THE UNITED STATES AND THE BLACKFEET TRIBE
1655 - 1950’s
This report provides an historical analysis of the trust administration of the United States of the lands and assets of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana. Chapter I includes an analysis of the early period from 1855 through 1888 when the Gros Ventre were considered a part of the Blackfeet Confederation (The Blackfeet, Piegans and Bloods), and pursuant to the Treaty of October 1, 1855, the Blackfeet and Gros Ventre were the co-owners of a large part of what is today northern Montana.
This report is not an ethnological nor an historical account of the Blackfeet Tribe; except insofar as the Indians were touched by the actions of the United States as their trustees and overseer of their Reservation. A detailed historical analysis is provided of the Government’s administration of tribal funds, lands and resources within a chronological framework. The scope of the study has been shaped by both the availability of the historical documents and limited to those historical trends pertinent to the legal claims of the Tribe as explained by the tribal claims attorneys. Thus, for example, there is no discussion of the problem of alcoholism on the Reservation in the twentieth century, eve though no history of a reservation would be complete without such a discussion.
On the other hand, there is detailed treatment of the whiskey trade rampant on the Reservation in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, since this trade was an integral part of the corrupt system existing that the Reservation in which Montana politicians and entepreneurs exploited the Reservation’s Indians and their resources with the acquiescence and in many instances the active assistance of government agents.
The historical evidence on which the report is based was gleaned from literally thousands of documents reviewed by the historian or research assistances, Messrs. Steven Sawyer and Edward Case and esp. Mr. Robert McGillicuddy, working directly under the historian’s supervision for a period of two years. The primary research effort was conducted at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. However, extensive additional research was undertaken at the Museum of the Plains Indian, Browning, Montana; the Seattle Federal Records Center in Washington; the Montana Historical Society, Helena, Montana; the Department of the Interior Library in Washington, D.C.; the Federal Records Center in Suitland, Maryland; and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. In addition, documents were obtained from the official records of the Blackfeet Tribe, Montana; the Billings Area Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Montana; the Lauinger Library and Gunlocks Collection of Rare Books of Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. Finally, research was also conducted at the Minnesota Historical Society at Minneapolis, Minnesota; the Montana State Unvirsity Library at Bozeman, Montana; and the University of Texas Library, Austin, Texas; and the Denver Federal Records Center.
Other historical research was done by Merrill Burlingame, Professor of History, Montana State University, at the time he served as expert witness in previous cases before the Commission. This material and the documents obtained by other expert witnesses in previous cases before the Indian Claims Commission and in the present case were made available to the historian by the Tribal Claims Attorneys, Wilkinson, Cragun & Barker.
Much of the historical evidence cited relates to mineral resources and the grazing ranges and the timber lands of the Tribe, as well as the government’s administration and accounting procedures. The author claims no expertise as an accountant, land appraiser, range economist or mineralogist. However, some technical matters in this area are necessarily treated in their historical context in order to provide a complete picture of the government’s administration of the Reservation. The original Blackfeet-Gros Ventre Reservation encompassed a vast acreage and contained considerable and varied natural wealth.
Beginning with the Executive Orders of 1873 and 1874, the Blackfeet Reservation had its southern borders pushed northward from the Sun River past the Teton to its present location along Birch Creek and the Marias River. In 1888, the reservation was reduced again and the eastern boundary became the Marias River north along Cut Bank Creek for some twenty miles and then due north in a straight line to the northern boundary, the international boundary between Canada and the United States. By the Agreement of 1898, the Blackfeet ceded the present day area of Glacier National Park. With the series of reductions the location of the Blackfeet Agency moved progressively northward, too, retreating before Montana’s miners from Fort Benton to a point near the town of Choteau, then again with the cattlemen’s advance to Badger Creek, and again to Willow Creek and finally to a point near present day Browning, Montana.
Once considered amongst the most tenacious tribes of the Northwest -- the “Raiders of the Northern Plains” as John Ewers described them -- the Blackfeet Confederation was decimated by smallpox, starvation and the massacre of Heavy Runner’s band on the Marias River in 1870. After the exodus north by the Blackfeet and Blood Indians, the Piegans remained the dominant element in the Blackfeet Tribe living under the control of the United States. They endured through the starvation winter of 1883-1884, witnessed the extermination of the buffalo and the rise of northern Montana’s livestock industry as cattle and sheep fattened on their range lands. The funds derived in consideration of their land cessions were dissipated by the mismanagement or peculations of their various agents. In a story on The Blackfeet Trouble, the Great Falls Tribune observed in 1802:
“Probably ever since the foundation of the United States... Indian Agencies have been productive of more trouble than any other branch of the government. It is likely this is partially so because the agent is a sort of king on his reservation; he is far from the central authority, and his opportunities for ‘making a little on the side’ are greater than those of most government agencies.
“ The Blackfeet Agency in Montana has been no exception to the rule. In fact, it seems to have produced more trouble of this sort than any other in the state.”
The “trouble” the journalist complained of has been recorded in the historical documents of the Office of Indian Affairs, in the private correspondence of Montana’s early settlers and entrepreneurs, in the newspaper accounts describing the exploitation of the reservation’s resources by individuals and corporations alike. From Fort Benton’s “merchant princes” on through the cattle barons like Dan Floweree, to the railroad magnate James J. Hill and the Montana Power Company, the white man has more often benefitted from the great wealth of the Blackfeet grazing lands and minerals than did the Blackfeet. The hopes of the Tribe’s few outside supporters such as George Bird Grinnell, remained unfulfilled. Even the hope regenerated by the reforms of John Collier and the Indian Reorganization Act seemed illusionary in a short time as a handful of mixed bloods, who dominated the Tribal Council, demonstrated their adoption of “white monetary attitudes” to the detriment of their much less sophisticated constituents.
By the 1950”s the Blackfeet Tribe had suffered through a century often well-intended but overwhelmingly bungled efforts by the Office of Indian Affairs. The historical documents amply testify to the failure of the Government’s shiftiing policies and the frequently corrupt men charged with their administration. The Blackfeet, both the ancestors who hunted on the plains and their survivors today, have given equally ample evidence of their courage. They have endured, and by their endurance alone they have triumphed over the failure of those entrusted with their improvement. The courage of the Blackfeet merited more than mere survival.
Michael F. Foley