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The Shining Mountains

This Wired first appeared in Alpinist 50–Summer 2015.

In September 2016, First Nations leaders signed a petition to rename Banff’s Tunnel Mountain “Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain” (Eyarhey Tatanga Woweyahgey Wakan), a place name that more adequately represents the meaning from an Indigenous perspective. The petition is now being considered by the Geographical Name Board of Canada.

In Alpinist 50, Zac Robinson and Stephen Slemon depicted some of the ways in which the original mountain people of the Canadian Rockies made exploration in the region possible, and how their names for local mountains, such as “The Shining Mountains,” came to be written over.

Don Frache's mural Chamber of Jewels (acrylic on canvas, 1984)

Don Frache’s mural Chamber of Jewels (acrylic on canvas, 1984) commemorates the birthplace of Canada’s national park system, with William and Thomas McCardell and Frank McCabe’s 1883 “discovery” of the Cave and Basin hot springs–which were already known to First Nations people. The mural hung at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site until renovations in 2013. The curent interpretation no longer focuses exclusively on this moment, and now includes a Nakoda perspective. [Photo] Courtesy of Parks Canada

NOBODY KNOWS WHEN THE NAME “The Rocky Mountains” first came into being. Two French Canadian explorers, Louis-Joseph Gaultier de La Verendrye and his brother Francois, might have brought the term “montagnes Rocheuses” back to New France from their 1742 explorations in the foothills of Wyoming. Jacques Repentigny Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, commander at Fort La Jonquiere on the Saskatchewan River, might have made up the name a decade later–or had it translated from the Cree word Usinnewucheyu or Assinwati. We only know that he recorded the words “Montagnes de Roche” in a journal detailing his futile search for the Western Sea. A host of general names would have circulated throughout the colonial languages–English, French, Spanish–since the early 1500s.

But there were always other names.

In 1730 a sketch by the fur-trading Cree guide Auchagah, showing a possible trade route west from Lake Superior, found its way back to Paris. Somewhere in its travels, it accrued a new name for a possible set of mountains in its frayed, left-hand margin: “Montagnes de Pierres Brilliantes.” In the English translation on Jonathan Carver’s 1778 map, the name reappeared in sepia calligraphy as “Mountains of Bright Stones.” A 1796 map of North America, published by the John Reid Company, dubbed a nebulous mass of western peaks the “Stony Mountains.” Gabriel Franchere’s journal, from his 1811-14 fur-trading explorations, claimed that “the first travellers called them the ‘Glittering Mountains,’ on account of the infinite number of immense rock crystals, which, they say, cover their surface, and…reflect to an immense distance the rays of sun.” In 1977 John Snow–Intebeja Mani, “Walking Seal”–chief of the Nakoda First Nation, recorded yet another phrase for what might have signified either one part or the whole of the western cordillera. “In the olden days,” Snow explained, “some of the neighbouring tribes called us the ‘People of the Shining Mountains.'”

Mountains of Bright Stones. The Stony Mountains. The Glittering Mountains. The Shining Mountains. For the most part, these are forgotten names, roads not taken along the long march of progress that populated the peaks with the commemorative names of countless European explorers, scientists, financiers, developers, politicians and early mountaineers. The terms most climbers use for Rockies summits remember some acts of human achievement. They acknowledge some forms of presence, some orders of claim. They help focus and shape the stories we tell about mountains, the histories we celebrate. And in so doing, they all but erase the presence and persistence of Indigenous mountain peoples.

First Nations and Metis people were everywhere in the Canadian Rockies. West of the range, the Ktunaxa people inhabited the southern Selkirks, and they crossed the Rockies annually to join the bison hunt on the plains–fishing, hunting, cutting trails, and learning the intricate contours of ridgelines and valleys as they traveled. To the east, Nehiyawak culture stretched from the mountains through to Lake Winnipeg. The Niitsitapiksi people inhabited the game-packed foothills and the bison-rich plains; the Pikuni, the area between Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, and Butte, Montana; the Kainai from Red Deer to the Belly River; the Tsuu T’ina, around what is now Calgary. The Siouan-speaking Iyahe Nakoda –the “Mountain Sioux,” or “Stonies,” as the European explorers called them, because they used fire-heated stones to boil water–inhabited the foothills west of Calgary from the 1790s onward.

All these many peoples had a deep understanding of the long, wide range that the Niitsitapiksi sometimes called “the backbone of the world.” By looking more closely at the stories we circulate of Rockies mountaineering, we begin to see faint outlines of how their labor, support and knowledge made the early ascents possible–and to realize just how substantially most history writers and policy makers wrote these first mountain experts out.

The Scientist

IN 1870 THE NEWLY FORMED Dominion of Canada acquired a vast expanse of western territory from the fur-trading giant the Hudson’s Bay Company. By then, plains bison were scarce, and the Indigenous peoples near the Rocky Mountains suffered the diseases brought by white trade and settlement. Land-cession treaties now moved Indigenous inhabitants of middle and southern Alberta onto reserves, and the government redeployed the fertile land to farmers brought in from central Canada, the United States and Europe. Treaty Number 7, signed in 1877 with the Nakoda (and others), stated that Indigenous peoples would retain the “right to pursue their vocations of hunting throughout the tract surrendered as heretofore described.” But on one condition: this right would be “subject to such regulations as may…be made…; and excepting such tracts as may be required…for settlement, mining, trading or other purposes by…[the] Government of Canada.”

The journal of A.P. Coleman, geologist and early Canadian mountaineer. Over time, he realized the importance of Indigenous knowledge in the Rockies. By 1892, he was writing down useful Cree words and expressions. [Photo] E.J. Pratt Library, University of Toronto

The journal of A.P. Coleman, geologist and early Canadian mountaineer. Over time, he realized the importance of Indigenous knowledge in the Rockies. By 1892, he was writing down useful Cree words and expressions. [Photo] E.J. Pratt Library, University of Toronto

A quarter of a century later, those three small words–“or other purposes“–came to speak volumes. The once-nomadic Nakoda found themselves “settled” upon a tract of highly un-farmable reserve land, forty miles west of Calgary, not far from where the serrated wall of the Rockies looms above the rolling prairie grassland. The Nakoda had traditionally used the Morley area as a wintering ground–Mini Thni, they called it, “the place one takes bows from.” By 1875 Methodist missionaries had founded a church at Morley. Six years later, as mission history likes to tell it, sixty white settlers were collecting their mail there. When the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) construction crew reached the area in 1883, fulfilling the prime minister’s “national dream” of tracks running from sea to sea, Morley was ready to house the workers who flooded into town.

Among the first rail passengers was a University of Toronto geology professor whose brother had already established a Morley ranch. Arthur Philemon Coleman came west in search of silver, copper and gold. “But my real interest,” he noted in The Canadian Rockies: New and Old Trails (1911), “was the mountains.” As the train approached Calgary from the east, he marveled at “a faint jagged rim [that] rose above the general level on the south-west, pale blue and delicate white against the yellow sky, with shapes clean cut and fine, and one’s heart leaped, for there at last were the mountains. The dome of the sky already arched up a little more to give them room, and there were three dimensions of space instead of two.”

After a three-day stop in Calgary, a “city” of makeshift log houses with boxcar ceilings and sod roofs, Coleman continued his journey west. Night fell while the train rattled up the Bow Valley and over shaky trestle bridges, coming to an abrupt halt at the “Stony Indian Reserve” at Morley, where his brother waited. Coleman peered out through the cold darkness, amid the shadows of rising hills, and he later recalled, “The ghostly cones of Indian teepees seemed lifeless. The silent Mountain Stonies…sat on their ponies like statues to see the fire-wagons of the white men come in.”

To Coleman, such “primitives” would have seemed useless as mountain guides. What they were good for, he thought, was merely the provision of food and horses. From here, a construction train took Coleman to the terminus at Laggan. Longing to escape the dark smoke of engines, and the sight of mule teams and “sweaty men [delving] in the muck,” he headed straight for the closest peak. That short excursion began the transformation of the young scientist into a full-blown Romantic, one of the Rockies’ first celebrated mountaineers:

It was only a commonplace mountain about eight-thousand feet high, without a name, so far as I am aware, but…here one could gaze up and down the pass with nothing but clean air between one and the summits…. After years of humdrum city life in the east, the assembly of mountains, lifting their heads serenely among the drifting clouds, gave one a poignant feeling of the difference between man’s world and God’s. Here was purity and dignity and measureless peace. Here one might think high thoughts.

Horse racing at Morley, Alberta, ca. 1910.

Horse racing at Morley, Alberta, ca. 1910. The Siouan-speaking Iyahe Nakoda had lived for more than ninety years in the eastern front ranges of the Canadian Rockies. They played an active role in not only in laying the original rail line through the Rockies, but also in the early construction of walking trails for the tourism boom that followed the completion of the Canadian Paci c Railway and the establishment of the Banff Hot Springs Reserve (later Banff National Park) in 1885. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

Later that summer, Coleman traveled to the hopefully named Silver City to investigate a potential copper vein behind a mountain that the Cree-speaking “mixed blood” guides of the 1858 Palliser expedition called Atintat Tasa Kamik Wachi, “Wind House Mountain,” home of the Chinook winds. Seen from the wide valley floor, the layered, near-vertical walls rise like medieval battlements. Inevitably, the expedition geologist, James Hector, renamed the peak “Castle Mountain.” Still searching for minerals, Coleman and his companions wriggled up chimneys of brittle limestone, where tiny, dark veins of copper ore glinted. “Quite risky work,” he explained, “since the projecting knobs of rock were often loose and gave way under the hand or foot.” They emerged from the rockband to find only low-angled scree and talus between them and the highest point. Although the copper claim turned out to be insignificant, their scramble became known as the first ascent of a major summit in the Canadian Rockies.

Coleman returned in 1888, this time looking solely for mountains. Early maps of the Canadian West tended to be vague about the Rockies–where the topography stopped, blank spaces began, left for the imagination to fill. From the 1830s onward, all those maps showed a pair of gigantic peaks far to the north in what is now Jasper National Park. In 1827 David Douglas, a self-taught botanical-specimen collector, had crossed Athabasca Pass and made note of two seemingly immense peaks. In an act of toponomic reverence, he named them after two professional botanists, William Hooker and Robert Brown, and attributed astonishing elevations to their summits, thus generating an enduring rumor that they were the tallest in the range–indeed, at that time, the tallest known in North America. Subsequent cartographers dutifully reproduced the summits on their maps, Mt. Hooker at the colossal height of 15,700 feet, Mt. Brown a few hundred feet higher. But no one in recent times had actually seen those mythical giants. “My eyes turned to them irresistibly whenever I looked at the map,” Coleman wrote. “My mind was soon made up to visit and, if possible, climb them.”

Coleman tried to approach the peaks from the British Columbia side with Frank Stover, canoeing along the Columbia River and staggering through mazes of pink rhododendron, thick alder and devil’s club, stumbling upon and losing older footpaths. After eleven days, stalled in a “sunless wilderness of green” and “sore in body and dejected in mind,” he gave up. But he’d learned something. Four years later, now starting east of the Continental Divide, he and his partners employed Nakoda guides. Jimmy Jacob was the sexton at the reserve church, a “serious man who spoke Cree, of which my brother understood something, and also knew a few words of English.” Mark Two-young-men appeared to Coleman as a “husky lad” who “spoke nothing which any of us could understand,” yet “had a graceful and extensive command of the sign language.”

As they followed the established “Stoney trail” hundreds of miles from Morley north to the Chaba River, Jimmy Jacob spoke with the various Nakoda hunters they met. According to Coleman, one of them, Job Beaver, had “made too much money from furs and jerked meat to care to work for a white man,” but he told them about the routes to Athabasca Pass. For the rest of that summer, Coleman’s party looked for “the way through the passes along Joby’s trails.” They missed Athabasca Pass by a single valley, and retreated over the fallen leaves of autumn.

A year later, Coleman’s team resumed the search with Frank Sibbald, a western rancher who had learned Cree and Nakoda Assiniboine during his youth at Morley. Near the beginning of their journey, they ran into Chief Jonas Goodstoney and his family, and found out, through Sibbald, that they were headed in the same direction. Goodstoney offered to draw the route. “So a pencil and a large piece of brown paper, just unwrapped for a ham, were furnished him,” Coleman wrote, “and the next day the map was ready, directions and distances vague, yet with valuable hints…. He also gave us the Indian names for several rivers.”

It was this map that led Coleman to the end of his search–and to the unhappy realization that the two “mountain giants” existed only in cartographic fantasy. “We looked in vain for magnificent summits rising ten thousand feet above the pass,” he wrote. Instead, the real Hooker and Brown appeared to him as nondescript lumps of barely 9,000 feet. “How could anyone, even a botanist like Douglas, make so monumental a blunder?” Coleman lamented. “That two commonplace mountains…should masquerade for generations as the highest points in North America seems absurd.”

The resolution of the mystery meant that Mt. Robson must be the actual highest mountain in the Rockies. Coleman now wondered whether its elevation might also have been exaggerated. In 1907 he and his partners traveled for thirty-nine days from Laggan through “tangled branches,” muskeg, rain and snow, reaching the mountain too late in the season for an attempt. They set out the next year from Edmonton, guided by the longtime Metis resident of the Athabasca Valley Adolphus Moberly, whom Coleman described as a “young half-breed swell…the most typical and efficient savage I ever encountered…the ideal centaur.”

Coleman failed in his early attempts on Mt. Robson, or Yuh-hai-has-kun, “mountain of the spiral road,” as Simpcw First Nation people called it. That name is all but a historical footnote, but Coleman’s legacy remains on the Coleman Glacier, on the mountain’s northeast flank. A.P. Coleman would distinguish himself as the founding vice president of the Alpine Club of Canada, president of the Royal Society of Canada, president of the Royal Canadian Institute, president of the Geological Society of America, and–as Wikipedia charmingly puts it–“the first white man to attempt” the Rockies’ highest mountain.

“One hates to turn back before every effort has been made,” Coleman once wrote. Most historical accounts say little about how much of that “every effort” behind his successes relied upon Indigenous guides.

The Outfitter

“THE EAST,” wrote Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria’s most ardent Prime Minister, “is a career.” For ambitious young men and women growing up in the center of empire, the dream of some mythical, distant East evoked Orientalist fantasies of otherworld imagination and economic upward mobility. So may it be said of the Canadian Mountain West.

Tom Wilson was a long-faced man from Ontario who sported a capacious, drooping moustache and an ever-present Stetson hat. Bored within weeks of a mounted-police job at Fort Walsh, Saskatchewan, he lit out for the mountains. In 1881 he found employment with the railway company, and at Morley he met Chief Hector Crawler, or Calf Child, who had attended the 1877 treaty signing as a boy. Chief Crawler told the restless wanderer about the hot springs hidden in a mountain cave between Minihapa (“Mountain Where the Water Falls,” now “Cascade Mountain”) and Waskahigan Watchi (“House Mountain,” now “Mt. Rundle”). Wilson circulated the story, and three of his colleagues took notice: William and Tom McCardell, and Frank McCabe. In the summer of 1883, while Wilson was out surveying for a rail route across the Selkirks, they “discovered” Chief Crawler’s warm waters, and they promptly staked their claim.

Tom Wilson (left) and Chief Hector Crawler pose for a photo at the CPR's "Banff Indian Days," 1927. [Photo] Glenbow Archives

Tom Wilson (left) and Chief Hector Crawler pose for a photo at the CPR’s “Banff Indian Days,” 1927. [Photo] Glenbow Archives

Driving the last spike of the rail line, November 7, 1885. [Photo] A.J. Ross/Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

Driving the last spike of the rail line, November 7, 1885. [Photo] A.J. Ross/Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

The potential tourist revenue of the site would eventually eclipse that of mountain minerals. Some back-and-forth over ownership ensued, but the result was inevitable: in 1887 the government expanded a ten-square-mile “Banff Hot Springs Reserve” (a reference to Banffshire in Scotland) into a 260-square-mile “Rocky Mountains Park.” Canada’s first national park was expanded again in 1902 to 4,400 square miles until it abutted the western boundary of the Nakoda reserve land. In 1930 it was renamed Banff National Park.

A current Parks Canada website features Don Frache’s Chamber of Jewels, a mural depiction of McCabe and the McCardells clinging to a partly submerged tree trunk above the fabled hot springs, arrested in their moment of “discovery.” A ray of white light descends from the grotto ceiling, illuminating their figures like a sign from the heavens. A caption quotes McCardell comparing the moment to “some fantastic dream from a tale of the Arabian Nights.”

To have been instrumental in the founding of one of the Rockies’ paradigmatic mountaineering centers is no small achievement. Tom Wilson is celebrated for having founded two. During the preceding summer of 1882, camped by the confluence of the Pipestone and Bow rivers, he heard the thunderous roar of a nearby avalanche, and wondered aloud where it came from. The sound, his Nakoda companions Jimmy Three-Toes and Edwin Hunter told him, came from “the snow mountain” to the southwest, above Hoa Chinjan Imne, “the lake of the little fishes.” The next day, Hunter led Wilson to the spot. “As I stood with bated breath,” Wilson recalled, “gazing upon a picture that no man has ever been able to describe, I felt puny in my body, but glorious in soul. God, I whispered, is here.” Wilson gave the name “Emerald Lake” to the pale green waters that glowed beneath the vast rock walls and hanging glaciers. But the name didn’t stick. Two years later, the Geological Survey of Canada designated it “Lake Louise” in honor of the Royal Princess and the wife of the Governor General.

“Trail Blazer of the Canadian Rockies,” read the bronze plaque for Tom Wilson, on a rock at Takakkaw Falls. “Oracle at Banff,” Wilson came to be called late in life, after the CPR employed him to provide “local” color to the guests of the Banff Springs and Chateau Lake Louise hotels. As an outfitter, he led “pioneering” climbing expeditions into those same “remote” mountain regions that Indigenous peoples had journeyed through for years. In 1893 he guided “the first white men” to Mt. Assiniboine. Five years later, the future president of the Alpine Club, J. Norman Collie, named a commanding mountain massif after him. One early visitor wrote of Mt. Wilson: “I once travelled around its base for two days and it seemed as though I should never get away from it.”

Driving north along the Icefields Parkway, present-day travelers still find the 10,696-foot massif imposing: a sudden, dark-silver barricade rising up against the sky. Mt. Wilson lies in the North Saskatchewan River Valley–just south of Mt. Coleman.

The northern side of the Valley of the Ten Peaks

The northern side of the Valley of the Ten Peaks–or “Desolation Valley,” as early visitors Walter Wilcox and Samuel Allen called it–as seen from Larch Valley. Eight of the ten summits are visible. From left to right: Mt. Babel (not considered part of the Ten Peaks), Mt. Fay (#1, Heejee), Mt. Bowlen (#3, Yamnee), Mt. Tonsa (#4), Mt. Perren (#5, Sapta), Mt. Allen (#6, Shappee), Mt. Tuzo (#7, Sagowa), Deltaform Mountain (#8, Saknowa) and Neptuak Mountain (#9). Mt. Little (#2, Nom) and Wenkchemna Peak (#10) are out of view. Allen named ten of these summits after numbers in the Nakoda language. Since then, seven of them have acquired new names. [Photo] Steph Abegg

The Class That Travels

TOM WILSON APPEARS in the famous “Last Spike” photograph taken at Craigellachie in 1885 to commemorate the completion of the CPR. Most Canadians know this image: top-hatted white men stand tall in long, dark coats in the flat light of a wet November morning. A bearded railway executive and Member of Parliament drives home the last iron railway spike. With that symbolic act, the Canadian West and its mountains were now fully open for business–that is, for those visitors William Cornelius Van Horne, president of the CPR, once referred to as “the class that travels.” Passenger trains chugged their way regularly along the Rockies’ steep grades. Newly constructed railway hotels, such as the castle-like Banff Springs Hotel, provided comfortable gathering places with luxurious terraces and sublime vistas of sharp peaks and dense forests for the well-heeled hikers and artists brought in by the CPR’s aggressive marketing campaign.

In 1890 the CPR constructed a one-story cabin on the shores of Lake Louise and advertised it as “a hotel for the outdoor adventurer and alpinist.” Four years later, after it burned down, it was replaced by a larger, wooden “chalet.” Among the first guests was a group of Yale students led by two with basic climbing experience: Walter Wilcox, a recent graduate, and Samuel Allen, a prodigy with a deep interest in languages. They passed their evenings in the chalet poring over a primer on technique, The Badminton Library of Sport and Pastimes–Mountaineering. They spent their days practicing what they’d read the night before.

An accident was probably inevitable. During an exercise intended to advance “a little knowledge of the use of rope and ice-axe,” Wilcox led Yandell Henderson and Lewis Frissell up a thirty- to forty-degree gully near the north buttress of what is now Mt. Lefroy. To avoid the rotten snow, they ventured onto loose rock. A boulder dislodged, and Frissell tumbled to a lower ledge. After ten feet, the rope slowed his fall, but the boulder caught up with him and landed on top of his body. “It seemed impossible that there should be anything left of our poor friend,” Wilcox later wrote. “With a horrible crash and roar the great stone continued down the gorge, attended by a thousand flying fragments.”

Wilcox and Henderson scrambled down to find Frissell alive, although he appeared to have dislocated his hip. Lowering him by rope a dozen times, they brought the injured man to the glacier. Wilcox, carrying only his ice axe, raced toward the chalet for help. He soon met two Nakoda laborers hired to clear trails for tourists: William Twin (Ne-sho-dao, “Embers”), and his friend Tom Chiniquay. Convinced that broken English was the best way to communicate, Wilcox announced: “William, three white men go up big snow mountain. Big stone came down, hurt one man. Tom, Mr. Astley, you–all go up snow mountain, bring white man back.”

Thirty minutes later, Twin and Chiniquay, joined by the chalet manager and restaurant cook, rowed across Lake Louise, while Wilcox galloped to the rail station to send for medical assistance. Henderson and Frissell, wet and cold, kept their spirits up by singing college songs. In the 1933 Canadian Alpine Journal, Henderson recalled:

At half-past six Astley, Joe Savage the cook, William the talking Indian, and stoical Tom Chiniky, heir to the chieftainship of the Stoneys, reached us. They had brought two poles and a piece of canvas, and in this extemporized litter they carried, or rather slid, Frissell down over the glacier…. Generally an Indian will not go on ice, yet on that night they walked bridges with perfect coolness even after one gave way and Chiniky only saved himself by holding onto the pole of the litter. The labour of carrying Frissell over the glacier and moraine was enormous, yet Chiniky never murmured though his moccasins were in rags.

After wading hip-deep in glacial water to carry the litter down a stream, the rescue party arrived at the chalet by midnight. Frissell’s injury turned out to be merely a deep bruise. By summer’s end, he accompanied Wilcox and Allen to Sentinel Pass, en route to the summit of Mt. Temple, a climb remembered nearly everywhere as the “first recorded ascent of a peak exceeding 11,000 feet in the Canadian Rockies,” and “the highest point then reached in Canada.”

Little is recalled of William Twin and Tom Chiniquay, who had performed the first recorded rescue in Canadian mountaineering history. Nor is there much documented about Enoch Wildman and Yule Carryer, the Nakoda guides and packers Wilcox and Allen employed in their “discovery” of Paradise Valley. Later, looking out from Mt. Temple toward a palisade of ten “rugged saw-edged mountains” that fenced in the neighboring valley, Allen gave the summits names: Heejee, Nom, Yamnee, Tonsa, Sapta, Shappee, Sagowa, Saknowa, Neptuak and Wenkchemna. More accurate to say, he gave them numbers: One through Ten in Nakoda Assiniboine, a language that Allen studied assiduously through his conversations with Enoch Wildman.

Wilcox’s 1896 Camping in the Canadian Rockies became a North American bestseller. Referred to as “the first real guidebook for climbers and explorers of the Alberta and British Columbia peaks,” it informed other works, such as A.P. Coleman’s The Canadian Rockies, New and Old Trails. Both books stayed long in circulation, sources of inspiration for armchair adventurers who dreamed of the mountain West and for tourists who sought the “pristine” snows and forests of what the railway company began to call “The Canadian Alps.” One of the most popular “romantic getaways” for the modern Rockies’ tourist is the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre, a tour-bus and gift-shop facility located at the apex of the Icefields Parkway–beneath Mt. Wilcox.

Tom Chiniquay (left). William Twin (right). Employed by the CPR at Lake Louise in 1894, the two Nakoda men spent the summer building trails and guiding tourists. They are rarely celebrated for what was likely the Canadian Rockies' first recorded mountain rescue--using an improvised litter. [Photos] Glenbow Archives

Tom Chiniquay (left). William Twin (right). Employed by the CPR at Lake Louise in 1894, the two Nakoda men spent the summer building trails and guiding tourists. They are rarely celebrated for what was likely the Canadian Rockies’ first recorded mountain rescue–using an improvised litter. [Photos] Glenbow Archives

Other Purposes

“50 SWITZERLANDS IN ONE,” boasted one early-twentieth-century newspaper advertisement. “The climber finds in the Canadian Rockies the supreme difficulties and delights that tempt men to the mastery of mountains. Snow-capped peaks, moraines, glaciers; all the charms and hazards of the Swiss mountains are here, but multiplied…. The Famous Resorts for Alpine Climbers are reached only by the incomparable trains of the Canadian Pacific Railway.” The challenge for the burgeoning railway-tourism industry was to make those “50 Switzerlands” appear not just thrillingly accessible, but also technically safe.

“Swiss guides are to be found in all the mountain hotels,” the CPR ad continued reassuringly. Peter Sarbach, in 1897, was the first to work in the Rockies. The CPR hired Eduard Feuz and Christian Haesler two years later. Over the next fifty years, more than thirty-five Swiss guides were brought in, and several Rockies summits bear their names. But the coming in of alpine guides from Switzerland coincided with the enforced going out of Indigenous guides, packers, and providers from mountaineering in the Rockies, and from all meaningful participation in the Canada’s western mountain parks.

First Nations disenfranchisement from the Rockies resulted from more than just the fastidious preference of CPR officials and their clients for a faux-European aesthetic. The Canadian government hadn’t forgotten the small print in Treaty 7: the power to withhold access rights to Native subsistence hunters for “such tracts” of land “as may be required… for settlement, mining, trading or other purposes.”

As the park’s tourism industry grew to 100,000 annual visitors by 1915, and as the edges of towns and mine sites expanded, wildlife populations inevitably diminished. Blame fell fast on the area’s most vulnerable residents. In 1895 L. W. Herchmer, commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police, reported to the Department of the Interior: “[T]o protect game thoroughly, the Park must be enlarged and the Indians kept out…. These Indians kill everything that they can find.” Howard E. Sibbald, an Indian Agent at Morley, insisted, “As long as they can hunt, you cannot civilize them.” In 1902 the Nakoda peoples lost their right to hunt in the mountains, when the Banff park boundary was extended to the western border of the Morley reserve. Government officials forcibly evicted Metis settlers from Jasper National Park in 1909.

There is no mountain in Banff National Park named for Chief Hector Crawler, or Calf Child. No summit designation reminds us of Jimmy Jacob, or Mark Two-young-men, or Job Beaver, Jimmy Three-Toes, Edwin Hunter, Tom Chiniquay, Enoch Wildman, Yule Carryer, or Intebeja Mani’s–Chief John Snow’s–grandfather, Chief Jonas Goodstoney. Two mountains on the Columbia Icefield, North and South Twin, echo William Twin’s surname, but only by coincidence, because the mountains resemble each other, not because they reflect a human past. Seven of Samuel Allen’s ten Nakoda mountain names have been withdrawn from common usage. The second highest in the Valley of the Ten Peaks is now called Mt. Allen. Some lesser Rockies landmarks carry Indigenous peoples’ names: for instance, “the delightfully picturesque little Lake Adolphus,” as the first president of the Alpine Club of Canada, Arthur O. Wheeler, described it, so named by its “discoverer” A.P. Coleman, in honor of that Metis guide he liked to call his “ideal centaur.”

Alongside the miniature teepees and totem poles sold on Banff Avenue (most of them manufactured overseas), the annual “Banff Indian Days” event, started around the 1890s, became one of the few ways Banff National Park officially allowed the idea of Indigenous culture to come across park boundaries–a colorful and profitable backdrop for the tourism industry. In 2012, as a gesture of redress, Parks Canada instituted a “free parks pass” program for Nakoda people from Morley. “It was time to engage First Nations,” claimed the current member of Parliament for the region at the Parks Pass Ceremony. “There has been a big effort…to include this history in the parks experience.”

History books continue to tell the story of how “the lone land of the West, with its stupendous peaks and rivers,” was transformed into a place where white mountain men–and sometimes women–could make a name for themselves. But the Shining Mountains still hold an Indigenous human presence, one that continues to speak otherwise, to abide by other mountain purposes, to use other mountain names. “Upon these lofty heights,” writes Intebeja Mani, “my people received powers to heal…. From these mountain-top experiences, my fellow tribesmen and women were given unique tasks to perform to help the tribe prepare for things to come…. These mountains are our temples, our sanctuaries, and our resting places. They are a place of hope, a place of vision, a place of refuge, a very special and holy place where the Great Spirit speaks with us. Therefore, these mountains are our sacred places.

This Wired first appeared in Alpinist 50–Summer 2015. Issue 50 is available direct through our online store.