Remembering the Sweet Grass Hills

by Jay Hansford C. Vest

The landscape will teach you who you are.
–Joe Crowshoe, Pikuni Elder

Big Bear had come south together with the Riel refugees escaping the Canadian displacement of his people. It was a new place but his forebears were familiar with the region inhabited by their implacable enemies – the Blackfeet. In the camp light he told of a time when the Cree fought the Blackfeet at Lethbridge Coulee. It was a story filled with fear and loathing for his enemies but the telling was instructive as an act of respect for the Blackfeet and their lands. “If we are to live here, we must make our medicine good. I will go to the Sweet Grass Hills and seek the blessings of the spirits.” In this manner Big Bear, a Cree Chief, announced his intention to go and fast in the sacred hills as a prelude to living in Montana.

Legend held there was a cave in the landscape of the east butte of the hills and it was said this place held medicine. Sequestered in the cave, Big Bear’s only means of telling night and day was a shaft of daylight. He reasoned on the fourth appearance of the shaft of light that it was time to exit the cave and return home with his new medicine. The people dearly needed this medicine if they were to live peaceably with the Blackfeet in Montana. His vision at the east butte gave them something of an origin myth essential to their new tribal domain.

It was not something the Blackfeet wanted to hear or accept but they did take some of the Cree in to reside on their reservation at Babb while others gravitated to the cities – Great Falls, Helena and Butte – to survive on the white man’s leavings. After the story of Big Bear was told, Buster countered angrily declaring the Sweet Grass Hills were given to the Blackfeet people by the Old Man – N’api, the trickster-creator in the long ago time and that this domain was surely within the real Old Man Country. “Them Crees are trespassers. My old grandfather – old man Yellow Kidney – and his brother – Red Plume – got their medicine from those hills,” he continued. “Long ago, the great Blackfeet Chief Many Horses camped at the buttes and nearly wiped the Gros Ventres and Crees out when they attack our Blackfeet people. They thought they was only attacking one band of Blackfeet but the whole confederacy of Blood and Blackfoot from across the line were camped there together with the Pikuni (Blackfeet). The Cree and Gros Ventres did not know they had bitten off more than they could chew. Many Horses led the whole Blackfeet Confederacy against them,” so countered Buster. “My old grandfather told me that those hills belonged to our Blackfeet people. He reminded me of the story of Poia (Scarface) who went there to the east butte to fast and get the medicine for the Okan (Sun Dance).” Ending with that note of finality he looked the Cree visitors back to Rocky Boys.

The Crees had come not to challenge the Blackfeet on their relationship with the Sweet Grass Hills but to solicit the Pikuni help in the protection of this sacred geography important to both tribes. With the challenge passed, a more cordial atmosphere emerged inside Buster’s lodge and everyone Crees included were made welcome. We were gathered in a traditional encampment just below the mountain bearing the name of Buster’s old uncle – Red Plume. The Sun Dance had concluded the week before and camped here at the heart of Real Old Man Country we felt secure with the spirits.

After the exchange of origin tales, the tension began to lessen when the tribal lawyer who had accompanied Curly Bear and the Crees to Buster’s camp began to explain the imminent threat to the sacred hills. “There’s gold in them hills,” she began. “Its on Bureau of Land Management public lands and the miners have applied to blast it out with hydraulic mining procedures. They intend to blow the mountain apart with water and arsenic to leach out the gold. It will wear the butte down to nothing and the process will poison the land and everything down stream for miles and years to come. I expect if they get their way the east butte will look the hills around Zortman south of Fort Belknap where this technology has been previously used.” It was a shuddering thought and one, which the old elders could understand because they had heard of the damage from the Gros Ventres and seen it first hand when visiting the place. With that thought all residual differences between the Cree and Blackfeet appeared to pause and dissipate.

Curly Bear turned to me saying, “Tell them what you know.”

Speaking up, I replied “From what I know there is not much the BLM can do. The patent’s governed by the 1872 Mining Act, which gives the miners exclusive rights and carte blanche to get the gold. It’s an antiquated law. Our best chance is to use the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in conjunction with the Endangered Species Act but unless we can find an endangered species there is no teeth to protect the land.”

“What about Lame Bull’s Treaty,” asked Buster?

“It’s a great idea, one I have been thinking about for some time – ever since the Lyng decision. That treaty defined the Blackfeet domain, it took nothing away from the Blackfeet but with Lame Bull’s signature and those of the other Blackfoot tribes of the north, the confederacy went from sovereign to domestic dependent nation under the treaty laws of the USA.”

“What do you mean?”

“It is their interpretation of treaty law by virtue of the ‘Discovery Doctrine’ that they asserted so as to conquer the Americas in the first place.”

There was growing unease in the lodge and I felt like the bearer of bad tidings about to be lynched or worse. Still I proceeded on with my theory saying, “It is my thesis that unless the treaty specifically excludes tribal traditions associated with land – what anthropologists call usufructuary rights including customs associated with cultural land tenure – then those rights remain reserved to the tribe so long as the lands remain in the public domain. In other words the public lands within the bounds of Lame Bull’s treaty are burdened with a cultural property interest reserved to the Blackfeet Nation.” Although subsequent treaties devolving into the present day reservation had reduced the Blackfeet domain, the US government had never used a specific acquisition to diminish these usufructuary rights inherent to the original treaty of 1854 – Lame Bull’s Treaty.

“In my judgment,” I continued, “these cultural rights proceed from the original treaty – Lame Bull’s Treaty – and they preempt the 1872 Mining Act patent of the miners so long as those lands are held within the public domain.” It may have been a bit much for everyone to comprehend but the lawyer was wide eyed and nodding with agreement. It was a working theory that I was trying to develop as a means of overcoming the Lyng decision wherein Sandra Day O’Conner writing for the Supreme Court majority decreed, “You cannot tell the government what to do with its lands.” With this caveat she was denying another Native American religious freedom claim as pursued by the Yurok, Karuk and Tolowa tribes of northern California against the Six Rivers National Forest plan to develop a sacred geography. It was the only chance I could see to top the mining and destruction of the sacred hills.

Even the rancher who leased the surface grazing rights was opposed to the mining and his neighbors down stream also feared the arsenic laced runoff that threatened their lands. But they were powerless in the face of the 1872 Mining Act. Other than my theory, our only chance lay with invoking the Endangered Species Act as a meaning of halting this dreadful project.

Buster decided we needed to go to the mountain and hold a sweat lodge ceremony as a means of affirming its sense of place in Blackfeet tradition. There was a narrow bench near the summit that the trail crossed and which could not be avoided by a vehicle. It was here that Buster directed us to erect the sweat lodge. Some of the BLMers came out to join us in the sweat so that it made for an interesting spectacle to watch their reaction to the heat and steamy vapors in ritual purification but they endured and all past the muster of Buster’s medicine. Afterwards we arranged a date in April to return and discuss the development together on the site.

It was a beautiful spring day – Earth Day (April 22, 1988) – when we returned to the site. We had gathered at the college in Browning and left before dawn. Curly Bear was our guide while Buster accompanied by old man Swims Under, the beaver medicine man – drove his own rig. As the morning light began to illuminate the landscape the buttes took form from the darkness. Metaphorically it was as if they were created out of the dawn light. Something of a symbol of the Pikuni way of life, we could make out the west butte looking like a resting buffalo chewing it cud. Beyond it, there was the distinctive cone shaped middle butte, which nineteenth century artist George Catlin had painted with scenes of Blackfeet hunters amid the buffalo herds. Bathed in the morning light, our destination, the east butte stood prominent on the horizon where the plains stretch away in the distant sunlight.

Upon reaching the northwest trailhead, we found old man Shades and his helper from the Blood Reserve north of the line. They had come at Buster’s request to give support to the Indian cause affirming the sacred significance of the Sweet Grass Hills. Exiting the van, I found it necessary to relieve myself and while doing so I watched a badger scurry away in the brush. Taking care, I offered my friend tobacco and prayed, “Oki Misinsski, kimoki kimoki, spumoki, spumoki / greetings stripped face, pity me, pity me, help me, help me.” Buster approved and pointing to the sky above the summit of the butte, he acknowledged the presence of two soaring eagles circling the sacred mountain.

The sky was clear and blue, the weather warm and pleasant as Curly Bear, Nolan and I set out to trek across the summit and afterwards meet Buster and the old elders on the other side. Beneath the sweet pines, we rested just below the mountain crest. It was a short nap intended to make up for our early morning departure but in the sacred place it held spirit dreams. As I awoke there was the piercing whistle of a marmot, the others heard it also so that we regrouped to climb the summit.

Reaching the summit held for us another wonder, there were cast about its gentle slope some forty-four elk wintering on this small habitat in their annual migration from the Park at the backbone of the world. Whistling like the marmot, Nolan caught their attention and we watched them in wonder for some time. Surely this encounter manifested an example of the spirits depending on critical environmental habitat but then we could not count the elk endangered under the law. We needed more to invoke the Endangered Species Act. Although the spirits were manifesting themselves to us, there was no single example of a critically endangered species to sustain our argument.

Persisting down the trail, we began to notice a yellow medicine stone that was important to Buster’s kit. Descending the summit into a small creek drainage below, we encountered the miners at work with a generator hammering into the solitude. The oppressive noise was everywhere reverberating against the rocks, trees, and earth itself within the narrow defile. Nearby we met the BLM manager accompanied by some of the Cree contingent. Shaking hands all around, we took a seat on the ground and began exchanging stories. At first, the Cree leader was speaking of the nearby cave, which we had passed on our journey. He explained its significance as the site where Big Bear had fasted. With the hammering generator behind us, his fast was unimaginable drowned in the unspeakable din of noise that pounded upon our ears. The Cree leader persisted telling of how anthropologist John Ewers had visited the cave and taken a ceremonial tomahawk from it. The BLMer listened with pleasant attention but he could offer no judgment upon the anecdote.

At this point, however, there was a brief lapse in the noise as the generator shut down. Buster with the elders and the tribe’s attorney joined us. The BLMer began talking about his experience with the Navajo on public lands in the southwest. He spoke about the Yellow Spotted Thunder Bolt tradition held by these Indians. “Trees and places struck by lightning,” he continued, “were held sacred by the Navajo. We offered to build the roads around these locales but the Navajo informed us you never know were the lightning is going to strike next.” He seemed oblivious to the idea that the entire habitat was home to the Yellow Spotted Thunder Bolt and therefore all of it sacred. Instead he wanted sites to work around rather than interconnections meshing across the landscape.

Buster followed him saying, “My old man – Old Man Yellow Kidney – fasted above here. His brother Red Plume got his medicine here too. After his death, I came here to get the same medicine. This place speaks if you will listen but it is the whole place doing the talking.” At this point, I was recalling my studies of Blackfeet tradition. Sometime before I had heard Buster speak about this place and his old grandfather Yellow Kidney, I had read James Welch’s Winter in the Blood back at the university. Daughter of this esteemed elder, Welch’s grandmother left her first born – Buster – with Yellow Kidney later to marry a Gros Ventres Indian and take residence on the Fort Belknap Reservation. In constructing his novel, Welch creates an old grandfather – Yellow Calf – for his unknown protagonist from whom it is apparent he learns his wisdom. Unlike many Western centered narratives, the landscape is character revealing place in the novel and in this case old Yellow Calf is not some forgotten old elder as in human protagonist but in fact a metaphor for the east butte of the Sweet Grass Hills where Welch’s great grandfather received his medicine. Hence, as the novel informs us there is a covenant with the sacred place and as long as it remains wholly imbued with its intrinsic organic power – that is wildness – it will continue to inform the unknown coming generations of their Blackfeet identity. It is as another old Pikuni elder, Joe Crowshoe, told me, “The landscape will teach you who you are.”

Back in Browning, Buster was not through his care for the sacred mountain. In his home the next morning, he called us together for the opening of his Sweet Grass Hills medicine bundle. From it he took some of the yellow medicine stone, grounded now into powder, mixing it with fat to make a paint, which he first applied to Nolan’s face and then to those of us who came forward. He also took a fur hat derived from a spirit inhabitant of the hills, in fact it looked to me like a marmot, which he placed on Nolan’s head just as his grandfather had done so with him many years ago. In the process, songs were sung and the sacred bundle pipe smoked as we honored the spirits inhabiting the sacred Sweet Grass Hills.

Jay Hansford C. Vest, Ph.D.
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