Jack McNeel

10 Things You Should Know About Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck Reservation

Jack McNeel

Fort Peck, with tribal offices in Poplar, is located north of the Missouri River in northeastern Montana. The reservation is home to two tribes and several bands of each. It’s a large reservation, second largest in Montana, covering upwards of two million acres. It was originally established in 1871 but due to being located on a flood plain it was moved to its present location in 1878.

The tribes were largely dependent on buffalo but by 1881 the buffalo were essentially gone. Food was scarce and roughly 300 Assiniboine died of starvation. Tribal action is bringing the buffalo back and they remain very important to the historical and current culture.

There are upwards of 10,000 enrolled tribal members. Roughly 6,800 live on the reservation. A large industrial park is located in Poplar. Other major economic work includes farming, ranching and oil production and about 400 members work for the tribal government.

Several tribal leaders, including Chairman Floyd Azure and Dr. Ken Ryan, Business Development Officer, assembled the following list of 10 important things. Quotes are attributed to each. On a personal note, the reception and assistance for this article reflected both their outstanding hospitality and pride.

Fort Peck Tribes of Assiniboine and Sioux Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure (Jackie McNeel)

Tribal Constitution –  “In 1928, six years before the adoption of the Indian Re-Organization Act, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation wrote and adopted their own Tribal Constitution and By-Laws,” Ken Ryan, Business Development Officer explained. “This document called for the establishment of a representative form of government.”

Fort Peck tribal offices (Jack McNeel)

Not an Indian Reorganization Act Tribe – Ryan expanded on the previous paragraph, saying “To me it means this tribe had the intellectual wherewithal six years before all other Indian tribes west of the Mississippi to say we want to govern ourselves. We don’t want you BIA agents telling us how we should live. We will educate ourselves. That’s really the point.”

(Jackie McNeel)

Reservation not part of historical tribal territory – “The majority of the reservations are built on their original aboriginal land,” Azure said. “They get to hunt and fish on their original land but some don’t and we’re one of those. That upsets me. Our reservation isn’t any part of our original territory. It was a lot bigger and started at the Missouri River and went south.

Yellowstone buffalo (Jack McNeel)

First tribe with genetically pure buffalo – In March of 2012 Fort Peck received 63 buffalo from Yellowstone National Park. These were genetically pure, free ranging animals which had been in quarantine since 2004 to make sure they were free of brucellosis and other diseases. Larry Wetsit, a medicine lodge keeper, commented at that time, “This is a historical moment. We’re healing from historical trauma.” Those 63 have done well and others have since been released. Robert Magnan, Wildlife Manager, said the Yellowstone herd now has 258 adult buffalo plus another 73 calves with a goal of reaching 360 adults before any culling is done. They’ve never had any escape even though the 13,000-acre pasture is only enclosed with barbed and smooth wire 54 inches high. The middle four wires have barbs to keep buffalo in and the top and bottom wires are smooth so deer can go over the top and antelope can go under. “If you provide what they need they have no reason to leave,” Magnan explained. There is another commercial herd of 170 animals, not genetically pure, which is used for ceremonies and trade.

Creeks that flow through the Fort Peck Reservation create the outline of a buffalo when looking at a map. (Jackie McNeel)

Buffalo outline on map – Buffalo are very important and seen in various forms throughout the buildings and ceremonies. One truly unique situation happened here as Azure explained. “There are several creeks on the reservation and when you see a map they form the shape of a buffalo. Our buffalo ranch is the heart of that buffalo shape. We didn’t realize it when we put the ranch up there. I don’t know if it was sheer luck or destiny.”

Tribal code talkers recognized by gold medallions. (Jack McNeel)

World War II code talkers– Helen Bighorn, Records Management for the tribes, has extensively studied the history of the code talkers during World War II. She displayed the impressive gold medallion presented to the tribes at a Washington, D.C. ceremony in 2014 in honor and recognition of the 48 code talkers from this reservation. Tote Gray Hawk also showed a slightly smaller medallion given his grandfather, Ben Gray Hawk Sr., who served as a code talker in Germany during the war years.

Fort Peck Community College (Jack McNeel)

First Montana Tribe to Establish a Native American Junior College – Fort Peck Community College started in 1978, the first tribal college in Montana. Helen Gournea, President of the school, explained that tribal colleges were established to eliminate the barriers created in reaching colleges often distant from the reservations. “We’re five or six hours from an actual city. Now we have programs here and we average about 400 students. About 79 percent are Native Americans. We have 22 full time teachers and half are Native. Right now we’re working on a nursing program.” She also mentioned the subject of buffalo in discussing a cultural emersion camp. “We have a grass roots group called the P’te. It’s the Dakota word for female buffalo. They’ve been a catalyst in the restoration of buffalo on Fort Peck.” That foundation donated $10,000 to start a cultural emersion camp for teachers where they talk about feasts, wakes, ceremonies and basic cultural things. “It’s also about buffalo and the future of the herd that we’re taking care of and how they’ll take care of us, not only economically but what they can do to heal past traumas of our people.”

(Jack McNeel)

Oil discovered on reservation in 1951 – Forrest Smith explained that the Fort Peck tribes presently own 10 oil wells within the reservation. Smith, a tribal member, said oil was first discovered in 1951. They have drilled all 10 of their own wells and normally have five or six in production at any one time. “With current market conditions we have three wells operating and the rest are shut in temporarily,” Smith said. He’s been able to take advantage of market conditions to buy several assets “for pennies on the dollar” and is looking at taking over existing production from other sites on the reservation. We call it ‘Operation Takeover.’” It’s not as dire as it may sound and can actually be financially good for the other companies while allowing the tribe to assume ownership. Smith said there are presently 16 to 18 companies operating wells on the reservation plus approximately 62 companies holding oil and gas leases.

(Jack McNeel)

Only Reservation in America with Seven Omaha Celebrations (Pow Wows) – Ken Ryan explained that because of their individual tribal roots and scattered locations across the reservation, they have seven Omaha Celebrations: 1) Fort Kipp Celebration, 2) Badlands Celebration, 3) Turn Around Pow Wow, 4) Poplar Indian Days Pow Wow, 5) Wahcincja Pow Wow, 6) Wadopana Pow Wow, and 7) Red Bottom Pow Wow. “The names of our individual tribes and clans are critically important to the core identity of our people,” Ryan said. “I believe it is very important that we recognize our tribal differences for what they are. All our people are beautiful.”

Louis Beaucamp at Fort Peck's water treatment plant (Jackie McNeel)

Assiniboine and Sioux Rural Water Supply System – Louis Beaucamp supervises the water project. He explained the plant has been online for 5 years but points out that it’s taken about 15 years to reach this point. When it’s finally in full operation it will produce 14 million gallons of drinking water daily. This water comes from the Missouri River and then to the plant near Poplar, Montana for treatment. “We now have about 1,200 miles of water line and when we finish in a few years we’ll have 3,200 miles supplying northeast Montana. Right now we’re producing close to 2 million gallons a day during the summer. It’s for drinking water and not for irrigation,” he adds. The water is provided free to the towns and what they charge is up to them. Towns currently hooked up include Fraser, Wolf Point, Poplar, Brockton, Fort Kipp and Dry Prairie. People living in individual homes in rural areas don’t pay anything.

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