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Between Two Cultures

The state of Montana is home to seven Indian reservations and twelve tribal nations. And Bigfork is perfectly situated between two of them – the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to the north and west and the Flathead Indian Reservation to the south. This makes Bigfork the perfect location for a trip that includes learning more about Native American culture.

Located just east of Glacier National Park and the Rocky Mountains, the 1.5 million acre Blackfeet Reservation is bordered by Canada to the north with prairie and wilderness on its east side.  The Blackfeet or “Pikuni”, belong to the Blackfoot Confederacy which consists of the Montana Blackfeet and three other tribes residing in Canada.  With 16,000 enrolled members, this is the largest Indian tribe in Montana and they are one of only six tribes that still live on their ancestral lands.

Many visitors like to combine a trip to Glacier National Park with a visit to the Blackfeet Reservation since Saint Mary and East Glacier are gateways into the park. Both offer food, lodging, tours and recreational opportunities in and outside Glacier.  The largest town and seat of government is Browning. Heart Butte is one of the oldest traditional communities on the reservation and the annual Heart Butte Celebration held every August is a perfect time to visit and learn more about the history of this proud nation.

 

While driving through the reservation, watch for the signs designating the Blackfeet Trail Tour. Originally designed as a cooperative project of the Museum of the Plains Indian and the Browning Lions Club, the distinctive roadside signs were recently updated by the Blackfeet Planning and Development Department. The original tour is a 70-mile drive on mostly paved roads that provides an opportunity to view the Great Plains as it existed in former days.

Wildlife abounds on the reservation. There are eight major lakes and 175 miles of fishing streams. Tribal permits are required and guides are available. There are several recreational outfitters that serve visitors to the reservation. Their offerings include horseback riding, hiking, tepee camping and cultural tours. If you don’t have time for a day outdoors, at least make time to stop at the Buffalo Viewing Area that is part of the Blackfeet Nation Bison Reserve. The area is located on Highway 2 between Browning and East Glacier.

Administered by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board of the US Department of the Interior, the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning exhibits the creative achievements of Native American artists and craftspeople of the United States. A permanent exhibition depicts the diversity of historic arts created by tribal peoples of the Northern Plains. During the summer, you’ll also find a display of painted tipis on the Museum grounds. For authentic crafts, visit the museum’s Pikuni Gift Shop which is operated by the Blackfeet Community College’s Native American Technical Education Program. The museum is open daily in the summer and closed on weekends in winter.

North American Indian Days in July is one of the largest gatherings of the US and Canadian tribes.  Featured events include traditional drumming and dancing contests, a parade, fun run and selection of Miss Blackfeet. To learn more about the Blackfeet, visit www.blackfeetnation.com or www.blackfeetcountry.com.

The Flathead Indian Reservation stretches south from the middle of Flathead Lake almost to Missoula.  The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are comprised of the Bitterroot Salish, the Pend d’Oreille and the Kootenai Tribes.  The ancestors of today’s residents lived in the territories now known as western Montana, parts of Idaho, British Columbia and Wyoming.

The People’s Center in Pablo provides an excellent introduction to the reservation. The People’s Center in Pablo provides an excellent introduction to the reservation. First opened in 1994, the main exhibit provides an insight to visitors about the history of the tribes.  Because of its emphasis on oral history, the Museum offers audiocassette tapes where visitors will hear personal stories and tribal history narrated in Kootenai, Salish or English. For groups, the museum will also schedule a tour guide. The Museum also features a gift shop and educational programs that include art presentations, games and historical discussions. www.peoplescenter.org

The Ninepipe and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges are a birder’s delight.  Together they offer more than 5000 acres of water, marsh and upland grasses.  During fall migrations, there may be up to 80,000 waterfowl. Tundra Swans use the refuge as a stopover and bald eagles can be spotted year-round. www.fws.gov/bisonrange/ninepipe.

Established in 1908, the National Bison Range is one of the oldest big game refuges in the United States. Up to 500 bison roam more than 18,000 acres along with antelope, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, bear and some mountain goats.  Hiking is limited, but two self-guided drives allow visitors to explore the range and view the wildlife. www.fws.gov/bisonrange.

Jesuit missionaries established the St. Ignatius Mission in 1854.  Where there was once a thriving community with its own church, flour mill, school, print shop and hospital, only the church, rectory and the original residences of the priests and Sisters of Providence remain today.

The simple brick church was built with local materials.  Now a National Historic Site, it contains 58 murals painted by Brother Joseph Carignano, a self-taught artist who served the mission as cook and handyman.  The paintings depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments as well as paintings of various saints and Biblical scenes.

Flathead Lake is the centerpiece of recreation on the northern edge of the reservation and fishermen are reminded that they need a tribal permit to fish the southern waters of the lake. Recreational outfitters also provide white water raft trips and lake cruises.  Golfers will find excellent courses where the Polson Bay Golf Course overlooks Flathead Lake or at the Mission Mountain Golf Course in Ronan. www.polsonbaygolf.com  www.golfmissionmountain.com.

Visitors can enjoy several annual events on the reservation. In July, the Arlee 4th of July Celebration is held over the holiday weekend each year.  The celebration includes an encampment, competition dancing, drumming and singing, traditional stick games and card games, food concessions and arts and crafts vendors. The third week in July, the Standing Arrow Powwow at Elmo features drumming, dancing and traditional dress and food overlooking Flathead Lake.

In August, the People’s Center Annual Social Powwow features singing, dancing, food vendors and arts and crafts vendors.

To learn more about visiting the Flathead Indian Reservation, visit the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes at www.cskt.org.

To learn more about Bigfork and all it has to offer, visit www.bigfork.org.  Media queries may be directed to Carol Beck-Edgar at edgecomm@montanasky.us. 406-837-2061.

 


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