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A Brief History of the Blackfeet Homeland

I’ve recently been engaged in conversations with friends who have piqued my curiosity about the Blackfeet homelands. Since our area is part of the Blackfeet homeland, I wanted to learn more, so I did some reading and then some additional fact-checking with a knowledgeable local source. I thought I would use my blog to share out a tiny bit of history that is so relevant to our community.


Indigenous people have been in this area since the glaciers receded during the most recent Ice Age, 10,000 years ago. The nomadic tribes thrived with little disruption until the turn of the 19th century, but by 1855 settlers began seeking land ownership in the Great Plains region. As a result, a US government treaty allocated much of current-day Montana east of the Rockies to the Blackfeet and their Gros Ventre allies since settlement en masse hadn’t reached this far. By 1888, most of the bison herds had been slaughtered, and the government once again whittled down the reserved land area. To avoid starvation, the Blackfeet were forced to sign the “Sweet Grass Hills Treaty” which established the present-day Blackfeet Reservation. At that point, the reservation included the land that now forms the east side of Glacier National Park. In 1896, the tribe was forced to cede these lands to the government as well.  


Today, the Blackfeet Reservation consists of 1,525,712 of Montana’s 93,000,000 acres (40% of the reservation is owned by non-natives), but the Blackfeet homeland stretches far beyond its borders, and many sites across the region are culturally significant.  One example is the Bear River Massacre site (also known as the Marias Massacre or the Baker Massacre). On January 23, 1870, Major Eugene Baker ordered his men to attack a sleeping camp of Blackfeet people led by Heavy Runner, consisting of women, children, and the elderly.  It’s estimated that 37 men, 90 women, and 50 children were killed in the brutal attack. Heavy Runner was shot to death while holding the peace treaty he had negotiated with the government. Baker's soldiers also captured 140 women and children, but when he realized that many were ill with smallpox, he abandoned them to survive the winter with no food or shelter.


 I had lived in northcentral Montana for 25 years before I was aware of this atrocity. A few years back, we were driving between Shelby and Cut Bank on January 23 as darkness fell. Riders on horseback were headed west ending their day of commemoration, and I had to ask someone about the significance of the ride. A pretty sad commentary on how history was taught to my generation, especially since we all live on a native homeland.


Lisa Cline

Marketplace on Main

Cut Bank, MT




 

  

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