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F. P. Tribes

Prior to the entry of the non-Indians into the present day Fort Peck Reservation area, the region had been occupied by several bands of Assiniboine Indians, and had generally been thought of by non-Indians as a very wild and unsettled area.

The Assiniboines were in the larger region as early as the late 1600’s. Western bands were visited by the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) explorer Henry Kelsey in the Saskatchewan River County in the late 1690’s, and already their seasonal round included forays as far south as the Missouri River provided important wintering grounds, always rich enough to make the winter prosperous, without threats of starvation.

The Assiniboines were veteran middle men in the fur trades. The French-Canadian explorer, La Verendreye, accompanied a regular annual trade expedition by eastern Assiniboines to the Mandan Villages in 1731. As the Assiniboines gradually moved more and more of their population onto the prairies out of the woodlands, they continued to ally themselves with Crees, Chippewas, and Monsoni against the Sioux, Arikaras, Cheyennes, Blackfeet, and Gros Ventres. The Assiniboines had previously been tied to the HBC trade, but gradually accepted the French peddlers from Quebec, who eventually became the Northwest Company, especially when HBC displaced Assiniboines as the canoe men for the journeys down to the Bay. The HBC also moved to set up inland posts to the competition, and the Assiniboines became adept at playing one company against the other. As early as 1770’s independent traders, some out of Spanish St. Louis, began operating in the Mandan Village, the major inter-tribal trade center on the northern plains since long before the 1730’s. The Assiniboines were pragmatists, who saw these villages where the trade fairs operated as a resource to be exploited. The Assiniboines sometimes attacked the merchants, the Mandan themselves, and their clients (other northern plains tribes); at other times, they suspended the warfare with pipes in order to trade themselves. The competition for access to the villages and the overall flow of goods became the focus of Assiniboine attention crucial to their own position in the region. Thereby the Assiniboines attempted to control the lands between the HBC and the NWC posts on the Assiniboine River and the Mandan villages, predominately the Souris River Valley.

This presence was successful, but smallpox in 1780-81 and again in 1800-03 began to undermine physically the hold the Assiniboines were able to maintain. By the 1790’s, Assiniboines already realized that their western wintering grounds were to be the next regions into which the European trade would expand. The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803-04) provided information that was of primary use to St. Louis trading companies, traders whose eyes were turned westward. Initial attempts to extend trade to the Blackfeet failed mostly because of hatred engendered among the Blackfeet by the Lewis and Clark Expedition which killed several Blackfeet. Extending forts above Fort Clark in the Mandan Villages, especially to the confluence of the Missouri and the Yellowstone, became a goal which took almost 15 years to accomplish.

In 1826, agent for the Upper Missouri River, Peter Wilson, signed many of the first treaties with upper Missouri groups, one of which was the Assiniboines, who had come into trade at the Mandan Villages. One year later, James Kipp built a post at the mouth of the White Earth River to trade specifically with Assiniboines. The next year the newly formed American Fur Company began building Fort Union at the confluence of the two great rivers, also to trade with the Assiniboine. Fort Union became the major institution serving the Assiniboine bands became fur and hide producers and roamed the regions between the Saskatchewan River north, Missouri River branch lands to the south, the Cypress Hills and Milk River to the west, and the White Earth River the east.

There was little or no non-Indian presence in the region other than what coalesced around fur trade posts. The coming of the steamboats, railroad surveys, and eventually gold discoveries initialed migration of the non-Indians. In 1851, representatives of Assiniboines and some bands of Sioux gathers at the Fort Laramie Treaty Council and boundaries for land were delineated between the tribes present and chiefs named the day lands of the Fort Peck Reservation were included in the Assiniboine lands as outlined in the Fort Laramie Treaty. Four years later the government railroad survey expedition of the Washington Territorial Governor, Isaac Stevens met at Fort Benton and designated the entire tier of present day northern Montana the “Blackfeet Hunting Ground,” for the Blackfeet and other Indians. Gros Ventre were present, but Assiniboine were not. These overlapping designated jurisdictions between the treaties remained unresolved for many years.

Warfare between Teton Sioux bands and the U.S. evolved into the Great Sioux War, fought mostly in the Powder River country to the south of the Yellowstone. The Bozeman Trail forts were removed as a stipulation of the second Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The Sioux victory in this conflict delineated the boundary of the Great Sioux Reservation, established agencies, and guaranteed annuities to all Teton and Yanktons. The Sioux bands within the lands of the Milk River Agency, however, had expanded their hunting grounds north and west as part of the military assertiveness that accompanied the Great Sioux War. As a result, none of these peripheral groups wanted to go to agencies in the southeast for their (in Dakota Territory) annuities. They wanted rations in the region in which they had come to reside, and could not see what the difficulty was. During the Great Sioux War (1866-68), the numbers of Yanktonai-Yankton and Teton in the Red Water and Powder River country south of the Missouri increased. In 1868, agencies were established for Blackfeet on the Teton River and all others in the east part of the Blackfeet Hunting Ground were placed under jurisdiction of Milk River Agency. During this same time, Yanktonai Sioux were referred to Milk River Agency and tried to edge themselves into a position to receive rations.

This period in which the Assiniboines attempted to broker access for Sioux willing to meet their conditions. At this same time, some Assiniboines returned the Flat Pipe to the Gros Ventres which resulted bound upper Assiniboines to their former enemies. One report indicated that Assiniboines gave women at the time the alliance was formed access to the horses of the Gros Ventres kinsmen, the Arapahoe. This is the same time in which Swing Thigh’s Yanktonias and more of the Sisseton Wahpeton became intermarried with several Assiniboine bands. These alliances represented the results of so many different Indians being within a single agency’s jurisdiction, each competing for attention and favor. By the spring of 1871, 500 lodges of Sioux were competing with other resident Assiniboines, Gros Ventre, and River Crow already under jurisdiction of the Milk River Agency. Badgered by the Yankton into warfare with upper Assiniboine bands, Standing Buffalo was killed in 1871; a proportion of is followers migrated on into Canada, while some stayed among the Assiniboine. Since most of the Sioux would not leave, the annuities available were not enough to go around. The Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Montana requested that a delegation of Sioux be sent to Washington for the purpose of effecting their removal from the Agency’s jurisdiction. In June of 1872, Agent Simmons took Sioux delegation down the Missouri and off to Washington.

Before departing, Simmons was able to initiate the move of part of his charges to a new agency at Fort Peck, with others sent to a sub-agency at Fort Belknap, abandoning Fort Browning, which had been the location of the Milk River Agency (outside present day Chinook, Montana.) A total of 8,412 individuals were relocated to the vicinity of Fort Peck Agency, and 5,089 to Fort Belknap.

The new Fort Peck Indian Agency consequently was established in 1871 to serve the Assiniboine and Sioux Indians. The Agency was located within the old stockade of Fort Peck, purchased from traders Durfee and Peck. The fate of the Indian people within the Agency with little ability to protect its charges, however, was evidenced in the atrocities by non-Indians against Indians. In the Cypress Hills in 1872 forty lodges of Assiniboine were massacred by wolf and hide hunters. Although the action was condemned, the massacre’s perpetrators were never tried. This created an atmosphere in which Indians, other than in occasional war parties set against their traditional Indian enemies, kept close to their agencies. In 1878, the Fort Peck Agency was relocated to its present day location in Poplar because the original agency was located on a flood plain, suffering floods each spring.

Attempts by the U.S. Government to take the Black Hills and bind the Sioux to agencies along the Missouri in the 1820’s resulted in warfare, reopening the issues that had been central to the Great Sioux War (1866-68). As part of the Sioux agreed to come into the agencies, part chose to resist. Army efforts to bring in the other Sioux war (1866-68). As part of the Sioux agreed to come into the agencies, part chose to resist. Army efforts to bring in the other Sioux (characterized as “hostiles”) led battles in the Rosebud country, and culminated in the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. As the victors dispersed, Sitting Bull led followers north into the Red Water country, where contact with the Sioux of the Fort Peck Agency kept the Hunk papas and assorted Tetons supplied. When military pressure increased, Sitting Bull led most of his followers into Canada in 1877. The military presence increased in an effort to induce Sitting Bull to surrender. Camp Poplar (located at the Fort Peck Agency) was established in 1880. Finally, without supplies and barely tolerated by Indians in the area of present day southern Saskatchewan, Sitting Bull came in to surrender at Fort Buford on July 19, 1881. Some of his Hunk papa’s stragglers intermarried with others at Fort Peck and resided in the Chelsea community.

The early 1880’s brought many changes and much suffering. By 1881, all the buffalo were gone form the region. By 1883-84, over 300 Assiniboine died of starvation at the Wolf Point sub-agency when medical attention and food were in short supply. Rations were not sufficient for needs, and suffering reservation-wide was exasperated by particularly severe winters. The early reservation traumas were complicated by frequent changes in agents, few improvements in services, and a difficult existence for the agency’s tribes. Negotiations the winter of 1886-87 and ratified in the Act of May 1, 1888, established modern boundaries.

Also in 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, which provided the general legislation for dividing the hitherto tribally-owned Indian reservations in to parcels of land to be given to individuals. During the turn of the century, as the non-Indian proceeded to inhabit the boundary areas of the Reservation, the prime grazing and farmland areas situated within the Reservation drew their attention. As more and more homesteaders moved into the surrounding area, pressure was placed on Congress to open up the Fort Peck Reservation to homesteading. Finally, the Congressional Act of May 30, 1908,
commonly known as the Fort Peck Allotment Act, was passed. The Act called for the survey and allotment of lands now embraced by the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and the sale and dispersal of all the surplus lands after allotment each eligible Indian was to receive 320 acres of grazing land and addition to some timber and irrigatable land. Parcels of land were also withheld for Agency, school and church use. Also, land was reserved for use by the Great Northern (Burlington Northern) Railroad. All lands not allotted or reserved were declared surplus and were ready to be disposed of under the general provisions of the homestead, desert land, mineral and town site laws. In 1913, approximately 1,348,408 acres of unalloted or tribal unreserved lands were available for settlement by the non-Indian homesteaders. Although provisions were made to sell the remaining land not disposed of in the first five years, it was never completed. Several allotments were made before 1930’s.

Educational history on the Reservation includes government boarding school program which was begun in 1877 and finally discontinued in the 1920’s. Missionary schools were run periodically by the Mormons and Presbyterians in the first decades of the 20th century, but with minimal success. The Fort Peck Reservation is served by five public school districts, which are responsible for elementary and secondary education.
In addition, one independent post-secondary institution is located on the Reservation. The Fort Peck Community College (FPCC), which offers courses of study leading to an Associate of Arts/Science degree in General Studies, distance learning degrees offer Baccalaureate Degrees in Applied Business Management, Elementary Education, and Information technology; also offered is the Master’s Degree in Education. FPCC was granted accreditation by the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, Commissions on Colleges, in December of 1991. Education is a high priority for the Fort Peck Tribes with a tribally operated Headstart program, a tribal scholarship program and Fort Peck Community College.

Fort Peck Reservation is home to two separate Indian nations, each composed of numerous bands and divisions. The Sioux divisions of Sisseton/Wahpetons, the Yanktonais, and the Teton Hunk papas are all represented. The Assiniboine bands of Wadopana (Canoe Paddlers) and Red Bottom are represented.

The Reservation is located in the extreme northeast corner of Montana, on the north side of the Missouri River. The Reservation is 110 miles long and 40 miles wide, encompassing 2,093,318 acres (approximately 3,200 square miles). Of this, approximately 378,000 acres individually allotted Indian lands. The total of Indian owned lands is about 926,000 acres.

There are an estimated 10,000 enrolled tribal members, of whom approximately 6,000 reside on or near the Reservation near the Missouri River and the major transportation routes, U.S. Highway 2 and Amtrak routing in the tracks of the Burlington Northern railroad. Fort Peck Tribes adopted their first written constitution in 1927. The Tribes voted to reject a new constitution under the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. The original constitution was amended in 1952, and completely rewritten and adopted in 1960. The present constitution remains one of the few modern tribal constitutions that still include provisions for general councils, the traditional tribal type of government.

The official governing body of the Fort Peck Tribes is the Tribal Executive Board, composed of twelve voting members, plus a chairman, vice chairman, secretary-accountant, and sergeant-at-arms. All members of the governing body, except the secretary-accountant, are elected at large every two years. The secretary-accountant appointed for a two-year term by the twelve member board.

Since the 1950’s the Fort Peck Tribes have undertaken extensive industrial and mineral development. The Tribally owned Assiniboine and Sioux Tribal Industries (ASTI) is the largest private employer in Montana. Fort Peck was the first of the United States tribes to develop jointly and wholly owned oil wells.

The Fort Peck Tribes are constantly building for a better future in the 21st century.

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