Montana’s Native Americans

The history of the various modern tribes in the part of America we now call “Montana,” is characterized by movement within seasonal cycles for many of them. They traversed the plains to follow the bison and then retreated in intertribal struggles for control of hunting territory. Finally, with the bison nearly extinct and tribes decimated by battles with white men and disease, there came the final move onto reservations, marking the end of an era. Archeological evidence shows that Native Americans inhabited Montana more than 14,000 years ago. Artifacts indicate the Kootenai have roots in the area’s prehistory. The Kootenai inhabited the mountainous terrain west of the divide, venturing only seasonally to the east for buffalo hunts. The Salish, the Pend d’ Oreilles and the Crow were probably among the first “modern” Indians to join the Kootenai in Montana.

The Salish and the Pend d’Oreilles occupied territory as far east as the Bighorn Mountains. During the 1700’s these three tribes shared common hunting and gathering grounds. With the signing of the Hellgate Treaty, their massive landholdings were ceded and the tribes now share the fertile ground of the Flathead Reservation.

The Chippewa and Cree were the latest tribal groups to come to Montana. They came from reservations outside the state late in the nineteenth century after Montana’s reservation system was in existence. These tribes today are intermixed and use the hybrid name, “Chippewa-Cree,” and claim the windswept Rocky Boy’s Reservation in the north.

The majority of Montana’s Indians arrived after 1700. By the time most Indians came to this area, white men’s culture was already strongly felt. The horses introduced to Indians by Spaniards in the Southwest, and guns from white frontiersmen, became deciding factors in determining which tribes would dominate the Montana territory in a culture completely dependent upon the bison. The bison-based economy deteriorated in the 1880s when several factors affected the future of Montana’s Indians. Bison were hunted to near extinction, the Canadian and United States governments became the dominant force driving Indians from their lands, and white men’s diseases diminished the population and faded the spirit of the Native Americans. By the 1870’s large tracts of land, through various treaties and executive orders, were formally reserved for Indian people. Thus the reservations evolved. Today nine percent of the Montana land base is reservations. Not all of this land is still owned by native people, but all is governed by tribal or federal law. Reservations are important, not only because Native Americans have strong spiritual ties to the land, but because reservations have become the Indians’ last retreat and the last chance to preserve their culture. Now, the people of Montana’s reservations are working to build strong economic bases so that their culture will survive and flourish for future generations.

(with main community and resident tribes)

Blackfeet 1851 Blackfeet (Browning)

Crow 1851 Crow (Crow Agency)

Flathead 1855 Salish, Kootenai (Pablo) & Pend d’Oreilles

Fort Belknap 1888 Assiniboine & Gros Ventre (Fort Belknap Agency & Harlem)

Fort Peck 1888 Assiniboine & Sioux (Poplar)

Northern Cheyenne 1884 Northern Cheyenne (Lame Deer)

Rocky Boy’s 1916 Chippewa-Cree (Box Elder)