Pathways to the past

Jacqui Agate visits the Bridger Mountains – known as Wolf Mountains to local Crow Indians – in Montana.

Paid partnership with The Great American West

Pathways to the past

Jacqui Agate visits the Bridger Mountains – known as Wolf Mountains to local Crow Indians – in Montana.

Mountains are knitted into the horizon of the Gallatin Valley. Mid-morning sunlight has cast them in a buttery haze, but I can still make out helmets of snow on the highest peaks. Around me, joggers breathe past and a parade of dog walkers exchange pleasantries. 

I’m looking out from Peets Hill, a soaring bluff in Bozeman’s 41-acre Burke Park. Below me unfolds one of Montana’s fastest-growing urban areas – though, from up here, the city buzz is quieted by the sheer magnitude of Mother Nature. 

“We always know where things are in Montana. If we get up on a high ridge like this… we can see hundreds of square miles in every direction.”

I’m accompanied by Shane Doyle, a member of the Apsáalooke Nation, or Crow Tribe, who grew up on the Crow Indian Reservation and came to Bozeman for college some 30 years ago. A writer, scholar and musician, he’s joined me on a hike to speak about Montana’s Indigenous cultures, but he starts off with the view. 

He points into the distance. “To the west, that’s the headwaters of the Missouri River. On this side, these are the Bridger Mountains – though the Crow Indians call them the Wolf Mountains. If we look to the south, those mountains are the Spanish Peaks. And if it wasn’t hazy, we’d be able to see the Tobacco Root Mountains.” 

Long before the city of Bozeman mushroomed into life, this land belonged to Montana’s indigenous peoples. Tribes including the Blackfeet, Sioux and Crow passed through these peaks and plains to hunt and gather, until their land was encroached upon by Euro-American settlers in the early 1800s. 

Doyle looks toward the peak-stitched horizon once more. “For native people, these landscapes play a huge role in our cultural lifeways,” he adds. “It’s an incredible land, a land that opens itself up to the sky, and it informs everything from our art to our ceremonial traditions.”  

Fitting, then, that Indigenous Peoples Day – a day set aside to honour the USA’s native communities – is now celebrated on this very hill in Bozeman each October. Last year, a series of bold teepees crowned the hill, illuminated in hot pink, green and sunset orange, and this year the bluff was brought to life with drum circles and round dances.

A newly constructed medicine wheel – a sacred trope common in many indigenous cultures – was also dedicated during this year’s event and will be unveiled in spring 2024. 

Across the USA, stories of America’s native peoples are commonly told in museums, often through displays put together by white scholars involving little consultation with indigenous tribes – but, as I learn from a journey across the breadth of Montana, adventures in the great outdoors can sometimes provide a richer education. 

That’s true in Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, some 30 miles northwest of Bozeman. Here a trail beats its way to a craggy limestone outcrop, from which cinematic views of the rippling Madison River Valley unfold.

For more than two millennia, Montana’s Native tribes used this rugged bluff to hunt, driving stampedes of frenzied buffalo over the edge of the precipice. Today the park’s tipi rings are a reminder of this practice, which was largely abandoned with the introduction of horses through the 1700s. 

Native history is alive, too, in Medicine Rocks State Park, almost 400 miles to the east of Bozeman near Ekalaka, a stone’s throw from the North Dakota border.

Here, pocked rock forms twist from the ground like gargoyles, gnarled by 60 million years of wind and rain, while centuries-old pictographs bear evidence of the people who came to these lands in search of medicinal plants. 

But beyond these palpable reminders of indigenous heritage, native connections to the land are deep-rooted, boundless and eternal. And now there are efforts to recognise this in America’s National Trail System, including those in Montana. 

The Native Lands, Native Trails Map – launched by the Ancestral Land Conservation Corps, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Native Land Digital and the Partnership for the National Trails System – reveals how most modern hiking trails strike through indigenous ancestral lands.

It reminds hikers, for example, that the Lewis and Clark National Historical Trail – named for the famed American explorers who journeyed west across the country in the early 1800s – arrows through land long traversed by tribes including the Blackfeet and the Crow, as it clings to the mighty Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers.  

“Plains people were nomadic; movement was part of our being.”

Back in Bozeman, I settle opposite artisan Shauna White Bear, who has been handcrafting traditional moccasins since 2018, and identifies as Arikara and Hidatsa. She sits surrounded by sketches and leather swatches, wearing a pin-striped dress, a dandelion-coloured beanie and a brooch that reads ‘YOU ARE ON NATIVE LAND’.

“My tribe is based in North Dakota on the Fort Berthold Reservation – but as most people should know – we travelled where the buffalo went, so there’s a lot of Arikara and Hidatsa over in Eastern Montana too. This is a place where I feel at peace.” 

Making moccasins, she explains, is a way to feel closer to her heritage, her natural surroundings and a deep-rooted culture of making journeys on foot.

For many indigenous peoples, moccasins – which White Bear describes as “little pieces of art on your feet” – represented both a practical form of footwear for journeying across varied terrains, and a sacred and spiritual connection to the Earth. White Bear makes her moccasins from bison hyde, which she loves for its “strength” and its “unique grainy texture”. 

“There are mainstream moccasin companies that have capitalised on this, but we were the original makers. It’s about taking back something that was taken from us. That’s my mission: to bridge the gap, to bring people together, and to educate the masses about the importance of learning the tribes in your area and regaining the respect that indigenous people deserve in America.”

Need to know

Getting there

Connect to Montana from a number of gateway cities including Minneapolis-St. Paul, Salt Lake City, Denver or Seattle.

From there you can fly into one of seven regional airports in the state, including Bozeman — or Kalispell for Glacier National Park.

Best time to go

The weather is most pleasant between May and October, when the skies are blue, wide and beautiful.

Alternatively, November to January will be the best for skiing.

Where to stay

Experience the great outdoors under canvas — in tents or tipis. Try glamping or stay in a wagon, RV, dude ranch or historic inn.

There’s luxury too with spas, contemporary hotels and magnificent lodges all making the most of the beautiful scenery.

Must-pack item

Walking boots provide essential support, grip, and protection for navigating rough and uneven outdoor terrains.

And a decent camera will be essential to capture ‘big sky’ country.

How to do it

National and regional car hire companies are located at most airports. This is easy driving country whether you are on two or four wheels. 

Routes lead through national and state parks, major cities, small towns and attractions big and small.

Anything else

Big Sky Resort is a must for skiers, as is Glacier National Park for hikers.

See Missoula, Helena and Philipsburg for ghost towns and history, and Glendive for the largest dinosaur and fossil museum in the US.

More information

This article was brought to you in partnership with The Great American West

Journey through Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming and experience awe-inspiring scenery, iconic National Parks, legendary history, American Indians, and the great outdoors.

JRNY is an independent travel magazine published in the UK. Subscribe to JRNY for more stories like this.