GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. – Visitors from around the world travel to Glacier National Park to view its neck-bending peaks, beautiful wooded valleys, numerous lakes and wealth of large animals. To the Blackfeet people, it was much more. It was part of their ancestral homeland and a powerful place where they would go on vision quests. The Blackfeet Reservation now adjoins the eastern boundary of the park. Ed DesRosier, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe, runs tour buses into Glacier to provide visitors with information and history from the tribe’s perspective.
DesRosier began Sun Tours back in 1992, although it was 1993 before he was licensed to legally operate tours into Glacier Park. The company has grown since that time and now operates a fleet of six buses that carry up to 25 passengers plus one 15-passenger van. Three employees work full-time and up to eight employees work during peak periods.
Deep snows close roads through the park over half the year, but Sun Tours extends its operating year – from May to late October – by operating in the lower reaches of the park and on the reservation itself. DesRosier explained this was possible through contracts with tour companies that book travel during those times of the year.
“When we started the operation we weren’t sure about our clientele, so we tried to do it all – tours outside the park, on the reservation, and for groups with special requests to historic sites. Now we don’t really have time to focus elsewhere. Our focus now is through the park every day both from the reservation and from the west side,” DesRosier explained. “We do occasional trips for groups and for school groups to historic sites. We do a lot of different things for school groups from the schools on the reservation.”
DesRosier narrated the tour, speaking casually but with obvious emotion about the landscape. “As recently as 1910 when the park was created, people hunted and lived in these valleys. We regard it as a powerful place and very important place. As modern-day Blackfeet we recognize that this place is very important to our connection with the land. We don’t hunt here anymore or use the resources that are here, but up till the ’50s people still cut hay for cattle herds. Throughout time we used the resources for good living and harvesting game and camping and taking advantage of the resources.”
He pointed out the triple divide, unique in the country. “From here water flows north into Hudson Bay. Across Divide Ridge to the east it flows to the Missouri River, the Mississippi and eventually the Atlantic Ocean in the Gulf of Mexico. Up at the top are the headwaters to the drainages to the Pacific. Throughout time people were really influenced by the river systems. The rivers brought non-Native people into Blackfeet country.” He continued to describe the settlement that subsequently happened and the epidemic of smallpox that greatly reduced tribal numbers.
“The starvation winter of 1886 was the lowest point in our history, with people dying and numbers reduced to about 1,500 in our southern band.” It was 10 years later that the agreement of 1895 turned the land over to the federal government for mineral exploration and led to the establishment of Glacier National Park in 1910. That agreement, a term many Blackfeet dislike, was to provide the tribe with a good life and the ability to hunt, gather wood and plants for food or ceremonial use and to pay them $1.5 million. Little of that money ever reached the Blackfeet people because others filed claims for the money, citing losses of cattle or other things.
Visitors from all over the world travel to Glacier National Park each year. Those who take a Sun Tours trip with DesRosier or one of his employees are provided with new information and knowledge. They hear the history of the park from the perspective of the people who called it home long before the first non-Native people ever saw it.
Glacier National Park has recently completed some archaeological studies and has identified areas that people have long talked of in tribal circles. Researchers have found that humans have lived there for 6,000 or 7,000 years, and possibly even longer. Hunting camps were identified where buffalo were run off cliffs high in the mountains like the pishkuns, or buffalo jumps, on the Plains.
“It is important to recognize the historic and cultural preservation,” DesRosier said. “This is real sacred ground to people throughout the world.”