Glacier’s Native America Speaks Program Celebrates 40 Years

Dozens of spectators filled the wooden benches in the shadow of Red Eagle Mountain at Glacier National Park’s Rising Sun Picnic Area Wednesday night. 40-mile-per-hour wind gusts, driving rain and nearby thunder were largely ignored as the group tapped into the talents of the Blackfeet Singers and Dancers, there to share their culture as part of the Native America Speaks program of the park.

Founded by Harold Gray and his 16-year-old son Joey in 1982, Native America Speaks is the longest running program of its kind in the National Park System and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer with an expanded slate of presentations.

“We are so thrilled to be able to celebrate this anniversary, especially knowing how much the program has grown over the years,” said Hudson’s Bay District Interpreter Debby Smith. “The program started small with just a handful of presenters, and has now grown into something much bigger. Native America Speaks has expanded to the community and to places outside the park. We have so many visitors that I don’t think I have a full understanding of what’s going on with the tribes today. We talk a lot about the history of the tribes, but it’s not just about what happened in the past. It’s about what’s happening today and as we move into the future. It’s about how we can all continue to learn and grow together and improve our relationships. It’s very important and I find it very inspiring.

Native America Speaks Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille presenters will have more than 100 opportunities to share their rich history and culture through song, storytelling, presentations, and hands-on learning this summer, as programs are offered daily, and sometimes twice a day, until September 11.

THE NATIVE America Speaks program dates back to those early days with Harold and Joey Gray in 1982, when the couple gave presentations for visitors to Glacier. The programme’s original name, if it had one, has long been forgotten and indeed the whole program may have become a distant memory were it not for the happy addition of Jack Gladstone as presenter in 1985. .

The famous Blackfeet singer, songwriter and poet was then planning his future career while working as a public speaking instructor at Blackfeet Community College in 1985 when he decided to respond to a newspaper ad looking for of presenters for the programme’s fourth season.

The Hudson’s Bay District interpreter at the time, Bruce Fladmark, who had recently become the program’s new director, chose Gladstone and three others as presenters as the program officially took on the moniker Native America Speaks.

Things didn’t go particularly well that summer, Gladstone recalled.

“We had several presenters, who had worked hard to get paid in advance, who just didn’t show up for their programs that summer,” Gladstone lamented. “I would often hang out with my guitar in the bushes and trees when others needed to speak and if they didn’t show up I would help out by doing the program. There were a lot of programs started and stopped in other parks, and it could very well have been us after those first three years if we hadn’t put things together.

Determined to keep the program alive, Gladstone convinced Fladmark to give him control of the roster, which he quickly filled with “trusted and respected” presenters Darrel Kipp, Darrel Norman and his cousin, Curly Bear Wagner.

While Gladstone left community college in 1986 to seek fame and fortune (which he still claims to seek), he continued his role with Native America Speaks and is proud to still participate today and help form the next generation of presenters, which includes his daughter Mariah Gladstone.

At 28, Mariah Gladstone has been involved with the Native America Speaks program her entire life, from carrying equipment and helping sell CDs to helping interpret the programs using sign language. Native American and eventually become a presenter herself in the summer of 2012.

“I was very lucky to be able to participate in the program as an interpreter and to have the opportunity to participate in the storytelling and to share a history of this region that goes back much further than the existence of the park” , she said. “In an interesting way, the program is an evolution of the oral tradition and storytelling culture from which we come. It’s our tradition to share our stories and to have that history and mythology as a set of values ​​and this program gives us another opportunity to do that.

With her stories, many of which focus on the Napi trickster or stories of traditional heroes, Mariah narrates the landscape and connects it to historical or mythological stories that are very much tied to the place and the plants and animals that surround us.

“I hope that visitors and members of the public in Native America Speaks programs will learn more about the park, as the landscape has been seen by the people who have inhabited it for more than 14,000 years. This can help provide a much broader context to park visitors, but can also help instill a great sense of responsibility to the land that has been so important to our people for so long.

NOW FUNDED by the National Park Conservancy, the Native America Speaks program has grown steadily over the years. What started as a father and son seeking to share their culture has evolved into a program featuring numerous presenters each summer as well as the Blackfeet Singers and Dancers.

As Native America Speaks celebrates its 40th anniversary, a new logo designed by Salish and Kootenai College student Henrietta Fay Wolf Black has been unveiled to commemorate this milestone with the park and presenters looking forward to many more years of the program.

“I think this program is so successful because of the collaboration that has been maintained between the performers and the park. It’s something super exciting to do and it’s something the park can boast about, as can the tribes in the area,” said Mariah Gladstone.

“I think continuity and consistency have been key to the success of this program. I give a lot of credit to Jack on this front as well as our new generation of leaders who are now telling new stories as well as old stories from a different angle. When I speak to donors across the country, they understand the importance of being able to provide this opportunity,” added Glacier National Park Conservancy Executive Director Doug Mitchell. “I believe this program provides park visitors with a remarkable opportunity to hear first-hand the story of this landscape that we now know as Glacier National Park from the people who called it home for more than 10,000 years old. It provides a critical cultural lens, without which a full understanding of the landscape of this region is incomplete.

A complete schedule of presentations is available online at

Ryan H. Bowman