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Sacred summit: Book explores the beauty and spiritual importance of Chief Mountain
Sacred summit: Book explores the beauty and spiritual importance of Chief Mountain

KALISPELL - There is a distinction to be made, here where tremendous peaks jumble together into views far greater than the sum of their summits, an important distinction between size and scope.

Measure Chief Mountain's size, its 9,080-foot height, the fact that it can be seen from 100 miles away on a clear prairie day, and you surely have a sense of how big it is. Chief Mountain is not the biggest in Glacier National Park, not the tallest nor the widest nor the most massive.

In fact, it could safely be called a butte instead of a mountain, perched there as it is all flat-topped and lonely.

But the mountain's scope, well, that's something else entirely. Chief is sentinel, sacred site, home to a place where the wild meets the human, and the imagination meets the sky. In terms of scope, it is the biggest mountain for many, many miles around.

And so it's appropriate, perhaps, that when Dave Shea set out to put the peak on the page, he did so in what could be described, in terms of size, as a booklet, but in scope is most decidedly a full-blown book. His 40-page "Chief Mountain: Home of the Thunderbird" is encyclopedic, even, in its explanation of this place Shea calls "one of the finest areas on the earth."

For 36 years, Dave Shea prowled Glacier Park's wilds as a backcountry ranger, patrolling trails, managing wildlife, leading search and rescue efforts. And for 11 of those years, he and his wife, Genevieve, lived, quite literally, in the shadow of Montana's most sacred mountain.

As resident of the park's Belly River Ranger Station, "I've probably spent more time in that area than anyone else alive," Shea said.

But there are a whole lot of folk who aren't alive, whose culture is connected directly to Chief Mountain, whose generations are heaped high up its flanks like so much stone and scree, and they are the ones, finally, who gave the mountain its scope.

That slow accumulation is exactly how Shea himself came to know and write about the mountain. "It took nine years to write 40 pages," he said. "I had to gather all the information and all the feelings. It was the kind of thing that just kind of grew over the years as we lived in there, with the mountain as a neighbor."

It's clear Chief has become a character in Shea's life, a fully animated wonder complete with presence and with moods and with attitude.

But it always begins, as these things do, with the bones beneath.

There, at its base, are rocks a half billion years old, Shea writes, Altyn limestone laid down when the earth was young. Shea walks readers up through time, rock compressing, folding, uplifting, becoming a place.

Later comes a blanket of plants and animals, a bottom-up emergence of life. Chief does not hang high amid other peaks, does not sling its arms around the shoulders of other mountains. Instead, its stony feet are planted firmly in lowland plains, its head tangled in clouds.

That means it's home to many ecosystems, to prairie meadows and aspen groves and, farther up, to conifers, to lodgepole pine and Douglas fir edged with Engelmann spruce. Above that forest, up about 6,500 feet or so, are subalpine meadows, dwarf trees mangled by wind, creeping instead of reaching. Then rock and more rock, home to only the hardiest.

From bottom to top, Chief is home to hundreds of species, to asters and geraniums, to serviceberry, snowberry, strawberry, wild rose. Then gentian, sky pilot, mountain heather. Up top, purple saxifrage, bearded wheat grass.

Shea, a wide-ranging naturalist, counted 43 species of mammals on Chief - elk and goats and bears and lions and beavers and wolves. He counted wolverines, and he counted voles.

Then he counted 120 species of birds, some neo-tropical migrants, some year-rounders.

Indians captured golden eagles here, he writes, by digging pits, covering them with brush, baiting them with meat and hiding beneath to grab the great raptors by the legs. The feathers were prized in sacred ceremonies.

"On Chief," Shea writes, "human beings are merely another part in the overall scheme of things."

But they are a big part. For centuries, the Piegans and Kootenai and others traveled here to hunt buffalo, or to climb the sacred mountain in search of visions.

But by 1883, the buffalo were gone, Shea writes, "resulting in the Winter of Starvation for the Piegans, and removing the heart and soul of their culture."

The tribes were moved onto reservations, which swiftly became smaller and smaller as new treaties swallowed additional lands. In 1895, a new reservation line split Chief Mountain straight down the middle.

White Calf, at that council, was dismayed, and said "Chief Mountain is my head. Now my head is cut off. The mountains have been my last refuge."

His refuge already had been breached, however, when Henry Stimson - later to become secretary of state, then secretary of war - became the first white man to climb Chief, in 1892.


In addition to being a spectacular peak, Chief Mountain is sacred to American Indians.

At the summit, Shea writes, Stimson found a buffalo skull, confirming stories that Indians sought visions there, head on a bony pillow while they scoured waking dreams for power.

A decade later, in 1913, Stimson returned, and on his way up met a group of climbers on their way down. He told them about his earlier climb, asked if they'd seen the old skull. Turned out, they had. In fact, one of them was carrying it out in his backpack.

Stimson explained the significance, took the skull, climbed to the summit and replaced it.

It's the sort of coincidence Shea says is not altogether uncommon up on Chief.

"It's a remarkable place," he said. "Full of surprises."

The Indians call it Ninaistakis, "the Chief mountain," and they call the Rockies behind Mistakis, "the backbone."

These are places of power, the skeleton upon which hangs the flesh of history and myth and the living skin of the world.

In a cave, near the summit, lives Thunderbird and the Thunder-Maker Pipe. The Wind Spirit resides here, as does Old Man Napi. The Sacred Shadow reaches far into the backbone, and each spring and autumn darkens other peaks with the outline of the Chief.

Around Chief Mountain's base people still leave gifts - strips of brightly colored cloth tied to branches, or pouches of tobacco, or bells, sweetgrass, shells.

The Indians, as well as Shea, would prefer climbers not venture here, unless greatly compelled.

"The tribe feels very strongly about this mountain," Shea said. "It's just not the sort of place you should go to drive golf balls off the summit."

It is, however, the kind of place where a naturalist might follow a grosbeak into the woods to a string of wolf tracks, which might lead to a finely crafted basalt arrowhead. And while looking at that arrowhead, the naturalist might see a golden eagle above, and a feather might drop from the sky like an offering. And later, on the way home, a weathered buffalo bone might break the earth's skin, a story of how things were.

"Projectile point, feather, and bone were all left near where found," Shea writes. "As I camped under the south shoulder of Chief that evening I had time to reflect upon and give thanks for what had been a truly remarkable 'good medicine' day."

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at

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