04-11-22 | Feature

Native Land Overlook

Occupying approximately 1.8 acres, owned in trust by the USA for the Blackfeet Nation
by Kent Watson, PLA, FASLA

Found off US-89 in Babb, Montana, the St. Mary Scenic Overlook sits on 1.8 acres of land owned by a trust for the Blackfeet Nation. Kent Watson and Associates of Missoula, Montana designed the park to pay homage to native culture, provide accessibility, and respect native vegetation. The project was completed in the Spring of 2017 and was designed to "first do no harm" to the existing landscape.
Designed by Blackfeet Tribal member, Duane After Buffalo, the steel plate Teepee or Tipi per the Tribe's official preference will develop a natural oxidized finish. With the Rocky Mountains as the backdrop, visitors can take in the sculptures and informational plaques along the 8-foot-wide red pathways with ease.
The red pathways follow the site's topography so the pathway would not exceed a five percent grade, making it easily accessible.
From the start, the design team determined that the project should showcase the Blackfeet Tribe as the original inhabitants of this land. It was, therefore, important to attract passers-by by placing an appropriate large-scale feature that could be easily seen from the highway. The steel plate sculpture is positioned on the plaza adjacent to the overlook parking area and 15 feet above the red concrete pavilion. The sculpture that represents the tribe depicts a form of transportation that was used by the Blackfeet as well as other Northern Plains Indians to transport families and their household goods between their camps.
The view from the second pavilion Teepee is 18' in diameter. From inside the Teepee, views of the Rocky Mountains within Glacier National Park surround the sculptures since the design is minimally invasive to the natural habitat.
All of the walking surfaces are colored concrete with a deep red pigment to reflect the dark red granite that is characteristic of the mountains that dominate the scene. The walls are constructed of CMUs faced with local sandstone. The materials and their colors were chosen to blend with and reflect the natural setting of the site. (Inset) There are eight signs throughout the project that are all part of an interpretive program created by the Tribal Historic Preservation Office. Depending on their location and orientation they identify various prominent landscape features and Blackfeet stories that relate to the history of the feature within the tribal culture. Others speak more broadly to cultural icons, such as the importance of the beaver.
After Buffalo built each structure in his shop. They were then transported to the site and set in place and the tops of the Teepee poles were welded on-site.

The St. Mary Scenic Overlook provides a panoramic view of St. Mary Lake and the Rocky Mountains - the Crown of the Continent - within Glacier National Park. At 5050' elevation, the area lies within a small slice of Montana that is within the Hudson Bay drainage area.

Occupying approximately 1.8 acres, owned in trust by the USA for the Blackfeet Nation, the site lies along a major north-south highway connecting Canada and Mexico. It is located on the auto "loop" that traverses Glacier National Park via the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, which sees approximately 2.2 million visitors every year.

The land is part of the legendary home of the 'Trickster', or 'Napi' as he is called in the native Blackfeet language. The tribe has been in these lands, that once extended from central Canada south to the Yellowstone River, for millennia. Currently, the 17,000 enrolled members of the Blackfeet Nation now occupy the 1.5-million-acre territory in northwestern Montana that borders Canada to the north and Glacier National Park to the west.


Wanting to honor the rich Blackfeet history and culture and engage millions of travelers a year, the Tribe and Northern Engineering and Consulting, Inc. (NECI), a Native American-owned engineering firm, choose Kent Watson and Associates to design a space that represented the Tribe, respected the native vegetation and fragile mountain setting and provided universal access and appeal.

The overlook features a parking lot for a dozen cars and several buses/RVs, and a multi-colored concrete main plaza with a steel sculpture of a Blackfeet woman on horseback with a travois, by Duane After Buffalo, a Blackfeet Tribal artist. The plaza sculpture base design and encircling masonry wall required a great deal of teamwork with the artist and the engineers to assure that the substantial loads could be safely supported.

An 8-foot-wide dark red concrete pathway meanders down from the Main Plaza to three concrete pavilions. The earthy red color is reflective of the red granite that permeates the nearby mountains. Two of the pavilions feature large sculptural steel Tipi, also designed by After Buffalo. Each pavilion includes a set of signs that interpret the landscape features in view and provide information on Blackfeet culture. The interpretive signage, prepared by the Tribe's Historic Preservation Office, directed by John Murray, the Tribal HPO, is specific to the cultural and spiritual importance of the area and its significance to the Blackfeet Nation.

The project design had to preserve culturally important native vegetation, like (WKOPs) while still taking advantage of the panoramic views, and meeting ADA standards. The accessible curved pathways create little natural disruption while connecting the two low hills and their open steel Tipi with the upper main plaza. Each of the three pavilions is bordered by low walls constructed of local stone that provide seating for visitors. Because of their loads, each wall was supported using reinforced grade beams that could bridge areas of sub-standard bearing soils. Due to its location, the entire project was designed to withstand the area's notorious severe winter weather, where drifting snows, extremely cold temperatures, and high winds can wreak havoc on structures.

In addition to serving as the setting for the 10-foot-high native steel sculpture, the main plaza is designed to provide ample space for tribal members to market their native crafts to visitors which are for sale in the lower entry plaza.

Kent Watson & Associates was responsible for the overall design of the facility, working as a sub-consultant to NECI, the prime consultant for the Blackfeet Nation. KW&A prepared the designs for all the features within the project and coordinated directly with the engineers and tribal officials to assure that all public health and safety standards were met. Since the project was fairly remote, Watson logged over 2,300 vehicle miles between their Missoula office and the Reservation over the three years of design prep and production.

The project was largely funded by federal grants through the FHWA Public Lands Discretionary Program and fulfilled five of the eight criteria set forth for such projects, even though only one category needed to be met. The criteria included transportation planning for both tourism and recreation, parking space on tribal/federal lands, interpretive signage of cultural and spiritual importance within the tribe, pedestrian and bicycle access, and a roadside rest area that consists of primitive facilities that are scalable based on funding.
The overlook was officially opened by a Blackfeet Tribal Ceremony on May 31, 2017. This ceremony featured a Blackfeet Honor Guard, an Honor Drum Song, and a Blackfeet prayer, offered by Tribal Elder, Chief Earl Old Person, in both the Blackfeet language and English. Jack Gordon, the Landscape Architect representing Glacier National Park, spoke highly of the cooperation between the National Park Service and the Tribe in the design and construction of the feature. He also highlighted the project's importance in interpreting the Blackfeet culture that is integral to the entire region. After the ceremony, the design team was presented a sweetgrass braid in honor and recognition of their contributions to the project.


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