Ice Patch Archeology and Paleoecology at Glacier National Park

Perhaps nowhere else in the United States is the evidence for global warming more apparent than in Glacier National Park. For the tribes whose histories originate here, climate change endangers both evidence of their ancestors and their traditional balance with the land.

I am Es-tonea-pesta, the maker of cold weather and this is the snow tipi or yellow paint lodge. It is I who bring the cold storms, the whirling snow, and the biting winds from the north, and I control them at my will.

An archeologist excavates through glacial ice.
An archeologist excavates through glacial ice.

NPS/Glacier National Park

Long before there were glaciers, and long before Glacier became a national park, the Blackfeet, Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai peoples revered the land.  Archeologists say that Native people entered the region at the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age, but the Native peoples say they have lived here since time immemorial. The Blackfeet call the Rocky Mountains “Mistakis,” or “Backbone-of-the-World,” and their creation stories took place on the glaciers.  Three supernatural beings—Thunder Chief, the Wind Maker, and Es-to-ne-a-pesta, Maker of Storms and Blizzards—all originated in the glaciers or the interglacial lakes.

Throughout Native American history, the alpine zones have been special places for hunting, gathering, and ceremonial use. Important cultural plants, minerals, and animals were procured in these unique environmental settings. When temperatures cooled millennia ago, ice covered much of the alpine and subalpine zones year-round. Since that time, seasonal snow and ice have accumulated to cover evidence of ancient human activities on the mountains: the cut animal bones, fire rings, campsites, and stone tools associated with hunting, ceremony, and gathering. The tribes today see the mountains as the homes of powerful beings that continue to interact with the people.   

Climate change threatens the tribes’ cultural materials because it affects the ice patches that protect them. Glacier National Park contained more than 150 glaciers in 1910. Now, it holds only 26 glaciers—a reduction of about 67 percent. Experts predict that all of the glaciers in the park could be lost by as early as 2020. In addition, ancient patches of unglaciated snow and ice are melting and receding at unprecedented rates.

Recent dramatic changes brought to these alpine and subalpine areas have caused an imbalance to a natural ecological system used and maintained by tribal ancestors since time immemorial. They face permanent loss of cultural and natural resources, which the National Park Service is working with tribes to preserve and protect.

In response to climate change impacts on cultural and natural heritage, the Ice Patch Archeology and Paleoecology Project was developed. The project focuses on areas along the eastern and western slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Glacier National Park.  Archeologists in collaboration with the Blackfeet Tribe and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes investigate the long-term human use of stable ice and snow patches that formed millennia ago and became permanent on mountain slopes.

The project monitors the effects of climate change in the ecological conditions and human use of these features. The project also will locate, document, and, if needed, recover any perishable cultural artifacts and paleo-biological items from ice patches, in consultation with the tribes. The National Park Service and tribes will cooperatively implement culturally appropriate protective and conservation measures for sensitive cultural sites, features, and objects at risk from climate change–related melting.

Cultural resource studies that focus on areas newly exposed by receding ice and snow fields, such as this one, provide insights about ancient lifeways in alpine and subalpine zones. Such studies also provide essential information on recent climate and paleo-environmental change, helping park managers and tribes evaluate the historical context of recent man-made habitat shifts.

Last updated: February 3, 2015