Article and Photos by J.B. Chandler
Napi, the Old Man, created the Earth, the oceans, and the backbone of the world – the Rocky Mountains. According to Blackfoot tradition, Napi then took the leftover earth and rock from his pockets and created the Sweetgrass Hills. Located across north central Montana, in Toole and Liberty Counties, these mountain islands hold secrets only the gods know. Steeped in historical and religious connotations, the Sweetgrass Hills are uniquely Montanan.
Looking north while along the HiLine between Shelby and Chester, you’ll see three distinct buttes: West Butte, Middle Butte, and East Butte. Healthy sprouts of winter wheat line the fields on either side of the dirt road, while most remaining buildings look abandoned and wind worn. Located about 40 miles north of each town, as you get closer you can also see the smaller Haystack and Grassy Butte and that the East Butte area is really multiple mountains. Many elk, antelope, and a multitude of birds live around these mountains, but not many people.
A gold rush came once, a century ago, earning Middle Butte the new name of Gold Butte. The mining town once boasted 500 people, a school, hotel, and saloon, but only a cemetery remains today. When the miners left, the free range cattle businesses moved in. Charlie Russell, the great Montana artist, even tried his hand at ranching in the area. The Lazy KY Ranch near Gold Butte later became a beautiful watercolor painting. Later, thousands of homesteaders rushed the area in search of free land, but only a few were successful. The strong few who today call this place home will attest to the spirituality of the hills.
Perhaps the people with the strongest connection to the mountains are the Blackfoot tribe. The areas around the hills were once their homeland and a view from atop the buttes allowed them to easily track the massive buffalo herds. In their legends, the only location named in their creation story is the Katoyisiks. The Sweetgrass Hills were once named for the famous hero Katoyis, who slayed the wind sucker monster atop one of these buttes. An ancient vision quest to the top of these mountains led to the discovery of the Sun Dance. The hills were sacred friends, as the gods asked the hills to swallow the bison, to save them from the rifles of the buffalo hunters. But of the many myths associated with these hills, this Chippewa-Cree legend might be the most amazing.
Like many other cultures, the Chippewa-Cree have a legend associated with the great floods of the world. To survive the flood waters the god fled to the Sweetgrass Hills, and to a specific location within the hills. Inside a warm cave the god waited out the rising waters, and from there he reformed and restructured the flooded world. That place exists to this day. The Devil’s Chimney is a small cave that just might be the greatest unknown religious site in Montana.
After a strenuous hike, one must be willing to get down and dirty to enter the chamber. The main entrance to the cave is
the wide chimney atop the rocky chamber, but only the nesting hawks use that entrance. To enter you must crawl like a badger through a portal into the cave. Flashlights are unneeded, as the misty, green interior is highlighted by the overhead entrances. A mysterious, forbidding shelter, this is a place where we can imagine the camping pits that once existed, bellowing smoke from the chimney – not a bad spot to wait out a flood, and after squirming out through the portal, one almost feels reborn, with one’s first sight being Montana’s Sweetgrass Hills.
Each of the buttes overlooks giant treeless plains, checkered with croplands. The East Butte hills, whether rocky or grassy, gain trees at a certain elevation, but not on the sunny south faces. Rocky outcroppings arise from most of the hills, but especially West Butte. Gravel roads run around these mountains, but direct access is not easy. Furthermore, during my exploration, every attempt was made to be respectful to the area. Not only because of the religious nature of the site, but also in regard to private property rights surrounding these hills, and the delicate nature of caves in general. Other caves exist within the Sweetgrass Hills, and like many caves in Montana, they lay undiscovered. Please be mindful when visiting any caves. (For more information on caving in Montana, visit nrmg.org.)
Lewis and Clark called them the Broken Mountains, the French trappers dubbed them “Les Trois Buttes.” Sunburst is named for the morning’s first rays of light cresting above the Sweetgrass Hills. It’s easy to see why Napi choose the Sweetgrass Hills for a perfect little sanctuary. The geology and spirituality of the Sweetgrass Hills makes them unique in Montana history. The gods created them, so perhaps one day you should visit them.