Thursday, July 4, 2013

Very special places

This post is dedicated to the Medicine Rock, The Sleeping Buffalo, and The Sweet Grass Hills.  All three of these are special and/or sacred to Plains Indians.

Medicine Rock
Medicine Rock was one of the first super special places I saw in Montana.  It is a ginormous stone out in the middle of the prairie; definitely stands out.  It is covered in petroglyphs, with prayer cloths (offerings) and rattlesnakes lying all around it.  It was pretty much one of the coolest things I have seen in my life.  Medicine Rock is who-knows-how-old and has been sacred, and used from prehistoric up to modern times.  You can see in the photo how it is covered in petroglyphs.  Because of Medicine Rock's special status, the BLM is responsible for monitoring and protect it from vandalism.

Sign next to the buffalo.  The Teddy Bear is not mine, and it may or may not be an offering, but I love that it is chilling there!

Another very special....thing, I guess, rather than the Sleeping Buffalo.  When we first went to see it, we were with 15 Indians from the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes from Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.  Those in the class included residents of the reservation, tribal elders, and the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (who also happens to be an elder).

The history of the Sleeping Buffalo is complicated, and illustrative of what happens when cultures clash.  This one, and approximately 6 others, were once located north of Malta, near the big bend of the Milk River.  Someone in 1932, decided to take the Sleeping Buffalo and place it in the center of Malta in a cement block.  For decades the local tribes fought to get the Sleeping Buffalo returned.  Some random, and asinine, decision was made to remove it from the cement and place is along Highway 2 under a shelter.  Now, yay! for taking it out of the cement and giving it shelter from the elements.   Unfortunately, some idiots in the world have zero respect for things along the sides of roads.  Then in 1987, a smaller medicine rock was placed with the Sleeping Buffalo.  The Gros Ventre and the Assiniboine we spoke with, really want the Sleeping Buffalo and Medicine Rock returned to their original locations, or at least removed from the side of the highway in hopes that the vandalism will stop.

Now, before we went to see it, a few of the tribal elders starting telling me how very special the Sleeping Buffalo is to them.  They spoke so lovingly of how you can see the buffalo's ribs, spine, and even the little hump on the neck.  They also added that they were raised to always take offerings to the buffalo and medicine rock whenever they go past it.  But, the conversation quickly turned into stories of finding the buffalo vandalized by trash, legit graffiti, and, by far the worst, human excrement and urine.  Who the hell thinks it is okay to pee or poop all over anything?!

I didn't take pictures of the buffalo and medicine rock when we were there the first time because it seemed wrong to interfere with the class as they made offerings to it.  But I can say that I felt honored to be able to witness this and to hear how they described the markings on the medicine rock.  I do have pictures now, and they aren't the best view of the buffalo or medicine rock due to the enclosure, so bear with me.

The Medicine Rock with offerings of tobacco, bread, water, and a prayer cloth...and graffiti.

Close up of a petroglyph.
Another view of the Medicine Rock.

Back of the Sleeping Buffalo.  You can still see some of the cement from when it was in the center of Malta.  The red paint is graffiti.
In this one you can clearly see the spine and ribs.  
This was the best view I could get of the face.  
A little extra reading.  Enjoy!

Now, both Medicine Rocks and the Sleeping Buffalo are sacred to the Plains Indians.  But, the Sweet Grass Hills are beyond special or sacred.  They consist of a small mountain range, which are visible for miles away.  According to the BLM's website:
"They rise nearly 3000 feet above the surrounding prairie and are visible for miles. The “Hills” were created by an igneous intrusion through older sedimentary rocks during the Eocene, about 50 million years ago. The Hills average 18-20 inches of annual precipitation or about double what falls on the surrounding prairie. This provides an island of mountainous, forested habitat for elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer and a few moose.  The Sweet Grass Hills produced minor amounts of gold and silver as well as other minerals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Federal minerals in the Hills are now withdrawn from mineral entry to protect other resource values. Several American Indian Tribes have spiritual and historic associations with the Sweet Grass Hills and they have been determined eligible to the National Register of Historic Places."
View of the Sweet Grass Hills.
In addition, the BLM has designated the Sweet Grass Hills as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) and a Traditional Cultural Property (TCP).  What those mean is that the Sweet Grass Hills are completely protected from development and exploitation.  Mining is generally allowed in ACEC lands, however, due to a push from local tribes, mining operations were put on a 20 year hold.  This hold ends in 3 years, and I hope it is renewed.  Also, there is zero motorized vehicle use in the Sweet Grass Hills, so the only way in and out is to walk.

The primary reason for our visit was to monitor The Devil's Chimney.  It is a cave that is beyond special for Indian tribes on the plains.  Perhaps "beyond sacred" is the more appropriate description.  When I asked if the cave was used for vision quests, the response I was given was basically that the rituals in the cave are about 10x more sacred than a vision quest.  The tribes believe that it is the location where God, the Creator of All Things (not to be confused with the Christian God) will be born again to the world.

Criss-crossed this stream a lot.  
The hike to get there took approximately 2.5 hours.  We criss-crossed a creek probably close to 35 times; zigzagging our way around a mountain.  Along the way we stumbled upon elk tracks, and recent elk tracks at that.  Surprisingly, we made it to an open clearing where the cow (a female elk) was relaxing and eating.  Now, I am not a religious person, but even I could tell what makes the Sweet Grass Hills special.  They are beyond beautiful and peaceful.  I would say it is the closest thing to heaven on earth.

By the time we made it to the cave, I was exhausted but content.  And then I was ever so slightly freaking out.  The entrance to the cave requires you to crawl in on your belly.  Granted you only have to crawl about 7 feet, but you have mountain rock above and below you and that can be terrifying.  Luckily for me, my co-workers crawled in first and kindly shined the flashlight through the opening so I convinced myself to crawl in.  And having done it once, I'll most definitely do it again!

But once you've crawled in, you come into a cave that is pretty expansive, with cave tubes and lower sections (neither of which I was brave enough to climb into).  It is a wet cave, meaning there is condensation dripping all over the place.  But this cave is special.  Just sitting in there, in the silence, you can tell how loved and respected it is.  Offerings were all over the place, and we left them alone.  The sole reason the BLM archaeologists have to go, is to make sure that the cave has not been vandalized; stewardship at its best.  In fact, the cave is so special, that when I needed to go find a bush, I made it a point to walk 10 minutes away.  It didn't feel right going pee near the place the Creator was going to be reborn from.....

Me in the cave.  

Cave tube, complete with my coworkers.
Opening at the top of the cave.
Which brings me to it's name.  The Devil's Chimney, the place God will be reborn........those definitely clash.  I haven't been able to figure out how it was named "The Devil's Chimney," but I doubt that is the Indian's name for it.  I also don't think the name is due to the idea that native religious beliefs were satanic.  Likely, the name is the result of someone stumbling upon the opening of the cave at the top of the a chimney.

After making sure everything was okay, we headed back to the truck by a different route.  And I'll never take that route again.  Several of the mountain sides are basically composed of rock fall.  Every single step you take, the rocks shift.  I am not fond of the ground shifting as I walk.  Especially when we are walking along a steep slope.  But we also walked through a forest full of dead fall, so it was the most adventurous and dangerous hike I have ever been on.  I think I liked the creek crossings better.

Lunch time view.  I work in the best places!
Awesome rock formation!

The elk is the little brown spot in the center of the photograph.
There's no denying how beautiful this is!
These rocks were exceptionally slimy and difficult to cross.

Dead fall in the forest makes for tricky hiking.
It is a tad blurry, but that would be a hillside covered in rocks.
Walking over that is semi-terrifying.

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