Discovering Montana’s Fascinating Native American Tribes

Rebecca Hanlon
Last Updated: January 12th, 2024

A visit to Montana wouldn’t be complete without exploring some of the fascinating history of its many Native American tribes.

With a rich, tumultuous history and a diverse range of tribal territories, there are reservations to visit and history to learn about!

Whether you’re a history expert or just someone interested in learning about our country’s past, learning about Montana’s tribes is a great way to learn about both past and present-day culture.

In this article, we cover the history of the tribes in Montana, ranging from the pre-contact era to the present day. We also do an in-depth look at each tribe so you can learn about their unique history, culture, and traditions.

Let’s get into it!

History of Montana Native American Tribes

The Native American tribes in Montana have a vibrant and diverse history, going back thousands of years.

The abundant wildlife and hospitable landscape of Montana made the area very attractive, even drawing in tribes from outside of the state in the 1600s.

Through a turbulent contact period began by Lewis and Clark’s expedition in the 1800s, the tribes have now started to regain control of some of their traditional lands and resources, marking a new era of self-determination. 

  • Pre-contact era: Native Americans are believed to have been in Montana for around 7000 years. In the 17th Century, the established tribes were joined by the Plains Indians arriving from the east to take advantage of the excellent hunting grounds
  • Contact with European explorers and settlers: Lewis and Clark’s expedition in the early 1800s was when there was first significant contact between the tribes and European settlers. Traders, fur trappers, and missionaries soon followed, with settlements and agriculture soon after
  • Reservation era: The gold rush in the 1860s led to more settlers arriving, and Native Americans lost access to their hunting grounds. This led to famous battles like Little Bighorn, following which tribes were forced onto reservations
  • Modern era: Thanks to the passing of laws like the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, tribes were allowed to manage their own resources and govern themselves.This has led to more control of reservation lands and the acquisition of resources, such as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes owning a hydroelectric dam.

Montana Native American Tribes

Montana’s tribes each have unique individual histories and cultures.

Ranging from the Crow Indians in the south to the Kootenai in the mountains of the west, together they make up a rich tapestry that tells the story of the indigenous peoples of this diverse state.

Blackfeet People

blackfeet people

The Blackfeet people originally inhabited Canada’s Saskatchewan River Valley and the United States’ upper plains. The tribe relocated to the Rocky Mountains and the Missouri River areas by 1850.

The 1800s marked a time of great adversity for the tribe, with a number of smallpox outbreaks ravaging their population; tragically, around 6,000 of their number were affected by the disease.

The tribe was quick to adopt European technology in the 1750s, including horses and firearms, and then used this to push westward from the Saskatchewan Valley to the Rockies and Montana.

At the height of their power, their territory was enormous, spanning from northern Saskatchewan to the southernmost point of the Missouri River.

The Blackfeet practiced a number of unique cultural traditions; they were roaming buffalo hunters who lived in tepees and regularly moved from place to place without permanent settlements and agriculture, except for growing a native tobacco species.

Their traditions date back to a time when they didn’t have horses and had to hunt on foot, but after making contact with European explorers they became known for their large horse herds.

In modern times, the Blackfeet Nation is made up of 16,500 enrolled members, with the tribal seat located in Browning, Montana.

Due to its isolation, the reservation has high unemployment numbers, and the main income of the reservation is from petroleum and natural gas leases. They also have a significant tourism income and practice ranching.


assiniboine people

The Assiniboine or Nakoda people live in Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Reservations in Montana.

Originally part of the Yanktonai Dakota (Nakota), the Assiniboine people split off in the early 1700s and lived in the region between the Saskatchewan and Missouri Rivers.

By the 1780s their population was estimated to be around 10,000. In the 1800s, inter-tribal fighting drove the Assiniboine to relocate from the Great Lakes to Minnesota where they first encountered European settlers.

The Assiniboine were known for being great buffalo hunters, and they bartered dried buffalo meat for firearms and other European technology.

Fur traders and settlers continued to encroach on their territory, and they were driven into Montana and North Dakota, bringing them into conflict with the Blackfeet tribe.

Before they acquired horses, bands of Assiniboine would move their camps on foot and using dog-drawn travois. As with many other Plains Indian tribes, their most important religious ceremony was the Sun Dance.

Today, the Assiniboine are centered in Saskatchewan, but many still live in Montana on reservations at Fort Peck and Fort Belknap.

In March 2012, these reservations were given bison herds from Yellowstone National Park – marking the beginning of the restoration of a traditional food source that was almost destroyed by overhunting.

Gros Ventre

The name Gros Ventre means ‘big belly’ in French, but today there is no record of why the French gave the tribe this name. In their own language, this tribe was also known as the Ahe, A’aninin, Ahahnelin, A’ane, Haaninin, and Atsina.

The Gros Ventre were once part of a larger group of people who lived 3000 years ago in the western Great Lakes region, where they practiced an agricultural lifestyle and cultivated maize.

Later, the Gros Ventre people split from the large tribe and moved into Montana.

In the 1700s, the tribe acquired horses and began to migrate South. According to Lewis and Clark, when they came in contact with the tribe they were living in two separate groups.

Today, they are a federally recognized tribe with about 4,000 enrolled members. They encompass the Assiniboine, despite this tribe being their historical enemies!


The Crow Tribe of Indians currently has a membership of around 11,000 people, most of whom live on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana.

Their first known interaction with European settlers was believed to be during the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806.

Strong tribal leaders led to the division of the tribe in 1825, resulting in the formation of the Mountain Crow and River Crow tribes. In the same year, several Crow warriors fought alongside the US soldiers against other Indian tribes.

In 1868, a treaty was signed that established a Crow reservation in Montana. The Crow people now have a tribe recognized by Federal laws called ‘the Crow Tribe Of Montana’. The Crow people maintain a lot of their traditions, and 85% of those who live on the Reservation speak Crow as their first language!

If you’re visiting the Reservation, you can take cultural or heritage tours of the lands, and learn about a huge number of sites of historical interest.

Northern Cheyenne

The Northern and Southern Cheyenne tribes used to be unified, but in 1825, the Cheyenne Tribe was split into two.

The Northern Cheyenne tribe is located in the southeast of Montana and is spread across 444,000 acres – and a full 99% of it is under tribal control! Approximately 6000 people live on that reservation and 12,000 people are registered with them.

Today, the Northern Cheyenne continue to uphold their cultural heritage and traditions. They have their own thriving economy that consists of their education system, farming, power companies, construction, and farming.


chippewa cree people

The Chippewa Cree Tribe is a Federally recognized tribe based in Montana’s Rocky Boy Reservation.

The tribe is descended from Cree who came south from Canada, and Chippewa who came west from North Dakota’s Turtle Mountains in the late 1800s, coming together to form the Chippewa-Cree.

The Rocky Boy Reservation is located close to the Canadian border, and features the stunning Bears Paw Mountains, providing a dramatic backdrop to the Reservation.

Today, the tribe makes most of its income from wheat farming and post and pole production and is working towards developing natural resources to increase its income for its people.


sioux people

The Sioux are a group of Native American tribes who speak languages within the Siouan language family. Prior to the mid-1600s, the Sioux settled around Lake Superior where they lived by hunting deer and buffalo and gathering foods such as wild rice.

Prior to European contact, Sioux men could acquire status within the tribe through bravery in warfare.

The Sioux women focused on fertility, healing, and caring for the tribe. Their religion was animistic, with the buffalo holding an important place in their religious ceremonies.

The Sioux were involved in the Battle of Little Bighorn, which led to the so-called Plains Wars. This eventually led to the Sioux surrendering and being moved onto reservations.

In Montana, most Sioux currently live on the Fort Peck reservation alongside the Assiniboine.

Little Shell Chippewa

little shell chippewa people

The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians is a federally recognized tribe of Ojibwe people in Montana.

For most of its history, the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe lived without an Indian reservation in Montana because of confrontations with federal officials in the nineteenth century.

The tribe has now been recognized by the state and was awarded federal recognition by the National Defense Authorization Act, which was established on December 20, 2019.

It currently has around 4500 tribal members and its headquarters is in Great Falls, Montana. The tribe is striving to provide a sustainable and healthy lifestyle for all members of its tribe while still preserving the traditional ways of life.


The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes currently mostly live on the Flathead Indian Reservation. In their early pre-colonial days, they lived east of the Continental Divide but were forced west after smallpox decimated their numbers.

The first known contact with Europeans was during the Lewis and Clark expedition.

European settlers referred to them as ‘Flathead’ Indians, due to a cultural practice of artificial cranial deformation being practiced by some Salish peoples (although this was never widespread).

The Salish-Kootenai are notable for being the first tribe to organize a tribal government after the passing of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

The Salish Kootenai are also the first Indian nation to own a hydroelectric dam, which supplies power to the surrounding areas.

Pend d’Oreille People

The Pend d’Oreille, also known as the Kalispel, are Native American people of the Northwest Plateau. Today, many of them live in Montana and eastern Washington.

Historically, the tribe lived in a number of bands, but today they are located on two main reservations: the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana and the Kalispel Indian Reservation in Washington.

The Pend d’Oreille are a small tribe, with a population of around 100 people currently.

The name Pend d’Oreille is French for “hangs from ear”, which was given to them by French colonists and traders because of the large shell earrings worn by the people of this tribe.

The tribe still practices many of its ancient traditions and holds an annual pow-wow in Usk, Washington, which is open to the public.

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About The Author

Rebecca Hanlon

Rebecca has been a travel blogger and editor for over 5 years, working with some of the biggest brands in industry. She’s taught English as a foreign language in 5 different countries, and her most fulfilling role was as a tour guide around some of Europe’s finest vineyards. She the one behind the social channels here at Discovering Montana, whilst also finding the time to perform an assistant editor role.

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