OUT OF THE PAST: Before There Was a Glacier National Park

Like many other Americans, for years I dreamed of visiting Glacier National Park, one of the jewels in our nation’s crown.  However, beyond the spectacular vistas, the many species of animals, and the historic hotels, I wanted to know what life in this vast landscape was like before the creation of the park.

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park.  (Photo courtesy of Jeff VanDyke.) 


Glacier National Park is located in the northwest corner of Montana.  Its million acres contain one hundred and seventy-five named mountains, over two hundred named waterfalls, twenty-five named glaciers as well as seven hundred and sixty-two lakes, five hundred and sixty-three streams, and well over seven hundred and forty-five miles of hiking trails.  Archeological evidence indicates that Native Americans first arrived in the area of what is now Glacier National Park 10,000 years ago.

Long before this huge area became part of our National Park System it was the traditional homeland of the Blackfeet, the Kootenai, and the Pend d’Oreilles.  The Blackfeet lived in the eastern portion while the Kootenai, and the Pend d’Oreilles territory encompassed the mountains south of Glacier.  This area was also used seasonally by the Salish and Métis as well as by Plains tribes such as the Shoshone, Cree, and Cheyenne since it provided shelter and food during the harsh winters of the Great Plains, which lie to the East.

It is estimated that the original homeland of the Blackfeet may have consisted of well over twenty-eight million acres.   It covered most of what is today northern Montana, extended north into southern Canada, and stretched as far south as what is today the northern limits of Yellowstone National Park.  Over time, the tribe’s land was reduced to a reservation of only 1.5 million acres.

The original territory of the Kootenai is believed to have been over twenty million acres.  With the creation of a reservation, the acreage was cut to 1.3 million acres.

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park.  (Photo courtesy of Jeff VanDyke.) 


The reasons for the reduction of Blackfeet and Kootenai tribal territories are complex and in many cases devious.  Today, the Blackfeet Reservation borders the east side of Glacier National Park while the Flathead Reservation, home to the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreilles tribes, is located to the west and south.

The late 1700s and most of the 1800s were a time of great change for the Blackfeet and Kootenai.  Their first contact with non-Natives came in 1806 when the Lewis and Clark Expedition entered their territories.  Over the course of the century, the Blackfeet and Kootenai encountered much that forever changed their lives – horses; infectious diseases to which they had no immunity; firearms; fur traders; a new religion; the almost complete eradication of the bison herds, their main food source; and strange concepts such as ownership of the land.

Glacier National Park: the mountains surrounding Lake McDonald.  (Photo by E. J. Guarino.)


The re-introduction of the horse into the Americas afforded Native peoples easier access to hunting and gathering and expanded inter-tribal relationships and marriages.    However, as tribes became more mobile and able to travel greater distances in shorter amounts of time pathogens were also provided with a means of spreading rapidly over vast areas.  The scenario of Native people encountering an infectious disease to which they had no immunity long before they ever saw a White person played out over and over again.

Glacier National Park.  (Photo courtesy of Jeff VanDyke.)


Unknowingly, the new arrivals had brought with them chickenpox, smallpox, measles, mumps, cholera, diphtheria, influenza, malaria, scarlet fever, whooping cough, typhoid, tuberculosis, the common cold, leprosy, yellow fever, the bubonic plague, and gonorrhea.  Of these diseases, smallpox was the most devastating.  Unlike the Europeans and Euro-Americans, Native populations had no inherited immunity to these illnesses.  Diseases were able to move quickly in the Americas because of the extensive trade networks that existed among Native peoples and the acquisition of horses only exacerbated the devastation.

Shockingly, not all of the epidemics were accidental.  The British military and, later, the U.S. Government used disease as a form of biological warfare.  In a number of instances, Native Americans were intentionally given blankets infected with smallpox.

Glacier National Park.  (Photo courtesy of Jeff VanDyke.)

The effect of the new diseases had both direct and indirect consequences.  Besides the death toll they brought about, the various sicknesses shattered Native populations in other ways – there were fewer people to hunt, gather, plant, and perform other tasks required to keep communities viable.  It has been estimated that the combined population of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribes was 20,000 to 60,000 prior to the arrival of European diseases.   However, by the time the Lewis and Clark Expedition arrived in their territory in 1805, it is believed that only between 2,000 to 8,000 people remained.  Throughout the century there were waves of epidemics.  The Blackfeet winter count symbol for 1837 indicated that it was the year of smallpox, which had been that year’s most defining event.   The death of so many Native Americans caused a loss of cultural knowledge and traditions, something whose effects are still being felt today.

The introduction of firearms also had a devastating impact on the Native people who inhabited the area of what is now Glacier National Park.  By 1780, the Blackfeet, the traditional enemies of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille, had acquired riffles, which gave them a powerful advantage.  Raiding and warfare continued for thirty years until the Salish and Pend d’Oreille were also able to obtain firearms.  Eventually, the Salish and Pend d’Oreille, as well as a few other bands, were forced to move their winter camps to the west of the Continental Divide.  Before they acquired guns, warfare for these tribes was more about showing bravery by capturing horses and touching an important enemy with a coup stick than killing.  Rifles changed this dynamic.


Glacier National Park.  (Photo courtesy of Jeff VanDyke.)


Prior to possessing rifles, there were strict protocols governing contact between tribes so as to avoid bloodshed and many peaceful exchanges took place, including trade, marriages, and shared hunts.  When warfare did break out, it tended to be far less deadly than after the introduction of firearms.

The arrival of trappers also brought devastation.  Countless animals were killed in service to the fur trade, which brought about unintended changes to the area’s ecology.  However, the almost total destruction of the bison herds had the most catastrophic and long-lasting consequences.

Glacier National Park.: Hidden Lake.  (Photo by E. J. Guarino.)


The Blackfeet, Kootenai, Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and other Native groups were faced with yet another challenge.   Between 1815 and 1820, the Iroquois entered their territory with word of powerful men whom they called “Black robes.” These were the Jesuit missionaries who had lived among the Iroquois in Canada since the 1600s.  The Salish were predisposed to welcoming the Jesuits because, prior to their ever having seen a White man, Shining Shirt, one of their prophets had experienced a vision of men in long black robes coming to teach them new ways.  Learning that such men existed, during the 1820s and 30s the Salish sent delegations to find these “Black robes” and bring them back to Salish territory.  However, they had no way of knowing that in seeking their conversion the Jesuits would attempt to eradicate the religious practices and traditional way of life practiced for generations by the Blackfeet, Kootenai, Salish, and Pend d’Oreille people.

Glacier National Park: Hidden Lake.  (Photo by E. J. Guarino.)


These same groups depended on the bison for 80% of their diet.  The bison population in North America had numbered in the tens of millions, but by the end of the 1800s less than 100 remained in the wild.  The bison were killed by White hunters for their skins and tongues while the rest of the animal was simply left behind to rot.  Later, the bones were collected and shipped to the East where they were ground up to be used as fertilizer.  In addition, the railroads advertised excursions for “hunting by rail.”  Hundreds of bison were shot from moving trains as sport, leaving the bodies of the animals where they fell.  Native Americans, on the other hand, used every part of a bison they killed.

Glacier National Park: Swiftwater Lake.  (Photo by E. J. Guarino.)


During the 1800s the United States government entered into agreements with the tribes of the Glacier area that can best be described as underhanded and dishonest.  Various deceitful means were employed to cheat the Blackfeet, Kootenai, Salish, and Pend d’Oreille out of vast stretches of their traditional homelands.

One of the most disgraceful of these agreements was between the government of the United States, the Lower Kootenai, the Bitterroot Salish, and the Upper Pend d’Oreille.  Known as the Hellgate Treaty, the tribes believed that they would be afforded protection from their traditional enemies, the Blackfeet.  These groups seasonally entered the territory of the Blackfeet and other Plains tribes to hunt bison, which resulted in their hunting parties being attacked.  When they were invited to take part in an intertribal council by the superintendent of Indian affairs and governor of Washington Territory, Isaac Stevens, they accepted believing the meeting was to be about intertribal peace.   However, the true intent of the gathering was to convince the tribes to give up their land and move onto a government-prescribed reservation.  Negotiations were plagued by translations that were so poor that neither side understood much of what the other was saying and a great deal of confusion ensued.

Nqelʔe (″Big Canoe″), the Pend d’Oreille leader could not understand why his tribe and the Salish needed to sign a treaty with the White man since their issues were with the Blackfeet.   Isaac Stevens ignored his concerns and continued to pressure the two tribes to give up their lands and move to a reservation.  When Salish leader X͏ʷeɫx̣ƛ̓cín (″Many Horses″), known to the White negotiators as Chief Victor, insisted that his people would never leave their ancestral homeland, Isaac Stevens started calling him derogatory names in front of his fellow Salish tribesmen and the Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai.  Insulted, X͏ʷeɫx̣ƛ̓cín walked out of the meeting.

Glacier National Park: Swiftwater Lake.  (Photo courtesy of Jeff VanDyke).


Negotiations began a few days later with Isaac Stevens offering a “compromise”: The Bitterroot Valley, the traditional homeland of the Salish, would be surveyed to ascertain which areas would be best for a reservation.  However,  as written, the treaty did not guarantee Native sovereignty over the Bitterroot Valley.  Mistakenly believing that the document protected their people’s claim to the Bitterroot territory, X͏ʷeɫx̣ƛ̓cín, Nqelʔe, and the other chiefs who were present signed the treaty on July 16, 1855, at Hellgate, today a ghost town that is located approximately five miles from present-day Missoula.

Glacier National Park.  (Photo by E. J. Guarino.)


According to the terms of the treaty, the tribes were to cede their ancestral lands to the United States government in exchange for $120,000, which was to be paid in installments and move to a reservation located to the south and west of what is called Flathead Lake.

Glacier National Park: Ptarmigan Falls.  (Photo by E. J. Guarino.)


The U.S. Congress did not ratify the treaty until four years later.  When the payments finally arrived – in the form of goods – most of it had been eaten away by graft.  The Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille had believed Isaac Stevens’ verbal promise of protection from the Blackfeet, but they were sadly mistaken.  No such security was ever afforded them.

Although the Upper Pend d’Oreille and Lower Kutenai tribes moved to the reservation, the Salish remained in the Bitterroot Valley believing that the treaty they had signed had given them a right to do so.  Contrary to what they had been promised, no survey of the land was ever done and large numbers of white settlers moved into the area.  Because the federal government became preoccupied with the Civil War, no Presidential decision was made about the Salish and the Bitterroot Valley.  However, in 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant signed an executive order that allowed the Salish to be removed to the Flathead reservation.  The tribe managed to cling to their homeland for twenty more years but, faced with dwindling resources, the tribe joined the Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai, moving to reservation lands.

Glacier National Park: Swiftwater Lake.  (Photo courtesy of Jeff VanDyke.)


During this same period, the Blackfeet were experiencing their own difficulties.  By the 1870s, the number of bison had seriously dwindled and by 1895 the Blackfeet were starving.  With their main source of food all but gone, the stage was set for unscrupulous politicians and land speculators to take advantage of the desperate situation in which the tribe found itself.   Believing that the Glacier area was rich in gold and other important minerals, the Blackfeet were pressured to sell a large part of their territory, which contained mountains sacred to the tribe, to the U.S. federal government.  The Blackfeet were offered a paltry $1 million dollars.   The tribe wanted $3 million but was willing to settle for $1.5 million if they could continue hunting, fishing, and gathering on land that they believed would be leased, not sold, to the U.S. government.  However, the document produced was written as a sale.  No minerals were ever found on the land and when Glacier National Park was established in 1910 the federal bill that created it contained no mention of the Blackfeet tribe having any land use rights within the park’s boundaries.  Although to this day the Blackfeet tribe insists that the agreement regarding the Glacier National Park lands was a lease, not a sale, they are still barred from hunting within the park.

Glacier National Park.  (Photo courtesy of Jeff VanDyke.)


In attempting to negotiate treaties, the representatives of the U.S. Government failed to understand the deeply held religious beliefs of the Blackfeet, Kootenai, Salish, and Pend d’Oreille: their lands had been given to them by the Creator; that all things – rocks, plants, animals, and the Earth itself – have a spirit; that all life was connected; and that they must do their part in keeping life in balance.

Glacier National Park.  (Photo courtesy of Jeff VanDyke.)


When it became clear that the lands acquired through treaties held no valuable minerals, another way was found for the land to generate money.  George Bird Grinnell, naturalist, historian, and anthropologist, and Louis Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway, and others advocated for the creation of a national park.  Doing so would produce money for the railroad, which planned to build a line to the future park to bring in tourists, as well as for the U.S. government.  However, the reasons for establishing the park were presented as altruistic: the preservation of nature for future generations.  Overlooked then as they are now were the rights of the Blackfeet, Kootenai, Salish, and Pend d’Oreille who were effectively barred from using the parts of their traditional homelands contained within the park boundaries.  Subsequent laws solidified this ban.  To this day, Blackfeet, Kootenai, Salish, and Pend d’Oreille can be arrested if they hunt, fish, or gather within Glacier National Park, which belonged to them since time immemorial.

Glacier National Park.  (Photo courtesy of Jeff VanDyke.)


As Americans, we are justly proud of Glacier as one of our most beautiful and iconic national parks.  However, it is doubtful that most visitors know at what cost to the Blackfeet, Kootenai, Salish, and Pend d”Oreilles people it was acquired.  Most of the Native place names were replaced in the late 1800s  and early 1900s, thus erasing any knowledge of a Native presence.  History is complex, frequently messy, and often rife with injustices committed for material gain.  No photograph, no matter how artfully composed, can truly capture the vastness and majesty of Glacier National Park. Yet beyond the pretty scenery, Glacier National Park has a fascinating though complicated and painful history if we only take the time to learn about it.


For further reading:


People Before the Park: The Kootenai and Blackfeet before Glacier                                National Park by Sally Thompson.


Blackfoot Ways of Knowing: The Worldview of the Siksikaitsitapi by Betty                       Bastien.


Blackfeet Tales of Glacier National Park by James Willard Schultz.