Go to Montana’s Glacier National Park, and you’ll want to drive the scenic, winding Going-to-the-Sun Road or hike its ice-sculpted peaks and alpine valleys. But for a different experience, some visitors are booking tours that view the park through the eyes of the people who originally called it home – the Blackfeet Indians.
To the Blackfeet, the land they know as the “Backbone of the World” is a sacred place filled with abundant wildlife and medicinal plants that sustained their ancestors. The park’s mountains are included in tribal creation stories and legends, and the modern-day Blackfeet Indian Reservation adjoins the park’s eastern border.
“Traditionally, the Blackfeet believe we have always been a part of that location,” said Ed DesRosier, 53, a tribal member who spent his childhood hiking the park and surrounding land with family.
Thirteen years ago, DesRosier started Sun Tours, the East Glacier-based company that runs the bus trips, as a way to draw on Blackfeet knowledge of the area and provide park visitors with an often-overlooked perspective.
“I think people nowadays that are savvy travelers are seeking a little higher quality experience in their travels,” he said. “We provide a service that can fill part of that.”
The tours typically start in June, when Going-to-the-Sun Road fully opens for the season, and run daily through September from Browning, East Glacier, St. Mary and West Glacier. Hiker shuttles also are available.
DesRosier’s Blackfeet guides frame the scenery with stories of Napi, the tribal creator, and the medicinal value of park plants and flowers. They tell how Montana’s Indian populations endured the changing seasons and environment, from before Europeans arrived, through the days of the trappers and traders, the coming of the railroad and the development of Glacier as a tourist destination.
They also talk about the history behind Glacier; how the Blackfeet, named after the color of their moccasins, sold the eastern slope of the park to the federal government in 1895 for mining development and how, when that venture fell through, the park was created by Congress in 1910.
Tribal meanings behind some of the park’s well-known features are also shared. St. Mary Lake, for example, is known to most visitors as a popular boating and picnicking spot along the eastern stretch of Going-to-the-Sun Road. Area tribes, however, call it and Lower St. Mary Lake, which sits just outside the park, “Inside Lakes” and used them as traditional hunting and camping grounds.
“We try to shed a little bit of light on the sacredness of things that people really respect,” DesRosier said. “You can feel the magnitude of the beautiful nature.”
The tours include a lunch break, as well as frequent stops for photos and highlights such as Logan Pass and the Jackson Glacier overlook.
DesRosier’s tours have grown in popularity over the years, as have park-run Indian music and culture programs, spokeswoman Melissa Wilson said. More programs highlighting the Blackfeet, as well as other area tribes like the Kootenai and Salish, are planned in Glacier this year, and officials plan to erect a teepee at the St. Mary Visitor Center as they did last year.
“It’s important to offer (the Indian) perspective to visitors, Wilson said. “They have been in the area much longer than we’ve been around.”
If you go…
Sun Tours: www.glacierinfo.com; 800-786-9220. Bus tours typically start in June and run daily through September from Browning, East Glacier, St. Mary and West Glacier, Mont. Cost is $35 to $65, depending on the tour. Reservations are recommended.
Glacier National Park: www.nps.gov/glac; 406-888-7800. Park entrance stations are at Many Glacier, St. Mary, Two Medicine, West Glacier and Polebridge. Entrance fee is $25 per car or $12 per person for a seven-day pass.