Sweating with the Salish

by Jay Hansford C. Vest

The road was winding north ascending the Lost Trail Pass, I was on my way to Missoula after two years in Wyoming. Gearing down as the truck lugged its way up the pass, my household goods in the load and ol Yellow Horse – my pickup – in tow. As I topped the summit, there was a thought, something Chuck had told me: “Keep an eye out for the Ram’s Horn Tree when you cross Lost Trail.” My colleague in the Bureau, Chuck hailed from Butte and he had graduated from the University of Montana where I was intent on pursuing my graduate studies. Perhaps he knew the Salish story from his studies there but it intrigued me so I looked it up prior to my journey north and it goes something like this:
In the long ago time, Sinchlep (Coyote) and his younger brother Fox were going about. They were charged with preparing the world for the people to come. Coyote was a known trouble maker so Amotken (Creator) gave the charge to Fox: “When you find your elder brother dead, jump over him three times and bark. When you do this, Coyote will live again.” And so the two set out going down the Bitterroot Valley ascending it toward the pass where a large rock was standing on the edge of a high cliff. The rock moved when pushed. Here lived the Mountain-Ram named Bighorn, who killed people. He invited passers-by to push the rock over the cliff at the sheep on the rocks below. Then while they were looking, he would push them over and kill them.
As Coyote was passing, Bighorn shouted at him. Coyote went up and asked him what he wanted. He saw that Coyote was armed so he said: “You have a bow and arrows. I should like you to shoot those sheep among the rocks below.” Coyote went to look at them. Then Bighorn pushed him over the cliff and Coyote was killed on the rocks below. Later Fox came along finding Coyote dead, jumped over him three times and barked. Coyote moved, rubbed his eyes and said: “I must have slept a long time.” Fox answered, “You were dead. I told you not to come here.” Coyote said, “I will be revenged.”
Coyote went the same way and as he was passing, Bighorn shouted as before. Turning his behind and shaking his rump, Coyote asked him what did he want. Bighorn became so enraged he charged after Coyote. Just as Bighorn was about to butt him over the edge, Coyote stepped behind a great ponderosa pine. Bighorn collided into the tree with such force, he could not extricate his horns from it and they are lodged there to this day.
Chuck had told me there were ribbons and tobacco offerings hanging from this tree, “Look for it and offer tobacco before you pass into the Bitterroot Valley. Then you will be right with the Salish world when you get to Missoula.” Sure enough I noticed the pine enshrouded with ribbons and tobacco offerings ahead along the roadway. Finding a place to stop the truck, I trudged up to the Ram’s Horn Tree with an offering that I had prepared on Chuck’s advice. My offering was made like a bolo with tobacco pouches at each end so I threw it up into the branches above me and made my peace with Bighorn as the valley stretched out below me.
As I mused upon my crossing of Lost Trail Pass and advance beyond the Ram’s Horn Tree, there were other thoughts. Images from nearly two hundred years before when Lewis and Clark entered this same valley through this very pass. Having re-united Sacajewea with her brother, Cameahwait, and her people, the Lemhi traded them horses for the journey westward to the Pacific. Descending into the valley, they meet the Salish near present-day Lolo which they deemed Traveler’s Rest.
The Corp of Discovery, Lewis and Clark Expedition, had been sent west to explore the newly “acquired” lands of the Louisiana Purchase and to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Despite the supposed sale by the French, it was not theirs to sell as they had done nothing to acquire the land from the indigenous peoples. In reality the expedition was a means to the commercial enterprise of day – the fur trade – which the United States sought to engage competitively throughout both the Upper Missouri and Pacific Northwest with Great Britain who was likewise entering the region. When the Lewis and Clark Party arrived in the Bitterroot Valley during September 1804, they were observed at a distance by group of Salish who were camping at Ross’s Hole at the head of the Bitterroot Valley. The Indians saw twenty men traveling toward their camp and counseled among themselves as to whether or not to wipe the intruders out. Among the expedition, there was a black man, York, who was Clarke’s man servant. Astonished at his appearance, the Salish decided against war and invited the strange men into their camp. In effect, the first African American and the oddity of his skin color was pivotal in securing safe passage through the Salish homelands. During their stay, Clark took a Salish woman to wife and his descendants live among the tribe to this day. In the end, it is an intriguing story of multiculturalism that gave the explorers a peaceful passage to fulfill their goals of access to the Columbia on their journey to the Pacific.
As I began to secure my place at the university, I discovered Professor Joseph Epes Brown, the first professor of American Indian religious traditions in a religious studies department within the United States. During the last years of the famed Oglala Lakota elder Black Elk’s life, Brown having read Black Elk Speaks as a college student sought out the old man and won his confidence. The encounter made for a most beneficial engagement leading to Black Elk’s second book – The Sacred Pipe: The Seven Rights of the Oglala Lakota – as edited by Brown. However in order to earn a religious studies doctorate devoted to American Indian religious traditions, Brown was obliged to travel abroad where he studied with the great Swedish scholar Åke Hultkrantz at the University of Stockholm. As a scholar of comparative religion, Hultkrantz had written and published more about American Indian traditions than any academic of his day. During his study in Sweden, Brown had researched and prepared a dissertation – Animals of the Soul – devoted to revealing the attitudes and values associated with the animals within Lakota traditions.
Reflecting on his experience in Sweden, Brown, then approaching middle age with a family to support and having invested all he had into his study abroad, told me of an extraordinary incident when he called upon the spirit power given to him by Black Elk. One morning he said: “I began to worry if I would get a job upon my return to the states. It was then I remembered something old Black Elk taught me, it was a chant – a chant to call the deer spirit. While living with the old man, it was my duty to go out and hunt so as to provide for the family. Black Elk had taught me the deer chant and when I sang it, the deer spirit would be generous so as to give up one of its own to me. It worked more than once when we were in dire need of meat. But now I was in need of a job and I thought the principles are the same so I began the deer chant that morning. Just as I finished the song, there came a klink in the letter box on the door; opening the box, I found a letter addressed to me from Indiana University. It was a job offer and I knew my prayer had been answered, so that I gave thanks to the deer spirit and later departed Sweden with a sense of security. After a few years at Indiana, Brown responding to an esteemed colleague, Ray Hart, who was charged with creating a religious studies department at the University of Montana, relocated to the Bitterroot Valley, just below the eastern slopes of St. Mary’s Peak and west of Stevensville where the Jesuits had first established their mission to the Salish during the 1840s. Having learned something of Professor Brown’s amazing story, I had, in part, crossed Lost Trail Pass with the intent to study Native religious traditions under his direction.
Enrolled that fall in one of his classes, I delighted when he told the story of Coyote and Bighorn revealing the Ram’s Horn Tree. His method of recalling narratives of the elders was akin to my own Native oral inheritance as given me by my Monacan elders in Virginia. For me there was an immediate resonance and affirmation of Native traditional values and practices. When I later became Brown’s teaching assistant, this affirmation grew through the years while I found further resonance in the land and lodges of the Salish-Kootenai and Piikáni (Blackfeet) among other Native peoples in my quest to realize Brown’s teaching in the university setting.
At first, my personal associations with the Salish grew slowly but steadily not so much from contact with tribal members but more from an association with their land and the indwelling spirits of their indigenous domain. In that first autumn, I was obliged to take a student-type job at the local mall. As the term began to come to a close, I learned why the river pass between Mt. Jumbo and Mt. Sentinel was called “Hellgate.” It is a river gorge extending westward from Butte to Missoula some one hundred miles; just east of the city, this gorge is joined by another narrow valley featuring the Big Blackfoot River which heads near Rogers Pass, famous for the coldest temperature, -77 F, ever recorded in the lower forty-eight states, along the Continental Divide. Although winter was at play in Missoula with temperatures hovering near freezing and below, I had no idea what it would become like on that December day. In the morning, I had made my way to the mall but within a few hours, there came an announcement closing down the shops and sending us home in advance of a pending blizzard. It was a matter of minutes; temperatures were dropping drastically and winds were sweeping through the hellgate to swirl about in the broad mountain valley. From the mouth of the Hellgate Canyon, we were plunged into thirty below temps while great ornamental trees where uprooted and thrown headlong westward in several Missoula neighborhoods while under the siege of the cold maker.
At the time, I was wrapping up my term of studies that included a project documenting improprieties associated with the Bureau of Land Management’s wilderness review. It was a study sponsored by the Wilderness Institute and based upon my professional experience with wilderness review in Wyoming. Several undergraduate students were enlisted to assist me, however, the blizzard threatened to halt our collaboration. As the blizzard passed, the temperatures hardened well below zero but hardy locals reopened for business and were soon operating normal hours. With the deadline for our project looming, my charges and I decided to meet in a restaurant which catered to students working against the clock. One young man, Steve, from this group had remarkably survived the blizzard in a tipi set up on the Jocko within the Flathead Reservation. It was Indian land then in private hands threatened by a great pipeline proposed for a utility corridor through the great divide, down the Big Blackfoot and through the Mission Mountain-Rattlesnake range thence down the Jocko across the reservation. In concert with local environmentalists, the Salish opposed this pipeline as a desecration of their sacred space. My friend had “camped” along the Jocko in solidarity and opposition to the project. Somehow he had survived the brutal thirty-below blizzard and brought his study forward for my review. As we finished our report for submission, on the next day, he suggested that when the winter abated we should get together in spring for a sweat at his camp. It was a spontaneous notion and I was the only Indian present but these folks were all counter-culture environmentalists so I agreed.
As spring warmth gorged the rivers, I encountered Steve on campus and he reminded me of our plan to have a sweat on the Jocko. We agreed to the Memorial Day weekend and set about inviting the others who had worked to prepare the report. Steve and some of his friends had already set up the lodge and gathered the stones. All that remained to prepare for the event was to collect the wood and set up the pyre to heat the sweat rocks. Although I had not attended them, my dad had informed me how a sweat was used in a coming of age ritual held by my people during his youthful years in the Blue Ridge province of Virginia. No one among us that day had a pipe but equipped with some knowledge of the rite, we agreed to collaborate in conducting the ritual. Closing up the lodge, Steve steeped the water with Eucalyptus oil and we in turns dipped the mixture so as to douse the hot stones and generate the steam for our cleansing purification. As the vapors overwhelmed us, I was reminded of Brown’s account of his first sweat among the Lakota. Desiring to make a good impression, he sat bolt upright taking the heat like a “man,” but when the leader called to open the lodge, he noticed the old men were all bent over with their faces buried close to “mother earth.” Upon seeing him roasted upright in the steam, they laughed and joked about their being close to the sacred earth and his indifference. In our sweat, we had no real chants that day but we did manage to honor the spirits complete with tobacco offerings in our best fashion. Later it was announced the pipeline was diverted and the Salish sacred geography preserved.
Earlier I had noticed Steve had cunningly inserted a wood stove with piping up through the smoke hole of his tipi. In this way he had survived the harsh blizzard but there were problems. Above the entry way, there were a series of pin prick holes in the canvas; when I asked him where these had come from, he answered that during the blizzard he had used some paper to start his fires. The paper sparked and the blizzard blew them down onto the canvas surface creating the tiny holes. It was for this reason, I informed him, having learned from Brown, the Plateau and Plains tribes had only burned cottonwood, including Quaking Aspen, and / or dried buffalo dung within their leather lodges. “The cottonwood does not spark,” I concluded. Without consulting the Salish, it was a lesson he had earned the hard way.
Upon entering a Missoula bookshop that summer, there were two reads that caught my eye. Both of these reflected something of the sacred geography threatened by the pipeline. First I noticed the newly released novel – A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean, in which I found an allegorical discourse on fly fishing and the agapi, brother care, doctrine crafted through the spiritual discourse of the Big Blackfoot River. Written with such brilliance, the reader has little idea where reality ends and the novel begins; it is a sublime work of literary art that affirms a deep sense of place, one of the most meaningful found among Western centered authors. Conversely in the second case, I discovered D’Arcy McNickle’s 1930s classic, The Surrounded, which preceded the Native American literary renaissance. While many literary critics failed to divine the spiritual significance of the novel, I found its allegorical intrigue a study in Salish history and their sense of place through the trials of conquest. McNickle as a child experienced the storytelling of old chief Charlo and directly incorporated the oral process within this sublime narrative. Having no clue of the subtext, one critic misguidedly labeled it “the red road to nowhere,” which gave me great dismay as I made my way through the experiential discovery of McNickle’s storied events and themes expertly crafted from Salish history and his personal life on the reservation. It is in fact a road map mnemonic of the Salish cultural clash with the oppressive forces subduing their land and way of life; yet McNickle offers the promise of a future born in the dance of nature for those with eyes to see it. With these literary masterpieces centered on the Salish homeland, I discovered a blueprint to the lands and cultures of western Montana.
In the spring, I joined some of the folks at the Wilderness Institute in a canoe trip down the Flathead River. We put in just below Kerr Dam which was the site of a controversial hydroelectric project during the early days of the reservation. The dam played a featured role in McNickle’s second great novel, Wind from an Enemy Sky, which I had given a careful read during my first year or so in Montana, and in subsequent years crafted a literary critique for scholarly publication. In McNickle’s fiction the site had to do with a sacred dance honoring the spirits now forever lost within the inundation. As for the canoe trip, the excitement was short lived as we completed the passage through the Buffalo Rapids soon after putting in along the riverbank. Going ashore following the rapids, I soon learned the significance of the place when I encountered two old Salish ladies gathering bitterroots along the shoreline. We briefly exchanged pleasantries as they showed me how to gather the bitterroot. It proved to be a wonderful day on the river, but the real significance was in finding the site where the spirits had inspired McNickle’s Wind from an Enemy Sky.
My experiences with wilderness studies had lead me to another friend who helped me to engage the Salish landscape. Following my embattled departure from the Bureau of Land Management stemming from my contestation of the wilderness review process, Bill Cunningham, the Wilderness Society representative for Montana at the time and later the Conservation Director for the Montana Wilderness Association, called upon me to assist him with the critique of the BLM wilderness review in Montana. My efforts in discovering and reporting the improprieties inherent in the process, which I had begun in the previous year during my studies sponsored by the Wilderness Institute inspired Bill to call upon me to provide an oversight investigation of the Bureau’s work in Montana. While much of the study is accountable elsewhere, Bill introduced me to the National Bison Range on the Flathead Reservation.
It was a March weekend and although winter was not yet banished by the Sun, there was a hint of spring in the air which gave you the restless need to get outdoors to free the cold maker doldrums. Bill called me suggesting I might want to see the bison range and experience something of the Flathead Reservation. We began our visit with a brief tour of Charlo, the little town where the old chief of that name had been relocated following his forced exile from the Bitterroot Valley onto the Jocko Reservation when James Garfield forged his signature to an agreement eviscerating the Hellgate Treaty rights south of Missoula. Walking around the town gave me some sense of the people and characters found in McNickle’s powerful novels as both had featured allegorical ghosts of old chief Charlo – one as “Old Modeste” in The Surrounded and the other as “Bull” in Wind from an Enemy Sky.
After our brief reprise of Charlo, we made our way to the National Bison Range where I learned the story of the buffalo’s survival against the odds of Western expansion and greed. By any standard, the origin of the bison range is a compelling account with something akin to oral tradition in revealing Salish history and culture. In the winter of 1872-73, Sam Walking Coyote, a young Pend d’Oreille Indian, spent the season hunting bison with a band of Piikáni (Blackfeet) east of the Rockies on the Milk River headwaters near the Canadian border. Over the course of the winter, Walking Coyote took a bride among his Blackfeet hosts. For the Salish, it was a breach of the social mores, which forbade polygamy as Walking Coyote already had a wife across the mountains among his own people. When spring emerged on the prairies, Walking Coyote began to have doubts and fears about his actions. Under the rigorous scrutiny of Jesuit induced morality, the Salish practiced a strict monogamy that was vigorously enforced within the Indians cultural mores. Walking Coyote began to fear for the reception his new bride might receive upon his return home.
Meanwhile eight buffalo calves had become lost from the herd, possibly because their mothers had been killed or become separated during the chase. Having a strong herd instinct, the orphans, looking much like Jersey calves, followed the hunters’ horses into the camp. As Walking Coyote looked on at the forlorn orphans, he was stuck with an idea. The calves he reasoned would make a nice propitiatory gift to his Salish, first, wife, who might then forgive his infidelity and thereafter accept his Piikáni, second, wife. As word of the calves, two young bulls and six heifers, spread Charles Aubrey, a trader in the Browning and Shelby region, suggested Walking Coyote take the calves to Jake Schmidt’s ranch near Haystack Butte. With the two young bulls cross hobbled, the orphaned calves were pastured among Schmidt’s cattle. During their stay on the ranch, Schmidt suggested Walking Coyote take the orphans across the mountains to the Mission Valley where his friend Michel Pablo would help him with the calves.
Gathering his small herd, Walking Coyote journeyed over Cadotte Pass and down the Blackfoot River through the Hellgate and onto the Flathead Reservation. On the way two of the calves died, however, there were six hardy survivors – two bulls and four heifers – who lived to reach the Pablo ranch. On the ranch, the herd thrived and by 1884 there were some thirteen head living on the Flathead range. Walking Coyote’s original wife, however, was not satisfied with his peace offering so that he and his second wife were beaten and driven from the village in punishment for their moral transgression. The calves and the couple, nonetheless, continued to live on the reservation and from these six orphaned calves, the species survived with the help of others found in Canada”s Woods Bay Park and Yellowstone National Park. At one point, the Pablo herd was sold north to Canadian interests, however, elements of the herd including descendants of the original six calves, were returned to the ranch which became the nucleus of the National Bison Range when Congress authorized its creation in 1908. In 1521 with perhaps the first description of the bison from a European, Hernando Cortez, the Spanish conquistador, described them during his march on Tenochitlán, the Aztec capitol that is modern Mexico City, as creatures “with the hump like a camel and the hair like a lion’s”. Having ranged in countless numbers from Oregon’s Blue Mountains to New England’s rocky coast, southward into the Carolinas and Georgia, as well as from the Arctic Circle to the plains of Old Mexico, the bison were reduced to less than 2,000 survivors in the outliers of Yellowstone, Woods Bay, and these plains of the Flathead Reservation. A once majestic species survived through the familial interests of a philandering Salish Indian and his efforts to placate his first wife. Recalling the story as I looked upon the buffalo roaming the plains at Moiese, I could not help but imagine the spirit of Walking Coyote’s six forlorn orphans living in the herd that day as we admired the majestic animals.
Feeling good about the buffalo story of survival, Bill and I departed the bison range with a healthy respect for Walking Coyote but he wanted to also advise me of something else germain to the Salish conservation ethos. As one of the first acts as a sovereign nation, following the Wheeler Howard Act – Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the newly emerged Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes established a nature park in the Mission Mountains with the covenant to manage the area like that of a national park. An astonishing act of foresight and conservation, the tribe maintains a grizzly bear management plan and in 1974 the preserve was formally designated as the Mission Mountain tribal wilderness area. It was into this sanctuary that Bill proposed we take a hike. Although a violation of tribal law, which forbids non-citizens to enter this tribal nature preserve, there was a sense of spiritual exhilaration in the air – something like when the old people conducted their Blue Jay dances when the aspiring shaman seeking Sumesh – spirit power – flocked into the Mission Mountains to gain it. As two long standing wilderness advocates, we were in a manner of speaking much like these spiritualists and perhaps in our way out to gain our own Sumesh necessary to guide our further efforts in advocating and protecting sacred geography or what I termed the “will-of-the-land” as derived from my investigations of the old Indo-European wilderness traditions that fuel the term wilderness in our modern sense of environmental ethics. We climbed an avalanche chute where awe in the marvel of nature’s splendor inspired our souls much as it no doubt inveighed the Salish sense of Sumesh that supplied the people with the foresight to preserve this marvel as a tribal wilderness area. The Mission Mountains is a place were Sumesh – spirit power as in nature person living inviolate of humanity – is particularly strong, long may it be so.
Opportunities to learn more from the Salish began to arise when a Piikáni friend, Woody Kipp, began to take interest in our regard for the protection of their traditional sacred places. There was a special interdisciplinary studies program called “Wilderness and Civilization” which began each fall with a two week adventure into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. Although it was an undergraduate program, I made arrangements with each of the professors in the program to create graduate level independent study for each of their courses including directed readings and the wilderness trek. Although the event is another story, I came to meet a series of intrepid adventurous who had entered a Piikáni sacred place – The Badger-Two Medicine wildlands, along the eastern front. While trekking across this special place, they endured great hardship as an early blizzard covered their trail and made the traverse to rendezvous extremely difficult. The boys persevered and managed to join the others at the gathering despite snowdrifts and other hardships. The Badger-Two Medicine was under threat of oil and gas exploration and exploitation, something the Piikáni traditionalists opposed as it threatened their spirituality as in sacred way of life. The boys prepared an appeal of the Lewis and Clark National Forest plan and the Piikáni Traditionalist Association signed on embracing the alliance. It was something I had been giving considerable attention to while reviewing the literature addressing Piikáni religious traditions when I met Bob Yetter, one of the heroic trekkers who had challenged the exploitation of the Badger-Two Medicine. Bob introduced me to Woody who open the doors of experience into both the Salish-Kootenai and the Piikáni traditional spirituality.
Among the first things Woody did for us was to arrange a sweat with Johnny Arlee, the primary spiritual leader of the Salish at that time. We arrived at Johnny’s compound along the Jocko on a Saturday morning. His sweat lodge was protected by something of an eight sided Indian hanger – open to the east. There were sofas, protected from the elements, with a view of the mountains and a stairway descending into the Jocko. Johnny’s sweat featured a pit lined with bricks and offset from center to the north side of the doorway. Every thing was ready for us, we needed only to ignite the fire. Soon we passed the hot stones into the lodge and took our places within as the door flap was secured. Johnny began to pray when afterwards a wave of searing heat blasted over us as he began his songs. When the door opened and we crawled out, we found it had become a blustery day with a chill descending from the mountains upon us. We all took a turn bathing in the Jocko and when we got back to the hanger, I was plagued with a ringing in my ears that threatened loss of consciousness forcing me to take a seat on one of the sofas. Recovered I again entered the lodge, which Johnny passed to Woody who conducted the second round. Perhaps acclimatized, there were no more near-fainting spells, and in the conclusion there was a soporific effect that served to elevate one’s feeling of self as the lodge concluded.
It was after this introduction with the rite of purification that I began to know more of the Salish proper. We began frequenting the sweats of another Salish spiritual leader, Danny Vollings, who had a marvelous mountain song – it featured rock spirits who could be seen in the darkened lodge if you caught them in the corner of eye while the song lasted. Once during a break a tribal elder, who had joined us in the rite, looked out noticing a new clear cut along the north face of the Rattlesnake Mountains. “They are cutting,” he mused, “too close to the place where Coyote challenged the wind-sucking monster. I am going to have to talk with the tribe about that.” It was at this place where Coyote had placed the two larch poles that propped open the monster’s mouth when he was sucked inside it; hence the place affirmed a sacred event within the moralized landscape attended in the myth.
Woody was empowered by the sweats and he promised us a warrior sweat; he was recovering his medicine which had lain dormant for sometime until these revivifying events among the Salish. Hearing the rocks had been gathered from Magpie Creek, Woody told us: “We’ll get our rocks there when I am ready.” It was later in the summer after Woody had taken a range hand job on the reservation when he finally got a few days off that he declared himself ready to pursue the warrior sweat. Erecting his “Yellow Buffalo Lodge” at the Salish traditional encampment, it was an ideal setting situated in a open forested area with a sweat lodge along the creek. Bob and I traveled to Magpie Creek to gather the rocks which we picked and handled with great care. They say, “treat your rocks well and they will treat you well,” and so we were careful in our handling of the granite spirits. We also gathered dead and dried wood from the nearby forest; when afterwards as we built the cradle for our rocks and began laying them on the pyre, there appeared two German youths – intrepid travelers who had somehow found the traditional encampment. These young men began inquiring about our activities and learning we intended to sweat, they began pleading to join us in the sacred rite. At first, we warned them this was to be a warrior sweat – super hot during the first round. They assured us they had been in some hot saunas back in Deutschland. In reply, Bob shot: “This ain’t no sauna,” but the boys persisted with their wish to join in the sweat. Again we tried to dissuade them but finally we referred them to Woody who on the fourth inquiry agreed provided they understand and obey the rules. Using a flint and dry shavings, Bob ignited the pyre which had been piled high with dry wood set like a tipi around and above the forty-four rocks. As Woody took his place in the lodge, Bob and I waited with shovel and pitchfork vigilant of the fire. The two German youths stripped down to their shorts with a towel about their necks while standing nearby as Bob and I instructed them. “Once the door is closed,” remarked Bob, “you must not try and leave the lodge. Even after the door is opened, you must wait until he gives permission.” We told them that the impurities must first be permitted to escape before anyone can leave the lodge. They agree to abide by these rules, giving us their best “ya, ya” affirmations.
At last Woody called for some berries that were to be consumed in thanks to the spirits following our prayers. Once he had these in hand within the lodge, he called for all forty-four rocks. Glowing white hot, Bob and I dug these stones out from under the heating embers, while the two German youths took their places assigned them within the lodge. Following the delivery of the last of the stones, Bob and I discarded our clothes, although we were each permitted a towel, it was the bare ritual of warriors inside the lodge. With the door closed to all light, the heat from forty-four glowing hot stones was greater than anything I had previously experienced. Woody began saying, “Try hard boys, try hard,” as he splashed the rocks and began his first chant. When the water hit the stones, it was as if you were par-boiling a chicken, separating the flesh from the bone. Fortunately we were permitted to cover our selves somewhat with our towels but the German boys set up a howl to call the wolves in the nearby mountains. Instantly they began to bolt for the door, however, Bob caught one and I the other holding them down while we finished the first round. When Woody gave the all clear, I opened the door and returned to my seat as the steam gushed out; shortly afterwards our Deutsche friends raced out of the lodge and were never again seen in and around our encampment.
We completed our warrior sweat and during the ensuing days at the camp there was a special aura of spirituality as the old elder – Agnes Vandeberg – told stories into the night. She spoke in Salish while her helper translated the tales; it was a unique telling event, which supplied an account of Sinchlep trying to light the world while carrying the Sun on his back. Coyote was traveling down the Sapphire divide east above the Bitterroot Valley, he crossed at the head of the valley and turned back along the Bitterroot divide when he smelt the stench of burning flesh. It was accompanied by a searing pain where the Sun sat upon his back. In a start of panic, Coyote dropped the orange disk from his back which was now brown and black from the scorching he had taken. It hit the ground above Lolo atop the Bitterroot divide and bounced high into the air before falling down the Lochsa side, which set the sky ablaze in the orange glow of sunset. In the place where the Sun hit the earth, there spouted up a hot springs and that is how Lolo Hot Springs came to be. With her story, we glimpsed a sense of creation reflecting the Salish recollection of sacred geography.
During the next autumn, there was talk of a destination ski resort for Lolo Peak when I met Ron Terriault, a Salish chief and instructor at the Salish-Kootenai College, who was speaking on campus. He addressed the Salish way of life and their seasonal occupation of the Missoula valley among other things during his address. Given the pending threat to Lolo Peak, I was intrigue so I followed his entourage to the Copper Commons dining hall at the university center where I asked to join them at their table. Ron had taken a seat looking southwest with a view of the majestic mountain; it was something I noticed immediately as we looked outward across the campus toward the great peak. The mountain featured a summit peak with the appearance of a diamond glistening with ice and snow atop the Bitterroot divide. Seated quietly, we observed the winds swirling snow about the peak when Ron spoke: “The spirits are active in the mountain today. It is creation in process.” So when I inquired about the peak as a sacred place, he curtly replied: “How could it not be? I was taught,” he added, “it is Amotken, Amotken’s Mountain – the creator’s mountain.” With my years in professional land management, I had often heard concern for Native sacred places, consulted with Natives about such issues, and known them to be real in my indigenous heritage so that I knew Ron’s words were heartfelt in signifying his ancestral traditions. It was a conversation that lite a fire in my imagination with both a desire to better understand Salish sacred places and to help protect them.
During the ensuing winter with my newly minted doctorate, I found myself testifying at a hearing concerning the mountain, which the Lolo National Forest conducted, where I told Forest Service officials of Amotken’s Mountain’s and its traditional significance among the Salish. In my brief statement, I explained the mountain as the axis-mundi of the Salish world and assured the officials of it place in their sacred geography. There was an elk herd that descended the mountain along Mormon Creek where I was then spending my winter house-sitting a cabin. It had been a remarkable sight when I discovered them one early morning blowing frost from their nostrils and gathered in the flat. These nature persons, spirits, depended on the sacred mountain for their very lives, a fact acknowledged in the Salish way of life and guaranteed in their conservation ethic. It was not a place to disturb, so I reasoned, for simple tourist pleasures and short term economics.
After the intervention of time, I was again visiting the land behind the Ram’s Horn Tree where I had plans to see an old friend who was then living at Hot Springs on the Flathead Reservation. It had been a resort with naturally occurring mineral baths when people went to such places to take the cure. In the change of times and social climate, the cure, however, had been given up and the old Hot Springs resort became a decaying relic. Some counter-culture enthusiasts were at the time beginning to winter in the community while pursuing seasonal forest employment. One of them, my old friend Mike, and others were giving new life to the nearly abandoned reservation town so that it was beginning to prosper a bit. In acknowledgment of my visit, Mike erected his tipi and we prepared to share a sacred pipe smoke, a rite I had earned during my experiences with the Piikáni some years earlier. Prior to entering the lodge I noticed an odd looking dog; it appeared to be something of a Doberman mix but as I studied its face, I was suddenly confronted with the image of a bearded white man, an enemy no less.
Inside the lodge, Mike and I were seated either side of the altar or spirit door at the west end of the circle. In the customary position just south of the altar, I filled my pipe praying with each pinch of tobacco and prepared for the ritual. Smudging the pipe, I offered smoke to each of the seven cosmological directions, when suddenly there came a thump against the tipi canvas upon the spirit door. The mysterious dog had run directly into the lodge colliding with my prayers to the spirits. It was an odd omen, coming upon the summer solstice, so that I suggested we should hold an all night vigil to sing-in and honor the Sun’s ascension at this time when its power is greatest on earth. We finished our smoke and Mike went out to invite some friends who brought their children to share the night long ritual as we prepared to sing songs of revivification through the short night. With the ensuing daylight, the offending dog-man was nowhere to be seen, but I knew an enemy had sought to break my spirit power, which attack Mike and his friends had help stave off during the night while we honored all creation.
In my return to Missoula, some few years later, I learned of a new proposal to again designed to launch a destination ski resort at Lolo Peak. A local investor had acquired the timbered lower slopes leading down the mountain to the Bitterroot River. The upper slopes, however, were secure within the Lolo National Forest, which was reluctant to give consent to the enterprise. Like so many land developers, the investor sought to force the issue with a reckless disregard for the environment. In doing so, he cut what he envisioned to be ski runs down through the timbered mountain-side beneath the national forest boundary, thereby spoiling the natural aesthetic defining the southside of the Missoula Valley.
Minding the vandalism of these sacred slopes, I looked up at the diamond shaped snow covered peak nestled atop this encroachment and thought of the words, which Ron told me all those years ago – “It is the Creator’s Mountain” – he had said and I determined then to put aide my pending research so as to investigate and affirm this sacred mountain and its surrounding features as the axis-mundi – marker of Salish sacred geography. During the ensuing months, while engaged in a research fellowship – senior Fulbright Award – at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, I prepared a paper, which documents the circumstances of Lolo Peak and the Missoula Valley as Salish sacred geography in the long ago when Coyote and Fox roamed the land. A paper that helped to stave off the desecration of a sacred mountain – Amotken’s Mountain – among the Salish in a land behind the Ram’s Horn Tree.


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

Read Dr. Vest’s new book: “Native American Oralcy: Interpretations of Indigenous Thought” (Vernon, BC: JCharlton Publishing, 2014).

Photo by Leslie’s Photos, Big Stock