It was our last day in Glacier National Park, Montana. My dad, sister, husband & I entered the park at the Saint Mary entrance for the third time and this time we committed to stopping at the visitor center. The four of us walked inside to see ceiling-high windows with mountain views, a movie playing in a dark room, a large timeline with the history of the area, a small room with exhibits, and, of course, a bookstore. Our party dissipated and I headed straight for the exhibits.
The room wasn’t that large, maybe 30’x20’. There was a teepee set up in the corner that you could go in to. Arranged along the walls of the room were six-foot-high signs covering topics of land use, creating a park, creation and animals. Along the back wall were taxidermied animals of species common within the park: a bear, wolf, and moose. I started at the animals. Each animal had a sign in front of it that was fairly ordinary. There was the animal’s common name, a picture, cast of its track, and a button and phone to hear a sound of the animal. But what caught my eye was the animal’s common name printed in three native languages with translations.
I moved on to look at the signage that took up the majority of this small area and I started recognizing a pattern. I read about creation beliefs, oral histories, place names and place meanings from the point of view of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille, Kootenai, and Blackfeet, the same three native languages I saw on the animal signs. It seemed that these signs, because of how they read, were co-created with tribe members.
I spent a good portion of my time at the sign about oral histories because of both personal and professional interests. How do we tell stories? What do they mean to us? To others? I think the Blackfeet said it well,
“Oral history is our culture. Our oral history holds the key to who we are. Our language is spiritual because it is taken from nature, and nature is spiritual. Our language doesn’t need a verb to move the noun; it is in constant motion like the earth.”
I met the rest of my group by the windows, looking out at the mountains. We left Montana the next day with a lot of new stories to tell.