Eagle Speaking: See the World as It Ought to be Seen

golden eagle, in flight, Yellowstone, USAHastily I moved down the scenic backcountry road along the ancient river of my ancestors. They say the German physician turned explorer for the English, John Lederer, wandered these trails during the late seventeenth century to encounter the Saponi near the confluence of Otter Creek. In a colonial British reference, the river bearing their name is now reprised as Staunton. By contrast, the Saponi had taken their name from the land referencing the rivers as the place were the waters break sharply out of the mountains.

Caught in the modern world, ensconced in my metal chariot, removed from the natural surroundings I sped along the old byway with only hints of our aboriginal practices in the ancient sacred place. The modern world held my concern as I attended to the ideological orientations of the day. Suddenly ahead of me, just past the bridge over Plum Creek, there was someone in the road. Near the centerline, he or she stared hard back at me with fixed intensity and a devil may care attitude.

It was a golden eagle tearing away at its road kill prey. With unrelenting daring, he or she glared at me as if I were a nothing person of no account having no place in this sacred ecosystem. Under the circumstances I would have to agree, particularly with what our species has done to the natural world in quest for economic greed and anthropocentric power. Despite the technological force surging in the wheels beneath me, I knew he or she was correct with his or her assessment of modern humanity. Yes, I could callously force the accelerator to the floor and charge my chariot directly into this pride of the avian world, however to do so would be a high crime against life itself beyond the pale of evil. There is no virtue in humanity’s victory over the wild, surely the killing of such a person would be as egregious an act of immorality as the killing of an innocent of any species. No, as I caught his or her magnificent eye, I looked back mesmerized, thunderstruck with the reality of the Sun’s own bird in the roadway ahead of me. Removing my foot from the accelerator, I turned into the oncoming traffic lane giving this avian monarch a wide berth in slow and cautious passage as if he or she were a highway crew attending the public road. The eye contact alone was withering as it shivered down my spine giving me a stealthy respect as I moved ahead to the side of the road some twenty yards distant.

In the glove box there was tobacco so that I moved carefully to open it and take the bag in my hand as I exited the automobile. Giving care as if confronted by a grizzly bear, I moved to an open space where I knelt along the side of the roadway to take a pinch of tobacco between my fingers. While giving prayer to this celestial king of birds, I asked for his or her pity and help in the coming days of my life and I gave thanks to the Sun’s own bird. It was my prayer of homage before the spirits or nature persons who had guided my ancestors from time immemorial. In that moment of great reverence allowed me on this day and age when the modern world stands starkly divorced from organic meaning and respect for wild nature, I knew the reverence of the ancestors. In this sharing of life eternal, the nature persons were again my guides and I was overwhelmed with the gift.
golden eagle feeding on a dead deer in front of a sunny mountain

My mind drifted back to childhood when Granddaddy after telling the creation story of our Monscane world declared:

“Son, the eagle is the Sun’s own bird. You must see the world as the eagle sees it.”

It is a speaking that has stayed with me – shaping my value choices – throughout my whole life. But what does it mean?

“The Sun’s own bird.”

“See the world as the eagle see it.”

In the meditation of my travels, I was wont to reflect upon the countless moments within my experience of forests, prairies, deserts and mountain solitudes where nature had in some magnificence spoken to me when revealing her secrets of life and honoring my enduring vision of indigenous organic unity with the wildness of primal creation. Creation unfettered by human anthropocentric desire and command, but creation that surely has claim upon our human morality as any Kantian ethic of personhood.

Although I was engaged along the side of a modern roadway where the traffic had killed the eagle’s prey, I was at the same moment in the time of my ancestors along their river of life and in that singularity of time immemorial I was taken with the wildness of it all. Not that I would not have preferred and knew it better to observe a wild landscape free from the clutter and terror of human intervention. The power of the moment nonetheless held sway and I was captured in the speakings of the oral traditions of my ancestors. Surely Grandfather was speaking of organic relationship and reciprocity in the combined tenets of ecology as its veneration gave power to our indigenous way of life. “We are all related,” they say and it is surely an expression of the philosophy of ecology.

In this respect, the eagle soars high – high above into the heavens unto the Sun – and all below look up to it while it looks down upon the world to see all the interconnections interfacing with life and the organic union of great mystery. In being there it is the experience of awe beyond the pale of any anthropomorphic deity, it is the Great Mysterious or Unity in which we live. This day that is what I see in Grandfather’s words and the tellings of so long ago. We are all related!


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

jay.vest@uncp.edu
http://www.uncp.edu/home/vestj/

Top photo by Michael Lane. Bottom photo by Roblan.

Great Bear

Follow your curiosity
the truth is in your heart
the truth you know.

Adventurer of the North and Bering Straits,
the new world, Turtle Island awaits.
A million years ago Alaska called you –
a million years ago you crossed.

Great Bear, curious wanderer
do you still scent the winds,
are you fishing King Salmon waters,
do you claw and mark the aspen stands,
are you lured still to mountain rivers?

What kind of bears are these –
playing hide and seek with their shadows,
gazing at sunsets and shooting stars,
sliding down snowbanks and hiking in moonlight?
Curious Onlookers, keepers of power and natural dignity.

Great Bear, Montana’s majestic
Ruler of the land. Legendary master,
Glacier King, mountain monarch –
I need to know you are there.

Great Bear, “the looming other”
From the Rocky Mountain wilderness.
Less are the horse, the dog and even the grey wolf,
Kiayo, master of instinct and reason,
Teacher of humility and wild virtues.
No civilization and zoos for you.

Roam the shining mountains
your wild dominant domain.

Greatest of wild animals, mountain king
verged now on extinction and doom/
the white man’s blade,
touching the life.

What has come to the solitary woods,
The timeless green summer forests?
Domestication and loss.
Great Bear, keeper of the wilderness,
Civilization has passed you by.

Outlaw Grizzlies, sleeping in the den,
touched by starlight, wonder and wildness
fierce with pride of liberty and freedom,
jealous and proud enough to see these virtues threatened.

Out of the woods, the gray solitude.
An old bear, fierce and ruthless.
Old Priam, solitary, indomitable and alone
Master of the wild invincible spirit’s truth

Honor, pride, pity, justice, courage and love
Love, courage, justice, pity, pride and honor

The truth that is one
the truth that doesn’t change
the truth that covers all things
touching the heart.

By Jay Hansford C. Vest

grizzly bear on rocky mountain trail


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

jay.vest@uncp.edu
http://www.uncp.edu/home/vestj/


Photo by byrdyak

Alone with the Bear: Adventures in Wilderness Solitude

Anxiety enveloped the students like a cloud, the energy of eight people trapped in a van crossing vast spaces in the Big Sky Country. Our transport reached the Northfork of the Blackfoot trail after several hours on the road. We piled out and began unloading our heavy packs and laced our boots tight. Posing for pictures, we all crowded in front of a big, box-like Winnebago motor home that had somehow found its way into the trailhead parking lot.

On the trail and into the wilderness, the twelve day of the Wilderness and Civilization program at the University of Montana was ongoing. We were one of several groups that entered the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex from multiple portals with the intent to rendezvous in the wild for several days before taking alternate routes out of the wilderness. We knew little about each other, but as we made our way into the Scapegoat Wilderness area, the pleasant October sunshine and easy trail grade began to spark a sense of intimacy. Dexter, the group leader and a professor of English, began inquiring about my former tenure as a professional wilderness specialist with the USDI Bureau of Land Management. Between breaths I tried to explain the details of my wilderness review in the Wyoming energy extraction economy.

It was then a wilderness ranger emerged from nowhere onto the trail ahead of us in quieting my reflected anguish. He immediately engaged Dexter into an easy conversation. Good technique, I thought. It seemed I could now rest my case against the “burrocats” and trek quietly along internalizing the surrounding wildness. But there was something odd about the ranger, a contextual mistake in his appearance seemed apparent. As he stood easy before us, I noticed his trousers were creased and spotless with no mud anywhere, not even on his boots. He showed no signs of weariness that normally follow a ten mile trek in the wet and muddy environment we were about to enter. He told Dexter about and alternate foot trail that would keep us out of the mud and horse dung, intimating he has just walked out using it.

“Thanks,” we muttered.

He had no idea that I had seen through his ruse. As we hiked, I noticed no tracks of anyone having walked this way – today or any other day. We walked the half mile through mud and dung to the alternate trail and one could easily see the crud on our boots. His technique had been to linger about the trail head, wearing a back pack and hiking boots in order to teach wilderness etiquette. In my reflection, I thought it a good approach to preserving the solitary experience of wildland visitors while permitting him the chance to encourage right behavior and good conduct in the wilderness. In this way I reasoned he did not accost people in the middle of their wilderness experience but gave them a chance to enjoy the solitude.

As we reached the junction, everyone in the group remained energetic with high morale for the adventure ahead. We chose this site to eat our lunch. It was on a bench above the river. There was something of a steep incline to access the fresh mountain water but Dexter and I decided to traverse down to the water for a drink. The icy liquid numbed our hands as we submerged canteens into the rushing water. Pouring over the boulders, the cascade was alive with negative charged ions, which seemed to wash the civilization away from us. It felt good and refreshing while creating something of a perfect moment in time.

Having resumed our trek, we made our way to the convergence of the dry fork with the north fork of the Blackfoot River where we rested briefly along the trail. Packs aside and feet elevated, the waning sun was still strong enough to feel good in the crispness of an autumn day. However our campsite beckoned and in response to the need to secure the night we moved on while the light remained. Selecting a campsite removed from the others, I wondered about this group considering how they might view their wilderness experience. Would they see it as a holy thing, were “man” retreats for communion with the spirits or nature persons? Or would they be primarily interested in a social recreation or “primitive” party? The camp will tell, I thought.

Together as a group, I assumed there would be a communal fire but the question remained – would it be reflective and subdued or rowdy and festive. Some short time later while finishing my meal, apart form the others, there came a raucous cry, something like a crow breaking the silence, when Julie exclaimed “eat till you puke” – “haw, haw, he, he” – as it echoed into the deepening night. Along to consider and meditate wilderness solitude, my mind reeled like sporting days past when colliding with a running back at full steam. The bonfire was on replete with a harmonica and flute as if we had camped in some recreational backdrop to the city.

Might there be any room for the spirits in this environment, I mused. It was something outside my experience, like the difference between a modern pow wow and the traditional vision quest; I was jarred by the commotion. Had we left civilization back there in Missoula, or just brought our party to the wilderness, continued my thoughts. The group spirit was just too strong for my meditation upon the land.

As I had no wish to join the rowdy group, I had made a small fire nearby my camp. While I fed the flames quietly with small sticks I had gathered earlier, Dexter came by to join me. Having heard something of my abiding concern for environmental ethics together with the escalation of a potential nuclear war emerging in the political climate of the times, he inquired about my views on the problem. Dexter had a keen and penetrating mind that would often get to the point of the matter while deriving powerful insights into the inquiry. As a result, conversations with him were often enlightening as he made you think out your responses and clarify your ideas in a way that separated the shaft from the grain. You could not help but benefit from him as you came away from the conversation empowered with the clarity of having examined your thoughts.

At the time, I was nurturing a thesis of atomic metaphysics contesting the virtues of anthropogenic fission and fusion experiments. My thinking was along the lines that the fission of matter was a non-natural process engendered by humanity to create atomic bombs while fusion was a normative process enlightening our day with the light of energy. As such I postulated that fission was an artificial corrupting up matter that leaves a profane and deadly radioactive after effect. Of course radiation was a by product of fusion as well but the difference being it did not profane standing conergies of matter and being; on the contrary merged them in a oneness of union while generating a life giving solar radiation that empowered photosynthesis. Hence, on the one hand fission broke down the bonds of matter releasing a deadly cataclysm while on the other hand fusion merged cohesion of matter while generating energy to light the world. From this perspective, I mused the splitting of the atom was an unethical practice that ought not to be supported in the moral universe of human endeavor. Dexter had apparently heard about these thoughts from my philosophy professor mentor Tom Birch who led another group in this wilderness adventure. Curious it seems he had chosen to inquire into my idea that evening.

Overhearing our discussion, some of the others began to join us. They came perhaps seeking their teacher and his approval but they had their thoughts too and wanted to share them. My thesis had emerged from concern for nuclear holocaust as the Reagan administration proposed tactical battlefield weapons in defense of our European allies. The debate being coined in the absolute narrative of Western styled freedom versus its denial in communist states. Framed in this manner, there was no alternative to question the merits of freedom, an abstraction, in stark contrast to life, an organic reality, itself. It was a mind over matter ideology threatening wildness as the generative force of being. Perhaps it was not the ordinary after dinner conversation for a group of adventurers having begun several days in the wilderness but then what better place to confront the mad abstractions growing from our civilized existence where ideology triumphs organic existence.

As we sat there in the epicenter of wildness, Dexter’s inquiry had launched my emerging thoughts to an ethical response to an emerging nuclear crisis. Did this measure of seriousness have a place in our wilderness experience? Might it be an intrusive impact upon our wilderness adventure? It seemed to me, the concern was again formulated in an intrinsic versus and utilitarian ethical debate. Where we here on the one hand to enjoy our personal pleasure of a primitive unconfined recreation or on the other hand to benefit from a communion of the soul in wildness? Perhaps as an ending day fare, the discussion was fuel for meditation upon our moral relationship with the land as we set out for our wilderness quest.

In terms of the wilderness experience, my thinking on the matter has always been shaped by my traditional Native cultural inheritance, which has stressed the need to commune with the spirits or nature persons as a means of acquiring power and establish a harmony ethic with nature. Hence I have always tended to see wilderness as a spiritual adventure where the wild spaces are sacred as home to the spirits. Conversely I had learned in my reading and social experiences of Western based society where civilization had domesticated the wild, there is a need for primitive unconfined recreation to rejuvenate the soul as it dissipated in urban life. In the later case, there is something of a utilitarian value in the anthropogenic recreational experience of wildness. However good one my decree this valuation of wilderness it is I assert an anthropocentric way of looking at the fount of life. Whereas in the Native valuation of the spirits or nature person, there is acknowledgment of the other derived in the moral notion of intrinsic worth. Wildness in this view demands moral standing and the response obliges reciprocity with nature.

My thoughts aside the social compact of the group experience was emergent as people took their place about us in the chilly evening air. Overhearing our discussion, Jim began commenting on how nuclear power can save wilderness. He advanced the idea of partisan nuclear scientists who sold a peaceful use of atoms for energy production in a power hungry world. He suggested nuclear power reduces the consumptive demand for resource extraction but gave no thought to the secondary by products of lethal radioactive wastes that must be isolated from biological forms for a virtual eternity. While his initial assumption is wrong, the resource extraction demand is not lessened by the acquisition of uranium but in fact heightened in the exploitation of wildlands in the endless demand for energy. Oblivious to the second problem, Jim grew sullen and silent as I pointed out the waste storage problems. Later in Missoula, he threw up his hands and walked away from the program telling others he intended to pursue a career in geology like that of his father rather than become a conservationist. A self-serving anthropocentricism had long ago shaped his axiological worldview. Jim was off to become his father and forget his mother.

As I contemplated Jim’s position, there was a popular muse formulating in my head, it was called “The Last Resort” composed by the Eagles and featuring a lonely vocal set to a somber tune.

She came from Providence, the one in Rhode Island
Where the old world shadows hang heavy in the air
She packed her hopes and dreams like a refugee,
Just as her father came across the sea
She heard about a place people were smilin’,
They spoke about the red man’s way, how they loved the land
And they came from everywhere to the Great Divide
Seeking a place to stand or a place to hide

Kent, another student, sought to assert an anti-nuke argument but it was not well thought out and his formulation floundered so that he lost attention and faded into the background. It was as if he had taken the position simply to steal the group’s interest and bask in their attention but clearly he lacked the ability and the reason to sustain his argument. He was the scion of a highly successful Wyoming attorney and the domination was apparent in is ready assertions to get attention while his arguments never panned out in rational discourse. Later back at the university, he sulked away from the program failing to read a book and feeling abused when his assertions never measured up to rational inquiry. The sobering song rolled on in my head.

Down in the crowded bars out for a good time,
Can’t wait to tell you all what it’s like up there
And they called it paradise, I don’t know why
Somebody laid the mountains low while the town got high

Maybe the wilderness would help him to find himself but he needed that before committing to his university studies. It was apparent he had to escape the shadow of his father, but perhaps it was on the horizon, as he appeared interested in a young woman who next ventured a comment. She was from suburban Orange County in California and had earlier expressed her wilderness ethos in reading the region’s expansion onto the orange groves south of Los Angeles. Robin’s remark were tinged with history that marked the expansion of urban sprawl upon domesticated lands, which had already been dramatically reduced of their inherent wildness. It was an event, she could only know through history reflected in either readings or anecdote that happened incidentally to come her way. Indirectly it addressed the nuclear argument with the problem of the anthropogenic growth ethos that powers Western economic systems. Again The Eagles’ sobering words flooded my head.

Then the chilly winds blew down across the desert,
Through the canyons of the coast to the Malibu
Where the pretty people play hungry for power
To light their neon way and give them things to do
Some rich man came and raped the land, nobody caught ’em,
Put up a bunch of ugly boxes and, Jesus, people bought ’em
And they called it paradise, the place to be,
They watched the hazy sun sinking in the sea

Robin had entered the conversation intent on asserting the need for a nuclear deterrent assuming we must protect our freedom at all costs but when I pointed out there is no freedom if we are all dead, she let it go while we shifted the conversation toward social factors contributing to the narrative. It was an ideological metanarrative – singular absolute universal truth clam – obliged out of an abstract purity fueling our death wish teleology.

My internal musing continued as the last template of the song moved me.

You can leave it all behind and sail to Lahaina
Just like the missionaries did so many years ago
They even brought a neon sign ‘Jesus is Coming’,
Brought the white man’s burden down, brought the white man’s reign
Who will provide the grand design, what is yours and what is mine?
‘Cause there is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here
We satisfy our endless needs and justify our bloody deeds
In the name of destiny and in the name of God
And you can see them there on Sunday morning
Stand up and sing about what it’s like up there
They called it paradise, I don’t know why
You call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye

As Dexter stood to leave, my argument had taken a different track tacking the metaphysics of Western society rather than those of nature but there was more to the argument. It entailed an idea grounded in the process metaphysics of life in its endless give and take with the manifesting will-of-the-land. Both Dexter and I knew it was a viewpoint that would require more discussion at another time. For the moment we retired our thoughts and prepared for bed.

As the sounds of night stalking wildlife filled the darkness, we slept with an essential rest weary from the trail and depth of our conversation. My night was very restful and I awoke with the sun well before the others. As the morning sunlight began burning off the night chill, I prepared and consumed my breakfast. Afterwards I broke my camp and packed my things so that I was ready to hit the trail when Dexter emerged from his tent. Taking a moment, I approached him to speak about my plans to hike ahead and meet the group at a prominent campsite for our second night out. It was the place where the Scapegoat gives way to the Bob Marshall and nothing but a mark on the map. It was a campsite that could meet the needs of a group such as ours so we agreed to rendezvous later in the day at that point.

As I prepared to hoist my backpack, I noticed a young woman looking directly at me. She had emerged from Jim’s tent. It was Leslie, a dark eyed woman of Asian-Caucasian heritage, and she also seemed ready to begin the day’s trek. Without a word, our eyes met as I made secure my backpack and turned onto the trail. Shortly afterwards, I looked back and there she was just ten feet behind me in her effort to keep pace. Again no words were spoken and we just continued hiking deeper into the wilderness. It was tempting to think and dream romance, but I had begun this trek with the intent of studying the literature of wilderness solitude and advance my thesis on the subject and she was apparently with Jim so I walked onward with little attention to her.

As I contemplated my experience with the BLM, I recalled a District Manager who had once accosted my senses with his compliant, “I can find solitude in my closet what are we doing looking for it in all these wide open spaces?” He was responding to a clause in the 1964 Wilderness Act that served to partially define wilderness within our inventory guidelines. We were to evaluate solitude as a factor of landscapes and their suitability for wilderness designation. The manager’s comment was a highhanded dismissal of our wilderness inventory. Involving the largest inventory unit in Wyoming, he sought to express his assessment of the purpose of our Congressional mandate to conduct wilderness inventory and study of the public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. As a professional wilderness specialist working on the adjacent district, I was obliged to listen to him because the inventory unit overlapped both districts with ours have the greatest extent of land. It meant a kind of joint inventory between the two district personnel and I feared his staff had already seemed to have made up their mind in a position agreeable to their District Manager was shafting me.

In the meeting I was not buying his dismissal of the unit’s wilderness potential and when my opportunity to speak emerged I painted a very different picture from that of his people. In the place, I saw outstanding opportunities for wilderness solitude and primitive unconfined recreational activities that characterized our guiding inventory mandates. He was not happy but I pressed on with a thesis I had been formulating concerning the intent of the framers of the law as to why they included wilderness solitude in the definition of a wilderness area. The manager’s dismissal of wilderness solitude served to show how uninformed he was on the intent and purpose of protecting wilderness areas in the first place. Indeed the remarks seemed to fail a comprehension of the spirit of the law, as I understood inherent to the 1964 Wilderness act. This incident, of course, would not be the first time in public land management that a bureaucrat had sabotage a poetic understanding of land management as it speaks to a problem of professional training associated with the failure to include the humanities in forest conservation and land management curriculums. Indeed from my experiences in federal land management, I was engaged in wilderness, recreational, and cultural resource activities that in and of themselves demanded an understanding of the humanistic heritage inherent to our public lands, national forests, parks, and other holdings. There is, in my opinion, a crying need for studies in what may be labeled forest humanities reflecting the literature, history and cultural heritages bequeathed to our public lands, etc. Otherwise we are not serving the administrative demands, which our conservation laws entail in land management activities. Although vaguely aware, at best, of this mandate during this time I was determined to share something of my own intellectual quest in this matter. Hence, I began speaking about the literature that had inspired the notion of wilderness solitude – writers such as Thoreau, Muir, Marshall, Douglas, Carson, and others – were at the fore of my intellect acquired long ago in public libraries during my youth in Maple Valley, Washington. There was, I declared, a literature of wilderness solitude that had inspired that clause within the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Well I am sure my audience had neither the desire to hear this argument nor the training to understand it. I may as well have been taking to the walls for all the good it did but the experience nonetheless merits reflection. It was clear to me, this local District Manager either too arrogant to acknowledge his obligation under the law or too blind in his ignorance of nature writing to begin to understand his responsibilities to the land. As a result, the best he could offer was to sabotage the law with his baseless definition of wilderness solitude. Rather than draw upon the agency’s mandates as established by the Washington office, he interpolated a kind of cloistered solitude in lieu of wilderness solitude as a means of expressing his will to dismiss the unit’s suitability for wilderness designation. His minions got the message and were prepared to follow their leader, however, I was not giving in to his coercion even if it cost me my job.

In response, I went on to explain we can objectively measure topographic and vegetative screening as an indicator of cloistered solitude by simply studying topographic geological survey maps. Most likely I asserted we would find this area suitable under those terms but that is not the intent of wilderness solitude within the wilderness act. The wilderness movement had in mind, I asserted an experience matching the nature writers who addressed and advanced a “literature of wilderness solitude” which I presumed to be “the poetics of the soul as it embraces wildness.” After all these years, I remember my words, “It is the manner to which wildlands contribute to the poetics of the soul that makes wilderness solitude and this insight is reflected in the law.” The miscreant manager has no answer as he sat looking around the conference room and I knew it was the beginning of the end for me.

The experience weighed heavily upon me as I conducted a wilderness review of some two million acres of public land in southwest Wyoming on the BLM’s Rock Springs District. Working with my colleague from the adjoining resource area, we began a joint effort examining one of my units to prepare a prototype report. one that could be used as a primer for the other inventory units. It led to the crafting and embellishment of the wilderness inventory guidelines to include some of these literary, historical and cultural ideas associated with nature writing and wildlands. Relying upon readings from my youth and during my undergraduate years, I shared the ideas with my colleague and our techs. My associate called it “flowery language” but then he was a Montana boy with a background in outfitting. Although he was not so receptive to the poetics of wilderness, he did understand and appreciate the values of a wilderness experience. We seemed to have a rapport that lead us to respect nature for different reasons but nonetheless reaching to an essential appreciation for what I was later called the “will-of-the-land” as I came to derivate the meaning of the notion that is wilderness in respecting it evolutionary propriety as a function of ecological process. Conversely the administrators had other thoughts, just as I had learned from the adjoining District Manager in his remarks about solitude.

It was early summer when our District Manager called my summer technician and me into his office to discuss our work. He had been briefed concerning my draft report and apparently like his counterpart from the adjoining district he sought to establish his position and authority on the inventory process. Although my colleague from the adjacent resource area had called it a good report and stood by me, the district recreation planner a man of very limited imagination and ability, failed to grasp the report’s intrinsic significance as it attended to an attempt to address the intent behind the Wilderness Act. With my report in hand, the District Manager declared,

“You are inventorying other areas and nine of ten of them should drop.”

Aghast I looked at him with incredulity at his dictate, I had not even seen the other units much less reach a conclusion on them. It seemed he had no regard for an objective and professional inventory. Flustered, I began quoting our inventory regulations and before I finished, he broke in saying,

“Don’t quote your God damn regulations to me. Just do it.”

Delivered with a menacing intimidation, the message was transparent if I knew what was good for my professional career with the BLM. It nonetheless challenged my professional integrity and I was not about to give that to him. Hence with this edict echoing in my ears, I began the wilderness inventory of eleven units comprising nearly two hundred fifty thousand acres of wildlands. About those times, one might say it was a summer of wilderness and as the season passed I spent my days and nights exploring some remarkable landscapes while making an effort to discover genuine wilderness solitude and accompanying supplemental values – ecological, cultural, historical and scientific in nature. Wild values possessed by the public lands despite years of neglect and abuse. In the end, I returned to the DM recommending nine of eleven units for further study forward bringing them into the next phase of our wilderness review. It was the calm before the storm as I faced an onslaught of retaliation cast in the charge of insubordination. Faced with an angry contempt and retribution, I defended my actions speaking to the local and statewide media. Shortly afterwards I found myself suspended for having exercised my first amendment rights, something that the courts would later take away from federal employees denying my quest for justice.

The suspension – a three week period – proved fatal but in an effort to find some solace I engaged another wilderness adventure heading south to Arches, Zion, and the Grand Canyon to further engage the poetics of wilderness solitude.
In my absence, however, a crafty Area Manage with beady eyes formulated three memorandums directed specifically at me and although absent by forced decree each lead to a failure of duty that I could not engage. It was a paradox – termed Catch 22 in literary circles – as I was obliged to perform certain duties but prevented from doing them by administrative suspension. Some months later, each failure from these untimely memos served as a reason for termination. Under this regime, there was no recourse – no means to validate my professional career and let justice be served – it was an dictatorial edict designed to remove me and end my “insubordination” as a working professional land manager with integrity.

In the following months while I awaited the end, my duties were systematically stripped and I found myself engaged in a kind of trickster ecotage restoring damaged wildlands. For instance, in some cases seismic activity from the fifties had created trails made by pushing juniper trees over with a bulldozer blade. It has left some scarring that was noticeable but no one had given any thought to its rehabilitation as the land retained an essential wildness in character. It was still spring like at that elevation with moisture in the ground, so I reasoned that you could still plant and make things grow. Since I had very few duties and for certain a limited time remaining to me although I had not been given a termination letter, I reasoned that I could put these spring days to use helping restore the wild character of some of my wilderness inventory units. With a nice new four-wheel drive pickup complete with a wench, I set out at the terminal point of these seismic trails and began winching the skeletal trees back into place covering the intrusive blade marks. In and under the shade of the breastwork I was creating, I transplanted small juniper trees and pushed their berry seeds into the soft moist earth. There was a sense of particular pleasure in restoring these torn places and giving the earth a chance to recover its wildness.

On one particular April day, I was hard at this ecotage when I noticed it was time to go back to the office. Although I knew I was going to be late, I thought not to call in with my radio because for the most part no one ever did this unless it was under severe winter alert and as a professional you were expected to do your job even if it required overtime beyond an eight hour day. There had been no chatter or calls sent out to locate me, but when I reached to top of a rise suddenly I noticed my colleague coming the other way. He radioed the office reporting I had been found when as far as I knew I was not lost. It was another nail spiked into my record, the Area Manager had called out a search and rescue mission on a day when I worked in shirtsleeves and bore the marks of perspiration. It was later said that I was in danger of exposure from winter conditions that had never been apparent where I was working.

Although the time for planting passed before I could rehabilitate other areas, there were additional things I could do to restore the balance of wildness to manmade intrusions on these spaces. Some of the units had ways that were near impassible and subject to severe erosion. With a little help these could be made impassible and as long as they were within the review process no one could reconstruct the passageways. Locating the most likely erosive sites, I used my Pulaski tool to help the elements make their washouts impassible. Helping these endangered wildlands with the process of erosion and restoration was a parting legacy to the BLM that gave me a sense of trickster creator, as I knew his activities from my tribal oral narratives; Bobtail, as we knew him, was my guide.

It is from this legacy that I arrived in Montana at the university determined to make a difference in my academic platform of wilderness studies and the philosophy of ecology, as well as a formal attention to Native American religious traditions. And it is for these reasons; I was along with Dexter in studying another context of wilderness solitude while formulating a philosophical treatise on its explication.

Somehow in the meditation of walking, I had lost track of Leslie in fact even of myself as I recovered my identity when a blister chafed my foot. It was an awakening where I found myself atop the continental divide. Taking a moment I sat atop what I later learned from my Pikuni-Blackfeet friends to be the Backbone of the World. It was an amazing perch as I looked out over some of the most pristine remaining wildlands on earth. But then from my professional training, I realized I was no longer on the trail and in fact on no trail at all. How had his come about, I asked myself. You read and hear of runners and others in a state of Zen like ecstasy becoming one with their environment and I mused this experience was just that a moment of wilderness solitude. Later I read a paper of a wilderness canoe trip reported as religion and surely this is exactly what I was experiencing there atop the Backbone of the World.

Reckoning with my map I determined, I was on a direct vector from where I had left the group to our rendezvous point at Pretty Prairie. It seems my subconscious knew I needed to be away from the social group and it had lead me to bushwhack my way to this point of continental elevation. As I had oriented my position, I could see where I needed to be on the next day so as to make my way to the rendezvous site where all the groups were appointed to arrive in two days time. The ridgeline was broad at this expansive locale, so I pitched my tent and slept atop the world. During the night I noticed it was getting colder and I awoke in the morning to snow already accumulated to an inch or more on the ground. It was to prove the mark of hardship as I had no trail, but I knew direction and I set our downhill to a stream that would take me to my chosen campsite. I faced the elements with heart and determination as I crossed the untrammeled wilderness. It was difficult, as I would often slip on the snow and despite my rain gear everything seemed to be wet. It was a timeless adventure as I would fall, slide, curse, and admire the magnificence I alone beheld in traversing the steep slope.

In crossing the great divide, I had left the Columbia River watershed and entered the headlands of the Upper Missouri. Following a small rivulet down the face, I knew it would take me to the headwaters of the Sun River where I wished to camp for the night. Dimly, I thought how these waters made their way across the continent to another ocean. Flowing through the high plains, badlands, pastures, fields and cities, the Missouri nourishes all. It plays no favorites and asks no favors for its gift but we all depend on it. Standing on the spongy grass beneath a snow laden spruce, I thrilled to this insight into the earth’s ecological consciousness.

The water in the rivulets, plummets down the mountain face just as I had while it gives life to the country thousands of miles distant. As I made my way, I lunged over these sheer snow covered slopes slipping and falling, crossing and re-crossing the engorging creek at the bottom of a V-notched canyon. Exhausted in this rough going, the creek ravine broadened giving way to a narrow bottom that offered passage free of the impossible slopes. There was, however, a tangled mass of downed trees, which made my traverse painstakingly difficult. Cascading down the drainages, the autumn snow melts moved from spruce boughs and other vegetation into the stream and I found myself wet and chilled to the bone. Eventually with great relief, I intersected the trail. With a short respite, I managed to retrieve some lemon drops from my pack as a means to combat the fatigue.

Down the darkening trail I trudged while seeking a campsite and a place to build a fire. In this solitude, I comprehended the intimidation of predatory elements where I alone could secure my fate. It was dark when I reached the campsite and I knew I needed heat to warm my core but first I dad to drop my things and start my stove to warm some water. I had some hot chocolate in a side pouch that I poured into the bubbling water. It was soon ready and I fairly scotched my throat gulping it down. With a candle, I managed to get some shavings burning so as to add tinder fuel that sputtered but caught and began a warming fire. Soon I had gathered enough wood for the night and I began drying out my gear by the fire. My boots steamed with the heat and some clothing hissed as it dried. With the chores complete, I turned in for a restful night alone in the wilderness.

Next morning, the third day out, I found my boots stiff as boards but at least my clothing was dry and I managed to lace the boots tight and start down the trail towards the Pretty Prairie rendezvous site. The trail was consistent with my map so that I was again oriented to my wilderness surroundings. The bewilderment was past as landmarks were clear along the trail. However, my muscles ached from the ordeal and I began to tell myself, just a little further, just a little further. Without realizing it, I had made nine miles with only one to go in reaching the rendezvous site so I decided to camp nearby the trail in an open prairie-like forest environment – it was a meadow laced with Ponderosa Pine trees. As I turned in for the night, owls hooted, coyotes howled, and elk bugled. Alone in the wilderness, I thought? Wilderness solitude, I concluded, is the enchantment of being overwhelmed with nature at one with being. “In wildness is the preservation of the world” had been Thoreau’s truth and I think in that moment I knew what he meant.

With the sounds of wildness all about me, it had been a night of enchantment accompanying a compelling mood, which gave voice to verse and I composed a poem in the soft morning light. The images flowed effortlessly as I sat within my little tent and the rain fell softly on the fly covering it.

Great Bear

Follow your curiosity
the truth is in your heart
the truth you know.

Adventurer of the North and Bering Straits,
the new world, Turtle Island awaits.
A million years ago Alaska called you –
a million years ago you crossed.

Great Bear, curious wanderer
do you still scent the winds,
are you fishing King Salmon waters,
do you claw and mark the aspen stands,
are you lured still to mountain rivers?

What kind of bears are these –
playing hide and seek with their shadows,
gazing at sunsets and shooting stars,
sliding down snowbanks and hiking in moonlight?
Curious Onlookers, keepers of power and natural dignity.

Great Bear, Montana’s majestic
Ruler of the land. Legendary master,
Glacier King, mountain monarch –
I need to know you are there.

Great Bear, “the looming other”
From the Rocky Mountain wilderness.
Less are the horse, the dog and even the grey wolf,
Kiayo, master of instinct and reason,
Teacher of humility and wild virtues.
No civilization and zoos for you.

Roam the shining mountains
your wild dominant domain.

Greatest of wild animals, mountain king
verged now on extinction and doom/
the white man’s blade,
touching the life.

What has come to the solitary woods,
The timeless green summer forests?
Domestication and loss.
Great Bear, keeper of the wilderness,
Civilization has passed you by.

Outlaw Grizzlies, sleeping in the den,
touched by starlight, wonder and wildness
fierce with pride of liberty and freedom,
jealous and proud enough to see these virtues threatened.

Out of the woods, the gray solitude.
An old bear, fierce and ruthless.
Old Priam, solitary, indomitable and alone
Master of the wild invincible spirit’s truth

Honor, pride, pity, justice, courage and love
Love, courage, justice, pity, pride and honor

The truth that is one
the truth that doesn’t change
the truth that covers all things
touching the heart.

With the poem composed, I relished this fourth day alone in the wildness. Four days and four nights I had embraced this wilderness and in my solitude the bear, the grizzly bear, had come to me. It was then my ears perked with a start, Did someone call my name? Opening the fly of my tent, I crawled out of my little habitat to discover Kent, Jim, and others from my group. They stood in the trail looking quizzically at me and I asked,

“Who are you?”

In response, they offered, “Wilderness Institute” as if it were a question and when to my chagrin I recognized my companions someone turned to inquire, “Why did you not leave any notes?”

In Memoriam of a beloved Mentor
Dexter Merritt Roberts (1931-2015)
Professor of English
University of Montana

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
jay.vest@uncp.edu
http://www.uncp.edu/home/vestj/


Photo by byrdyak

Sweating with the Salish

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

Hall Creek

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.

 


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