Clarena M. Brockie, Dean of Students at Aaniiih Nakoda College and former member of the Montana House of Representatives.

Clarena M. Brockie: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

Dennis Zotigh

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

My name is Clarena M. Brockie. I am Dean of Students at Aaniiih Nakoda College and a former representative in the Montana State Legislature. My Indian name is Watsi, which means Plume. I come from the Frozen Clan and the Fast Travelers Clan.

What tribes are you affiliated with?

I am an enrolled member of the Aaniiih Nin (also known as Gros Ventre) of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, Montana, where the Nakoda (Assiniboine) also reside.

What is a significant point in history from your tribes that you would like to share?

I’d like to talk about three significant points in our history. The first is the Grinnell Agreement of 1895: In 1888, by executive order, the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation was established for the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes. (Earlier treaties of 1851 and 1855 created a much bigger territory.) Around the same time, two trespassing miners discovered gold in the Little Rocky Mountains, within the southern boundary of the reservation. In the 1890s, the tribes were pressured to sell the area where gold was discovered and to accept a price of $360,000. That was the Grinnell Agreement; there is a notch called the Grinnell Notch where the land was carved out. The mining of this area produced billions of dollars. The tribes were later paid for the value of the land in the 1890s and the interest made off of that value. Oral history tells that the Indian agent took the funds for taking care of the tribes.

By the 1990s, the Little Rocky Mountains were the site of the second largest “leach-pit” mine in the world. Extraction ceased 20 years ago, but the area continues to be monitored for the devastating effect the mine has had on the environment and the health of the people, and for the damage it has caused to sacred sites.

The second point in history is the Winters Doctrine: The Supreme Court’s decision in Winters v. United States (1908) established Indian Reserved Water Rights for all tribes. This case originated from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. In essence the land was worthless without the proper amounts of water to sustain the reservation, which was established to encourage communal living and to promote farming.

The third is the idea of Vanishing Indians: In the late 1800s, forced to live on the reservation with limited hunting, many of our tribal members died, especially the young and old. No more buffalo, no way of building buffalo-hide lodges, those lodges that did exist were full of holes. Many people slept on the ground and froze to death. Many starved. By 1905, the Aaniiih (Gros Ventre) tribe had dwindled down to fewer than 500 members. This is from an estimate of 15,000 members before the establishment of the reservation. Al Kroeber, an anthropologist, visited Fort Belknap in 1908 to collect what he could from the Aaniiih to insure the history was intact. On Kroeber’s heels came Clark Wissler, collecting what he could on the Aaniiih. One evening during this time, a Gros Ventre chief told the people, “We are going to rebuild our tribe. Those of you of marrying age, by nightfall I want all of you to select your mate.” No one would refuse an offer of marriage. This was so true of many tribes who just fell off the face of earth. Today the enrolled membership of the reservation is approximately 7,000; the Aaniiih make up a little more than half of that population and the Nakoda a little less than half.

How is your state government set up?

The government of Montana has legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Within the legislature, there are 100 representatives and 50 senators. Elected offices within the executive and legislative branches have term limits.

How are leaders of the legislature chosen?

Representatives and senators who want to serve in leadership will let others know they are seeking this position, or members will be asked if they would like to be in a leadership position, especially those members demonstrating particular skills and abilities.

Are Democrats or Republicans more dominant in your state? Do people vote along party lines?

Republicans control both the Montana Senate and House, although the governor is a Democrat. Voting within the legislature is along party lines. Certain issues, however, receive support from both parties. In some cases, Republican House members are divided on certain issues.

Are there any other Native Americans who are elected leaders in your state?

Montana has nine Native members of the legislature, more than any other state.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.

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