Dawn. In the day’s first light, dark silhouettes of Blackfeet horses appear at the shore of a Montana prairie lake. As the sky grows pink-orange, tepee shapes rise in the sage. A crisp breeze blows from the Rocky Mountain Front in the west.
On this 200 acres of Indian land, the Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Camp just west of Browning is not merely picturesque real estate on the 1.5 million-acre Blackfeet reservation. It is here that owner Ee-Nees-Too-Wah-See, Growing Like a Buffalo, and his partners offer travelers a rare chance to camp in authentic tepees and eat native foods, tour Blackfeet historic sites, learn crafts such as tanning and bead work, and meet tribal elders.
In the Rockies an hour’s drive east of Glacier National Park, Blackfeet balladeer Jack Gladstone presents entertaining family song-and-story programs packed with fact and legend. For instance, you’ll learn the park was Blackfeet territory until 1896. And you’ll discover that winter once reigned supreme because a grizzly bear stole the Chinook wind.
For an unusual family trip, combine a night or two at the tepee camp with a Native American Speaks campfire program or Gladstone’s Native Reflections multi-media presentation, both offered during the summer at various locations in the park.
Tepee camp proprietor EE Nees-Too-Wah-See - his English name is Darrell Norman - is an artist and a great talker.
“Chief Mountain (a bit north, in the Rockies) is where thunder lives,” says Norman, a member of the Blackfeet Thunder Pipe Society. “Thunder sent this pipe. The pipe and ceremony are at least 2,000 years old.”
The bundle in which the pipe is kept is opened each spring, “welcoming birds and animals, and greening grass, coming rains and healing of the sick…. George Kicking Woman is the keeper of the bundle. He is 84. If we don’t learn the songs and rituals from him, that’s it.”
As Norman talks - perhaps while sharing historic places such as Two Medicine River or Two Medicine Buffalo Jump - the world of the Blackfeet, both past and present, unfolds in a way no museum could ever convey.
Norman customizes itineraries, from half-day historic tours with Curly Bear Wagner to several nights in a tepee. “Authentic tepee” means camping, he warns, not a tepee-shaped motel room. If you want, you can cook traditional foods with him and fellow artist Bob Black Bull - berry soup, boiled elk or venison ribs, perhaps wild onions you dig. Otherwise, Black Bull, a former professional chef, is likely to lay out chicken cordon bleu, a salad and homemade peach pie.
Join in to learn crafts. Black Bull might be smoking an elk hide, the skin tented over a small pine punk fire. Or you can make a rawhide shield, a beaded hat band, or a miniature tepee.
Get up early the next morning, when the horses - descendants of Spanish mustangs that were the original Indian ponies 400 years ago - head past the tepees toward their breakfast. In 1995, Norman and Black Bull acquired eight horses as part of a national effort to increase their numbers from a mere 1,600. They now have about 60 - maximum for their acreage, but they sell them to qualified buyers as the mares foal.
“Making these horses known is part of our vision,” says Black Bull, who manages the herd. “These are Indian horses raised by Indians - a rare breed.”
Before leaving the tepees and the horses, some visitors hang a symbolic memento on Medicine Buffalo, one of Norman’s sculptures that overlooks the sunrise lake.
Another lake may stick in your mind too, after hearing Jack Gladstone sing at Glacier National Park. St. Mary Lake at the east end of the park appears in his song “Speak to Me, Grandma” as the buckskin-shirted Gladstone weaves his Blackfeet grandmother’s teachings with the naming of the lake. Just north is the cabin his grandfather built in 1914.
Gladstone, a master storyteller whose singing voice and style are reminiscent of Gordon Lightfoot’s, grew up in Seattle, traveling frequently to his father’s tribal homelands in Montana. Toward the end of his student years playing football and earning a degree in speech at the University of Washington, Gladstone decided to move to Montana.
In song and story and narrative, he teaches of his own nation. About 1730, the Blackfeet acquired horses - the ancestors of Bob Black Bull’s mustangs. “We suddenly had a family minivan,” Gladstone jokes. “Also a pickup truck for shopping, a hot rod for racing, and a tank for a war machine. The horse was powerful technology that changed us from pedestrians to equestrians.”
In his own compositions, he sings the story of Scar Face, a young Blackfeet who journeyed to the Sun for the love of a woman. And he sings of other Indian epics, of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, of the Battle of Little Big Horn, of World War II’s Navajo code talkers.
But always he returns to his own Blackfeet heritage, to stories of the trickster Napi, to his Rocky Mountains that Blackfeet call “The Backbone of the World,” to stories that begin, “In the long-ago….”
Gladstone laces his programs with humor. Audiences laugh out loud at “Hudson Bay Blues,” Gladstone’s swingy song that begins with the Hudson’s Bay Co. arriving in Blackfeet country in 1793 “building lodges made with stone and logs.”
The trading post, with its “flintlocks, wool socks, coffee beans, denim jeans” got the Indians so ready for shopping that “Now we’ve got Spandex, Goretex, Nike Airs, gummy bears, ceiling fans, frying pans, turkey, veal, shrimp or Spam… keyboards to surf the net on a tidal wave of debt….”
Gladstone’s black eyes twinkle as he finishes his song. “We can’t stop shopping, we can’t stop shopping, at the Hudson Bay Co.”
More than an hour has gone by, and even little kids are clamoring for more. If you’re lucky, he’ll do an encore, perhaps “Circle of Life” or “Pray for The Mother,” reflections of Gladstone’s respect for the Earth, reflections of the Blackfeet attitude both now and in the Long Ago.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: If you go: For further information and schedules: Native Reflections or Native American Speaks programs with Jack Gladstone: Glacier National Park, P.O. Box 129, West Glacier, MT 59936, (406) 888-7800 (select “Park Information” from the automated phone menu) or consult the park publication “Nature with a Naturalist” distributed at park entry stations. Program schedules and Gladstone’s recordings are available through Hawkstone Productions, P.O. Box 7626, Kalispell, MT 59904, (800) 735-2965. Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Camp, P.O. Box 1832, Browning, MT 59417, (406) 338-2787. Tepee camping (June 1 to midSeptember) costs $40 per tepee plus $10 per person. Meal rates: $34 per day, per person. Tours and seminars (year-round, weather permitting): from $2 for a self-guided camp tour to $100 for a full-day group reservation tour by van. Craft workshops (including materials): up to $100/day per person, depending on group size. Custom combination packages and group rates available.
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