Arts & Culture

Montana’s Indian Reservations tantalize history and culture lovers alike. Traveling around the state to visit them is like tracing a constellation of stars: you can start at the Flathead, go north to the Blackfeet, then east to Rocky Boy’s, Fort Belknap and Fort Peck, and then southwest for the Northern Cheyenne and Crow.

And, look, an eighth point of light near Great Falls. That’s the Little Shell Tribe of the Chippewa—one of the state’s dozen officially recognized tribal nations even though federal designation is still pending for the Little Shell. To receive that status, a tribe must have “existed at first contact with Europeans, or evolved as a successor.” The US recognizes 571 tribes. This designation reaffirms “sovereign nation” status with their own tribal governments. 

According to Montana Indians: Their History and Location, 6.5% of Montana’s population—some 78,000 people – have a tribal heritage. Many follow tribal news online and live in urban areas, such as Missoula, Helena, Great Falls and Billings. “Lots of tribes have Facebook pages and digital platforms,” says Mike Jetty, an Indian Education Specialist with the Office of Public Instruction (OPI). “Want to learn Blackfeet? There’s an app. That’s exciting.”

Seven tribal colleges—a U.S. record—also shine in Montana Indian Country. Each reservation has a two-year college (open to all), thanks in large part to tribal leaders. “Education matters greatly to American Indian people,” says Dr. Kate Shanley, a professor of Native American Studies at the University of Montana—home to America’s first building dedicated to Native Americans. 

“The Payne Family Native American Center is a tremendous achievement,” she says, “but the next step for the building is to develop strong funding for the work that will increasingly power American Indian scholars and future leaders.” Take the Center’s Land and Culture Institute, for example. Named after the Blackfeet woman who helped win the Indian Trust Settlement, Elouise Cobell, the Institute provides needed learning and tools, such as GIS drought mapping, for “future of Native American communities.”

Distinct as they all are, Montana tribes share many cultural traits, including a strong love of family and songs, storytelling, sacred rituals, artwork, and games. 

They also share a history of conflict. Before the European push for beaver pelts, gold and farmland, Northwest tribes were more apt to gather for gaming competitions than warfare, which needed tribal consensus (including from women). Many tribes were also famous for “counting coup,” touching the enemy, but not harming, in battle. When horses, guns and more competition for resources (buffalo) arrived, encounters became more deadly. US government military battles, such as the Little Big Horn or Big Hole, are easy to find on a Montana map; other tribally significant events, like the Marias Massacre, are not. 

To learn more about Big Sky tribes, visit their homelands (ask about tribal permits). Online resources include www.tribalnations.mt.gov/ and www.montanatribes.org/. Also visit the OPI, which helps implement the landmark “Indian Education for All” legislation, at www.opi.mt.gov/Educators/Teaching-Learning/Indian-Education

 

Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes | Flathead Reservation

Established 1855 • Headquarters: Pablo

406.675.2700 • www.cskt.org

Primary Tribes: Bitterroot Salish, Upper Pend d’ Oreille and Kootenai 

Names: Confederated Salish means Salish and Pend d’Oreille; call themselves Sqelio or “The People.” Qaeispe is proper name for Pend d’Oreille. Kootenai aboriginal name Kutanaxa means “licks the blood” from a hunting custom. Flathead band is called Ksanka; means “standing arrow” from a hunting technique. 

Interesting: 

More than 40 tribal nations represented 

Kootenai language is unlike any other in the world 

First to incorporate under the Indian Reorganization Act 

First to designate tribal wilderness lands 

Member D’Arcy McNickle wrote Wind from an Enemy Sky

Salish Kootenai College •  www.skc.edu

 

Blackfeet Tribe | Blackfeet Indian Reservation 

Established 1855. • Headquarters: Browning

406.338.7521 • www.blackfeetnation.com

Name: Translation of word Siksika, means “black foot” from tribe’s blackened moccasins. 

 Interesting: 

Reservation includes headwaters to Hudson Bay, Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean 

Lewis & Clark expedition killed a Blackfeet youth for trip’s only recorded Indian death 

Blackfeet wildland firefighters are some of the best in the world 

Killing Custer and Fools Crow author James Welch was Blackfeet 

 Blackfeet Community College •  www.bfcc.org

 

Chippewa-Cree Indians | Rocky Boy’s Reservation 

Established 1916. • Headquarters: Rocky Boy

406.395.5707 •  www.tribalnations.mt.gov/chippewacree

Name: Chippewa word; Stone Child most accurate translation, not Rocky Boy. 

 Interesting: 

Montana’s smallest reservation; established by Executive Order, not treaty 

Crees represent one of the largest Native American groups in North America 

Tribes operate a casino with nearby airline and Amtrak service

Stone Child College •  www.stonechild.edu

 

Fort Belknap Indian Community | Fort Belknap Reservation 

Established 1888. • Headquarters: Fort Belknap

406.353.2205 www.ftbelknap.org

Primary Tribes: Assiniboine and Gros Ventre 

Names: Assiniboine means “Stone Water People.” Gros Ventre (pronounced Gro Vant—big belly in French) call themselves Aaniiih; means “White Clay People.” 

 Interesting: 

The Gros Ventre hosted German Prince Maximilian in 1826 

In 1884, gold discovered in Little Rocky Mountains 

Fort Belknap named after a Secretary of War 

 Aaniiih Nakoda College •  www.ancollege.edu

 

Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes | Fort Peck Indian Reservation

Established 1888. • Headquarters: Poplar

406.768.2300 www.fortpecktribes.org

Name: Assiniboine call themselves Nakoda, means “Generous Ones.” Sioux are Dakota or Lakota; means “The Allies.” 

 Interesting: 

Montana’s second largest reservation with more than 1000 other tribal members 

Assiniboine and Sioux fought in 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn 

Oil was discovered on the homeland in the 1950s 

Fort Peck Community College •  www.fpcc.edu

 

Northern Cheyenne Tribe | Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation

Established 1884. • Headquarters: Lame Deer

406.477.6284 www.cheyennenation.com

Name: Call themselves Tsitsistas; means “The People.” 

 Interesting: 

Two Cheyenne tribes in 1851. Today, Southern tribe has trust lands, but no reservation 

Both Northern & Southern tribes joined the Sioux for Little Big Horn battle 

Ben Nighthorse Campbell, former US Senator from Colorado, is Northern Cheyenne 

Chief Dull Knife College •  www.cdkc.edu/

 

Crow Tribe | Crow Indian Reservation

Established 1851. • Headquarters: Crow Agency

406.638.3708 www.crow-nsn.gov

Name: Call themselves Apsáalooke,” which means “Children of the Large-Beaked Bird.” 

Interesting: 

Montana’s biggest reservation 

Before small pox in the mid-1800s, tribe was more than 8000 strong 

Like the Blackfeet, Crow women could ride in battle, if rarely 

Most members speak Crow as a first language; college does business in Crow 

Member Robert (Bill) Yellowtail headed the US Environmental Protection Agency 

Little Big Horn College •  www.lbhc.edu/

 

Little Shell Tribe

Chippewa Indians • Tribal headquarters: Great Falls

406.315.2400 • www.montanalittleshelltribe.org

Name: Call themselves Métifs, means “middle people or mixed blood.” 

Interesting: 

Born of tribal women and Irish, Scotch and French immigrants 

Thousands of Métifs lived near trading posts in the US and Canada 

Tried to gain tribal recognition in Canada in 1855 

In 1904, began locating and enrolling members 

Montana gave tribe recognition in the 1980s 

Bureau of Indian Affairs gave preliminary recognition in 2000