The Rocky Mountains stand out from the Northern Plains of Montana and Alberta. For the aboriginal people of the Northern Plains—the Southern Piegan (Pikuni), the Northern Peigan, the Kainai (Blood), and Siksika—these snowcapped mountains were known as the Backbone of the World.
According to an information sign on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana:
“The modern Blackfeet are descendants of tribes who were among the most power groups of the Northwest plains, whose original territory ranged from the Saskatchewan River in northern Canada to the mouth of the Yellowstone River and the North Dakota visible. The bands that made up the confederacy are the Pikuni/Piegan, which the Blackfeet today and reside in Montana, while the other three bands, North Piegan, Blood/Kainai, and Siksika reside in the Province of Alberta in Canada.”
In 1895, the United States met with 35 selected Blackfoot (Southern Piegan) leaders to purchase from them the land in the Rocky Mountains which would later become Glacier National Park. The Blackfoot asked for $3 million, but they are given only $1.5 million for the land.
The land, known as the “mineral strip,” was sought by the Americans because of rumors of gold in the area. If there were minerals in the area, the Americans believed, then the area must be thrown open to development.
The mountainous area involved in the sale is an area in which the Blackfoot traditionally hunted, fished, gathered plants, cut timber, and conducted religious ceremonies. Because Indian religions were illegal at this time, Blackfoot leaders were quiet about the spiritual use of the mountains, but they insisted that they must maintain all non-mineral rights to the area. White Calf told the Americans:
“I would like to have the right to hunt game and fish in the mountains. We will sell you the mountain lands from Birch Creek to the boundary, reserving the timber and grazing land.”
Without mentioning the spiritual value of the area, Little Dog said:
“I know that you are trying to say that the mountains are of no benefit to us. I know that they are of some benefit to us.”
Shown below is the Backbone of the World as seen from today’s Blackfeet Reservation.