Bear River Massacre Commemoration and Healing

Theda New Breast

“We need to remember an unjustified slaughter of mostly women, children and elderly people on that fateful day of January 23, 1870,” said traditional elder Narcisse Blood on January 25, two days after commemoration activities were held. He went on to say that the day is “conveniently excluded from history books as it is a shameful act of genocide that failed. This commemoration goes a long way to begin our healing.”

For the last 20 years Blackfeet Community College has hosted the Bear River Massacre Commemoration Activities on the anniversary of the event. Hundreds of community members have gone to the snowy bluffs overlooking the Marias River in Montana and held healing ceremonies.

The search for the truth about what happened began with four students named Carol and John Murray, and GG and Melinda Kipp in the early 80s. They went to two elders, Annie Calf Robe Green and Willie Running Crane. The students saw the difficulty the elders had in sharing the Indian side of the story. The elders closed the doors and had the curtains drawn before they talked.

Annie spoke of a story her grandmother had told about a little girl who heard the horses whimpering. At the same time bullets starting flying into the tipi hitting the tipi poles at the top and rapidly spraying bullets all the way down to the ground.  The little girl was so frightened she ran to the riverbank and dug a hole. She stayed hidden until the screams and sounds died down. When she peeked out she saw a huge fire. Soldiers were throwing little boys’ bodies into it.

The students found the military accounts only told half the story. It was numbing cold, 200 dismounted U.S. cavalrymen lay spread out in ambush positions along the snowy bluff over looking the winter camp of the Piegan leader Heavy Runner. Under the command of Colonel Eugene Baker, they were sent to punish another Piegan named Mountain Chief. Baker was under the influence of liquor and unable to direct his command.

As the camp was surrounded, its warriors were away hunting, and the edgy troopers awaited the command to fire. Heavy Runner came out of his lodge and walked toward the bluffs, waving a safe conduct paper. Army scout Joe Kipp shouted that this was the wrong camp. Kipp was threatened into silence. Another scout, Joe Cobell, fired the first shot, dropping Heavy Runner in his tracks. What followed, according to Lieutenant Gus Doane, who commanded F Company in the attack, was “the greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S. troops.”

More than 200 Amskapipikuni (Blackfeet) were killed by the relentless firing of the Army’s Springfield rifles. Those who ran to the sheltering cut banks of the river were rounded up later. A total of 140 captives were turned loose without adequate food and clothing. Some froze to death trying to walk to Fort Benton, a 90-mile trek.

In all its horror and trauma, the Blackfeet have a word that means resiliency (Bo-sit-sii-como-tah) translated to mean “miracle survivor.” For the past 20 years the Blackfeet have held grieving ceremonies at the site. Every year the Blackfeet Warrior Society (Veterans of all Wars), the Crazy Dog Society (Khan-nat-so-mii-tah), horse back riders, buses of school kids, carloads of community members, and traditional elders, dance, sing and put the spirits to rest.

The pictures that accompany this piece were taken on January 23, 2012. They show a historical time marking the last visit to the site and the tribes’ process of letting go, having forgiveness, and moving into a time of healing and wellness.

This year is monumental for the Blackfeet Nation. It is the year that wellness activities of healing the mind, body, emotions, and spirit took place. Some of the greatest virtues of old time Indians are to be kind, generous, non-judgmental, to be humorous, loving, and humble. These are the behaviors the young people are choosing.

More than half the tribe is under 25 years old. Blackfeet Community College is the successful link that has provided many of those young tribal members to higher degrees and success at off reservation universities. The Blackfeet have a hospital and enrolled members now serve as its chief executive officer, as doctors, nurses, and other health givers.

The public school system has enrolled members as superintendents, teachers, and coaches.  The language immersion program has produced 40 fluent speakers from English speaking homes since 1995. The superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs is an enrolled member. The Blackfeet Nation has come a long way and will only prosper in the future.

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psette's picture
Submitted by psette on
I'm glad to be part of a community that tells the N.A. stories as they are without any falsities or misconceptions. The arduous and difficult path that many of our people encountered, face, and will confront always bewilders me. And, I think I know why.