By Patrick Winderl
Rising 6,916 feet above sea level, Mount Baldy stands tall as a symbol of personal and geographic discovery. Located in the Bear Paw Mountains just east of the ski bowl on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, the mountain forms a near perfect cone, complete with snow-covered peak.
Centuries before Lewis and Clark made reference to Mount Baldy in a journal describing their historic journey, various Indian tribes began using the mountain for spiritual retreats. Even today, Mount Baldy serves as a sacred site for religious ceremonies.
"Long before there was a reservation here, our people had a spiritual knowledge of the mountain," said Robert Murie, who teaches Native American studies at Stone Child College. "Many of the elders in the tribe have gone up the mountain to fast and seek their sacred vision."
During a vision quest, Native American boys, usually about 16 years of age, would summit the mountain in groups of four or five, said William Thackeray, a history professor at Montana State University-Northern. Led by a spiritual adviser, the boys would fast in solitude for four days while seeking a spiritual vision, he said. Equipped with only a blanket and a sacred pipe, the boys would receive a vision and rejoin the tribe as men.
Lame Deer, a Sioux author, described his vision quest in a self-titled book. He told of how the quest began with a sweat bath, a purification ritual still used today.
"Now I was all by myself, left on the hilltop for four days and four nights without food or water ... (I was) not afraid to endure hunger, thirst and loneliness, and I was only ninety-six hours away from becoming a man," he said.
Lame Deer described a powerful vision he experienced over the four days. During the vision, he was contacted by his great-grandfather and found a greater harmony with nature, he said.
"We Sioux believe that there is something within us that controls us ... what other people might call soul, spirit or essence. One can't see it, feel it or taste it, but that time on the hill - and only that once - I knew it was there inside of me. ... I felt the power surge through me like a flood. I cannot describe it, but it filled all of me.
"I didn't know how long I had been up there on that hill - one minute or a lifetime. ... but I knew that I was no longer a boy, that I was a man now, I was Lame Deer."
Mount Baldy, called "Grows Tallest Butte" by the Gros Ventre people, is one of seven sacred mountains in the region, Thackeray said. The other six are Black Butte, Last Butte, Scraper Butte, Bearpaw Butte, Gold Butte and Porcupine Butte. Spread throughout the Sweet Grass Hills, the Little Rockies and the Bear Paw Mountains, the summits were all used for vision quests, Thackeray said.
While the mountains obtained their sacred status from the Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Chippewa and Cree tribes during the early and mid-17th century, they continue to be used for religious ceremonies, Murie said.
The Sweet Grass Hills are particuarly special to the Chippewa and Cree, he added.
"Our people have a sacred story about the hills and how they came to be named," he said. The connection of the people to the land is very strong and dates back many generations, he said.
The Bear Paws came to be named because the formation of the mountains looks like a bear lying on its side, Murie said. Looking south from a vantage point four or five miles north of Havre, the mountains resemble a sleeping bear facing west, he said. Mount Baldy represents the heart of the bear, he added.
"The creeks and runoffs from the mountain symbolize the lifeblood of the bear," he said. Water is the most precious of all elements and has a special meaning to the tribe, he said.
When Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation was established in 1916, the Chippewa Cree Tribe was given a choice of locations, Murie said. Having a special bond to the land south of Havre, the tribe elected to locate on that spot rather than in Browning or a location near Lincoln, he said.
Another indication of how sacred the tribe considers Mount Baldy was the decision not to mine the mountain, Murie said. Large deposits of vermiculite ore were discovered on the south slope of Baldy, Thackeray said. The tribe opted to leave the mountain in its natural state rather than mine the minerals, a decision Murie is thankful for.
"I would rather have the mountain remain as God intended it to be, in its natural state, than tap all of its resources," he said. "It seems we always take what Mother Earth has given us and never put anything back in."
Because sacred ceremonies are still performed on Mount Baldy, part of it has been closed to the general public. Tribal chief of staff Richard Sangrey said that about five years ago the tribal council decided to reserve the top half of the mountain exclusively for tribal members.
Several incidents in which religious ceremonies were interrupted by others on the mountain led to the decision, Sangrey said.
Mount Baldy is also historically significant because it is mentioned in the journal of Meriwether Lewis, Thackeray said. From a camp near the Missouri River, Lewis ascended hills above the river valley and was rewarded with a view of the Bear Paws.
Lewis described the climb as fatiguing, an observation Thackeray said is wholly accurate. In a journal entry dated May 5, 1805, Lewis wrote:
"I thought myself well repaid for my labour. These points of (the mountains) were covered with snow and the sun shone on it in such manner as to give me the most plain and satisfactory view. ... I felt a secret pleasure in finding myself so near the head of the hereto conceived boundless Missouri."