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Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, Montana

The Fort Belknap Indian Reservation is located in Montana’s north-central regions, near the town of Havre.

The reservation was established in 1888, and covers a sprawling 652,000 acres, functioning as a settlement for both Tribal Nations the Assiniboine (also known as Nakoda) and the Gros Ventre (also known as A’aninin).

Although at one point the two tribes would have been enemies, the reservation today stands as part of the two nations’ ancestral territory, which formerly included large sections of both central and eastern Montana, along with some sections of North Dakota.

The Gros Ventre tribe lives primarily at the south end of the reservation near the Little Rocky Mountains, while the Assiniboine settled in reservations on both sides of the U.S. and Canada border.

Together, the tribes have formed and maintained a community that has a deep respect for its land, its culture, and its heritage.

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Image: USDA NRCS

The History of Fort Belknap Indian Reservation

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The Assiniboine had previously been part of the Yanktonai Sioux Tribe, which they broke away from in the 17th century before migrating to the Northern Plains region of the state. Along with the Gros Ventre, the Assiniboine had been nomadic hunters and warriors who relied heavily on buffalo for food, clothing, and tepees.

The tribes had lived well when buffalo were plentiful until the population of herds was decimated by white hunters.

Reportedly the very last herd of buffalo in the continental United States in the nineteenth century existed somewhere between the Bears Paw Mountains and the Little Rocky Mountains in the Milk River valley, where along with the tribes they had roamed for thousands of years.

The name Fort Belknap comes from the original military post of the same name that was established on the Milk River, in the region of what is today the city of Chinook.

The Fort was originally a combination of the military fort and trading post, named for one William W. Belknap who was the Secretary of War at the time.

During the fort’s thirty-nine years in operation, the Assiniboine were among the main trading partners, also playing their part in providing additional protection for the fort from other unfriendly tribes.

Eventually, the location became a Government agency for both the Gros Ventre and the Assiniboine Indians living in the area in the 1870s, once the federal government had decided to start negotiations for treaties.

The tribes eventually agreed to settle on reservations for survival after much conflict had taken place and their numbers significantly reduced.

The Gros Ventre and the Assiniboine Nation (who settled on reservations on either side of the US and Canada border) signed the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1855 with the United States Government, which established their respective territories within the continental United States.

Points of Interest in the Fort Belknap Reservation

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Aaniiih Nakoda College is an educational facility located within the reservation. The College offers two-year associate degrees in the Arts and Sciences.

One-year certificates are also available, and the Tribal Archives of the nation are actually located on campus here, in a library constructed by the students themselves.

The facility incorporates aspects of native culture into the curriculum, helping to promote cultural identity, even though the college is open to both tribal and non-tribal members.

The Reservation operates a Fort Belknap Agency Tourism Office and Information Center in Harlem. This facility has all the information necessary for any visit to the reservation, along with a 10-site RV park with plenty of space, as well as showers and picnic grounds.

On top of that, you can find go-karting, golf, and a swimming pool, and the staff from the office conduct tours of the Mission Canyon and Snake Butte, as well as ancient teepee ring sites, and the Tribal Buffalo Pasture.

Two miles to the southeast of Hayes is the Mission Canyon and Natural Bridge. Steep limestone cliffs dotted with caves and natural bridges line Mission Canyon making it a great place to check out some impressive natural wonders.

The stunning natural bridge, which towers 60 feet above the ground, was carved out of the surrounding limestone by hundreds, if not thousands of years of erosion.

There are other attractions in the area such as a unique grotto known as Devil’s Kitchen which is accessed by a ladder made out of lodgepole pines. Other named points of interest in the area include Wilson Park, Needle Eye, and Kid Curry’s Hideout.

Saint Paul’s Mission Church within the reservation dates back to 1887 when it was established by the Bureau of Catholic Missions. Today the church functions as a kindergarten facility through eighth-grade school.

The simple Gothic-style building replaced an earlier log construct used by the Jesuits who established relations with the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Indian tribes to establish the community of Hays.

The Economy of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation

The primary industry on the reservation is related to agriculture by way of cattle ranches as well as herds of Buffalo.

The tribes are branching out into other areas of industry like food production, with the Little Rockies Meat Packing Company, Inc. being the first tribally owned facility producing and packaging USDA-inspected meat.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the tribe are the major employers of tribal members, and the Reservation is making continuous efforts to develop tourism and marketing via Native American artisans and activities.

The tribe organizes hunts for antelopes, various birds, and gophers that anyone can join, although licenses and guides are required.

Festivals and Celebrations on the Reservation

The reservation lands hold much cultural significance to the tribes, and as well as the various petroglyphs and tipi ring dotted around the reservation, there are various important annual celebrations and festivals that are still held.

At these events, both tribal members and non-members can experience some of the best Native Indian festivals in the world. They provide insights for the general public into the culture and traditions of the local indigenous people.

You’ll find a whole weekend can be taken up with singing, dancing, drums, arts and crafts, and a whole host of other interesting features at these events. Some of the key events held annually include:

  • The Lodgepole Pow Wow (June)
  • Milk River Indian Days (July)
  • Hays Pow Wow (August)

Fort Belknap Indian Reservation- Conclusion

The Fort Belknap Indian Reservation today stands as a testament to the culture and heritage of some of the Native Indian tribes that inhabited the region of Montana long before any other settlers showed up.

The reservation helps to keep the tradition alive and instill a sense of identity for many young people growing up on it and is worth visiting by the general public to see the picturesque wilderness, indulge in some outdoor recreation, and learn something about the heritage of the region from the tribal members still living there today.

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