Photo courtesy of Tony Bynum
“Chief Mountain is my head. Now my head is cut off. The mountains have been my last refuge.” –White Calf, 1895
The icy peaks of Glacier National Park hosted 3 million visitors last year – that’s three times the population of Montana. Yet how many of these visitors know the real history behind the creation of America’s landmark parks?
Though frequently considered a people of the plains, the Blackfeet Nation has a long history linked to the mountains. The original boundaries of the Blackfeet Reservation extended to what the Blackfeet call the “Backbone of the World”: The Continental Divide.
As settlers pushed into the area, they realized the majesty of the landscape. Conservationists, trappers, and would-be miners all aimed to shift control of the mountains to American hands.
George Bird Grinnell is credited as a key figure in the establishment of Glacier National Park in 1910. However, in order to create this national treasure, the US government first had to take it from the Pikuni. It’s ironic, that while Grinnell is frequently praised for his work restoring the bison, it was their demise that forced the Blackfeet into selling part of our homelands.
The systematic extermination of the bison in the late 1800’s resulted in every tribe on the Great Plains depending on government-issue food rations. In the winter of 1883-1884, as the government failed to deliver the promised rations, the Blackfeet began to starve. By the time a new Indian agent arrived, one in four Blackfeet had starved; 600 lay dead.
“From that time period on,” the late Pikuni historian Curly Bear Wagner said in a 2001 interview, “our chiefs looked at our children and seen that they were hungry…the only thing we had to bargain with was our land, and so we sold off big portions of our land like Glacier National Park, the Sweetgrass Hills, places that were important to our people. But the chiefs looked at our younger people and thought that they were more important for their survival…”
In 1895, with Grinnell on the negotiating team, the Blackfeet signed an agreement ceding the western part of the reservation to the United States. In exchange, the tribe received $1.5 million and reserved the right to hunt, fish, and cut timber for as long as the land remained in the public domain. However, in 1932, a US District Court ruled that these privileges had been extinguished, arguing that the land in questioned ceased to be “public land” upon creation of the national park. This was reinforced by another decision in 1973. By this definition, Glacier National Park is not public land and the Blackfeet are not permitted the aforementioned treaty rights.
While the Blackfeet/Glacier story is brutal, it is not unique. The establishment of nearly all the national parks of the American West and Canada entailed some form of Indian removal.
Wallace Stegner famously said “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
North American natives have a different perspective.
As we enjoy and defend places like Glacier, let’s remember the story of dispossession and that a carefully curated definition of “public land” has been used to exclude the original inhabitants. Ensuring that national parks are characterized as truly public lands should not only preserve them for our children, but return the treaty rights of Native people.