Native American culture is prevalent throughout Montana, with twelve tribes residing locally. There are seven Indian reservations in Montana, which are also home to the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
Each of the reservations in Montana has a unique history, economy, and points of interest that allow the tribes to preserve their culture.
Guide to The Reservations of Montana
There is a total of seven reservations in Montana, these include; Flathead Reservation, Blackfeet Reservation, Rocky Boy’s Reservation, Fort Belknap Reservation, Fort Peck Reservation, and the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. In addition, Montana recognizes the Little Shell Chippewa Band as part of the indigenous community.
Montana Reservations Map
The 7 Reservations in Montana
The Flathead Indian Reservation, which is headquartered in Pablo, is home to the Bitterroot Salish, Pend d’Orielle, and Kootenai tribes of Montana.
The Salish people describe themselves with the name “Sqelix” while the Kootenai call themselves “Ktunaxa”. Prior to white settlement, these Tribes inhabited the land that would become western Montana.
The reservation encompasses more than 1.2 million acres and lies between the cities of Missoula and Kalispell, north of Interstate 90. The landscape surrounding the reservation features grassy valleys and snow-capped mountains.
The History of Flathead Reservation
The Flathead Reservation was first formed in the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, where the three Tribes surrendered 12 million acres of land in Montana and Idaho, and in return, 1.2 million acres were reserved for the Flathead in the Jocko Valley.
The initial treaty included a clause declaring that the President would later decide if the land would be used by the Flathead or by American settlers. The leader of the Bitterroot Salish likely believed that his people would be permitted to remain in the valley permanently, and so signed the treaty.
Under the protection of the treaty, the Tribes continued to hunt in the forests surrounding the reservation. However, a small hunting party of Pend d’Oreilles was murdered by a game warden in the Swan Valley Massacre in 1908.
Unable to hunt outside the reservation, the Tribes became dependent on government aid for survival.
Flathead Reservation Today
Today, timber industry sales provide the main source of income for the Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, and there are also revenues paid to them through the co-license for the Kerr Dam facility.
Another prominent source of income is a full-service resort that the Tribes run in Polson, which includes a casino managed by a tribal corporation called S&K Gaming.
Additionally, the Tribes generate income through running companies such as S&K Electronics, which supplies computer components. They also run S&K Technologies and S&K Holding, the latter of which manages several enterprises and offers business loans to tribal members.
Tribal members may attend Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, where both two and four-year degrees are offered. There is also a golf course on campus.
Visiting Flathead Reservation
The history of the Tribes is detailed at the Three Chiefs Culture Center, a museum that houses an exhibit gallery and runs educational programs about the Tribes and their history.
There is also a gift shop at the site where visitors can financially support the Tribes through their purchases.
Another fascinating relic of local history is the St. Ignatius Mission, which was established in 1854. The mission was constructed by Native Americans and contains 58 original murals by Brother Joseph Carignano.
The reservation is home to a variety of outdoor recreational sites, including Flathead Lake State Park, one of the most picturesque locations on the reservation.
Each year in July, the Tribes celebrate the Arlee Pow Wow and the Standing Arrow Pow Wow. The Kootenai tribe welcomes all people to the pow wow weekend, which features dancing, traditional food, and Indian gambling against a backdrop of colorful traditional costumes and music.
2. Blackfeet Reservation
It stretches across 1.5 million acres, making it the third-largest reservation in Montana, and is bordered by Canada and Glacier National Park.
It’s believed that the Blackfeet Indians were named so because they typically wore moccasins that were darkened with ashes. There are three branches of the Tribe: the Northern Blackfeet (Siksika), the Blood, and the Piegan, or Pikuni.
“Niitsitapi”’ is the name that the Tribe uses to refer to themselves, which translates to “the real people”.
The History of Blackfeet Reservation
The Blackfeet originally came from the Great Lakes region, migrating to Montana in the mid-18th century, where they displaced the Shoshone.
The Blackfeet Reservation was created in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, but the land was reduced in subsequent government treaties.
In 1896, the Tribe was forced to surrender land back to the government, which was used to create Glacier National Park.
Blackfeet Reservation Today
One of the main sources of income for Tribal members today is a manufacturing plant on the Blackfeet Reservation that makes pencils, pens, and markers.
There are also several other businesses running on the reservation, along with ranches and farms that harvest wheat, barley, and hay.
The Blackfeet Tribe also runs four campgrounds and hands out permits to fish on the eight major lakes of the reservation, in addition to running guided fishing trips.
On the reservation, non-Indians still own the majority of businesses and services, and only one out of two working-age Blackfeet has a job. On average, Tribe members are forced to survive on just $4,718 a year.
Blackfeet Community College is located in the community of Browning, where the reservation is headquartered. The college offers two-year associate degrees in the Arts and Sciences and is currently under expansion.
Visiting Blackfeet Reservation
Those interested in learning more about the Blackfeet Nation can participate in a Blackfeet Cultural History Tour, which can run from half a day to a full day.
The tours typically include points of interest on the reservation, such as the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, which exhibits artifacts from the Northern Plains Indians and boasts a gift shop.
Some of the major celebrations that the Blackfeet hold annually include North American Indian Days and the Heart Butte Society Celebration.
Located in north-central Montana near the Canadian border, Rocky Boy’s Reservation is located close to the scenic Bears Paw Mountains.
The smallest reservation in Montana, it’s home to the Chippewa-Cree Tribe, named Rocky Boy after a leader of a band of Chippewa Indians. His name actually translates to “Stone Child” but was interpreted incorrectly as “Rocky Boy”
The History of Rocky Boy’s Reservation
The Cree originate from Canada, where a small group broke away from the rest and migrated south in the 1800s. These people eventually integrated with a tribe of nomadic Chippewa Indians, which led to the formation of the Chippea-Cree People.
The Tribe refers to themselves as “Ne Hiyawak” which translates to “those who speak the same language”.
Rocky Boy’s Reservation was created in a Congressional Statute of 1916 as part of the former Fort Assiniboine Military Reserve.
Rocky Boy’s Reservation Today
Residents who do work on the reservation are mainly employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service, the local schools, and the tribal government.
Wheat farming and post and pole production also take place on the reservation, and the Tribe is trying to develop more of its natural resources in order to generate work for members.
It’s estimated that, despite agriculture, ranching, and forestry activities, almost half of the population of the Reservation lives in poverty.
Many residents live in remote communities a long distance from towns and services, and there are high rates of unemployment due to a limited number of jobs available.
Education is offered at Stone Child College, which offers two-year associate degrees in the Arts and Sciences. Developments are currently in talks, with a cultural center on campus in the planning stages.
Visiting Rocky Boy’s Reservation
One of the reservation’s main points of interest is the Chippewa-Cree Recreation Area, which is home to the Bear Paw Ski Bowl. The tribally owned ski area is located 29 miles south of Havre, in the heart of the Bears Paw Mountains.
Every August, the Tribe celebrates the Rocky Boy’s Pow Wow. The social gathering, which usually welcomes visitors, features drumming and dancing.
Residents typically wear traditional dress and traditional dishes are eaten. The dance area is sacred, and guests may only participate in dancing when invited.
There are two tribes that reside on the Fort Belknap Reservation: the Assiniboine and the Gros Ventre. The latter refers to themselves as A’aninin, or “People of the White Clay”.
One of the smaller reservations in Montana, Fort Belknap comprises 650,000 acres of grassland in the north-central area of the state.
The History of Fort Belknap Reservation
The Assiniboine, translated as “one who cooks with stones” were integrated with the Yanktonai Sioux in the 17th century.
They departed to the Northern Plains and, together with the Gros Ventre, were nomadic hunters and warriors. Prior to white settlement, the Tribes depended on buffalo for food, clothing, and shelter.
The Tribes agreed to settle on reservation land when the buffalo population was massacred by white hunters.
Fort Belknap was initially used as a government agency and trading post. It was established as a reservation in the Fort Laramie treaties in 1851 and 1855, followed by a Congressional Act in 1888.
Members of the Assiniboine also live on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, along with other reservations in Canada.
Fort Belknap Reservation Today
Along with the Tribes themselves, the reservation’s most prominent employer is the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Little Rockies Meat Packing Company operates on the reservation as the first tribally owned USDA-inspected meat packing facility in the country.
There are current plans underway to market Native American artisans and to develop tourism on the reservation. The Tribes manage a buffalo herd and also offer licenses and guided hunts of antelope, birds, and gophers.
Residents may receive an education at the Aaniiih Nakoda College which offers two-year associate degrees and one-year certificates. The college operates a library that was constructed by students and manages the Tribal Archives.
Almost half of Tribal members of the Fort Belknap Reservation live below the poverty line, despite employers like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and an active ranching and farming industry.
Visiting Fort Belknap Reservation
Some of the main points of interest for visitors to the Fort Belknap Reservation include the Natural Bridge scenic area, Wilson Park, Devil’s Kitchen, and Needle Eye, and Kid Curry’s Hideout. There is also camping offered and the Fort Belknap Tourism Office and Information Center.
The Tribes celebrate annually by holding the Lodgepole Pow Wow in June, Milk River Indian Days in July, and Hays Pow Wow in August.
The Fort Peck Reservation, based in Poplar, Montana, is home to Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. In total, there are approximately 6,800 Assiniboine and Sioux members living on the reservation, and around 3,900 Tribal members living off it.
There are several bands of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. The Sioux call themselves “Dakota” while the Assiniboine refer to themselves as “Nakona”.
The Missouri River straddles the southern perimeter of the Fort Peck Reservation, which lies in north-eastern Montana. The reservation is 40 miles west of the North Dakota border and 50 miles south of the Canadian border.
It stretches over more than 2 million acres of land and is the second-largest reservation in Montana.
The History of Fort Peck Reservation
The Tribes refused to accept the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and instead maintained their own constitution.
The boundaries of the reservation were established by an Act of Congress in 1888. However, less than half of the reservation land base is owned by Tribal members today.
Fort Peck Reservation Today
One in three Tribal members is unemployed and the reservation is plagued with unemployment and poverty rates that are significantly above the national average.
The reservation hosts an industrial park which is one of the largest employers in the state, operating metal fabrication and production sewing enterprises, among other activities.
An electronic manufacturer, farming, ranching, and oil extraction also play a role in the reservation’s economy.
The Fort Peck Community College is located in Poplar and offers associate degrees in the Arts and Sciences, plus one-year certificates. The college hosts a Tribal law library and a cultural center is also in talks.
Visiting Fort Peck Reservation
The Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Culture Center and Museum is also situated in Polar and exhibits displays that educate about the heritage, arts and crafts of the Assiniboine and Sioux peoples.
Several celebrations are held at the reservation throughout the year. These include Red Bottom Celebration and Badlands Celebration in June, Fort Kipp Celebration in July, Wadopana Celebration in August, and Poplar Indian Days in September.
Visitors are welcome on the reservation, but Tribal customs must always be considered and respected.
Nestled between the Tongue River and the Crow Reservation, the Northern Cheyenne Reservation sprawls across 444,000 acres in south-eastern Montana. It is headquartered in Lame Deer and also consists of four other districts.
There are approximately 11,266 enrolled members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, of which 5,012 reside on the reservation. A total of 99% of the lands are owned by Tribal members.
The Northern Cheyenne Tribe refers to themselves as “Tsis tsis’tas”, which translates to “the beautiful people”. There are ten bands in total which are spread over the Great Plains from Colorado to South Dakota.
The History of Northern Cheyenne Reservation
They originated from the Great Lakes Region, migrating west in the 15th century before splitting into two bands. From there, the Northern Cheyenne moved to the Plains.
The reservation was established by an Executive Order in 1884, after the government tried and failed to merge the Northern Cheyenne with the Crow, their traditional enemies.
Northern Cheyenne Reservation Today
The education system, farming, ranching, and small specialty businesses play vital roles in the local economy.
The most significant employers are the St. Labre Indian School, the federal government, the Tribal government, power companies, and construction companies.
Chief Dull Knife College is located in Lame Deer and offers both vocational programs and associate degrees in the Arts and Sciences. The college features food service, a library and gift shops which are open to the public.
Visiting Northern Cheyenne Reservation
The St. Labre Indian School in Ashland was established by the Franciscan Order of the Christian Church in 1884. The complex houses a visitor center, museum, and gift store which displays Cheyenne’s art and heritage.
Visitors can also view and purchase Native American art and beadwork from the Northern Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce, where there is a gift shop and an RV park.
Another major point of interest on the reservation is the historic Chief Two Moons Monument, which was constructed in 1936 in tribute to the Chief, who participated in the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Throughout the year, the Northern Cheyenne Reservation celebrates the Memorial Day Pow Wow, White River Days Celebration, Lame Deer 4th of July Pow Wow, and the Ashland Labor Day Pow Wow.
The Crow Reservation borders the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in south-central Montana and is also flanked by Wyoming to the south.
It’s located around 10 miles from Billings. Around 75 % of the Crow’s enrolled members live on or around the reservation, with 85% speaking Crow as their first language.
Stretching across 2.2 million acres, the Crow Reservation is the largest reservation in Montana.
The name Crow was the misinterpretation of the Tribe’s original name, “Apsáalooke”, which really means “children of the large-beaked bird”. The last chief to hold the honor was Chief Plenty Coups, who passed away in 1932 and left his land as a public park.
The History of Crow Reservation
The Hidatsa-Crow originally lived in Ohio country Before coming to the Red River Valley, they migrated through northern Illinois and western Minnesota and eventually moved to southwestern Montana and northern Wyoming in the late 17th century.
The Crow gained 3.5 million acres in the 1851 Laramie Treaty, however, were later forced to give up a majority of their land by the government, eventually surrendering the right to Bighorn Canyon and the Bighorn River.
Crow Reservation Today
The eastern portion of the reservation is home to several coal deposits which have remained untapped until recently. There is currently one mine in operation that provides income and employment to Tribal Members.
The Crow maintains a buffalo herd and run small portions of their farm acreage and grazing land.
Despite these activities, plus service businesses in the communities throughout the reservation, there are not enough employment opportunities for all Tribal members.
Each year, the Crow celebrates Crow Native Days in June and Crow Fair and Rodeo in July.
Little Shell Chippewa Band
The Little Shell band of Chippewa Indians also reside in Montana but don’t currently live on a reservation.
They are headquartered in Cascade County, with members living in Great Falls, Havre, Lewistown, Helena, Butte, Chinook, Hays, Wolf Point, Hamilton, Billings, and other locations throughout the state.
The Little Shell Band is part of the Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians and a federally recognized tribe of the Obijwe people, who originally held 63 million acres of land throughout South Dakota, North Dakota, and Canada.
The Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation was established in 1892, and some Little Shell Band members did settle there, while others migrated into Saskatchewan and Alberta before making their way back to Montana.
Reservations in Montana–Conclusion
These seven Montana reservations preserve the history and heritage of their tribes, though the majority of Tribal members struggle through institutionalized poverty and unemployment.
The points of interest on the reservations, along with the specialty businesses and gift shops, are a great way to financially support the Tribes of Montana.