Mountaintop Stories

As I was recording my final science issue video about contested mountains, I realized that I wanted to research the stories behind sacred mountaintops in greater detail. I was sympathetic to indigenous people’s rights and beliefs, but I didn’t have the background to fully comprehend their perspective. Of course, I still cannot understand any of their lived experiences, but I am so glad that I was able to read some of these mountaintop histories.

One article by Rosalyn LaPier describes a belief of the Blackfeet: that deities are present in our universe, “unseen, but known.” Some of their dwellings welcome human interaction, and others do not. For example, a deity called Ksiistsikomm (Thunder) can be found on Nínaiistáko (Chief Mountain) in Glacier National Park. Human activity (including changing the landscape) on the mountain would desecrate the deity and their home. Thus, landscape and religion are undeniably connected in Native American cultures and faiths.

Photograph of Nínaiistáko (Chief Mountain) in Glacier National Park.

In the Pacific Northwest, Native American faiths see the humongous volcanoes as hosts for evil-spirited deities. Although outsiders occasionally trek up and down them (and survive), the mountains are still worthy of respect and awe. As the author of this article from The Clymb recounts, “With the world completely charted and all natural phenomena accounted for in our theories, it’s easy to forget that nature can be a sublime power beyond our comprehension.”

It is also clear that many Native Americans identify with being Earth’s caretakers. I learned that while several stories feature mountaintops, all of the features of a landscape—streams, fields, stars, the air, rocks, and every other natural element—are treasured. National Geographic ran a feature about the effect of climate change on Native American tribal land in the Sierra Nevada in 2019; this particular observation stuck out to me: “In a way, the Sierra Nevada is a microcosm of the planet: Within an area smaller than the state of Massachusetts are coral reefs, sandy beaches, deserts, rainforests, tropical dry forests, savannas, paramos, tundra, alpine lakes, glaciers—all connected in a seamless gradient of life-forms that seem to change with each upward step.” Native American cultures appreciate Earth as the single living organism that sustains us. Mountains aren’t necessarily special as a concept; they are sacred because they are connected to the ecosystem of the Earth. In fact, it’s an inextricable connection; the ecosystem below a mountain relies on the water flowing down it in order for plants, animals, and people to thrive.