The Basics

Montana's Native Americans

The Native Americans of Montana were largely nomadic. Their history is characterized by movement with the seasons.

They crossed the plains to follow the great herds of bison, then retreated when stronger tribes pushed them off the hunting grounds. As the white man moved in and warfare and disease decimated the tribes, there came the move to the reservations marking the end of an era and a permanent change in lifestyle for the tribes.

Archeological evidence reveals that Native Americans walked these plains and roamed these mountains more than 14,000 years ago. Artifacts link the Kootenai to these prehistoric tribes. The Kootenai made their home in the mountainous terrain west of the divide. They ventured east only to hunt buffalo. The Crow, Salish, and Pend d'Oreilles were probably the rest of the modern tribes to join the Kootenai on these lands. The Salish and the Pend d'Oreilles were spread as far east as the Bighorn Mountains. During the 1700s, these tribes co-existed on the same hunting grounds. The Hellgate Treaty took their massive landholdings and conned them to the fertile grounds of the Flathead Reservation.

The Chippewa and Cree were latecomers to Montana. They came to the area after the reservation system was in existence. Today these tribes are intermixed and share the hybrid name, Chippewa-Cree. They reside on the Rocky Boys reservation.

Most of Montanas Indians arrived here after 1700. By the time they arrived, the white man's culture was already firmly established. The white man's influence on who would dominate the Montana territory was significant. Guns from the white frontiersman and horses from the Spaniards became deciding factors in a culture completely dependent on the bison.

In the 1880s, the bison-based economy began to crumble. White men were hunting the bison to near extinction, the U.S. and Canadian governments began to drive Indians from their lands, and the diseases brought by the whites all combined to diminish the population of the tribes and shatter their spirits. By the 1870s, large tracts of land were formally reserved for the Indians through various treaties and executive orders.

Todays Reservations

Today, reservations cover nine percent of the Montana land base. While not all is still owned by native people, all is governed by tribal or federal law. These reservations are not only important for the spiritual ties the Indians have to the land but because they have become the Indians last retreat and last chance to preserve the culture of the past. Today, the people of Montanas reservations are working hard to create and sustain strong economic bases to perpetuate the culture for future generations.

Today, these reservations are reservoirs of Native American history. They are havens where the Indian culture can be experienced with a backdrop of sacred landscapes and at annual gatherings where rituals are performed and traditional dress is worn as it has been for hundreds of years.

There are seven reservations in Montana occupied by eleven tribes. Each maintains a wealth of cultural institutions in their museums. Special events held frequently provide insight into their cultures. Historic sites are plentiful on all seven reservations. While Montanas Native Americans have struggled to adapt to the changing world and connecting cultures around them, they have managed to maintain the rich culture and traditions of their past. This heritage is a major ingredient in the cultural flavor of Montana.

Visiting a Reservation

Each of the reservations has special social and cultural events and activities unique to the tribes occupying them. Many, like tribal powwows, rodeos, hand games, and shinny games are social events and usually open to the public. When visiting these events and the public places on the reservation, keep in mind that most of these are not held for the benet of the public but as important parts of the tribe's culture. Thus its incumbent on guests to show courtesy and respect when attending these activities.

Most of the cultural and religious ceremonies require a special invitation to attend. In some cases, visitors are not allowed at all. In some tribes, a host family will personally invite visitors and advise them of the protocol in attending. All of the tribes place great importance on their religion and traditions. Sacred sites must be respected and artifacts must not be removed. All reservations have places where mementos may be purchased.

A powwow is a social gathering featuring generations-old dancing and drumming, accompanied by traditional food and dress. Visitors should bring lawn chairs and blankets as seating space is limited at most of these functions. Guests may join in the Round Dance where everyone dances in a circle, or by invitation of the emcee. They may also participate by invitation in a Giveaway, which is a sharing of accomplishment or good fortune. But they should be constantly aware that the dance area is sacred.

All events and points of interest mentioned on this site are open to the public. To be sure about attendance at any other functions, contact the tribal office.

Flash photography is forbidden during contests. If you wish to take a picture of the dancers or singers, ask permission first.

Visitors should be aware that while on the reservation, tribal laws exist that do not exist off the reservation. Most tribes have their own laws regarding the environment and wildlife protection. For information concerning access and recreation, contact the tribal office.

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