Introduction & Teacher Background
Glaciers: A Native American View
While the mountains in the area that is now Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (WGIPP) have been present and obvious as long as Blackfeet, Salish, and Kootenai have lived here, large, conspicuously active glaciers have not been obvious in the last 10,000 years. Native oral tradition manifests a phenomenal memory. Some Native American oral histories preserve traces of a Bering Land Bridge migration from the Asian continent. However, there are not many traditional stories that deal directly with either continental ice sheets or large valley glaciers. Certainly the people who passed through the mountains during the middle of the nineteenth century encountered relatively large glaciers and may have even crossed over them in the Red Eagle Pass area. Those early travelers must have seen enough of the work of ice to speculate that the glaciers were larger in the past. Whether Indians knew that the glaciers had completely filled the mountain valleys and that ice sheets had extended over much of the North American continent is uncertain. There is no doubt that the power of Ice Spirits was awe-inspiring. It is certainly conceivable that a memory of interglacial corridors was preserved over more than 13,000 years. These traditions are obviously more common to native peoples who live further to the north.
The Stories of Ice
There are a number of stories among the Salishan, Ktunaxa, and Blackfeet people that indicate an understanding of the glacial dynamics of the area. The Great Flood In The Flathead Country and The Origin Of Flathead River both give accounts of Glacial Flathead Lake although they do not directly mention the source of all the water. The Origin Of Flathead Lake is especially interesting in the context of this program because of its wonderful treatment of beaver habitat. One of the most interesting stories, comprising many accurate observations about the origins of natural phenomena, is the Flathead-Salish account "Bluejay Brings The Chinook Wind."
The people who lived along the margins of the mountains spent their lives among the works of ice. They camped by kettle lakes, witnessed the uniformity of drumlins, and understood the composition of various kinds of moraines. They carefully examined the rocks of the mountains in their determination to make the best possible tools. They scratched their heads in wonder when they came across mountain boulders lying in isolation miles from their origin. They needed to find explanations. They needed to answer their children’s how and why questions.
Every tribe in the area has a version of the story "Napi Travels With Fox and Punishes a Rock." The story teaches the animism of seemingly inanimate objects and attempts to provide an explanation for glacial erratics. There was simply no way to explain how huge boulders could find their way miles out onto the prairie when their obvious origin was in the mountains. We now know that they were either deposited by glaciers or that they were rafted there on rotting icebergs in a glacial lake.
It is uncertain how literally Native Americans receive the ancient legends which everyone loved to hear and tell. Many native peoples have an abiding faith and belief in Old Man, Coyote and Napi as superhuman spiritual helpers that roam the Earth and do great deeds. Most adults are aware of and appreciate the employment of metaphor and other creative language devices to convey the essence of an oral tradition. Some people regard the stories as instructive mythology. While the great majority of Native Americans are highly spiritual, all of The People understand that some of the traditional stories are simply meant to provide good entertainment.
Now, here is the scientific explanation for the Waterton-Glacier Story: The Work of Ice.