Native Storytelling

For 32 years, Glacier Park has hosted a native speakers program that tells the story of the park's first residents

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Jack Gladstone performs at the Lake McDonald Lodge Auditorium. Beacon File Photo

LAKE McDONALD – As the sun set over Glacier National Park’s largest lake, visitors staying along Lake McDonald – either at its iconic lodge or one of the nearby campgrounds – began to file into an old wooden auditorium after a long day of hiking, boating and exploring.

Up front, award-winning musician Jack Gladstone tuned his guitar in preparation for an evening of music. But the tunes that the Grammy-nominated singer would be playing that evening were not just meant to entertain, but to teach as well. For 32 years, Gladstone has been a cornerstone of the Native America Speaks series, part of Glacier’s ranger-led activities program. The program is the longest-running indigenous language program at any national park.

Prior to the 1980s, rangers often did presentations about the native peoples of Glacier Park, but rarely were those programs led by tribal members, said Diane Sine, an interpretive ranger who’s helped organize the series. That changed in the mid-1980s.

“It was 32 years ago that we decided that we should get people native to that culture to share that history,” she said. “It’s their story, and any story is more powerful when it comes from the people who own that story.”

When the program began, Gladstone was teaching at the Blackfeet Community College in Browning and playing music on the side. Gladstone was one of the program’s first performers and he credits it with helping launch his career in music. Since the 1980s, he has produced 15 albums and won numerous awards. He’s even headlined programs at the Smithsonian Museum.

“If it weren’t for the Native America Speaks program, I’d probably be playing bars in Saskatchewan,” he said.

Gladstone’s folk songs often tell stories about characters and figures from Montana and Blackfeet tribal history. Gladstone said it’s important to let visitors know that Glacier’s history extends far beyond its designation as a national park in 1910.

“The century or so that Glacier Park has been Glacier Park is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this land’s human history,” he said. “There is over 10,000 years of human history here.”

During his presentations, Gladstone talks to the crowd – which is usually standing room only – about his family’s history and how it relates to his tribe’s history. In the background, historical images rotate on a screen to help illustrate his points. Gladstone does extensive research while writing his songs to ensure that they are historically accurate.

“I always want to make sure I’m historically on the money, and I view myself as a scholar and a storyteller,” he said. “Songs are vehicles to tell my stories.”

Also highlighting the Native America Speaks series are performances by the Two Medicine Lake Singers and Dancers, who provide insight into contemporary and traditional Blackfeet culture through various dance presentations. Other tribal members from the Blackfeet and Salish and Kootenai Tribes give traditional talks as well.

The Native America Speaks programs run multiple nights a week around the park, including St. Mary, Many Glacier, Rising Sun, Two Medicine, Apgar and Lake McDonald. For a complete listing of presentations, which are free to the public, visit www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/nas.

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