Glacier Park was a homeland for the Blackfeet thousands of years before there was such a thing as a National Park. It was a summer location, and they followed buffalo from the plains in the East into the mountains. As the snow melted, berries ripened, and the Blackfeet gathered roots and berries to supplement their diet and aid their health.
That life began changing as buffalo were nearly exterminated. The Judith River Treaty of 1855 established a reservation of 1.5 million acres, but before the treaty, the Blackfeet occupied about two-thirds of Montana. Years later, in 1910, the Glacier National Park was formed.
Ed DesRosier, a tribal member, created Sun Tours in 1992 to tell visitors the story of the Blackfeet as visitors traveled by bus over the Sun Highway through historical tribal lands. DesRosier remains the founder/owner/operator of a fleet of eight 25-passenger busses, one 14-passenger mini bus and a cargo van.
It wasn’t that easy in the beginning for DesRosier. Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, Blackfeet, who currently gives the tours, told the 20 visitors on the bus how DesRosier fought long and hard to get authority from Glacier Park to operate his own tour and focus on tribal history.
“When you’re on a Sun Tours bus you’re participating in something that’s historically significant,” HolyWhiteMountain said. He explained how DesRosier and other tribal representatives had met with Glacier Park officials back in 1992 to explain his plans for a Blackfeet bus tour through the park. There already were other concessionaires: lodges and chalets, tour boats, a horse riding operation and the “Red Busses” that Glacier is still noted for. In meeting with park officials, DesRosier was told they had no more permits for tours. But he was not one to walk away from something he wanted.
So, DesRosier started doing tours anyway. Until he got arrested and fined. “We went before a federal court judge, we were found guilty and we appealed,” DesRosier said. “Then, we went to district court and were found guilty, and we appealed that. So it went to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. By this time I already had two years under my belt doing these tours. The Court of Appeals said, ‘your case is moot because you’ve been doing tours. Why are we hearing this case?’”
“They didn’t want this to go to the Supreme Court because had [the court] ruled in favor of the tours, it would open up parks all over the U.S. for tribal use and they didn’t want to deal with that,” HolyWhiteMountain added.
Tour visitors hear much more than the tribe’s legal history. HolyWhiteMountain keeps the visitors entertained, and at stops along the tour, he explained landmarks and names like Bird Woman Falls, Blackfeet Glacier and the Weeping Wall.
He also talked about the importance of this land to the Blackfeet. “The mountains were used for spiritual purposes, fasting places. Some individual sites were used over thousands of years and others were only used a single time. In each case, they could see either Chief Mountain or the Sweet Grass Hills to the East,” HolyWhiteMountain said.
“This means a lot to us in getting our story out,” HolyWhiteMountain explained. “Other tribes can also come here and see how we’re doing, maybe give them ideas for something similar. National parks, especially in the West, are on sacred ground, ceremonial ground, within park boundaries. These are the grounds that were used by people for thousands of years, and then all of a sudden, you’re not allowed to use them anymore because it’s now a national park.”
Visitors from around the country and around the world have the option of using different bus tour lines. But only one will show you the history and culture of the Blackfeet, who have lived here for thousands of years.
This story was originally published July 17, 2014.