Old North Trail: The importance of oral histories

Road Journals Blog—Researching the Old North Trail outside Choteau, Mont., for an article I wrote for Via, I was amazed at how oral history—knowledge passed down generationally from old to young—kept this trail alive.

It’s amazing because the trail is so important in the history of humankind. We all learned about the Bering Strait when we were kids; how people crossed it on their way to America way, way, way back when, then traveled down the continent.

Ear Mountain | Sam Beebe/Flickr

The Old North Trail is the route they traveled. Why isn’t it a national—an international—treasure, bought out of private ownership, signposted, interpreted, and easily accessible?

To this day it seems that the Metis and Blackfeet people who live along the eastern front of the Rockies know more about the trail than anyone, because their families lived and recreated in the area. Parents have passed information down to their children as they traveled the route, pointing out things like traditional resting places, burial grounds, and lookout points.

In September I visited a section of the trail under Ear Mountain with local guide Al Wiseman, in an area run by the Bureau of Land Management. At one junction he pointed to a sign stabbed into the dished earth that serves as the trail’s subtle signature. It was a signpost for hiking and had nothing to do with the trail.

I have friends who are archaeologists. If you even talked about sticking a sign in the middle of a 12,000-year-old human path they would show signs of extreme distress. Actually doing so would send them into cardiac arrest.

By all appearances, the folks at the BLM didn’t even know the trail was there.

I studied oral traditions a little in college, but it wasn’t until I took on this story that I really understood the concept. I hadn’t considered oral tradition a solid source of historical knowledge, instead suspecting it to be more like a game of telephone, where any truth that eventually makes it through the chain comes out distorted.

After seeing the trail with Al and feeling how intimately he knew it, however, I went away impressed, my mind changed. Seeing firsthand the ignorance represented by that hiking trail, and the dearth of any modern, informative signs about what really is an international heritage site reinforced the idea in my mind.

I now know oral accounts can be as solid as any mountains they describe, and vital to safeguarding knowledge—in this case, over literally hundreds of generations.

Beth Judy's Q&A with Al Wiseman ran in the March/April 2011 issue of Via.

Rural Montana | Montana Geographic Society

This blog post was first published in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.