Montana Reservations: Rocky Boy's

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Rocky Boy's Reservation Information

In 1871, Congress officially ended the treaty-making process with Indian tribes. By the 1870s, most tribes had (both voluntary and not) signed treaties with the United States delineating reservation boundaries. Though boundaries continued to change well into the 20th century, the acknowledgement of Native right to the land through the initial treaties formed the basis of reservations. On September 7, 1916, the United States established Rocky Boy's Reservation in Montana for the Chippewa and Cree tribes despite the push at the time to force Native groups to assimilate into white society.

Originally from the Great Lakes region, like many other tribes, the Chippewa began pushing west as fur trade resources in the area were depleted, stopping in the Turtle Mountains in North Dakota. While no one can pinpoint exactly when the Chippewa left the Turtle Mountains and moved to Montana, many think they moved to Montana under the leadership of Chief Rocky Boy, or accompanied Chief Little Shell and his band of Chippewa in the late 19th century. Notably, Little Shell's Band of Chippewa has not yet received federal recognition. (Bryan, 69)

The Cree were also originally from the Great Lakes region, though largely lived far north in present-day Canada. They entered present-day Montana in the 1700s. When the United States and Canada signed the treaty establishing the border in 1818, the US believed that the Cree were Canada's problem. Refusing to sign any treaties with Canada, the Cree continued to cross the US-Canadian border. In 1882, Big Bear, the then-leader of the Cree, signed a treaty with the Canadian government guaranteeing rations and governmental aid. Big Bear's band got involved in the Metis' struggles for recognition, ending in armed rebellion. Big Bear's son, Little Bear, escaped with about 200 followers seeking refuge on Flathead Reservation in Montana. They were refused sanctuary in 1887, so they camped near Fort Assiniboine and began looking for work in neighboring towns. (Bryan, 69)

When Montana received state recognition in 1889, they immediate tried to send the Cree back to Canada. Little Bear held the Sun Dance in 1896, violating state and federal law, and was deported to Canada only to immediately return. The tribes settled around Helena, even refusing allotments on Blackfeet Reservation in 1911. While Chief Rocky Boy and his Chippewa followers were tolerated by Montanans as good, honest workers, the Cree under Little Bear attracted negative attention from locals. Chief Rocky Boy died in April of 1916. By September of the same year, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order establishing Rocky Boy's Reservation for both the Chippewa and the Cree. (Bryan, 70-71)

Agents administered to Rocky Boy's Reservation from Blackfeet and Fort Belknap Reservations, failing to establish sedentary farming methods for the previously un-rooted tribe.

"This was accentuated because plentiful employment could be found off the reservation when tribal members were supposed to be trying to learn and practice agriculture on their tribal lands. And then, in the winter when employment was most needed, it wasn't available...Despite the reservation's bleak semi-arid landscape, the first agricultural efforts began to bear fruit. However, a severe drought beginning in 1917 nullified self-sufficiency through agriculture." (Bryan, 71)

Despite falling farm prices, the Depression, and reduced federal funds, the Chippewa and Cree tribes have more than doubled their original land base of 55,040 acres to 121,000 acres. They are still the smallest tribe in Montana. Their reservation never experienced allotment. Currently, tribal members can apply for anywhere from one to 160 acres for their use during their lifetimes. (Bryan, 73) The land, unlike allotments, is not inherited which eliminates all modern problems associated with fractionation. Agriculture remains unviable, but the tribe has realized moderate success in ranching. (Bryan, 74)