On the Northern Plains of Montana and Canada, before the arrival of humans, a demigod known as Napi, or Old Man, once roamed with his friend and rival, Coyote, according to Blackfoot tribal legend.
When Napi got tired with his wanderings he would lie down to rest, and when he arose he left behind an outline of his body made of rocks. Those outlines can still be found on the plains today – about 13 of which archaeologists call Napi figures.
“We have a number of these in Alberta,” said Jack Brink, archaeology curator for the Royal Alberta Museum. “Traditional Napi, or Old Man, figures. He is the creator of everything in the world.”
Archaeologists have estimated the dates of the Napi figures to the Late Prehistoric period – prior to Plains tribes’ contact with Europeans – about 1,800 to 150 years before present. Some of the Alberta figures are estimated to be 4,000 to 5,000 years old. Two of these effigies have been documented in northern Montana, on Bureau of Land Management property, just north of Malta along the Milk River.
“The Blackfeet would argue that today these are important ceremonial sites,” Brink said. “They build sweat lodges next to the figures. They all have commanding views of the land. It’s very intentional. When you are there it’s a powerful spot. There are a number of places where Napis coincide with medicine wheels.”
The creation of such stone figures on the landscape by a nomadic hunting and gathering people so long ago should not be a surprise, Brink said. After all, 40,000 years ago ancient people had time to paint elaborate animal figures in French caves. The people roaming ancient Montana had about 13,000 years to learn about this landscape and its wildlife.
“Evidence supports that they had a successful lifestyle and manipulated the environment to meet their needs,” he said.
Brink said the Henry Smith site in Montana, named after the one-time landowner, is a “good example of people who successfully mastered the physical environment they lived in.”
The property, now owned by BLM and protected from disturbance because it isn’t publicly accessible, is riddled with buffalo drive lines, cairns, discarded rock tools, teepee rings, vision quest sites and the two human effigies.
The human rock outlines are very similar to some of those found in other parts of Montana, Alberta and Saskatchewan and a few outliers that have been recorded as far away as North Dakota and Kansas.
All are rock outlines and clearly human figures. The torsos are typically square and contain a rock where the heart is, or a heart line – similar to pictograph and petroglyph depictions of humans that also dates to the same time period. Most have a waist line and some still have stones placed where kidneys are located. The Napi figures are all notably male, too, with a sometimes discernible phallus. A single line of rocks creates the legs, and the feet typically point outward.
With arms outstretched, bent at the elbow in a “hands-up style” and fingers – if the smaller rocks remain – splayed out, Brink calls the pose one of supplication, the “human being surrendering to the spirit world.”
Other human effigies without these characteristics have been tied to historical events, such as the place where a rival tribal member was killed. Some of these are found in Wyoming and one in Montana on the Crow Reservation near Pryor is said to represent an unfaithful wife, according to a survey of the sites by J. Rod Vickers, published in “Plains Archaeologist” in 2008.
“Essentially, the recognition of the phallic figures by the Blackfoot as Napi does not necessarily imply that all such figures were originally constructed by the Blackfoot,” Vickers wrote. “These identifications might have been ascribed to effigies long after their construction.”
Another archaeologist, Richard Forbis, is quoted in the same paper noting: “Coincidental distributions do not provide conclusive proof … the land shifted hands within a very short period of historic time, and similar shifts may have occurred in prehistoric times.”
No matter who built them, Brink said ancient rock features that remain relatively undisturbed in places like the BLM’s Henry Smith site are helping to teach modern people an important lesson about ancient plains inhabitants.
“These people had a deep spiritual life,” he said. “It was steeped in ceremony.”
That makes sense considering the treacherous and fickle world in which they lived, he added.
“For people who are not used to thinking this way, imagine putting yourself out somewhere on the plains and just stand there in the middle of nowhere and ask: ‘How do I survive?’”