Montana is home to seven Indian reservations and the federally recognized Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, all rich strongholds of American Indian heritage and places where tradition is revered, landscapes are sacred and annual gatherings offer glimpses into the way of life of the Indian people.
This cultural heritage is a rich, colorful tapestry of art, music, dance, storytelling, industry and leisure. Time-honored traditions like pow wows honor the spirit of the American Indian while telling an imperative story that dates back generations. Within Glacier Country, you'll find the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation and the Blackfeet Tribe of the Blackfeet Reservation.
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For thousands of years, the Blackfeet have occupied the Rocky Mountain region. Originally nomads following the buffalo migration, the Blackfeet are made up of four bands—North Piegan, South Piegan, Blood and Siksika, though members of the Blackfeet Nation in the U.S. primarily descend from the South Piegan. The Blackfeet people honor the land and utilize it for cultural and spiritual purposes.
The Blackfeet Nation has two major events that display the tribe's native traditions and customs. North American Indian Days—held every year during the second week of July—is one of the largest gatherings of North American tribes from throughout the United States and Canada. Festivities include a parade, traditional and fancy dancing, drumming, customary games and a rodeo.
The Heart Butte Celebration—a time-honored festival and pow wow—occurs every year during the second week of August in the community of Heart Butte.
In northwest Montana, the Blackfeet Reservation sits along the eastern edge of Glacier National Park encompassing nearly 1.5 million acres of rolling plains and Rocky Mountain Front. Located within reservation boundaries are the communities of Babb, Browning, East Glacier Park, Heart Butte and St. Mary. Recreational activities include hiking, boating, trail rides and guided trips. When recreating on the Blackfeet Reservation, be sure to purchase a tribal permit from one of the local area stores.
Glacier National Park, called the “Backbone of the World” by the Blackfeet Tribe, plays an important role in the history of the Blackfeet Nation. To learn about the park from the perspective of the Blackfeet Tribe, book a guided tour with Sun Tours.
The Flathead Indian Reservation is home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, comprised of the Bitterroot Salish, Pend d'Oreille and Kootenai tribes. A rich oral history and a spiritual tradition of respect for the natural environment sustains the way of life for the tribes today.
Annual events on the Flathead Indian Reservation honor the traditions of the Indian people. The Annual Arlee 4th of July Celebration has been held consecutively for more than 100 years and includes an encampment, competition dancing, drumming and traditional games. The Standing Arrow Pow Wow is held annually during the 3rd weekend in July and includes drumming, dancing and traditional dance and food.
The reservation encompasses 1.317 million acres in northwest Montana. Parts of Flathead Lake and the CSKT Bison Range are located within the reservation's boundaries, as well as many hiking trails and fishing options. Tribal permits are required when recreating on the reservation and can be picked up at area stores.
Points of interest include Three Chiefs Cultural Center, CSKT Bison Range, Flathead Lake, Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge and St. Ignatius Mission.
While visiting the Indian Nations in Western Montana, purchasing authentic American Indian arts and crafts helps preserve tradition, and gives you something meaningful to remember and appreciate your time spent in Montana's Glacier Country. The following link offers important information about buying authentic Montana America Indian art and craftwork (rather than misrepresentations) from certified American Indian artisans.
This Blackfeet Reservation itinerary makes for an excellent side trip after driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road east to St. Mary Lake and overnighting in St. Mary.
Begin your day-trip with a hearty breakfast at Johnson's of St. Mary—the longest-running, family-owned and operated business on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Please note, the restaurant is open seasonally, late May to mid-September. From there, head south on U.S. Highway 89 to the breathtaking St. Mary Overlook. The pullout is about 1.8 miles south of St. Mary and offers stunning views of Divide Mountain and the St. Mary Valley.
Just outside Browning, make your way to the Lodgepole Gallery, sharing Blackfeet culture and promoting the Blackfeet for almost three decades. Here, discover contemporary and traditional fine art, including Blackfeet art and intricate Blackfeet beadwork. In addition to moccasins, pouches, par fleches, drums and other traditional Blackfeet art, you’ll find paintings, prints, cards and more. Stay overnight in one of the on-site cabins!
The next morning, take US-89 to Browning , home of the North American Indian Days. If you time it right, this annual celebration takes place the second weekend in July and is one of the largest gatherings of North American tribes from throughout the United States and Canada. Festivities include a parade, traditional and fancy dancing, drumming, customary games and a rodeo.
In Browning, visit the Museum of the Plains Indian where you'll discover the rich, historic and diverse arts of Northern Plains tribal peoples. The museum's educational exhibits include historic clothing, horse gear, weapons, household implements, baby carriers and toys, to name just a handful. Pick up some authentic American Indian jewelry, available at the museum gift shop. If you're feeling lucky, stop by tribally-owned Glacier Peaks Casino—Montana's only “Las Vegas style” casino—and try your hand at the slots. Grab lunch on-site at the Jackpot Restaurant or Lucky's Lounge, or enjoy a latte from Glacier Grind.
From Browning, take U.S. Highway 2 west to East Glacier Park . Watch for the Blackfeet's own majestic herd of bison along the way. The drive alone is gorgeous as you make your way toward the towering peaks of Glacier National Park. Once in East Glacier Park, visit the John L. Clark Gallery Western Art Gallery and Memorial Museum. On display is the work of artist and Blackfeet tribesman John L. Clark—an internationally renowned wood carver rendered deaf and mute by scarlet fever at the age of two.
Lastly, make your way north on State Highway 49 to Kiowa— Blackfeet for “bear” (Kya-yo) —where you'll find jaw-dropping views of Glacier National Park, then pick up US-89 back to St. Mary.
Make your way from Missoula to Flathead Lake via the Flathead Indian Reservation, stopping along the way to discover the history and way of life of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, as well as the numerous explore-worthy sites and attractions on reservation land.
From Missoula, travel north on scenic U.S. Highway 93—aka "The People's Way” from Evaro to Polson—through the Flathead Indian Reservation. Just past Evaro Hill be sure to look for the "animals' bridge," a grass-covered wildlife overpass built to give animals a safe path to cross.
North of Evaro, stop in Arlee —home to quaint local shops and galleries as well as the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas. If you happen to be traveling on or around the Fourth of July, plan to visit the Annual Arlee 4th of July Celebration pow wow, which may inspire an extended stay in the area. For more than 100 years this event has given a look into the culture of the Indian people with an encampment, competition dancing, drumming and traditional games.
From Arlee continue north on US-93 to State Highway 200 west. Just before Dixon, take State Highway 212 north to the CSKT Bison Range in Moiese where you'll find roughly 350 head of bison, plus elk, deer, bear, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope. Enjoy one of two scenic drives on the range.
At Three Chiefs Cultural Center in St. Ignatius on US-93, explore the exhibit gallery to experience the rich cultural heritage and gain insight into the Salish, Pend d'Oreille, and Kootenai tribes.
Take MT-212 north to US-93 for more amazing views of the Mission Mountains. Grab lunch at Ninepipes Lodge and Allentown Restaurant in Charlo and visit the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana. Walk the on-site nature trail, and, if you're into birding, bring your binoculars and visit the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, which is directly across from the lodge and restaurant.
Polson is your next stop, located on the southwest shore of the beautiful Flathead Lake—the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. At the Polson Flathead Lake Museum learn about local tribal history, then grab a Montana microbrew in downtown Polson at Glacier Brewing Company. Enjoy dinner and an overnight at tribally-owned Kwataqnuk Resort & Casino.
Wake up in Polson on the shores of Flathead Lake and grab breakfast at the resort. Local fishing guides are also available to take you out for a lake fishing experience. Please note: Recreating on the tribal land requires a permit. Another option is to visit the Seli'š Ksanka Qlispe' dam (formerly known as the Kerr Dam). A short 5-mile drive from Polson, the dam is located on the Flathead River and boasts a 1,000-foot boardwalk that lets you stand right above the falls where you'll find breathtaking canyon views. Check out the spillway in the spring and early summer, and have a picnic lunch in the area. Whitewater rafting and fishing are also popular activities at the dam.
Take US-93 south back to Missoula, stopping in St. Ignatius to visit the St. Ignatius Mission and the Four Winds Indian Trading Post. Note, they both close at 5 p.m. Then, enjoy dinner at tribally-owned Gray Wolf Peak Casino's Mountain Pine Grill just north of Evaro.
For more information on visiting Indian reservations in Montana, see Explore Indian Country.
The history and way of life of the First Nations in Montana extends beyond the borders of the Blackfeet and Flathead Indian reservations.
Prior to moving to the Flathead Indian Reservation, the Salish Tribe resided in Montana's Bitterroot Valley. Today, the Historic St. Mary's Mission in Stevensville serves as a portal into the past. Visitors can take a guided tour of the mission and grounds, as well as Chief Victor's cabin. The cabin houses an impressive photo gallery that helps tell the story of the convergence of two cultures.
While Travelers' Rest State Park in Lolo is best known as the campsite of the Lewis and Clark Expedition through modern-day Montana, it was originally used as a campsite and trail junction by the Salish, Pend d'Oreille and Nez Perce tribes.
In the heart of downtown Missoula, the Missoula Art Museum preserves and celebrates Montana's unique and rich cultural heritage with one of the largest collections of contemporary American Indian art in the United States. MAM's signature Contemporary American Indian Art Collection is anchored by works of artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.
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