- Case Study:

Sweetgrass Hills, MT (Blackfeet, Ojibwe-Cree)



The Sweet Grass Hills of Montana, located in the Hi-Line region of northern Montana, sit between the Milk River and Canadian border. The Hills hold great cultural and religious importance for many Northern Plains tribes. Standing above of the flat plains as three distinct buttes, the Hills remain meaningful sacred sites for many tribes. The tribes that hold the hills as a place of special significance include Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Chippewa-Cree, Kootenai, and Salish. However, because much of the Sweet Grass Hills became public land in 1888, activities that many tribes view as incomatible with the sacred nature of the Hills have occurred there. The most destructive has been the mining of the valuable deposits of gold, silver, iron, marble, and other minerals in the hills. Over the years numerous mining claims have been patented on all three buttes, under the aegis of the General Mining Law of 1872. This law protects and gaurantees mining claims on public land, and has proved the largest obstacle in protecting the Sweet Grass Hills.


Historically, the Sweet Grass Hills were used for a variety of purposes. Due to their location on the Plains, the hills are excellent spots to observe the landscape and were used as lookout points to watch for buffalo herds or approaching enemies. Additionally, the hills were often a place where fasting and vision quests were held. Thus, many vision quest structures and tipi rings have been found in the hills, along with eagle-catching pits and stone cairns (Gulliford). Though much has changed since the hills were used to watch for buffalo and catch eagles, vision quests are still held in Sweet Grass Hills, as they remain a sacred site for many people. In 1992, a group of Canadian campers wandered into a cave in the Sweet Grass Hills and discovered two chest ornaments made of shells from the Atlantic coast. The 500-year-old offerings crystallized the validity of the Sweet Grass Hills as a place with sacred roots dating far back in time.
For Northern Plains tribes, the Sweet Grass Hills are the location of origin stories as well as the site where other traditional stories take place. For example, the Blackfeet believe that a young man called Scarface journeyed into the Hills to fast and gain knowledge to help him communicate with the Creator. On the last day of his fast, the spirit of East Butte gave Scarface the power to find the Creator, who then told him how to perform the Sundance, which remains a very special religious ceremony for the Blackfeet tribe( In addition to the important sacred knowledge that the Blackfeet received on the Hills, the Hills also figure prominently in the story of creation. According to Blackfeet stories, the creator, Napi, fashioned the Sweet Grass Hills out of rocks left over from the building of the Rocky Mountains. He so enjoyed his creation that the Hills became a favored place of rest. As well, the Chippewa-Cree believe that Devil’s Chimney Cave, located on East Butte, is where their Creator decided the future of mankind and remade the world after a great flood (Sweet Grass Hills Protection Association).
In addition to being integral structures in Native American traditional religious stories, the hills also provide Native Americans with over 350 plants that are used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. One such plant is Sweet Grass, for which the hills are named. The grass is widely collected, braided, and used in ceremonies all over the country. For the Blackfeet, materials for all four paints used in the Sundance can be gathered on East Butte (Sweet Grass Hills Protection Association).
Since much of the Sweet Grass Hills became public land in 1888, valuable deposits of gold, silver, iron, marble, and other minerals in the hills have resulted in numerous mining claims being patented on all three buttes. Such mining was allowed under the General Mining Law of 1872. The part of which that has protected mining claims in the Sweet Grass Hills states:
Except as otherwise provided, all valuable mineral deposits in lands belonging to the United States, both surveyed and unsurveyed, shall be free and open to exploration and purchase, and the lands in which they are found to occupation and purchase, by citizens of the United States and those who have declared their intention to become such, under regulations prescribed by law, and according to the local customs or rules of miners in the several mining districts, so far as the same are applicable and not inconsistent with the laws of the United States. The Clinton Administration brought about major changes to the mining status in the Sweet Grass Hills. Previously largely unnoticed, the Sweet Grass Hills and their protection were brought to the forefront of land management issues due to the attention U.S. Representative Pat Williams of Montana gave them.

Recent Developments

In 1992, the Montana State Director of the BLM, Jim Baca, issued a Record of Decision that designated 7,640 acres of the hills as an area of “critical environmental concern.” However, the Director left the hills open to mining. The same year, Mount Royal Joint Venture filed a Plan of Operations to mine in the hills. It was then that a group of Blackfeet Indians, environmentalists, and ranchers formed a strong opposition to the mining plans. U.S. Representative Pat Williams soon learned of the issue, and immediately took action to stop the mining. Early in 1993, Williams wrote Department of the Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and demanded that the Mount Royal Joint Venture’s Plan be denied (Pendley).
“ I must tell you that in my years of working with Montanans on the protection of critical wildlands, I have never found such strong unanimity in opposition to development.”
-Pat Williams in a letter to Interior Secretary Babbitt
He then proceeded to request that the entire Sweet Grass Hills area be withdrawn from mineral entry. Following this appeal, the BLM filed a petition to withdraw the hills from mineral entry for two years while they conducted an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS. The petition was approved by the Assistant Secretary of the Interior (Pendley). Two years later, and not yet finished with the report, the BLM requested yet another two year withdrawal, which was also approved. During this time, the BLM consulted with many Native American groups in order to gather information regarding sacred sites that could be affected by the Mount Royal Joint Venture’s claims. Although the Chippewa-Cree said that Devil’s Chimney Cave could be impacted by the mining process, most Native American tribes could not pinpoint sacred sites on the hills (Pendley). The Sweet Grass hills, it seems, are sacred in a way that cannot be identified by boundaries.
In 1996, the BLM completed the Environmental Impact Statement, and recommended to the Secretary of the Interior that the entire Sweet Grass Hills federal land, about 19,684 acres, be withdrawn from mineral entry for twenty years. Under existing federal mining laws, this is the maximum protection available. The stated purpose of the withdrawal was to:
“Protect high value potential habitat for reintroduction of endangered peregrine falcons, areas of traditional religious importance to Native Americans, aquifers that currently provide the only potable water in the area, and seasonally important elk and deer habitat” (Pendley).
The withdrawal was then approved by the Interior Secretary, and left the Mount Royal Joint Venture’s claims void until the twenty years was over. The company brought the issue to court, arguing that the withdrawal was unjust. However, the District Court of the District of Columbia ruled that Clinton Officials did indeed have the authority to withdraw the Sweet Grass Hills area from the operation of the mining law. In April of 2006, however, Mount Royal Joint Venture filed a legal brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia. One of their main arguments revolves around the Establishment Clause and the BLM’s choice to offer protection for traditional religious areas as a reason for withdrawing the hills from mineral entry. According to Mount Royal Joint Venture, the basis for the twenty-year withdrawal violates the Establishment Clause on three accounts: The first violation occurs in that the withdrawal itself is not secular in purpose. Secondly, Mount Royal Joint Venture claims that the withdrawal’s principle affect was to advance religion, and lastly, that the Department of the Interior is now excessively entangled with Native American religion (Pendley).
The current case of Mount Royal Joint Venture v. Norton will be important to follow since its outcome could have some significant affects on the current state of mining in the Sweet Grass Hills. If the Appeals Court chooses to reverse the District Court’s decision, it is possible that the twenty-year withdrawal could be reviewed. Additionally, if the Mount Royal Joint Venture’s claims are validated, such a precedent will certainly have an impact on the seven other companies whose claims were also void due to the withdrawal (Gulliford).
Another issue of concern is that the twenty-year withdrawal does not affect valid existing mineral rights. That is, companies that were mining in the Sweet Grass Hills prior to the withdrawal can continue to do so. This relates to the larger umbrella issue of the General Mining Law of 1872; currently, the twenty-year withdrawal is the greatest protection available under this law. Certainly this is not strong enough for a place that is so sacred to so many people. In order to secure the hills from mining, legislative reform is needed with regards to the Mining Law of 1872.
In recent years, efforts have been made to place the Sweet Grass Hills on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. Historian Curly Bear Wagner, a member and former cultural officer of the Blackfeet tribe, continues to lead the way in these attempts. Additionally, he works on a larger scale to educate people about the significance of Native American sacred sites, including the Sweet Grass Hills, and the importance of their protection and preservation.
Updated on June 12, 2006