The Fort Belknap Reservation
From the book This Is Montana by Rick and Susie Graetz
Home to the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine
Montana’s Fort Belknap Reservation is made up of two different landscapes and populated by two different tribes – the Gros Ventres and Assiniboine. While the tribes share some history and similar fates, different paths led them to their current, shared homeland in north central Montana.
Like many tribes, the Gros Ventre has a long history of moving from one home to another. Historians believe the tribe, who called themselves the A’a’nin, or White Clay People, lived in North Dakota’s Red River Valley from about 1100 A.D. to 1400 A.D. As pressure from the east grew and competition increased among the Plains Indians, the Gros Ventre found themselves forced from their lands, always pushed being farther north or west.
The first known white contact with the Gros Ventres was about 1754 in Canada, between the north and south forks of the Saskatchewan River. It was an unfortunate encounter for the Indians. Left behind for the Gros Ventres was the same smallpox plague that would soon haunt other tribes. As the disease dramatically cut their population and therefore their strength, pressure from the Cree, the largest native population in Canada, and the Assiniboine, who had connections with the larger Sioux nation, compelled the tribe to move again.
The Gros Ventres, along with the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes, are said to have migrated into what would become Montana about the turn of the 19th Century. While the Arapaho continued south to Wyoming and Colorado, the Gros Ventres and Cheyenne remained in Montana. There, along the Missouri river in 1826, the tribe met with German explorer Prince Maximilian, who documented their presence in the state. The Gros Ventres were quick to form an alliance with the powerful Blackfeet tribe and by the mid-1800s, the two tribes roamed north central Montana and southern Canada.
By then, the Assiniboine, the tribe that once quarreled with the Gros Ventres in Canada, had also found their way into Montana. Calling themselves the Nakona, or “the Friendly People,” they became known by others as the Assiniboine - Chippewa words for “stone boilers” - because of their unique way of cooking with rocks.
According to their oral history, the Assiniboine originally were a branch of the Yanktonai Sioux and a powerful tribe in their own right, making up about 40 distinct bands that reached from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains. For some, the land from where the Milk River flows into the Missouri River all the way to North Dakota was considered to be Assiniboine wintering grounds.
But like the Gros Ventres, the Assiniboine also would suffer from smallpox, see the numbers of their tribe dwindle, and eventually grow vulnerable to the larger tribes. In 1851, the Assiniboine supported the first Fort Laramie Treaty, an agreement that was to end the fighting by designating western lands to each of the tribes.
Four years later in 1855, both the Gros Ventres, who signed as members of the Blackfeet nation, and the Assiniboine, agreed to another treaty that was to bring peace to the area. That treaty set aside land from the Rocky Mountains to the mouth of the Yellowstone River as common Indian hunting grounds, including grounds for both the Gros Ventres and the Assiniboine.
Both tribes remained in central Montana and in 1868, the U.S. Army established Fort Browning along the Milk River to serve as a distribution post for rations and annuities guaranteed to the tribes by the earlier treaties. Unfortunately, the new fort was on Sioux hunting grounds and three years later, it was abandoned. Government officials soon replaced it with Fort Belknap, which was built on the opposite side of the Milk River near where the town of Chinook now stands.
Fort Belknap operated for five years, but in 1876, it too was closed and members of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventres who had been receiving goods there were told to relocate to the agency established to the east at Fort Peck and Wolf Point – land frequented by the Sioux.
Many of the Assiniboine, who shared language and old connections with the Sioux, were willing to move eastward, but members of the Gros Ventres refused to relocate to land they would have to share with old adversaries. Instead, the Gros Ventres, and some lingering Assiniboine, stayed where they were and, for a while, forfeited their annuities.
In 1878, just two years after being closed, Fort Belknap was re-established as a source of supplies for those who had remained in the area. Six years later, in 1884, gold was discovered in the nearby Little Rocky Mountains and the year after that, St. Paul’s Mission was established near the foot of the mountains. Finally, in 1888, the tribes of central Montana, under increasing pressure from the continuing influx of whites, ceded 17,500,000 acres to the United States and agreed to live on three new, much smaller reservations.
The Blackfeet Reservation was established along the Canadian border and became home to the Blackfeet Indians; the Sioux nation, including the Assiniboines who had moved to Fort Peck, were located on the Fort Peck Reservation and the Fort Belknap Reservation, officially established on March 2, 1889, became the land of the Gros Ventres and Assiniboine who had remained in the area.
The Fort Belknap Reservation is the smallest of the three, encompassing 1,200 square miles, or about 638,000 acres. It is home to about 3,500 members of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes. Dry land farming, ranching and tribal government are the main sources of employment.
For the most part, the Gros Ventres settled in the reservation’s southern portion in a land marked by rolling grassland, river breaks and the Little Rocky Mountains. About a third of the reservation’s population lives in this area and are served by the communities of Hays and Lodge Pole.
Most of the Assiniboine remained in the northern reaches of the reservation, a land of treeless plains and alluvial bottomlands. More than half of the reservation’s population lives here, in or near the Fort Belknap Agency or the town of Harlem (which is not located on the reservation).
Each year, reservation residents celebrate their history and traditions with Milk River Indian Days Powwow and Chief Joseph Memorial Days. Other sources of information about the history of those calling the Fort Belknap home can be found at a small museum and visitor center located at the intersection of highways Montana 66 and U.S. 2. The reservation’s herd of 300 buffalo and other abundant wildlife often can be seen nearby.
Among the historical sites that can be found on or near the Fort Belknap Reservation are the Chief Joseph Battleground Monument, St. Paul’s Mission Church, the Natural Bridge State Monument, the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the Missouri River Breaks.