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Healing the land that heals

By Jayme Fraser
Photos & Multimedia by Greg Lindstrom

Grandmother's oven was his incubator.

But the gentle heat that rose through a soft blanket into the warming box where he lay was not what Marvin Weatherwax is convinced saved him from death as an infant 64 years ago.

His grandfather's prayers and medicine did.

Weatherwax says he survived a premature birth because the Creator taught his ancestors to heal with the bodies and spirits of plants. He answered the people's prayers in dreams and on vision quests that became stories shared through more than a dozen centuries.

The Creator sent Na'pi to form the Niitsitapiiksi, or Real People, in his hands from the Earth's clay and he baked them over his prairie fire. He breathed life into the five tribes of the Blackfeet Confederacy and gave them the land east of the Rocky Mountains stretching south from the North Saskatchewan River to the Yellowstone River and east across the plains past modern day Great Falls. Na'pi told them to guard this land and that great trouble would come if they didn't defend it from other peoples. He showed the Blackfeet Nation what the Creator had made to make them strong for this task.

Chief Mountain, right, sits on the border of the Blackfeet Reservation and Glacier National Park. The peak is so sacred to the tribe that a narrow area around the mountain is excluded from development projects.

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Today the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana is less than 1 percent of the tribe's original territory, but the mountains are still filled with the powerful spirits of bears, wolves and thunder. Na'pi also showed them rivers and lakes where the wise, but dangerous, Under Water People lived. Plants to nourish and heal their bodies and souls. Plants often considered weeds today. Plants, a natural resource for the tribe, that could die out unless Weatherwax and other tribal members can help revive the traditions that he says saved his life.

The adult Weatherwax leans back on the table where he sits in the language room of the Blackfeet Community College, using gestures to reenact memories in rhythm with his speech.

He raises a hand to one side then sweeps it across his chest to show the fierce storm that raced across the golden plains toward his family's potato field the October just before his early birth.

"We've all drifted so far from our connection to the Earth, and it's so amazing we can't get it through our heads."
Pauline Matt

It was 1946 and the fall squall would ruin the crop unless it was dug up before the icy winds reached it. Catherine Grant, Weatherwax's mother, was seven months pregnant but still helped her family by dragging away sacks of potatoes as they were filled. The potatoes were saved, but the physical exertion caused her to give birth two months early.

"When I was born, I was a pound and a half or two pounds," Weatherwax says, looking down at a cupped palm that could have cradled his infant self. "I was really little and the doctors said, 'Oh yeah, he's gonna die. There's no way we can keep him alive.'

"So my grandfather told my mother, 'I will doctor him and I will pray for him and I will keep him alive.'"

He moves his hands as if to place roots and other plants on his chest, just as his grandfather Phillip Wells did when Weatherwax was an infant.

"I remember smelling onions and sucking on something," Weatherwax says, moving his hand as if to stick a root in his mouth. "Then there was this loud whirring noise and someone said, 'Cover the windows.'"

Pauline Matt prepares a batch of deep healing skin salve in her home outside Browning. The salves are the result of two years of gathering, drying, extracting and blending plants..

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He was one month old. His mother is amazed at the memory, but absolutely certain of its truth. His grandfather was doctoring and praying over him on the kitchen table when the sound of engines filled the sky. War planes were returning home from World War II, flying The Great Circle Route through the North Pole region, then south over the reservation to the airbase in Great Falls.

The United States had won World War II, but the Blackfeet Nation was still losing its fight to keep sacred lands, maintain traditional knowledge and protect the Earth from harmful development projects.

The reservation was established in 1855 as prospectors clambered for gold in the mountains where Blackfeet roamed. The tribe lost some of its most sacred lands. Even today the plants that thrive there continue to be threatened by more contemporary searches for natural resources, such as oil drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine area southwest of the present reservation.

Wild rose hips have one of the highest natural concentrations of vitamin C of any plant.

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In 1896, Blackfeet elders reluctantly agreed to allow mining exploration in "The Backbone of the World," or the Rocky Mountains on the reservation's western edge. They sold the land for 10 years of $150,000 payments. After mining proved unproductive on the ceded land, the federal government created Glacier National Park in 1910. The Blackfeet still battle to restore their rights to access, fish, hunt and cut timber on the "Ceded Strip" as was written in the original agreement but nullified by the park's creation.

The Blackfeet felt the loss of their land acutely. The park's peaks shelter plants for healing that can only be found in the Rockies' alpine ecosystems, and the mountains are home to some of the most powerful spirits for the Blackfeet and other neighboring tribes. But the federal government had already outlawed traditional healing and many religious practices by 1887. And children were taken away to be educated and assimilated, but were often abused and isolated. Decades of policies to quash Indian culture weakened Blackfeets' knowledge of their own history and traditions and limited succeeding generations' ability and interest in sharing them.

Pauline Matt remembers her father every time her thumbnail cuts into a small bubble on the powdered white skin of an aspen tree and sucks off the sap that gathers on her nail.

Pauline Matt uses a smudge of braided sweetgrass to spiritually cleanse herself while making products. The smudge helps seal in the healing spirits of the plants.

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Emil's 16 children, including Pauline, would mimic him as they walked through the woods, chewing deer leaves, picking berries, digging roots—and eating a globule of aspen sap for its antibiotic properties.

"He never told us, 'This is used for medicine,'" Matt says. "But we learned by example."

Her father's generation was a quiet one of necessity, Matt says. People who openly practiced the Blackfeet religion or used traditional medicines were punished. The precaution of secrecy also led to some knowledge being lost in the hush. For instance, Matt says some of the original 288 prayers to sing when gathering tobacco were forgotten.

It also meant that children raised amid traditional practices sometimes didn't see the uniqueness of those daily lessons.

"I never really thought about it," Matt says. "It was just how we lived." She sometimes fed and taught her four children as she'd learned from her father, but it took several years for Matt to realize the larger significance of those ways.

"Whenever you have a real natural respect for the Earth, you'll never have to worry," Matt says about the plants. "Because I've respected them, they've always guided me and taken me on different journeys."

The plants nourished her body and helped heal her spirit when she left to live in the woods for three months after her husband died and her house burned down. The power of the plants later called Matt home from Whitefish, where she'd hoped her children would find better education and opportunities.

Cottonwood buds can be used as a natural preservative.

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"People thought I was crazy leaving Whitefish and moving back to Browning," Matt says. "I kept being called back here because I knew the plants were here."

Matt scans the horizon from her porch, looking over numerous ecosystems that stretch from the high alpine regions of the mountains that border Glacier National Park, down into the wooded hills, across the snow-crusted plains past her house, to the swampy valley painted red by a tangle of willows.

"This is an oasis and a pharmacy in itself," Matt says, gesturing to the swamp below that has a grey ring of dying willow.

Soon, Matt will dig for roots. Plants hold the Earth's energy in their roots through winter, so it is best to gather them in the early spring before the power—the medicine—is pushed up into leaves and buds. But today her kitchen smells like crisp pine.

Matt now uses the quiet lessons of her father to heal people using teas, balms, salves and other remedies she makes from home and sells through her business, Real People Herbals. Small white jars form towers on one tiled counter while Matt uses a ladle to scoop a light green paste from a food processor into another dish.

"We've been here forever. It's part of us. We're part of it."
Marvin Weatherwax

Braided sweetgrass, Matt's signature tobacco blend and some slow-burning sage gently release smoke from a small ceramic dish on the counter.

"I always burn the smudge first to cleanse myself and keep it going so the smoke gets in the jars," Matt says. "I really do believe that it keeps the plants' spirits in for better healing."

Matt says medicines are more powerful when people recognize the plants' sacrifice to them.

"The tobacco is a tool just as the cross is a tool," Matt says. "Those plants are so, so powerful, especially when you take the time to really acknowledge them and give offerings and prayer."

The practices are an extension of the Blackfeet religion and a belief that one should care for the land as it cares for them. Like many Native Americans, the Blackfeet believe that health and healing includes a spiritual element that must be treated in conjunction with physical ailments.

Pauline Matt offers a homemade blend of tobacco to the spirits of plants whenever she gathers them. Her signature blend includes kinnikinnick, ghost lariat, balsamroot and the inner bark of red willow.

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Matt is convinced natural medicine should be important to everyone, not just the Blackfeet.

As she holds a twisted, orange-gold cane across her palms, Matt says she spends most summers taking women on wilderness trips. She shows each one how to sand the cracked, grey limbs of diamond willow into two beautiful walking sticks, one for themselves and one as a gift for a mentor.

"Whenever you make something you always give the first one back in Blackfeet tradition," Matt says.

Medicine doesn't have to be something you take, she says; it can be something you experience. Matt guides wilderness trips so she can help other women find the same healing and inner strength as she did in those mountains years before.

She also knows Blackfeet medicine works for everyone because she keeps receiving orders for her herbal products from naturopathic healers and patients outside the reservation, as far as Japan.

So, the importance of these plants is not just about preserving tradition, Matt and Weatherwax say, but saving species that continue to inspire new drugs for western medicine or provide natural remedies for people everywhere.

The smoke from burning braided sweetgrass is used as a spiritual cleanser in prayers and ceremonies. Instructors at the Blackfeet Community College try to promote traditional knowledge as they prepare students for modern careers.

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Modern academic studies of the plants gathered by the tribe name more than 100 distinct species used to ease pain, cure liver diseases, battle infections and bolster the immune system.

Aspirin was synthesized from the salicylate acids rich in plants such as willow, the bark of which the Blackfeet use to treat pain, fevers and swelling.

Herbologist Wilbert Fish from Blackfeet Community College recently was awarded a joint patent with other universities for a diabetes drug they co-developed from serviceberries that naturally slow the body's intake of sugar.

A fine white powder on the inside of Douglas fir bark acts like nitroglycerin, which is used to treat heart conditions and stop heart attacks by dilating blood vessels. Weatherwax says it's one lesson he included in a talk to park rangers about the emergency medicines that grow around them. He says one ranger saved a man's life by scraping the powder from a nearby tree and placing it under the hiker's tongue during a heart attack.

Matt says it's important to remember the healing power of wilderness itself. The land is important even before it is dissected into parts and its resources developed into pills, motor oil or a home's wood paneling.

"Those mountains will take care of you," Matt says. "Those mountains have that medicine, that healing power."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Browning is a drab grey building surrounded by a chain-link fence eight feet tall. It's the local center charged with executing centuries-old agreements that the federal government would care for the tribe and preserve a small chunk of its land in exchange for land concessions.

The convoluted halls once led to offices and conference rooms where non-tribal members would manage the land "held in trust" perpetually for the Blackfeet. Today, most of the staff are tribal members and the practice of land conservation is dually informed by both tradition and modern methods of management.

Ken Bird grew up in a logging family that cut timber on the reservation for decades. He learned the land and the trade from them, but also from professors at the University of Montana where he studied forestry. He began working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs earlier this year so that he could return home to Browning after managing timber on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southcentral Montana.

A brown book next to the keyboard in his office is tagged throughout with thin pink sticky notes where he's marked important passages about his new job managing range permits for ranching on trust lands.

Marvin Weatherwax says a prayer while burning sweetgrass, sweet pine, cedar and sage. Weatherwax prays for the students and the college every morning in the Tipi Ceremony Room at Blackfeet Community College.

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"This right here is the CFRs, or Code of Federal Regulations," Bird says, picking up the thick text. "All the rules and regulations that we abide by for range, forestry, oil and natural gas, no matter what it is, we refer to this book."

Part of the BIA's responsibility is to protect the land for endless generations to follow.

"Our trust responsibility is to the land and the landowners," Bird says. "Making sure the land owners get paid for timber, grazing, whatever; that's our primary responsibility."

But, like most areas of the BIA, Bird says his department is underfunded. And his work can be further complicated by a tangle of government agencies.

With at least five different government programs directing land management on or near the reservation, the sometimes-divergent philosophies about conservation and development become more pronounced, Bird says. And no one in particular is charged with monitoring the health of native plant populations in the numerous ecosystems of the region. Consequently, it's a natural resource that could disappear without notice.

Bird, however, says any of the managing agencies would work to protect a threatened cultural resource.

"People have designated Chief Mountain as a sacred place and it's now in an exclusion area," Bird says, explaining that no timber harvesting or other development was allowed in that section once it was deemed culturally significant.

But even the exclusion policy at Chief Mountain doesn't preclude disputes.

"Land management causes a problem in that area because only part of it is managed by the tribe," says Betty Matthews, an environmental studies professor at Blackfeet Community College, who studied the contemporary land issues of the area last year. She notes in her study that cultural and ritual use of Chief Mountain is increasing, as is recreational use. Because it is only four miles from the Canadian border, and near both Waterton and Glacier parks, she says many Blackfeet want to see a joint plan among all affected governments to increase protection for the mountain.

Pauline Matt, owner of Real People Herbals outside Browning, searches for cottonwood buds, which are used as a preservative in many of her products.

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Weatherwax says communication about preserving important cultural sites has improved, but misses the larger significance of wilderness in Blackfeet tradition. While some specific areas might be recognized as the home of certain ceremonies, he says, the medicine of spirits and the Earth are not contained by boundaries.

"My grandfather used to tell me, 'Wherever you are that's where the Lord is,'" Weatherwax says. "We don't have no set altar. The whole area is sacred to us."

Conservation used to be a more subtle, spiritual value for the Blackfeet, stemming from their belief that they live with the land, not on it.

"We've all drifted so far from our connection to the Earth," Matt says. "And it's so amazing we can't get it through our heads."

Weatherwax learned the Blackfeet stories and values from his grandfather, who asked to raise him in exchange for saving his life.

"Anywhere my grandfather went, I went," Weatherwax says. "I was his shadow. I attended all the ceremonies. Or when he used to doctor somebody, I would go with him."

Weatherwax, and later his brothers, often would fetch the plants his grandfather needed to make remedies for visitors. He would run to the coat closet, kneeling down as he lifted the cloth that covered the family "medicine chest." His hands would feel in the dark for the right shape and texture, then his nose would confirm whether he had pulled out the right root or leaf.

"We could tell by the smell what it was," Weatherwax says, sniffing an imaginary root in his raised hand.

But strong role models and leaders are scarce today.

Chief Mountain is one of the most sacred sites to Blackfeet and many surrounding tribes. The Blackfeet believe it is the home of the Thunder Spirit, one of their most powerful medicines.

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Many of the tribe's elders have died in the last decade, so men and women like Weatherwax and Matt are filling the role of storyteller and traditional leader younger than usual. Blackfeet Community College, where every room is labeled with a Blackfeet name, has become a new center of tribal knowledge. At the college, after drinking a cup of red willow tea for the bark's powerful antibiotics, Weatherwax joins his colleagues in teaching Blackfeet ways and how they fit into modern studies such as nursing and energy technology. They also teach the songs and prayers sung and recited when gathering plants for teas, salves and balms.

Many programs reach out to the community beyond the students and many people take courses for the sake of learning rather than a degree.

Beaver Gobert, a motel manager from East Glacier, took a course on the medicinal uses of native plants and says it radically changed his perspective.

"I always used to think there were a lot of weeds around here and someone needed to get out there and spray 'em," he says. "Then I took the medicine class at the college and learned all them weeds were medicine."

Because the Blackfeet are part of the Earth and the primary stewards of the lands they still retain, Weatherwax says the fates of the Blackfeet religion, plants used for traditional healing and the next generation of Real People are indubitably tied.

"It would be very hard to keep our religion alive (without the land) because it is such a huge part of our world," Weatherwax says. "We've been here forever. It's part of us. We're part of it."

Jayme Fraser is a junior at The University of Montana School of Journalism.

Greg Lindstrom is a senior at The University of Montana School of Journalism.