Jack McNeel
Rocky Boy Reservation is the smallest of seven reservations in Montana.

10 Things You Should Know About the Chippewa Cree Tribe of Rocky Boy Reservation

Jack McNeel

The Rocky Boy Reservation is located about 40 miles south of the Canadian border in central Montana between the Missouri and Milk Rivers and bounded by the Bear’s Paw Mountains. It’s the smallest of the seven reservations in Montana. The Chippewa Cree population numbers over 6,000 and over half live on the Rocky Boy Reservation.

They offer a full complement of programs and services including Stone Child College, named for Rocky Boy who was called Stone Child as a youngster. Enrollment is about 98 percent Native American and promotes such courses as language, culture, and history of the Chippewa Cree. It was chartered in 1984 and received accreditation in 1993.

Tribal generosity is well documented in their gift to the off-reservation town of Havre, Montana. A 10,0000-acre strip of land along Beaver Creek, about a mile wide and 17 miles long, was donated and is the largest county park in the nation. This beautiful park is along the Bear Paw Mountains and home to a wide variety of wildlife plus providing fishing opportunities for a variety of species.

Several tribal leaders provided the following list of things others should know about the Rocky Boy Reservation.

Pow wow – “Our pow wow is one of the few in the U.S. that still uses an older style of arbor, one covered with tree branches,” Dustin Whitford said. “We’ve been going 52 years now. The first was coordinated by the late Florence Standing Rock. We also celebrated the 100 years of our reservation at this pow wow. We were able to honor our oldest living Chippewa Cree member, Minnie Sangrey. She is 99 years old, one year younger than our reservation.” It’s a large pow wow with upwards of 1,000 dancers, about 800 dancers were registered for competition. Add to that 29 drum groups, 12 of which were contest drum groups. “The wishes for the pow wow were to end our 100 years in a good way and to start the next 100 years in a good way with culture, prayer, song, dance and traditions,” Whitford added.

Generosity – Merle Tendoy, a respected elder and emcee for the pow wow explained, “We, the Chippewa Cree members here on the reservation, were taught gift giving of our ceremonies to bring fortune to our families. They say it comes back ten-fold when you do this. Give away things and be generous to people and it comes back to you.”

Southernmost Cree and westernmost Ojibway – Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Alvin Windy Boy Sr. told of their history. “Rocky Boy’s grandfather initiated the move from eastern Pennsylvania in the Pocono Mountains. In 1776 we know what happened, a new country was formed. An old man listened to an interpreter explain what was being told and he turned and said ‘I heard my ancients who have gone on tell a time will come when you hear of the coming of the fair skinned man who offers a new way of business. You will take your people and go to the mountains,’ meaning the Rocky Mountains. The trek started west through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois to Wisconsin.” He said Stone Child, later named Rocky Boy, was born in Wisconsin. “The tribe split, one group going north into Canada and the other to Montana.” Rocky Boy died just months before they reached what was to be their current reservation and it was named Rocky Boy in his honor.

Sweet Grass – “Since the 50s and 60s there’s been a real steep decline of sweet grass,” Keith Gopher explained. “As a youngster, I’d go with my grandparents, pick grass up one side of the creek, have lunch, and pick back on the other side, and have enough sweet grass to go through the winter for ceremonies.” Today there’s only isolated patches. “You hear so much about global warming and climate change. What drives me is the elders in the past saying all these things are going to happen; waters will become polluted and medicines will be gone or different. That drove me to write funding agencies to help us understand and restore these sites where sweet grass used to thrive. The scientists are telling us the same thing our elders predicted. Being a person who’s in tune with the land it’s alarming, interesting and scary. We’re using teaching from our elders and science to preserve, protect and restore sweet grass for future generations.”

100th Anniversary – After reaching what is now Montana, “the government decided to put these bands on existing reservations,” Windy Boy explained. “The first one was Salish-Kootenai but there was a different lifestyle, different language and different way of doing things. They were rounded up again and sent to the Crows. They spent more than a year there and left because of the same things. This time they were taken to Browning and the Blackfeet Tribe and 111 of our people over the age of 18 were each given 160 acres but there were no trees and no game. On the way back after seeing this land they were told the government agent cut it in half to 80 acres. They lied to us again.” At that point some notable people including Frank Bird Linderman and William Bowles assisted the tribe in getting their current reservation. That happened on September 7, 1916 and was named Rocky Boy in honor of their leader who had died that spring. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Rocky Boy Reservation.

Veterans Organization – John Gardipe is an Army veteran and active in Veterans Post #67 which is well known throughout Montana. “For the past five years we’ve done a weekly raffle to raise money for employment and paying bills,” he said. “On top of that we help buy propane and food and pay electric bills for our veterans here in Rocky Boy. We also do funerals for veterans.” They provide color guards for parades, have Festival Days and introductions at Stone Child College and North Montana College. “We also started a veteran’s cemetery here in Rocky Boy but we do it a little differently. We allow our National Guard Veterans in because most of them served seven or eight years and don’t get the benefits that regular army does. I say if they raised their right hand they’re a veteran.” They also opened a Veterans Center in Rocky Boy and got a grant from the V.A. for transportation and use that to transfer their veterans wherever is needed.

Hospitality – Merle Tendoy commented, “We are raised to be hospitable to visitors because it’s our belief that someone who comes to our land brings us good luck and good fortune. In return they take that home too. That’s why we instill that idea in our children, our future generations.”

Baldy Mountain – There is a mountain on the southeastern corner of the reservation called Mount Baldy. Tendoy explained, “It’s a very sacred mountain to us and many tribes. They went up there to seek visions and look into the future and still do today so we have it preserved for its sacredness and our respect. It’s shaped like a heart. That’s why it’s so cherished. The heart has everything, has compassion and makes us live. It’s really important for us and we keep it in high regard.”

Culture Surviving –  “The Chippewa Cree people were taught to love one another, help one another and preserve our language, religion, and culture and to pass it on to our future generations,” Tendoy said. “That’s the main thing we do as parents and grandparents. We have approximately 117 fluent speakers and many more that are so-so. We’re working on that through the Native Language Preservation Program. We are teaching our children from Head Start to the college level. A lot of the Head Start children are starting to talk the language and getting their grandparents interested in using the language again. A lot of our relatives come down here from Canada and they love the way we talk. They listen and say ‘it’s just like you’re singing in our language.’”

Last Ojibway Speaker – Duncan Standing Rock is the last Ojibway speaker of the western most dialect of the Ojibway language on the Rocky Boy Reservation and one of just three fluent speakers in the west.”I’m a direct descendent of Rocky Boy’s band. Rocky Boy’s brother is my grandfather,” he explained. “He raised me and he always spoke his language, the Ojibway language. That’s how I was raised. He didn’t let me go to school until he passed away when I was about 10 years old. I didn’t learn to speak English at all before that. I’m the only one here that can speak the language. A few still understand Ojibway, but not many.”

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