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Sacred Places for Indigenous People

Community, Indigenous or First Nations Community (CA), Native American, Indigenous, or Tribe Community (USA)

Special places are still revered and should be respected by all. High on many ridges are the rock shelter remains of vision quest sites, many that face Chief Mountain, the Blackfoot home of thunder. Crowsnest Mountain is where the Raven lives. Glacier’s Lake McDonald is home of a Kootenai sacred dance.

Chief Mountain looms between prairie and the main chain of the Rockies, a sentinel visible for more than 100 miles on a clear day. Hikers should not climb this mountain without proper cultural guidance from Blackfeet leaders – courtesy Glacier National Park

Oral history, ethnographic studies, and archeological evidence indicate that the predominant indigenous nations with sovereign reserves today have occupied the Crown of the Continent region for thousands of years. The region includes three predominant language groups, although there are various dialects within each language group. Each of these groups occupies territory that transcends the international border, both historically and today.

Some places have special significance for multiple nations, such as Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park along the Milk River in Alberta. Another such place is Chief Mountain, a sentinel of the prairie on the edge of Glacier National Park, the Blackfeet Nation, Waterton Lakes National Park, and the Blood Timber Reserve. Chief Mountain also plays an important role in the ethnography of the Salish-Pend d'Oreille and the Ktunaxa/Ksanka/Kootenai.

If you encounter a vision quest site, a pictograph (painted on rock) or petroglyph (etched on rock), please don't touch or damage it.

Historical Time Period: Going back 10,000 years or more

The Ktunaxa/Ksanka/Kootenai nations are a mountain people whose ancestry in this remote region has been traced back at least 9,000 years. Their remote traditional territory may explain the linguistic isolation of the Ktunaxa language, which is unrelated to any other in the world. The imposition of the U.S.-Canada border in the 1800s split this ancient nation, literally dividing individual families and forcing individuals to decide which side they would choose to live, according to Liz Gravelle, a Ktunaxa elder.

In a conversation in Spring 2008, Liz told me about her family's traditional summer sojourn on horseback across the mountains to the Wigwam River and the Flathead River. The Wigwam River starts in Montana and flows north into British Columbia, while the adjacent Flathead watershed flows south from B.C. into Montana and Glacier National Park. Just as the Ktunaxa's historical connection to these rivers transcends today's international boundary, so do their age-long names, which to my ear are much more lyrical than today's English names. The translated Ktunaxa name for the Wigwam River is "Water Above is as Clear as it Sounds," while the North Fork of the Flathead is "Coyote is Sitting There."

Click HERE for video above to hear Liz tell a Ktunaxa story, in her language, that dates back nearly 7,000 years. You can read a 2008 National Parks Magazine article about the region, which includes my interview with Liz.

Liz Gravelle's family grew up in the Tobacco Plains between Grasmere, British Columbia, and Grave Creek, south of Eureka, Montana. Her mother is buried in Montana and her father in Canada.

The Interior Salish is the easternmost in the Salish language family, historically occupying most of central and western Montana, northern Idaho, and eastern Washington. The primary Salish groups in this region include the Bitterroot Salish and Pend Oreille, which are now located primarily in the southern reaches of the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana. To the north, the Shuswap First Nation in British Columbia is home in the upper Columbia River Valley.

The Blackfoot Confederacy, or Niitsitapi, includes three nations in Alberta, including the Piikani, Siksika, and Kainai Blood. In Montana, adjoining the borders of Glacier National Park to the west and Canada to the north, the Blackfeet Nation Reservation occupies much of the southern extent of Blackfoot traditional territory, including sacred places such as Chief Mountain and Divide Mountain. Many Blackfoot elders ask that backcountry climbers avoid Chief Mountain without proper cultural guidance.

A tribal celebration, cultural event or pow wow can be experienced just about every summer week in the Crown of the Continent, beginning with Canadian National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21 and running into the annual mid-August Heart Butte Celebration on Montana's Blackfeet Reservation. Click HERE to learn more.