Chief Mountain, early handiwork of Napi, the Creator.
Chief Mountain, early handiwork of Napi, the Creator. (Keith Carter)

The Snow on the Sweetgrass

For newcomers—meaning most of us—they are merely picturesque. But for Native Americans, the sacred places of the Great Plains and Northern Rockies are alive with centuries of memory and meaning—and something much, much bigger.

Chief Mountain, early handiwork of Napi, the Creator.
Bill Vaughn

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A BULLET IN THE MOUTH, and a bullet in each eye. Say what you will about the depravity of the act, the assassin’s aim was true. Instead of merely obliterating the potent and spiritually charged humanoid etched into the cliff above us, the shooter had reduced it to a mere cartoon. This eerie four-foot being, framing its ancient face with outstretched hands, now resembled Casper the Ghost, or that lost soul in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream.

On the Blackfeet Reservation, in full regalia. On the Blackfeet Reservation, in full regalia.
Bear Lodge, controversially known as Devils Tower. Bear Lodge, controversially known as Devils Tower.
A totem of the Sweet Grass Hiils. A totem of the Sweet Grass Hiils.
An offering at the medicine wheel. An offering at the medicine wheel.
Bullet-riddled Dinwoody petroglyphs. Bullet-riddled Dinwoody petroglyphs.
Prayer cloths at the base of Bear Lodge. Prayer cloths at the base of Bear Lodge.
Sweat lodge frames in Ulm Pishkun State Park. Sweat lodge frames in Ulm Pishkun State Park.
Chief Mountain, early handiwork of Napi, the Creator. Chief Mountain, early handiwork of Napi, the Creator.

“They shouldn’t have done that,” the man beside me said, without heat. Paul Revere was a sixtyish Arapaho who happened to be visiting the remote petroglyphs of Dinwoody Canyon, in western Wyoming, the same shiny autumn day that I was. While I was just a common tourist, he was here with his priest, the Reverend Harold EagleBull, a Lakota in his fifties who served as pastor for Our Father’s House, the Episcopal church down the road in the Wind River Reservation town of Ethete.

“What these figures represent is significant,” EagleBull said. “To Western culture, to the missionaries, history is in the Bible. But for Native Americans our history is here, in nature. Nature is our Bible.”

Luckily, most of the two dozen beings portrayed in this high panel of carvings had not been damaged by vandals. Created at least 1,000 years ago, and perhaps as long ago as 7,000 years, they were formed by artisans pecking into the weathered red veneer to reveal the pale sandstone underneath. Some archaeologists believe that those responsible for the petroglyphs may have been distant relatives of the Eastern Shoshone, who were forced by the U.S. government in 1877 to share the Wind River Reservation with the Northern Arapaho, much more recent arrivals to the region. Before the Plains tribes were shattered by the Indian Wars—which ended in 1890 with the U.S. Army’s massacre of a band of Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota—hunter-gatherer clans had set up summer camps in these canyons.
“I can imagine the people here,” Revere said. “I can hear the drums.”

“Do you think these pictures are self-portraits?” I asked.

“No. My grandfather told me they used to see these silver things flying in this area. Ones with wings on them. They used to see them out here a long, long time ago.”

My hair felt like it was full of static electricity.

“You mean UFOs?”

Revere nodded. “They shined. They were spacemen. My grandpa’s grandfather told him, and he got it from his grandpa. They were here before the people. I think the people worshiped them, praised them, because they could fly.”

After Revere and EagleBull drove off in their pickup, I climbed the high mound of boulders and rubble at the base of the cliffs. I couldn’t get next to the wall because tribal authorities had erected a steel fence around it, useless against bullets but a deterrent to less lethal forms of desecration, such as graffiti.

While making a closer study of these portraits I noticed a humming, or a vibration, a sensation registering somewhere between the aural and the tactile, like the chatter of locusts. I felt light-headed. Dehydration, I figured.

I sat down on a cube of rock and dabbed at the sweat on my face. As I waited to see what might happen next, the sound stopped. Then it started again. Suddenly, this place had my full attention.

CATHOLICS HAVE CHARTRES, Jews have the Wailing Wall, Buddhists have Bodh Gaya, and Muslims have Mecca. The Native Americans have their own sacred places as well, largely unknown to the rest of the world, spoken about on the reservations in hushed tones. Most of these holy sites are features of the landscape—Wyoming’s Devils Tower, the mountains of Montana’s Glacier National Park, the Black Hills in South Dakota, Rainbow Bridge in Utah, Mount Graham in Arizona, plus hundreds of rivers, waterfalls, peaks, trees, caves, and stones from one side of the continent to the other.

Like most old religions, the faiths of the 35 tribes and bands of the northern Plains revolve around communion with that mysterious, omniscient energy, without beginning or end, that is believed to have shaped the universe, and continues to rule it. Just as in Christianity, thanksgiving, sacrifice, offerings, and petition to this single power are at the core of Native American devotional rituals. But because traditional Indians believe that the Creator and lesser spirits are always present—like water in the world of a fish—faith isn’t about some guy in the sky or hedging your bets. Prayer and the quest for accord with these forces are regarded as critical, as natural to moment-to-moment living as taking your next breath.

In Shoshone cosmology, for example, there are air people such as birds, earth people such as bears, and underground people like the badger, an important player in the lower world. Travel between the realms is a central part of the religious experience, sought in vision quests at places that have proven over the centuries to be rich with energy and that connect the faithful to spirits that are sources of knowledge and strength.

But understanding the forms of Indian spirituality is not the same as feeling it—something a white cynic reared in a European culture still alien to the sacred landscapes of this country can probably never experience. As Narcisse Blood, a spiritual leader of the Kainai tribe in Alberta, Canada, the northern band of the Blackfeet Confederacy, told me and a group of others last winter in Missoula, Montana, a true understanding of Blackfeet religious practice is possible only when carried out by Blackfeet people thinking and speaking in the tribe’s “sinewy, complex, and subtle” language. “Still, I have a lot to learn,” Blood said. “I’m going to go to my grave not knowing everything.”
Like a lot of people, I was thinking about exactly this—death and religion—on September 12 last year. I was sitting in a church, a rare event that was coincidental with what had just happened. But this humble chapel, St. Peter’s, is important to me. Barely a thousand square feet, with a simple pine altar and whitewashed walls of rough-squared logs, it was built in 1878 by Jesuit missionaries with the aid of Thomas Moran, one of Montana Territory’s first Catholics and my great-grandfather. It sits in a high pasture on a cattle ranch 20 miles from the Missouri River town of Cascade, under a ring of stone-topped buttes carved into antic shapes by the elements. My grandfather was born here, and so was my mother. Although St. Peter’s is 70 miles from the Blackfeet Reservation, it was built at the heart of their traditional homeland. In some ways it’s a symbol of the tribe’s loss. And for better or worse it represents my family’s long association with Indians.

After a while, the lifeless air that infests most churches finally drove me out. I walked up Boot Hill to the cemetery and wandered among the gravestones. I was trying to imagine my mother as a child playing on these grassy slopes, but couldn’t get out of my head a picture of those Blackfeet boys and girls snatched by Jesuits and Ursuline nuns from their broken clans in order to bleach the paganism from their blighted souls, confused children put up in the two boarding schools whose ruins litter this abandoned place.

I’ve always lived around Indians, and grew up across the creek from a Blackfeet family. But it occurred to me, standing in that graveyard, that I was no better educated than many of those urban sightseers who will mark the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s journey by packing the kids into the Winnebago and heading off into Indian country to trace their route. So I decided to look at this land with fresh eyes, to try to appreciate it for new reasons. It wasn’t as if I had been looking for God in all the wrong places, because I wasn’t looking for him at all. I wanted to see if a skeptic like me could extract something of the mystery and wonder tied up in the places that Indians hold sacred. And I wanted for once in my life to experience that aboriginal perception of time that’s measured by the eating of a meal or the hike from one spot to another, time sensed as a procession of seasons endlessly repeated across an eternal landscape. I yearned to escape the unrelenting ticktock of America.

I changed the oil in my ageless Bronco, loaded a cooler, and drew a route across a map of the northern Plains, starting from my place in western Montana, floodplain that was once Salish land. Just before I headed forth I tied a fragrant braid of sweetgrass to my rearview mirror.

AFTER DINWOODY CANYON, where I had begun to feel like an intruder in a private world, I headed toward a much more accessible and public site, one that is central to the Plains Indians religion. From the Wind River Reservation I drove three hours across the former inland sea that is now the Bighorn Basin to the Medicine Wheel Scenic Passage, a two-lane Wyoming highway that was so steep I had to shift the truck into low range. In the typical manner of high peaks, Medicine Mountain makes its own weather. At 5,000 feet the sun was shining. At 7,000 it began to snow. After I parked the Bronco in order to climb the last mile and a half on foot, it started to rain. Just as I crossed timberline and reached the top of the ridge, a sudden wind stripped away the wrapper of clouds at the summit, revealing staggering vistas of the basin spread out on one side, and the wooded lower slopes of the Bighorns on the other.

The Medicine Wheel was built by unknown hands from cobbles of pale-yellow limestone arranged without mortar. Twenty-eight spokes emerge from a central cairn measuring seven by twelve feet to a circle 80 feet in diameter and 245 feet in circumference, around which six smaller cairns are assembled. Indians have made pilgrimages to the wheel for centuries, to seek visions, to make offerings, to commune with the dead, to plead for the sick, and to purify themselves in sweat lodges. No one’s sure what this architecture means. It might have been an astronomical device marking the movement of the stars. Or maybe it was a blueprint for the proper construction of a tepee or a medicine lodge, or the site of the first Crow Sun Dance.
At first glance the Medicine Wheel made no sense to me, rocks piled this way and that, fenced with three strands of rope stretched between thick pine posts. But as I walked around its perimeter the pattern began to emerge, the rim, the spokes, the cairns. Tied to the ropes and strewn among the stones were hundreds of things left by the faithful—deer horns, seashells, beads, animal bones, pouches of tobacco, braids of sweetgrass, small, mysterious bundles wrapped in rawhide. A sign bearing a photograph of the wheel held the words of an elder named Old Mouse, from the Arikara tribe of North Dakota: “Eventually one gets to the Medicine Wheel to fulfill one’s life.”

After a while I began to feel pulled by the undeniable aura of the site. Part of it was due to the physical and spiritual remove of all wild places. And there was something else here as well, that even I could feel: the humility you can’t deny when you sense the scores of generations of the faithful who have stood in this very spot.

What was not apparent were the political storms that have raged here for a century. Because the mountain lies just inside the Bighorn National Forest, established in 1897, it’s managed by the Forest Service. That means the fate of the Medicine Wheel has been at the mercy of the agency’s policy of “multiple use,” which theoretically ensures that everybody gets some. In 1970 the Medicine Wheel was declared a national historic landmark, giving it some protection from government monkey business. But as visits increased, by tourists and the faithful, the smell of money was soon wafting through the scrubbed mountain air. In 1988 the Forest Service, at the urging of businesspeople 30 miles west in Lovell, Wyoming, proposed commercial exploitation of the site that would include erecting a gigantic steel platform above the Medicine Wheel so its structure would be instantly apparent, as well as building latrines, a 200-vehicle parking lot with slots for RVs, and huts for cross-country skiers and snowmobilers.

People on the nearby reservations went ballistic—the Crow and the Northern Cheyenne just over the Montana border, the Shoshone and Arapaho farther south in Wyoming, the Lakota in South Dakota. They formed a pressure group called the Medicine Wheel Coalition and besieged the Forest Service with letters. (Remarkably, before passage of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the first Americans could have been prosecuted for worshiping at the Medicine Wheel.) The debate finally ended in 1996 with the signing of the Historic Property Plan, which requires federal land managers to consult with Indians about proposed uses of sacred sites.

As I circled the wheel, a pair of newlyweds rode up on mountain bikes, laughing and talking. But as soon as they felt what I had felt after recognizing the pattern of the stones and the gravity of the place, they fell silent.

“Wow,” the guy said.

I nodded. “Exactly.”

In the wind, clacking against a post, was a carved wooden feather bearing a poem. “Beauty before me. Beauty behind me. Beauty around me. Wherever I go I walk in beauty.” As I headed down the mountain I passed a young Indian couple on their way up. The man was pushing a stroller. When I said hello to them, the baby smiled, lighting up the world.

WATCHING CLIMBERS INCH UP the walls of Devils Tower, in northeastern Wyoming, is a chief entertainment for tourists, half a million of whom come every year, inspired in large part by the alien shenanigans that take place here in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. After taking my turn staring through a Park Service telescope, noting how tiny were the rock jocks and how massive was the rock, I fell in behind a family in matching blue shorts and white kneesocks who decided to walk around the tower on the 1.3-mile asphalt pathway built around its base. There were prayer cloths tied to trees and, in a gesture by the Park Service toward multiculturalism, signs advising visitors that this was holy ground to native people, so show some respect. There were also signs that explained the tools and techniques of crack climbing.

The tower, proclaimed a national monument in 1906, is the setting for a common legend. According to the Kiowa Indians, a bear chased seven sisters, who clambered onto a tree stump. The stump surged heavenward, transporting the girls to safety as the bear clawed deep gouges in the bark of the rising monolith. The sisters were transported by the Creator into the sky and resurrected as the seven stars of the Pleiades.

Geologists figure that some 60 million years ago, a molten surge of rock thrust through sedimentary layers that had been laid down in a vanished ocean, and cooled before it reached the surface. As the magma turned to igneous rock it fractured, creating a tight subterranean bundle of six-sided columns. Over the eons the elements and the Belle Fourche River ate away the softer rocks, leaving a singular colossus with nearly vertical walls rising 867 feet from the rolling grassland.
In the tourist traffic it was hard for me to get an undisturbed sense of the place, so I headed off toward the 1.5-mile Joyner Ridge Trail, a path less traveled, where I could look at the tower from a distance. Watching as its shape and color changed in the passing afternoon sun, I recalled the time I had come here as a kid, piled into the backseat of my old man’s Ford with my sister, on our way to Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Glacier. We traveled at a furious clip, along a route I had come to think of as Ashtray Alley because the only thing I cared about was the opportunity to augment my collection of tawdry knickknacks printed with primitive renditions of the sights we were supposed to be experiencing.

Of course, I had no idea then of the controversies surrounding the tower. Even the name is disputed. The first maps of the area called it Bear Lodge, a translation of the Lakota name Mato Tipila. But an Army colonel named Richard Dodge changed the name in 1875, when he escorted a team of scientists and surveyors into the area, in violation of U.S. treaties, after George Armstrong Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills. The Lakota Sioux, who ruled this region, despise the name, in part because of its link to the darker forces of Christianity.

Today, Devils Tower is regarded by the climbing community as one of the premier crack-climbing challenges in North America. Although climbers agreed in 1995 to stay off Mato Tipila throughout June, the month of the summer solstice and of the traditional sun dances here, the sport remains a hotly contested topic. The bolts hammered into the stone, the attempt to subdue the natural world, the yelling between climbers, plus all that pissing on the rock—these things are a sacrilege, argue the natives, some of whom wonder why it’s a federal offense to climb the faces of those dead white men carved into Mount Rushmore. As Lakota writer Vine Deloria Jr. said in the 2001 public-television documentary “In the Light of Reverence,” “It’s not like we designated a place and said, ÔThis is going to be sacred.’ It came out of a lot of experience. The idea is not to pretend to own it, not to exploit it, but to respect it.” For this reason, there are mixed feelings among natives about the sculpture of Crazy Horse being carved 17 miles southeast of Rushmore on Thunderhead Mountain. Although this stonework, chiseled by an Anglo artist at the request of the Lakota, celebrates the great Sioux warrior and is a reminder that the Lakota were never defeated by the United States in battle, it’s taking shape through the blasting and drilling of the holy Black Hills.

When the light began to fade and Bear Lodge took on its last color of the day, I realized it had been two hours since I wondered what time it was. On my way back through the visitor center I slipped the watch from my wrist and left it on a bench.

ON I DROVE, through the Cheyenne and Crow reservations in southeastern Montana, past houses clustered around sweat lodges—not the traditional low lodges framed with bent saplings, but plywood structures you could stand up in, sort of the reservation equivalent of the backyard swimming pool. I stopped for gas on the Cheyenne Reservation and fell in love with a skinny Indian girl working the cash register, who looked at me as if she were looking at mud. On the Crow Reservation I stopped at the Custer battlefield to check out the colonel’s headstone. While standing there I remembered the old joke they like to tell on the reservations: What were Custer’s last words? Jesus Christ, look at all the fucking Indians!

By the next day I was deep inside the Blackfeet country of central Montana, where bands of Paleo-Indians lived among herds of bison that turned the savannas black with their numbers.
At Ulm Pishkun State Park, where the plains rise to meet the Rockies, native hunters would drive the animals to their death over sandstone cliffs carved by the Missouri River. I tried to picture the high drama of a day that ended well, the joy and thanksgiving that would follow, the drumming and singing, good fortune celebrated with raucous sex and heartfelt prayers that could come only from a culture in which daily life and the life of the spirit are bound together seamlessly.

I headed north to Browning, Montana, the blustery tribal seat of the Blackfeet Reservation. School had just let out and the joint was jumping with shrieking kids, high schoolers gunning their engines, younger ones loping their horses bareback down the sidewalks and into the streets. There were herds of riders and clattering horses surrounded by packs of yelping dogs, the through-town traffic stalled while the village children took control. I stopped a boy with a mop of black hair who was riding a sorrel mare and dragging a scruffy colt on a halter.

“You ride around like this every day?” I asked him.

“No, faster. She’s got a stone bruise,” he yelled, speeding off.

I got into a long line at one of the two big quick stops in town, the only white face in sight, and ate a personal pan pizza in the park outside the tribal offices while two guys in full Fancy Dance regalia practiced their moves for some upcoming ceremony, the bells on their outfits clanging.

I had decided that my last stops on this trip would be Chief Mountain in nearby Glacier National Park and the Sweet Grass Hills 100 miles to the east, special places to the Blackfeet in part because they were the first things made by Napi, the Creator. I made a stop at the Museum of the Plains Indian and handed over $4 for another braid of sweetgrass to get me through this last leg of the journey.

Every sightline at the far end of Glacier is dominated by the 9,000-foot fortress that in the Blackfeet language is called Minnow Stahkoo, an isolated, eroded monolith made from the remnants of massive stone plates. As I drove around the quarter-circle of highway that rings Chief Mountain, I tried to make out the image on its face of a woman holding a child in her arms, the grief-crazed widow in the old story who threw the child and then herself from the peak after her war-chief husband was killed in battle. His body was brought here, and the family was buried in the rocks at the base of the mountain, which towers like a tombstone over their graves. br.
I passed a wind-warped pine whose trunk was tied with orange and red prayer cloths. I backed up to a turnout on the two-lane for a better look. There were other trees as well, festooned with strips of white, blue, and yellow. Indians come here for vision quests and prayers; it is said there are secret paths to the summit.

“These places have always demonstrated power to us,” says Curly Bear Wagner, a 57-year-old Blackfeet elder and cultural adviser who lives on the Blackfeet Reservation. “We still use them today because our culture is very much alive. Everybody knows that the power lives up on top of Chief Mountain, and these spirits always want to be honored.”

After walking three miles into the woods along the Lee Ridge Trail, eager to get as close to Chief Mountain as possible, I realized I was in the middle of grizzly country, without pepper spray and without a tree I could climb fast enough to save myself from becoming the other white meat. I decided I was as close to this holy peak as I needed to be. Although Narcisse Blood and others believe that bears never attack Indians, a fat lot of good that was going to do me. I turned around and retreated to the truck.

BY THE TIME I REACHED the Sweet Grass Hills, the first snow of autumn had coated the high country. Like Chief Mountain, the three main peaks of the Sweet Grass Hills rise unexpectedly from the prairie, formed ages ago by magma pushing against layers of sedimentary limestone and shale. Now these 7,000-foot buttes are a sanctuary for elk, which were plains dwellers before ranching and grain farming drove them into the mountains. From the foothills I could still see Chief Mountain, gleaming in the sun a hundred miles across Montana.

I parked in the ruins of an abandoned mining camp near Middle Butte. As I picked my way along a cow path up the slope, the mountain slowly rose into view. From this angle its perfect cone made it look like a volcano. On top of the ridge I sat down and stared at the sun, glowing through the clouds above the left side of the peak. The omnipresent psychic noise of the world began to fade away. Then that humming-vibration thing started again, the same sensation I’d experienced back at Dinwoody. It must be the high blood pressure I was diagnosed with before the start of this endless Indian summer, I thought. The doctor said it would kill me.
But she didn’t say when.

Or maybe it was something else, after all. In 1992, somewhere around here, four Canadian campers discovered a treasure in a cave that established the antiquity of the Sweet Grass Hills as sacred ground. It was a pair of seashells six inches in diameter, bored and carved to resemble ghostly human faces. Called gorgets, they might have been status symbols as well as religious icons, probably worn around the neck. They’re believed to be about 500 years old, and were probably left in the cave as a spiritual offering. It’s unknown what role they played in religious practices, but the possibility that they were traded here from as far away as the coast of Florida suggests how vast was the network of aboriginal commerce in North America.

Growing up, I spent part of every summer at Boy Scout camp on the Blackfeet Reservation, next to Glacier, and I had always thought of these places the way kids do; that is, that the world must have been made the day I was born and nothing of any significance happened before that wondrous moment. But to realize while looking at these sacred sites how long human beings have been here, and how over thousands of years they developed very intimate relationships with the natural world, is to suddenly experience a kind of dizzying sense of how new we are, how tenuous and expendable and weak and unimportant, and how strong and enduring is this landscape.

“We’ve been here a long time,” Narcisse Blood said last winter. “And we’re going to be here for a long time to come.”

Suddenly exhausted, I lay back in the sweetgrass and let its luxurious vanilla perfume wash over me. When I woke up, the sun was on the other side of Middle Butte. And I was covered in snow.

From Outside Magazine, Oct 2002 Lead Photo: Keith Carter

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