The Southern Blackfeet reservation Browning Glacier County

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Part of the wonders of traveling is to learn about other cultures and their history as well as to understand a little of the lives of people who live very differently from our own. America has a wide variety of different cultures but little opportunities to really understand them which is why I had spent a long time researching how we might learn more about Native American people. It wasn't easy but luckily I came across the Lodgepole Tipi and Gallery nestled in the Southern Blackfeet Reservation near Browning, Montana.

It was a 3 hour drive from Helena where we'd parked at the Lincoln Road RV park. The roads were clear and despite the steep gradients we made good progress. Kate was riding shotgun in the RV and we quietly cheered each sign that brought us close to our destination - Glacier County, The Rockies, Blackfeet Reservation - while the others slept! Despite our good progress we arrived later than we had hoped owing to a late start (extra lay in!). We were greeted warmly by Daryl and Angelika who run Lodgepole. The Gallery was a place of peace and serenity with wonderful paintings, photos and handmade gifts as well as calm Native American music playing in the background.

20120817-224607.jpg We had paid for a private tour from Daryl which we had to shorten a little due to our late arrival but was informative nevertheless. I can't faithfully recount everything we learned but the following gives a sense of it.

We travelled with Daryl to an old boarding school while he told of the gradual erosion of the Blackfeet land. The bands of the Blackfeet tribe are united under the Blackfeet Confederacy and the particular band that Daryl is part of is known as the Southern Blackfeet band. The lands of the tribe were once 23 million acres but over time, through agreement and circumstance this has been whittled away to 1.5m acres. The original boarding schools were designed to educate you Blackfeet tribe members but it's more malign reason was to break the link with the old culture, taking children from their families and preventing them learning the language.

The schools were almost military in there operation. Later we also visited a Catholic version of a boarding school for the same period. The board explaining the historic site said that the school 'made a contribution to the educational development' but Daryl's telling painted a more damaging contribution with religious zeal to break the old links to the Indian Culture with harsh punishments for those caught using the old language. We also visited a couple of Buffalo Jumps.

These were cliff edges or edges of large hills where tribes would drive buffalo (using people dressed in wolfskin and buffalo hide acting out danger to a calf and stone pathways aimed at guiding the buffalo with men spoking them from behind) over the edges, falling to their deaths or injuring them while others on the ground finished them off.

We also learned about the dependency on trading buffalo hide, the coming of the horse (which led to larger tipis and more competition between tribes) and the coming of the rifle both around 1750. And the wiping out of many tribesmen by smallpox. And finally the exhaustion of buffalo as a source of income and the dependency of the Blackfeet nation on the US Federal State. Now it seems the Blackfeet people suffer discrimination and a quiet determination by the US government to remove the treaties that exist by causing a exodus from the reservations due to economic reasons (70% of people in the reserve are unemployed).

Something people like Daryl are keen to avoid. After our return to the Lodgepole we relaxed, a little in our RV and a little in the nice little lounge diner of the Lodgepole before having a wonderful Buffalo dinner (buffalo was very similar to beef - it was succulent and very tasty!). Then we retired to our tipi. It was large, easily sleeping 5 people with a fire-pit in the centre. Daryl had explained that they always face east (to protect the door from the prevailing wind) with the owner occupying the back and men on the right with women and children on the left.

This worked well for us - Lisa took the owner, Callum and I on the right with Kate and Tom on the left. The Tipi was plain white, not a colourful one like the dream tent at the front of Lodgepole. The fire was fantastic and I am writing this blog while we are still keeping it going at 11pm. The heat is just great and the light from the fire is magical! The whole experience is fantastic and it astounds me that Native Americans don't do more to encourage tourism to learn more about the the culture and provide much needed support for the economy. With people like Daryl and Angelika, I am sure this is possible!