Learn & Explore
Tribal Culture and Early Montana Settlers
of Early Montana
Jackson Sundown (1863-1923), born Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn (meaning Earth Left by the Setting Sun or Blanket of Sun), was a member of the Wallowa Band of Nez Perce and Chief Joseph’s nephew.
Jackson Sundown moved to the Flahead Reservation after most of Chief Joseph’s band was wiped out during the Battle of the Big Hole. Sundown made his living by breeding, raising, breaking and selling horses. He was an indigenous rodeo rider and became World Champion Bronc Rider in 1916. Jackson Sundown died of pneumonia in 1923 at age 60. His memorial is located at Slickpoo Mission Cemetery near Jacques Spur. He was inducted into the Idaho Hall of Fame in 2014. Learn more about Jackson Sundown in our featured display at The Ninepipes Museum.
tour ninepipes museum
The Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana preserves and exhibits important historical, cultural, artistic objects of Indigenous Tribes, Montana settlers and native wildlife depictions. While these exhibits provide informative and visual explorations, there are many benefits to visiting Ninepipes Museum, including our gift shop, which features local artisan work, and our nature trail.
Simply put, Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana helps to teach, inspire and connect communities and cultures.
the lessons of sweetgrass
Years ago, a Blackfoot woman from the Fort Macleod area in Alberta used to bring sweetgrass braids down to the museum every year, and my folks would purchase them from her, and keep them on hand for tribal customers who requested them. The last year she came, she gave Bud a package of seeds she had gathered. He dug a little spot behind my mom’s garden and planted the seeds. It took quite a while to grow the sweetgrass from seed, but eventually he had a little patch going, and periodically he would carefully harvest it, blade by blade, meticulously sifting through the other grasses and weeds that gradually established themselves in the little patch. Following the Blackfoot woman’s instructions, he dried and braided it, and then kept the braids mostly to give out to tribal friends.
When I started working at the museum, the general public had started to learn about sweetgrass, and commercial demand for it rose. Folks liked to buy it to gift friends and family back home as a souvenir that seemed authentic and special, and they were intrigued with the sacred qualities that First Peoples on this continent attributed to it. They were surprised to learn that sweetgrass is native to both North America and Northern Eurasia, and its Latin name Hierochloe odorata, means respectively, “holy grass” and “fragrant.” In the past, churches in northern Europe spread this “holy grass” in front of church doors on saints’ days, and it was also used to flavor teas, perfumes, candy, and tobacco. It is still used today to flavor certain vodkas.
The museum purchased sweetgrass from Canadian Native American vendors who harvested wild sweetgrass in the traditional manner when they came through our area, but still we could not keep it in stock. I began to learn that with the growing commercial demand, overharvesting of sweetgrass was having a negative impact on the wild plants, and Canada was considering restricting commercial harvest. I found wholesale growers in the US that were starting to grow and sell sweetgrass, but they also could not keep up with the demand, and the cost was very high. Concerned about sustainability, I suggested to my folks that we start a new patch of sweetgrass for the museum, this time in special beds that would make it easier to keep the grass weed free, maximize growth and make harvesting easier. I started with six plugs of sweetgrass in a large planter, and grew it on for a season. By end of summer the whole container was full of tall sweetgrass. I laid down landscape fabric and created a long, narrow bed that would be easy to work in, and divided the sweetgrass I had grown in the pot into small plugs, and planted them in the bed, which I had prepared with organic mulch and a combination of organic fertilizer and bat guano, plus a little fish bone meal. While the first bed grew, I made another bed next to the first bed,
with the goal of having three beds, so I could rotate crops and renew soil with green manure and organic mulch. The first bed grew and filled out quickly, and we were able to harvest a good crop off of it the first year, and plant new plugs in the second bed for the next spring. The grass is beautiful in its own right, lovely to watch as it moves in the wind, and it is a joy to harvest the fragrant blades when they are mature.
Dad and I set up a production line of braiding posts along the porch with binder twine wrapped around the post and a slip noose on the end. We cut the grass by hand in small batches, and cured it to a certain point in the sun, which can be tricky, too long and the grass crumbles when you try to braid it, and if it is too wet, it may spoil. We had to check it frequently, because humidity, the time of day, and heat all affect the curing time. Once it was cured to a certain point, we divided the grass into small bundles which we hung on the slip nooses and braided and tied off with yarn. Then we finished drying the braids indoors out of the sun so they would keep their color and fragrance. It was labor intensive, meditative work, and I enjoyed the companionship of my father as we worked. My braids were (and still are,) large and sloppy, but dad’s braids were precise, evenly braided, with few loose ends sticking out. No matter how carefully I tried to work, my braids just weren’t as pretty!
It is still an ongoing lesson for me to slow down enough to work methodically and precisely, and my braids are a bit tidier, but they still vary in size and aren’t so pretty. I am so busy at the museum now that I have to do most of the sweetgrass work on weekends. Mom keeps the beds watered for me, and dad continues to harvest the sweetgrass into his beautiful braids, even with the pain of rheumatoid arthritis in his hands.
Sometimes looking at the eye-catching rows of sweetgrass moving in a lovely embrace with the breezes that flow through the garden, I feel a little sad that it’s so contained in its bed. I imagine the sweetgrass hills and wild grasses waving and swirling in the wind, their own sea of fragrance and diversity, and thank this wonderful plant for the tiny rectangle of beauty I am caretaker of, for its desire to burst free of confinement, and for sharing its essence with us. Perhaps a braid of sweetgrass may remind each of us to slow down and grow our awareness and gratitude for our surroundings, and the inner workings of simply being.
Interested in Sweetgrass and the indigenous use of other plants? Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Potawatomi Nation member, scientist and professor is an uplifting, rich book for the contemporary reader.
Hope, Tom, & Gray, Alan, Grasses of the British Isles: BSBI Handbook No. 13, Botanical Society of the British Isles, 2009, p 311. ISBN 978-0-901158-42-0.
“BSBI List 2007”. Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Archived from the original (xls) on 2015-01-25. Retrieved 2014-10-17.
Krasińska, M.; Krasińska, Z. (2013). “Food and Use of the Environment”. European Bison. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. pp. 157–179. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-36555-3_14. ISBN 978-3-642-36554-6.
Sweetgrass Growing information. Redwood City Seed Company. http://www.ecoseeds.com/sweetgrass.html
“Mosquito-repelling chemicals identified in traditional sweetgrass”.
Hierochloe odorata (L.) P. Beauv., USDA PLANTS
“NativeTech: Native American Uses for Sweetgrass”. www.nativetech.org. Retrieved 2019-02-27
The Nature Trail
The Ninepipes Museum nature trail is a short walk on a gravel trail through manicured grounds and magnificent views of the Mission Mountains throughout. The nature trail is bordered by the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, a nationally recognized bird watching area with Fish and Wildlife land on all sides. After exploring the Teepee rings, log cabin, wagons and dugout canoe, choose one of the benches or picnic tables to gaze at the duck-filled pond and abounding natural beauty.
Conversations with Bud and Joe McDonald
Joe McDonald is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and founder of the Salish and Kootenai College,
and Bud Cheff is a rancher, builder and founder of Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana.
Conversations with Steve Lozar & Renee Roullier Madrigal
much like her mother, Lucille Otter, who was CSKT’s first female Tribal Council Member.
People & Places
Click through the articles below to learn about the people and places of early Montana.
In Their Footsteps – Buffalo Moccasins Ninepipes Museum currently has on display several items used and made by the Mollman brothers, Louie and Charley, as
Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana
is proud to offer a USB thumb drive that contains over two and a half hours of interviews with Joe McDonald and Bud Cheff, Jr. Featuring Cross Cultural Perspectives of growing up on the Flathead Reservation. Joe and Bud were interviewed by Renee Roullier Madrigal in January of 2022. The USB contains 12 video segments that vary in length from 6 to 33 minutes Stories include Family Stories, Early Days, Growing Up on the Reservation, Influences-Choices-Advice, Stories Kept and Stories Lost, Relatives and Friends and Lifetimes, Mines and Horses.
Available for purchase in our shop, by phone (406-644-3435), and Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Apple Mac and Windows compatible