Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the fall 2016 edition of Flathead Living.
Francis X. Guardipee may have been the first Native American in U.S. history to serve as national park ranger, but he wasn’t the first man to have a hard time crossing a Montana river. Big water humbles even great men.
On a spring day in the 1930s, Guardipee was trying to traverse the Middle Fork Flathead River in a cable tram at Nyack, one of four stations he manned during his stint as Glacier National Park ranger from 1932-1948. He was with his wife, Alma, who recounted the incident in a 1984 interview for the park’s oral history program, 14 years after her husband’s death.
“This (cable tram) bucket was a box 3 feet by 4 feet,” Alma said. “We had to go up a ladder about 12 feet high, and then climb into the bucket. There were benches on each side where you got in … They had a handle that clawed the wire cable, and you had to work your way across. And that river was terrible.”
“One of the first things Frank did was tighten that cable,” she continued, “and then the cable broke … knocked him in the head, and knocked him off of the platform there, and he went to the hospital.”
With unrelenting grit, Guardipee, who went by “Frank,” stared down nature’s obstacles daily as Glacier’s first Native American park ranger, not entirely unlike the societal hurdles he had overcome to earn the job. A 1970 federal government memorandum, released eight days after his death, stated that he was likely “the first full-blooded Indian appointed to a permanent ranger position in the National Park Service.”
Guardipee was born on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation near present-day Heart Butte on November 4, 1885. He attended a Jesuit-run school at Holy Family Mission on the Two Medicine River. Later, he went to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the federal government’s first boarding school for Native Americans outside of a reservation.
At Carlisle, Guardipee played football under the legendary Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, the namesake of the popular Pop Warner football program, and ran the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds. His last year at Carlisle, 1907, was future Olympian Jim Thorpe’s first at the school. Coach Warner would later visit Guardipee in Glacier at the 1933 dedication of Logan Pass, according to a Feb. 13, 1970 obituary written by Mel Ruder in the Hungry Horse News and preserved in Glacier Park archives.
Guardipee went on to study anthropology at the University of Washington. He then bounced around the country, driving taxis in New York City and sightseeing buses in Denver, and getting a role on the cast of a silent Western film called “The Covered Wagon,” released by Paramount Pictures in 1923.
While in New York, Guardipee returned to Carlisle Indian Industrial School for an interview, documented in school records. He listed his occupation as “chauffeur” and his address as 78 Park Ave. In response to a question about whether he had “done anything for the betterment of (his) people,” the young Guardipee replied, “Have not as yet had a chance to do so as I have not lived among them to any extent since leaving Carlisle in 1907.”
But Guardipee’s chance was coming, and he would take advantage of it in a big way.
In 1914, at age 29, he was invited to accompany several Blackfeet tribal elders on a trip to Atlanta, where they gave him the name Ako-inistami, meaning Chief Lodgepole. The name refers to the central support pole in a tipi. Decades later, in 1973, a peak in Glacier Park’s Two Medicine area would be named Chief Lodgepole Peak in his honor at a ceremony that included Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Earl Old Person and Glacier Park Superintendent William J. Briggie.
Then in 1916, Guardipee formed the Boy Scout Troop 100, believed to be the first Native American troop in Montana. He would go on to earn two of the three highest honors from the Boy Scouts of America – the Silver Beaver and Silver Antelope awards – and is the namesake of the American Indian Scouting Association’s “Francis X. Guardipee Grey Wolf Award,” which “recognizes American Indian or non-Indian adults for distinguished service to American Indian youth in scouting.”
While working as a forester for the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and living in Browning, Guardipee met Alma Kiernan, who was born in Missoula in 1901. During the early 1920s, Alma had spent five summers working as a waitress in St. Mary’s Going-to-the-Sun Chalets. She wore a Swiss costume to punctuate Glacier’s efforts to be known as the “American Alps.” The couple married in 1930 and had a son, Francis X. Guardipee, Jr., or “Gunner,” who would go on to serve as a supervisory ranger at Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia.
Guardipee became a Glacier Park ranger in 1932. For the next 16 years, until his retirement in 1948, he patrolled the park, first on foot and later on horseback, looking for signs of wildfires and poachers, who were especially troublesome during the harsh winter months. Alma said her husband would take off running at the sound of gunshots, always with his .38-caliber pistol at his side.
“There were times when he wouldn’t go to the woodshed without that thing,” Alma said.
Fire duty kept the family on guard at all times, as Alma recalled in her oral history interview, stored in the park’s archives.
“We were always on the alert,” she said. “Whenever they’d get a (lightning) strike, we’d get the telephone call late at night mostly, because that’s when they’d spot the fire. Then he would go out.”
Guardipee worked throughout Glacier, assigned at various times to the Nyack, Two Medicine, Lake McDonald and East Glacier ranger stations. While wildfires and poachers spiced up the routine, his daily duties, as in any job, were often mundane. His logbook, meticulously detailed in beautiful but occasionally illegible handwriting, is filled with entries about hauling supplies and cleaning his shop. On June 4, 1943, he took special note of a “ruffed grouse drumming nearby.” Sixteen days later, he reported, “ruffed grouse still drumming.”
Both he and Alma maintained an ongoing correspondence with Lawrence O. Vaught, who was working on a book about Glacier Park. Their extensive letters and postcards are housed in the park’s archives, while his unpublished manuscript is held in the park’s George C. Ruhle Library.
The letters offer a window into Guardipee’s home life. Throughout his tenure as ranger, his wife and son lived with him, often in rugged conditions. In one four-page typed note, Guardipee thanked Vaught, who the couple called “Vaughty,” for sending Christmas presents.
“Gunner, as we call our young hopeful, took possession of the crayon book,” Guardipee wrote. “While he cannot pick the colors to use he derives a lot of fun from making marks which keeps him occupied.”
After retiring from the National Park Service in 1948, Guardipee returned to Browning, where he continued leading the Boy Scout Troop 100 that he founded 32 years earlier. He was involved with the troop until his death at the age of 84, a span of more than 50 years. No Montanan had ever served the Boy Scouts so long, according to the Montana Historical Society, nor attended so many jamborees.
Guardipee was also heavily involved with the Knights of Columbus, earning a fourth-degree status and serving as Grand Knight of both the Kalispell and Cut Bank councils. He was the first Native American state deputy for the organization, achieving the rank in 1944-45.
Adding yet another distinction, Guardipee is credited for penning a “Blackfeet Prayer,” which continues resonating on the reservation decades later.
“Give wisdom and understanding to my leaders,” the prayer begins. “Protect my warriors and bring them back safe. Give to the young, love and contentment. Give health and long life to my old people, so that they may remain with us a long time. Make my enemy brave and strong, so that if defeated, I will not be ashamed. And give me knowledge, so I may have kindness for all. And let me live each day, so when my day is done, my prayers will not have been in vain.”
It’s signed, “Francis X. Guardipee, Big Lodge Pole.” A man of so many firsts and superlatives, it’s safe to say he left behind much more than a mountain in his name.
Correction: The story originally stated that Guardipee was the only Native American state deputy for the Knights of Columbus, but Patrick Mason, a member of the Osage Nation, also served in the role from 2016-2018 and is currently supreme secretary.