This summer, I took a journey on the Empire Builder train, starting in Portland, Oregon and ending in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Along the way, I spent a week exploring Glacier National Park, one of our continent’s great natural treasures. I also had the rare privilege of sleeping outdoors at the nexus of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, in a tipi designed exactly as it would have been 200 years ago.
Just 13 miles northeast of East Glacier Park, Browning, Montana is the small town that welcomes most visitors to the 1.5 million acre Blackfeet Indian Reservation. I stopped in Browning on my way to the Tipicamp of Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Village. After a long day of hiking at Two Medicine and Many Glacier, I was famished. Knowing I was too late to join in the traditional dinner at Lodgepole, I went to Taco John’s in Browning to grab a quick meal. Due to some issue in the kitchen, the food was not exactly fast at Taco John’s–in fact, it took nearly twenty minutes for me to get my two beef tacos–but I was charmed by the counter man who noted how long I had been waiting, came over to wipe down my table, and asked what brought me to Browning. I explained where I had just spent the day hiking, and he began to tell me stories of his childhood memories of spending summers at the little cabin that his grandmother had along Lower Saint Mary Lake, just near the entrance to Many Glacier.
After finishing my much-needed laid back meal and chat, I headed out to Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Village just as the sun was starting to go down. Lodgepole is owned by Blackfoot artist Darrell Norman and his wife Angelika Harden-Norman, also an artist, and originally from Germany. In addition to the Tipicamp, the Normans operate an art gallery featuring the works of Native American artists. As the Normans explain in their Mission Statement, their goal is to “share the beauty of the Blackfeet culture and country with our guests who visit from all over the world. This sharing creates an understanding between cultures, enhances the economy on the reservation, and supports the continuity of the Blackfeet culture.”
Although I was traveling alone, upon arriving at the Tipicamp, I was soon embraced by a jovial group of people who had decided to come to Glacier for a family reunion. We sat on the patio of the Lodgepole Gallery, sharing a toast and watching the most spectacular moonrise any of us had ever seen, as we looked out over 100 miles of horizon to the east.
Once it grew too dark to sit on the patio, we gathered around a communal fire in the tipi camp arbor, a wooden wind shelter built in the form of a traditional Blackfeet ceremonial lodge. There is something about gathering fireside that brings out the singing and storytelling impulses of people across all cultures.
When I rented my tipi, I requested a mattress, sleeping bag, and pillow. The late July evening was warm enough that I did not build a fire in my own tent, and I slept with the flap open. Late in the night, I heard both the galloping of the herd of Spanish mustangs that the Normans keep on their land, and the low rumble of the Empire Builder as it headed to the West Coast, not far from the route that Lewis and Clark had followed. I slept well, and woke in the morning to the sunrise beginning to pink the sky.
The moving spirit of the Tipicamp is rooted in its beauty, its history, and the steadfast commitment of its owners. A letter of introduction from William Old Chief, Chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, describes Darrell Norman as “a staunch supporter of Blackfeet and Native American rights, [who] actively works to promote and preserve our land, culture, and the economic well-being of our people.”
Anyone visiting Glacier National Park should consider making this a stop on their itinerary–it’s a cultural experience to remember forever.