By: Marlene Affeld
The first people to inhabit the area now known as Montana were members of nomadic tribes that supple-mented their diets with native plants and sustained their existence by hunting buffalo and other mammals. Following the buffalo herds, these first people crossed the Bering Strait from Asia approximately 12,000 years ago and over time migrated southward. Archaeologists have verified evidence of a thriving tribal culture established west of the Rocky Mountains more than 9,000 years ago.
Before the white man came west, Indian people roamed freely across this great land, following the gigantic buffalo herds that once covered the plains. For hundreds of years the native peoples relied on the buffalo for food, clothing and shelter. The bison was revered among the Indian Tribes as a bountiful gift from the Creator and were thus hunted with reverence and respect.
The area now known as Montana was inhabited by two major groups of Indian tribes. The Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, Atsina and Arapaho tribes lived on the south and eastern grassy plains. The rugged western mountains were the home of the Shoshone, Bannack, Kalispell, Flathead and Kootenai tribes. The Dakota, Sioux and the Nez Perce tribes entered Montana at times to hunt and dispatch war parties, but were not permanent residents of the State.
With the arrival of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the first decade of the 19th century, the traditional way of life of Montana Indians became increasingly threatened. By the mid-1880's, the federal government began to deal formally with the tribes, entering into treaties that assigned tribes to certain designated areas and obligated them to respect the land boundaries of their neighbors. However, the mining “booms” of the 1860's fractured these fragile arrangements as miners rushed into the lucrative gold fields that often lay adjacent to or within the designated tribal lands. These new “settlers” demanded federal protection, thus beginning the garrisoning of Montana and the eventual forced relocation of the tribes to smaller and smaller reservations.
The combination of "tribal" and "nation" best encapsulates essential aspects of both the historical and contemporary identity of Indian communities in Montana. There are nine principal tribal groups living on seven reservations in Montana. Three of the reservations are inhabited by more than one tribal group.
The Confederated Salish, Pend d'Oreille and Kootenai share the Flathead Reservation; the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine co-habit the Fort Belknap Reservation; and the Assiniboine and Sioux both reside on the Fort Peck Reservation. In each of these cases, the reservation population consists of diverse fragments of larger tribal nations. For example, there are 33 bands of Assiniboine Indians, two of which are represented on the Fort Peck Reservation, where each of the seven primary bands of the Sioux nation are also represented.
The Rocky Boy's Reservation was originally inhabited by members of the Chippewa and Cree Tribes. However, because of extensive inter-marriage over the generations, the tribal rolls now list members only as "Chippewa Crees". In 1935, the Chippewa Crees adopted a tribal constitution for the "Chippewa Cree Tribe", officially recognizing the coming together of the two tribes into one.
Montana is also home to the Little Shell Band of Chippewa, often referred to as "Landless Indians". Although a distinct tribal group, the Little Shell are not yet a federally recognized tribe.
Tribal nations are distinctive in several respects. They are based primarily, although not exclusively, on ethnic heritage and are racially distinct from other minority groups in Montana and the United States. Most important from a legislative standpoint, tribal nations have a unique status in the American federal system. American Indians are not just an ethnic minority; they are also respected members of quasi-sovereign tribal nations. The Indian nations of Montana are governed by tribal governments that are legally empowered to determine who is and is not a member of that nation. Each of the tribal governments in Montana has established its own criteria for enrollment, with some requiring higher blood quantum levels than others.
The tumultuous history of the Indian tribes in Montana is characterized by years of violent warfare and constant movement. They traveled the plains to follow the buffalo and the many tribes battled for control of prime hunting grounds. Finally, with the bison near extinction and tribes decimated by disease and battles with white settlers, there came a final move onto reservations, marking the sad end of a proud and noble era.
According to 2007 figures from the US census, Montana has a population of approximately 957,800 people, the Indian Population of Montana was approximately 6.4 percent of the total population of the state.
The census reports information for American Indian areas that includes all American Indian reservations, off-reservation trust lands, and other tribal-designated statistical areas. Montana has seven Indian areas. The Indian population ranges from 24% of the total population in the Flathead area to 95% in the Rocky Boy's area.
Although the Indian population in Montana is highly concentrated in a few counties, Native Americans live in all 56 counties of the state, ranging from a small percentage of less than 1% in 19 counties to 10% of the population in 29 counties. There are eight counties in which Indians compose 11% to 56% of the total population.
Each Montana Indian tribe has unique customs and cultural traditions. The state’s Indian tribes have endeavored to adapt and adjust to the ever changing world around them; however, they have retained the traditions and tribal mandates of their proud past. In celebrating through language, dance, songs and sacred religious ceremonies the special connection they feel with nature, our native tribes richly contribute to the distinct flavor of Montana.
Marlene Affeld has a passion for the environment and all things natural which inspires her to write informative and insightful articles to assist others in living a Green Lifestyle.