Little Rockies still sacred lands - Despite mining damage, Fort Belknap tribes perform ceremonies

Helena Independent Record

Many White Clay and Nakota people on the Fort Belknap reservation still use the Little Rocky Mountains in northeastern Montana for their sacred ceremonies, despite the mining destruction done to the mountains.

The problems that have surrounded the Little Rockies, according to 30-year Tribal Natural Resources veteran Delmar "Poncho" Bigby, goes back to 1884 when U.S. agents learned that precious minerals such as gold and silver were located in those mountains.

"Soldiers from Fort Assiniboine and the local Indian agent permitted the miners to remain as long as whiskey was not brought on the reservation," Bigby said. "The U.S. agents periodically informed the trespassing miners that their presence was unauthorized. However, the miners were allowed to continue their activities."

Long before the 19th century miners started to arrive in Montana, American Indians knew of the useless soft yellow rock located in the Little Rocky Mountains. More important for the tribes is the fact that the Little Rocky Mountains were a special place where mysterious serpents roamed and where American Indians conducted sacred ceremonies for centuries.

John Allen, a tribal councilman, said the Little Rocky Mountains were a place of worship and fasting for both the White Clay and Nakota tribes. He said that after long trips across the prairies, the Nakota's would see the mountains as something like an island paradise.

"When our people (Nakota) would see the mountains, they would sing happy songs like 'going home, going back to the mountains, remember me, don't forget me'," Allen said.

Those age-old beliefs are why American Indians today call the Little Rocky Mountains sacred ground. It is not sacred because of what it represents -- it is considered sacred ground because of what is there.

Allen said his people used the red willows, sage, and the black root and white top from the Echinacea plant that is found in the prairies in and around the Little Rocky Mountains for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. The black root is used in heart medicine; the white top is used for diabetes.

The red willows and sage are used in prayer and spiritual ceremonies that include ones similar to the sweat lodges and sun dances.

"The only way we can get the supernatural close to us is for us to purify ourselves through the sweat lodges, fasting and smudging," said Allen. "If we are doing good work then the supernatural will come and help us.

Raymond Chandler, a tribal councilman, also knows of the White Clay people's sacred ceremonies held within the Little Rocky Mountains.

"I have a little boy, he's 6 years old, he's been going to the sweat lodges since he was 2 years old," Chandler said. "He knows all of our lodge brothers and all their songs."

Chandler said that the White Clay people are returning to their roots and beginning to revive his people's spiritual beliefs that strengthened and sustained their people centuries ago.

"The mountains are reviving back to what it was," said Chandler, "I go up and down the creek and there are sweats (sweat lodges); it's kind of like in Lame Deer. I've been down there twice and I can see smoke circling around Lame Deer and when I go where the smoke is, I see a sweat going on."

Chandler said there are many spiritual healing and medicinal types of plants growing in the Little Rocky Mountains. He said he really doesn't know definitely what kinds of plants his tribe used because of his Christian upbringing.

"We are shy because of our Christian upbringing, we are shy to ask about any of this because we still consider it taboo," said Chandler.

In 1887, St. Paul's mission was established by Jesuit priests, also known by the American Indians on the Fort Belknap reservation as the black robes.

The combination of disease, priests and the federal government's heavy handedness against ceremonies led to the death of some of the White Clay and Nakota tribes' long established sacred ceremonies. However, a feathered and flat pipe that has long been regarded as a source of life for the tribes is still maintained by selected tribes' men.

Chandler said he remembered a recent story where a White Clay spiritual leader had gone to fast for four days at a sacred place called Eagle Childs located within the Little Rocky Mountains. However, when the spiritual leader thought he heard a serpent moving nearby he was frightened so much that he came down out of the mountains.

The White Clay, along with many other tribes in Montana, had believed for centuries that there were serpents that live in or near the mountains. Although it's hard to say where this belief came from, it is a well-known legend in Montana's Indian country.

Despite the wrongs and broken promises that have forever changed the lives of the people on the Fort Belknap reservation, the White Clay and Nakota people are active, involved and knowledgeable about yesterday, today and how they hope to grow as a people in the future. Even as impressive as their optimism is their ability to work together, because historically the White Clay and Sioux people haven't always ridden together peaceably.