A Blackfeet storyteller excavates truth through narrative.


My head rests on a makeshift pillow, a wadded-up down jacket covered with dew, and from the bed of a pickup truck, I watch the teepee shapeshift from a shadowy silhouette to a white, clean-lined, three-dimensional thing. Early July sunlight pours through mottled high clouds; ponderosas stand sentry and aspens shiver, as they do; morning birds flit between the banks of Two Medicine River.

Lailani Upham sends a text to say she’ll be late to meet me at Red Eagle Campground. She still needs to pick up supplies for our gathering and she didn’t sleep well last night. Between juggling work projects, caring for her grandchildren and preparing for next week’s powwow in Browning, she’s tired.

I set about arranging things for the gathering: a borrowed BBQ grill, poppy seed muffins, field notebooks and pens for everyone. We’re expecting 12 or so participants for a cultural workshop here on the Blackfeet Reservation, and the weather so far looks fine.

About an hour behind schedule, as promised, Upham pulls up to the campground in a new-to-her charcoal minivan. We exchange hugs. She’s wearing a new ball cap, embroidered with a sasquatch. We unload plastic grocery bags full of potato chips, buns, condiments and red dogs. Red dogs (like hot dogs, but colored crimson with dyes like Red 40) are “reservation food,” according to Upham, and she’s excited to share them with this group of non-tribal strangers.

We sketch out the day. We’ll start in a circle in the relative shade of the two Red Eagle teepees. Each of Upham’s invited relatives will speak; then we’ll grill up the red dogs; and eventually we’ll carpool up the Two Medicine River a few miles and walk as a group to Looking Glass Ridge.

The participants trickle in, sunscreen not quite yet absorbed, eyes obscured by floppy sun hats and shades. They are here to listen. One by one the relatives arrive, too: Arlan Edwards, Carrie Lynn Bear Chief, Jesse DesRosier. Edwards’ ethereal drumming and singing opens the circle. These are story guides, here to weave language and song into the fabric of Upham’s unfurling dream.

The dream first came to Upham in 2004. In it, the sinking sun set the prairie dust ablaze. The land shook under the weight of buffalo running over desiccated grasslands, kicking dirt to sky. Upham tasted the dust and it burned her eyes. It swirled up and around her as she stood fast, trembling with the earth, the salty musk of animals suspended in the air. And then they were gone—save for one. The dust settled, and she held the lone buffalo’s gaze. She received its message, and her heart was honored.

Upham’s dream is backdropped by an ancient story of a Blackfeet woman who, during a time of scarcity, went searching for buffalo. In her wanderings she heard a song rising from the ground. She came across a stone whose song provided her with direction. The stone, its song, told her where to go to find the buffalo.

On a May morning in 2021, Upham met with the Blackfeet Tribal Council in Browning. Her idea was to create a company called Iron Shield Creative, a vehicle by which traditional stories could be celebrated and passed along, in community and out on the land. Upham would recruit “story guides” who would lead cultural workshops—hikes steeped in storytelling, thoughtful wanders to vantages around the reservation. The great Chief Earl Old Person told her, “This is a good thing. Go ahead and do it. I will be here to help you.” Another tribal leader gifted her an I-nis’-kim, a buffalo stone. Upham beheld the song within it.

Since then, Iron Shield has been a formalized venue for sharing oral stories, carrying forward the truth and, through collaboration between and among knowledge-keepers, fomenting an understanding of who her people are. Upham employs a non-traditional business model wherein trusted mentors from the community—like Darnell and Robert Rides at the Door, Mike Bruised Head and Joseph McKay, among others—are consulted each step of the way. Upham seeks to correct inaccuracies in the historical narrative, to facilitate mentorship through storytelling and build a living vessel for the Blackfoot language and the secrets that live within it.

Caption coming soon.

“If somebody tells their story, that’s brave. If they tell their experience, that’s their truth.” – Lailani Upham

The thread of Upham’s story traces back to her earliest days, when her grandfather and the namesake of her business, Joe Iron Shield Upham, would take her and her cousins outside and tell them Napii stories—creation myths from the Blackfeet homelands. The homelands, the Nitowas, extend from the Miistakis—the mountains in the north— to the Elk, or Yellowstone, River in the south. They are the homelands of the Niitsitapi, or “the real people,” the land where the Iinnii, or the buffalo, live.

Throughout a childhood divided between homes on the Fort Belknap and Blackfeet reservations, between public schools in Harlem and Havre, Montana, Upham did most of her real learning outside. School disoriented her. Even at a young age, there was an understanding deep within her that was obscured by a dubious public school curriculum.

She felt the acute sting of prejudice and dismissal. Textbooks reported a very small, almost negligible “American Indian history.” The lesson for Indigenous kids was that their people simply weren’t important. Roadside historical sites around the state were all Lewis and Clark. The white explorers’ dream, the conquest, dominated the space of retrospect and imagination; the popular historical narrative of the West left very little space for people like Upham.

After high school, Upham left Montana to join the Army. She married young and started a family on the East Coast. In New Jersey, she took her small children to parks or urban trails, found logs to sit atop, and told them Napii stories. The stories felt different told out of place, thousands of miles from the Nitowas, and she found herself forgetting some of the details. So she improvised: better to tell some story—and to tell it outside—than to deprive her children of their narrative roots.

During this time Upham began to wonder about her identity, about where she came from and what she wanted for her children. Through poetry, she was able to find clarity—about being an Indigenous woman living within a colonized value system. She was married to a white man, living between two worlds, a contrast that revealed differences in value systems. This awareness would ultimately confirm Upham’s calling to build bridges between worlds, and more immediately, draw her back to Montana.

At Confederated Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead reservation, Upham took a class from a Blackfeet Vietnam veteran named Woody Kipp. The course was called “Living in Two Worlds.” Kipp recognized Upham’s fire for stories and suggested a career in journalism. She remembered the way her truest heart had always longed to tell stories from and about her people.

Upham was part of a pilot program called “Journalism, On and Off the Rez.” She won a paid internship after attending a six-week boot camp for Native journalists in South Dakota. She later applied to and completed the photojournalism program at the University of Montana, followed by roles as a photographer at The Missoulian, and later the Great Falls Tribune.

Heeding a call to dispel non-truths by telling stories from her community, Upham began sitting among elders, listening, absorbing the language, and feeling the spirit within it. She began reporting from the reservation, where the people trusted her. Her questions came from an intent to promote understanding, not from a place of exploitation.

“I was able to sit and listen, take stories into my heart. No recorder, no paper,” she said. “You do that with your heart. You open up everything in order to receive what you’re hearing in the most attentive and loving way—then you’ll remember it.”

“One of the horrors Indians endure is having outsiders define us based on one-dimensional studies. It is better we define our tribe, and ourselves.” – Darrell Kipp, Piegan Institute co-founder

In our circle at Red Eagle Campground, Jesse DesRosier sits in a folding camp chair with one long-haired, scuffed-kneed boy on each side of his lap. His own hair is tied into a single braid that traces his backbone. He wears a felt hat and black Wayfarer-style sunglasses; his forearms are covered in tattoos. He is one of Upham’s story guides; Iron Shield Creative’s logo is his artwork.

In her effort to illuminate the truth, Upham has identified individual stars in an asterism of humans who carry specific knowledge—and who hold keys to unlocking accurate history, righting relationships, and finding a path forward. Themes of resilience and respect emerge from the dark history of the Blackfeet. Sordid, haunting histories of oppression and violence contain, too, a cultural commitment to survival, warriorship and truth-telling. In doing her work to bring accurate Blackfeet history and land-based narrative into the evolving conception of the West, Upham has had to tap the minds of “language people,” like DesRosier.

DesRosier came up in the Cuts Wood School in Browning, a project of the Piegan Institute, which aims to preserve and restore Native American languages. Here, between kindergarten and eighth grade, Blackfeet kids spend school days immersed in the language of their ancestors. Browning native Darrell Kipp—a Vietnam veteran, Harvard- trained Master of Education, and relative of the Uphams—co-founded the Piegan Institute.

“One of the horrors Indians endure is having outsiders define us based on one-dimensional studies. It is better we define our tribe, and ourselves,” wrote Kipp, who passed away in 2013.

Tribal language revitalization is one answer to the countless atrocities of settlement, colonialism and assimilation. Between the late 1800s and the 1960s, tens of thousands of Indigenous Americans were forcibly enrolled in boarding schools run by the U.S. government, where students were physically punished for speaking Native languages. The result was a generation conditioned in a collective shame and resistance toward ancestral tongues—and a surgical separation from the cosmologies, knowledge and truths that live within languages born of particular landscapes.

Upham is not a Blackfoot language speaker. She was raised in an English- speaking family by parents who were discouraged—and who discouraged their children—from speaking Blackfoot. She remembers front-porch gatherings between her grandmother and fellow sexagenarians; That’s when Upham heard Blackfoot spoken—in private, among members of the generation two ahead of her own. It was her generation, Upham says, that transcended the shame of assimilation and became interested in revitalizing the language.

DesRosier’s sons squirm their way from his lap to the grass, and with a patient, hypnotic cadence, he explains that English, like most colonial languages, is built around nouns: objects and static abstractions. The speaker is the center of a linguistic universe. English does not acknowledge the beingness of the other elements—of animals, mountains, stars or rivers. Blackfoot, in contrast, like most Indigenous languages, is based in verbs—in action and aliveness and vitality. DesRosier says it’s up to us as humans to find balance with the natural world—and the language holds the secrets of how to do that.

Upham maintains that one doesn’t have to speak the language to understand it.

“It’s been with our people since the beginning of time,” she says. “We still carry a knowing through the language which is tied to the whole natural world.”

A group of participants gather at the Blackfeet Tribe’s Red Eagle Campground for a cultural workshop in July 2022, hosted by Lailani Upham and the Iron Shield story guides.

Themes of resilience and respect emerge from the dark history of the Blackfeet. Sordid, haunting histories of oppression and violence contain, too, a cultural commitment to survival, warriorship and truth-telling.

Upham and I share lunch and conversation one late-August afternoon at the 2022 Elk River Writers Workshop in Montana’s Paradise Valley. She’s replaced the standard conference name tag lanyard with a colorful beaded one, which matches the beaded band on her black felt hat. With the scrutinous eye of a trained photojournalist, Upham expresses gratitude for and criticism of early documentarians like Edward Curtis, William McClintock and James Willard Schultz—non-tribal storytellers who tried to capture the essence of Blackfeet but whose work is inherently flawed by cultural non-affiliation. The aperture of American history has recently widened to include an overdue yet inadequate acknowledgment of Indigenous presence and knowledge systems on the landscape. Others agree with her.

“The heart of the future of Montana has to do with public lands,” said Dr. Shane Doyle, Crow scholar and cultural consultant. “We have the most public land of any state. And all these categories of public land were all at one time Native lands. Even though we’ve had our knees cut out from under us over the last 150 years, Natives are engaging again because they want young people to have a future. It’s a time now where we’re able to reflect back to see how things could’ve been a lot better over the past 150 years—and what we can do to make up for lost time.”

“Lailani is doing work that should’ve been happening 150 years ago,” he says. “But it’s never too late to start.”

In 2022, the 150th anniversary of Yellowstone National Park and the year the National Park Service acknowledged for the first time the presence of Indigenous groups in the region prior to the Park’s establishment, Doyle invited Upham to the anniversary celebration. Doyle was one of the artists in charge of creating the teepee village (a project of Mountain Time Arts, called Yellowstone Revealed) where the tribes historically associated with the Yellowstone landscape were represented for tourists, for the public. For Upham, it was another big trip away from home, alone, to represent Blackfeet.

Upham is carrying the stress of a fledgling business, contract work with tribal tourism and consulting, and the herculean task of trying to represent an entire culture. She’s working in her gentle way to detangle the tattered strands of inaccurate history. She’s built a replicable model so that other Indigenous leaders can share in this work. She has her beloved team, her mentors, and her family, she says, but it can also be quite lonely. This is her dream. It takes focus to stay the course.

“You are carrying so much. You’re a portal, a conduit. You’re a magical being,” I tell her during our lunch at the workshop. Her eyes well with tears but she’s mindful of her black eyeliner. She shakes it off, as a duck might, shuddering gracefully back to the present moment.

Upham’s intent excavation of truth even finds its way into her hobbies. People on the reservation know her and her best friend, Carrie Lynn Bear Chief, as the Sasquatch Aunties, for their YouTube channel, the Pikuni Bigfoot Storytelling Project.

“We’ve heard of imoiitapi throughout our lives,” Upham says. “As a journalist, I started thinking, why don’t we start recording our stories, from our Blackfeet people?” Blackfeet stories of bigfoot, or imoiitapi, are steeped in curiosity and mystery. The storytelling project, which started in 2009 and has now amassed 4,500 followers, makes space for the inexplicable. It gives an audience to the tribal people whose stories are otherwise dismissed.

“One of the things that bothered me, as a person and a journalist, was when I found out that people were ridiculed or made fun of or ashamed to tell their story,” Upham said during an interview on the Appalachian cryptozoology podcast, Sasquatch Tracks. “If somebody tells their story, that’s brave. If they tell their experience, that’s their truth.”

In December, Upham captured a bigfoot story from her younger cousin, a Blackfeet woman in her late 30s who’d been fighting diabetes for more than a decade. Upham set the recording aside for editing. As the winter wore on, the woman’s organs struggled harder to keep her alive. She asked when she’d be able to see her video. But Upham was caught in a horrible cycle of loss and transformation after losing a grandbaby in September; she simply didn’t have the energy or focus to edit and produce the video. The young woman passed away before she had the chance to see her own face, voice and story on the screen. Moments like this galvanize the multidimensional urgency of Upham’s work.

In January Upham attended a transboundary conference in the Siksika Nation of Alberta as part of her podcasting contract with Indigenous Led, a new conservation nonprofit that was born out of the Iinii Initiative on the Blackfeet reservation. In partnership with the Wildlife Society, the Initiative has been working to bring the Elk Island buffalo herd home to Blackfeet land. The herd was removed 150 years ago, and in June 2023, 49 animals with the original DNA of the area were reintroduced to the landscape. In summer 2024, another group will be released near Chief Mountain. Upham circled through the conference with her recording devices, collecting insights from elders and youth from both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.

The work of collecting buffalo stories— bigfoot stories, too—is a way of attending to the people. Believing the story of another human is a way of stewarding the truth.

Her voice suspended on a stiffening mountain wind, Upham calls the scattered participants back together during our cultural workshop. DeRosier wrangles his three children. Bear Chief and Arlan Edwards watch the sky. A storm is gathering to the north, and there’s electricity in the air.

From the top of Looking Glass Ridge, a high-point along the Miistakis that form the Backbone of the World— Upham points out the “Ceded Strip,” the deeply contested swath of territory that now forms the eastern flank of Glacier. This is Blackfeet land, she explains, that was assimilated and declared “public” by the U.S. government in 1896. In 1914, when Glacier National Park was brought under federal jurisdiction, the “public land” designation was revoked, and the government officially eliminated the rights of the Blackfeet to gather, fish and hunt within the park boundaries.

Iron Shield Creative is also prohibited from operating in the park. Glacier partners exclusively with the white- owned Glacier Guides, which has a monopoly on the hiking market; there’s no other permit available to lead hikes inside Glacier. (One other concessionaire, the Blackfeet-owned Sun Tours, after a hard fight with the NPS in the early 1990s, is contracted to run bus tours within the park). Upham and her story guides are relegated to taking their clients out on the reservation, to places where they can gaze upon the Ceded Strip. The parklands, the whole of which encompass the Miistakis, are one of the most sacred places in the Blackfeet worldview. This is the place of origin; this is the place where the stories begin.

We shuffle off of the ridge to a low point, safe from lightning and out of the wind. Upham pulls a speaker from her daypack and queues up a track on her phone: a recording of Chief Earl Old Person singing “The Buffalo Song.” Upham cradles the speaker in her two hands, her arms extended toward the center of the circle. When the singing starts, Edwards and Bear Chief allow tears to fall from their eyes; DesRosier clutches one of his boys against his chest; Upham watches the earth.

Chandra Brown is an Alaskan living in Montana. She is a writer, educator, river guide and founder and director of the Freeflow Institute.

Dave Gardner is an adventure and lifestyle photographer based out of Montana. Whether it’s a swamp in Arkansas, a river in Idaho or somewhere deep in the mountains, Gardner loves to use his camera to tell stories of wild people in wild places.