Glacier National Park wasn’t always a renowned public attraction. Before it became known for its majestic ice and mountains, the park was home to the members of the Blackfeet Nation. The history of how GNP’s first people lost their historical hunting grounds is a microcosm for racist land grabs that played out across the nation during the late 1800s.
“Because of Western education, a lot of our people don’t know the history of the [tumultous] relationship,” Tarissa Spoonhunter, who grew up on the Blackfeet Nation reservation and is an assistant professor at Central Wyoming College, told Earther.
The Blackfeet Nation currently occupies a reservation 1.5 million acres large. As the tribe makes clear on its website though, its original territory used to cover most of Montana’s northern half, as well as Canada’s nearby southern regions. In fact, their land might have covered as many as 28 million acres. These lands historically stretched as far south as Yellowstone National Park—another national park with a problematic history for another time. Different geographic features went by different names, then. The Flathead Forest was the Blackfeet Forest, at least for the tribe.
With every name change and land grab, the federal government erased the Blackfeet’s historic relationship to the mountains, the trees, and the Earth.
Before all this, back in the early 1800s, the Blackfeet were untouchable: They kept the Northern Great Plains to themselves, keeping other tribes at bay, according to researchers with the University of Montana’s geography department. The Blackfeet gathered serviceberries (which they still use in ceremony), and they also hunted bison.
By the 1870s, however, the tribe’s power dwindled. Their bison were dying off at alarming rates. Driven by the fur trade and senseless game hunting, the bison population became nearly non-existent in the U.S. by 1883, per the Fish and Wildlife Service. Unlike the white frontiersmen of the day, the Native American tribe depended on bison for food; it made up 80 percent of their diet, by some estimates.
Then, in 1895, the U.S. government suspected the region’s mountains contained gold and copper reserves. With this new information, well, you know how it goes. The United States became interested and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
In a negotiated agreement, the U.S. government offered to buy the land for a meager what was $1 million at the time, according to an account published in the Public Land and Resources Law Review. The Blackfeet, led by Chief White Calf at the time, was initially uninterested. Yet with no food for the winter, they didn’t want to starve, either.
The Blackfeet wanted $3 million but were willing to sell the land for $1.5 million with access to hunting and gathering rights (and fishing, though the Blackfeet didn’t care much for fish) “so long as the same shall remain public lands of the United States,” per the agreement. Those reserved rights were a deal breaker, even in the face of a million dollars. The tribe would not have sold without having secured them.
Spoonhunter also explained that, if you read the minutes of the negotiation, it’s clear that the Blackfeet understood this to be a lease, not a permanent sale. “The Blackfeet, to this day, keep saying that [the agreement] was a lease, not a sale, but because they didn’t write it, it was written as a land cession rather than a lease,” she told Earther.
Nothing went as planned after this signing: The sacred mountains contained no minerals. And the tribe lost its ability to hunt and gather around their sacred mountains in 1910 with the establishment of Glacier National Park. This new bill didn’t mention the Blackfeet or its reserved rights. As early as 1912, a park ranger arrested a tribal member for hunting in the park.
Why? Well, firstly, the law, then a misconception that humans can’t live harmoniously with a land. The National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 solidified this idea. It made no mention of Native peoples who once lived on these parklands and relied on them to survive. Then came the Wilderness Act of 1964, which defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Still, the park service wanted Blackfeet to host their hotels and take part in the park’s tourism industry. Ironic, right?
Spoonhunter said the federal government even went as far as to surround the Blackfeet Nation Indian Reservation with a fence to keep tribal members from crossing the parkland. “You couldn’t leave the reservation unless you got permission from a [park] agent,” Spoonhunter said.
To this day, members of the Blackfeet Nation still cannot hunt on these lands. Spoonhunter’s family hunts and gathers on the outskirts of the park, where it’s legal. She remembers seeing people protest the park growing up. That’s when she first realized an injustice had happened to her people. The park means something to the Blackfeet that outsiders will never understand.
“We learned to survive from the animals in Glacier National Park,” Spoonhunter said.
Earther reached out to Glacier National Park for comment but didn’t receive a response by the time of publication. Its website mentions the Blackfeet Indians when discussing history, but it’s a brief mention.
Past research has shown that Native Americans contributed to ecosystems, especially through their use of fire. The land’s loss of its human inhabitants isn’t what’s threatening it anymore, though. Now, its threat is climate change, which is completely altering the landscape the Blackfeet have come to know so intricately. Only 26 glaciers remained in the park as of May and they could soon melt into history.
The tribe will keep fighting for its right to the land—even if they are granted only once global warming melts every single one of the park’s glaciers.
“As long as the mountains are there,” Spoonhunter said, “these rights will always be there.”