sun Dance — and other ritual life ways. “When I was a boy, we took stones and made eagle traps. We stacked stones up like a cone with an opening at the top. It would let the eagles get into it but they could not spread out their wings to take flight. While hiding in the brush, we would bait these traps with meat to attract the eagles. You had to be real fast; you and I could not do it today. When an eagle entered one of the traps, one of us would run over and pull some of the feathers from them [here he gestured how it was done] and throw the bird into the sky to take flight. We did not kill eagles.”
As I listened to him, I was reminded of the Pikuni-Blackfeet expression: “The eagle is the Sun’s own bird,” which I had commonly heard while living among the people. It is an acknowledgment that we must see the world as the eagle sees it; a perspective born of holism as opposed to the reductionist piecemeal approach of Western thought. As a site, Hall Creek was being positioned as an interchangeable block in the piecemeal cosmogony of exploitation whereas the Pikuni-Blackfeet view held the entire Badger-Two Medicine as an integral whole with every part inter-connected and indivisible within the whole.
The relationship with sacred geography is reciprocal, hence the traditional Pikuni-Blackfeet are obliged to respect the spirits / nature persons living within these wildlands. To this extent medicine bundles serve as mnemonic amplifiers of this place with attention given to ritual “sings” or all night pipe smoking ceremonies featuring species specific revivification songs affirming that obligation; hence fulfilling a moral reciprocity incumbent upon the people as members of the sacred community. These rituals are entwined with sacred narratives or myths that affirm the nature persons and incumbent sacred geography. In effect attending these rituals and mythic narratives, the Pikuni-Blackfeet are affirming their moral commitment to the world about us as it is manifest within their sacred space — the Badger-Two Medicine wildlands. As a people, they remain a moral society via this religious devotion to this sacred geography; without these untrammeled wildlands, all those values are lost and given over to a hyperreality without organic referent.
Enrolled member Monacan Indian Nation
Direct descendent Opechanchanough (Pamunkey)
Honorary Pikuni (Blackfeet) in Ceremonial Adoption (June 1989)
Professor of American Indian Studies
University of North Carolina at Pembroke
One University Drive (P. O. Box 1510)
Pembroke, NC 28372-1510 USA