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Meet the indigenous people of Montana: Fort Peck tribesexchange for


The ancestors of the Fort Peck tribes (Siouan-speaking Dakota Sioux, Lakota Sioux, and Assiniboine) share cultural characteristics with hunter-gatherer cultures that spread from a homeland near Santee, South Carolina hunting mammoth and later deer, through early adoption of pottery, to semi-nomadic hunters, gardeners, and merchants that share cultural features with Hopewell and Late Woodland cultures of the Columbus, Ohio area. They lived in log cabins or when on the hunt in willow-elk hide wigwams, grew beans, and exported stone hoes or other tools that they produced in excess of their own villages’ supply in exchange for imported corn traveling up the Ohio from the Cahokia (East St. Louis) area, their main food source. Cahokia (perhaps controlled by Natchez-speaking people, we don’t know the historic name) would go on to become the biggest pre-Columbian city in present-day U.S. centuries later, but at the time it was just a locally important town. As the Ohio Valley population grew and wars over land became more common, smaller settlements became the norm, trade and hunting decreased, and a local subsistence economy based on corn, beans, and squash started to predominate. Doctors say heavy reliance on corn as a food staple would have led to much sickness from pellagra.

Oral tradition says that around the year 600, after multiple crop failures, the Fort Peck tribes appear to have fled upriver to the Green Bay, Wisconsin area to live among their distant relatives the Winnebago. There they lived in grass, willow, and deerskin huts, and moved from village to village fishing for lake trout, picking raspberries, collecting maple syrup, hunting deer, mining copper, and sending canoe convoys of syrup, domestically produced copper jewelry, and candy to the Chicago-area, perhaps controlled by Caddoan-speaking people, in exchange for their chief import, tobacco, and miners to the Pipestone, Minnesota area to mine pipestone (used to make pipes) in the communal quarries there. But at the same time the Fort Peck moved in among the Winnebago, their closest relatives, the ancestors of the Osage, Kansa, Ponca, Omaha, and Quapaw, having fled the opposite direction, were raiding the towns of the Mississippi River, drastically raising the tobacco prices by disrupting the trade, and leading the Winnebago to soon expel the ancestors of the Fort Peck tribes.

The ancestral Fort Peck tribes sacked a (perhaps Algonquian-speaking and showing Early Woodland cultural characteristics) villages near present-day Malmo Township, Minnesota and lived by fishing for walleye and pike, hunting elk, charging for visits to their shrine and medicine woman on Mille Lacs lake, and sending raiding parties against hunters and fishers in the Mille Lacs Lake-Rum River region, and against merchants on the upper Mississippi. Trading convoys went west to the Blackfeet-speaking territories of northwestern Montana to trade corn and hides for lodgepoles used to construct the elk-skin tepees that replaced earlier housing forms.

As corn-based agriculture recovered, trading networks of food, hides, pipes, stone tools, and sacred medicine bundles stretching from the Great Lakes to the Great Plains began developing and aristocratic clans from other tribes began marrying into the traditional ruling clans of the Sioux. To keep the peace among seven Algonquian, Siouan, and Caddoan speaking tribes ... the Mandan, Hidatsa/Crow, Arikara, Sioux, Assiniboine, Cree, and Chippewa/Ottawa/Potawatomi ... a rule was established that each tribe had to select two pipe carriers, one male and one female, to represent it at sacred peace pipe ceremonies, and each pipe carrier had to marry someone of a different tribe. The Sioux and Assiniboine did this by electing representatives from among the nobility of each village for a council fire and having this select pipe carriers for the tribe as a whole. As traditional village rule passed from father-in-law to son-in-law, which centuries earlier had displaced the earlier rule passed from father to daughter, male warrior and elder societies challenged the old matrilineal aristocracy. As corn crops failed again, a new nobility that inherited its rights from father to son took primacy, and the leaders of this nobility fought each other for domination.

The traditional gods of the Sioux—the Great Mystery, a universal spirit; Beautiful Woman, a goddess of justice; Little Boy, a trickster god; sacred tobacco; and the thunderbirds (thunder spirits)—were supplemented for the ancestral Lakota by White Calf Buffalo Woman, a goddess of kinship who gave the Sioux and Assiniboine their seven sacred pipes and taught them the seven savored rites (sweat lodge, naming of children, healing, marriage, adoption, vision quest, and sun dance) and preached respect for women, around this time. Meanwhile as conflicts with the Cree and Chippewa/Ottawa/Potawatomi increased, and traditional networks based on intermarriage fell apart, formerly independent tribes formed a formal alliance, the Seven Council Fires (Oceti Sakowin) of which five were the Sisseton (Dakota for “fishing village”), Western Dakota (they lived closest to the pipestone quarries and made pipes), Wahpeton (Dakota for “leaf village,” since they were forest dwellers known for their deer hunting), Lakota (Lakota for “friend,” as Dakota is Dakota for “ally”; from here the war parties set out) and Assiniboine (it was from their villages in the northwest that merchants set out) now represented on Fort Peck. This alliance was ruled by a council of “shirt wearers” chosen by the men of the elder societies of each tribe, which were open to old men of aristocratic lineage and also to men who had proven themselves as warriors to the satisfaction of the warrior societies. Lakota calendars date the formation of this alliance to the year 900.

For hundreds of years to come, the Sioux/Assiniboine allied themselves with the Fox for raids on the wealthy Illinois and Pawnee cities of the Mississippi River to the south, while resisting the westward expansion of the Chippewa. After French fur traders came to Minnesota in the early 17th century, they established a lucrative fur-for-rifles/ammunition/rum/tobacco/clothing trade. The Iroquois, also growing rich and powerful through the beaver trade, and seeking to disrupt the trade networks of their rivals, offered to join the Oceti Sakowin and their Fox and Menominee allies for attacks on the Pawnee and Illinois, but demanded that the Oceti Sakowin end their alliance with the French and join an alliance with the English allies of the Iroquois. The Assiniboine (Cree for “enemies who cook with stones,” since they boiled meat by heating stones and then putting the stones in their pots, and where “enemy” was Cree for Oceti Sakowin; they call themselves the Hohe Nakodah, or “rebel alliance”) refused to break ties with the French and seceded from the Seven Council Fires, so the Western Dakota were given an additional seat to take their place. The tribes remaining in the Seven Council Fires are now known as the Sioux, abbreviated from Nadeoussioux, a Chippewa word meaning “little snakes,” a term used to differentiate them from the “big snakes,” the Iroquois. The Assiniboine became enemies of the Sioux and their Menominee and Potawatomi allies.


Meanwhile the Iroquois, having with the help of the Sioux defeated the Illinois, joined an alliance with the Chippewa against the Sioux and their allies and drove the Sioux off the Minnesota River. The Lakota invaded the homes of their distant Crow/Hidatsa relatives near Devils Lake, considered a sacred site by them and many other tribes, captured their horses, and set up a lifestyle based on hunting the buffalo, trading guns, horses, and hides to the Arikara and Hidatsa for their corn, and raiding Mandan, Crow, Arikara, and Hidatsa villages. Some of the Yanktonai (branch of Western Dakota living at Fort Peck; Dakota for “little village at the end”) retreated to their sacred site at Standing Rock, South Dakota, continued to rely on the fur trade for their main income, to return to Minnesota when they felt safe doing so, and to organize for defensive warfare against their enemies the Pawnee, Arikara, Ioway, and Cheyenne. The Santee (Sisseton, Wahpeton, and other Eastern Dakota Sioux; Dakota for “knife camp” since they had had the best access to the flint used to make knives) retreated to the West to the area near present Traverse des Sioux. They sided with the French against the British-allied Iroquois in the French and Indian War, and, while maintaining hostility to the Ottawa-led alliance of Pontiac that was the main pro-French Native force, and sided with the Americans against the loyalist Chippewa and Ottawa in the American Revolution, and again with the Americans against the British, Shawnee, Sauk, Fox, Chippewa, Ottawa, and Kickapoo in the War of 1812 during the Monroe Administration. The Yanktonai meanwhile sided with the British against the Americans, though they did not come into direct conflict with the Santee.

Following the defeat of the French, the Assiniboine meanwhile joined the Cree and Blackfeet for war against the Shoshone. By allying themselves with the Cree they got access to the best muskets then available and by allying themselves with the Blackfeet they got furs which they could trade to the British for higher prices than they had paid.

Meanwhile, the Lakota drove the Cheyenne out of the recently discovered Black Hills, which became their most sacred place, and established their largest permanent village near Devils Tower. Raiding the Hidatsa, Arikara, and Mandan villages of the Missouri River and caravans bound for them, they lost over 100 warriors in a disastrous raid against the biggest Hidatsa village, near present-day Stanton, ND, and had a several-day armed standoff with Lewis and Clark when the Americans refused to pay tribute to them, but eventually decided to let them pass in peace. The Lakota and Yanktonai joined President Monroe’s United States for a war, under Col. Leavenworth’s leadership, against the Arikara, the first American War West of the Mississippi, burned Arikara villages, and stole their horses.

50 years after many Plains tribes including the Sioux and Assiniboine were devastated by measles, an even deadlier smallpox epidemic hit (perhaps due to deliberate biological war by the U.S. aimed at the Mandan). The Assiniboine, Yanktonai, and many other tribes, including the tribes controlling the Upper Missouri, were badly hit, but the Santee and Lakota had largely been vaccinated as a result of a bill signed by John Quincy Adams and did much better. They took advantage of the deaths of 80-95% of the Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa to claim much of the Missouri River basin for their hunting grounds.

The 19th century saw large-scale wars over horses between the Cree, Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Chippewa, Iroquois, and Mandan on one side, the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Shoshone on another, and the Crow and Kiowa who were enemies of both, as well as inter-Lakota civil war between rival would-be chiefs. Some of the Yanktonai, devastated by this warfare, came (arms in hand, and threatening to fight if refused) to Fort Peck in Montana to beg for relief supplies, and ended up settling there.

Meanwhile in Minnesota, the Sioux and their allies the Winnebago and Menominee had been involved in bloody territorial warfare with the Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, and Ioway, until the United States under President J.Q. Adams negotiated a peace with Chief Ishtakhaba (Sleepy Eyes) that demarked boundary lines, giving the Dakota control of Mille Lacs Lake. The Ioway renewed their territorial ambitions and allied themselves with the Omaha, Otoe, Missouria, Sauk, and Fox against the Sioux, and following a massacre of Fox villagers by the Sioux and Menominee, the government under Jackson negotiated another peace in which the Sioux, Ioway, and Fox all gave up some land.

When a third intertribal conflict, the Black Hawk War, broke out, the Dakota joined Jackson’s U.S. and the Menominee and “friendly” Winnebago and Potawatomi against the Sauk, Fox, and “hostile” Winnebago and Potawatomi. Although the enemy was defeated and the Sioux lost few warriors in battle, many villagers were massacred, and during the Minnesota gold rush, after the Seven Council Fires met for the last time for more than 160 years, when they came together again to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline, the impoverished Sisseton and Wahpeton signed a treaty with the government under Fillmore to be removed to a reservation near Granite Falls, allowing them to keep most of their villages and paying them an annuity of about $1.6 million.

Around the same time, following a minor war between the U.S. and Brule Lakota, several chiefs of the Lakota, including Running Antelope (Thathoka Inyanke) of the Hunkpapa (Sits by the Door, a reference to their historically lowly status) band with representatives at Fort Peck, signed the Fort Laramie treaty with the U.S. (under Fillmore) and the Cheyenne, Crow, Hidatsa, Mandan, Arikara, Assiniboine (under Chief Mah-to-wit-ko/Crazy Bear) and Arapaho, agreeing to peace, free passage for pioneers bound for the West Coast, and division of territory, in exchange for $50,000 a year for 50 years and a guarantee not to put forts in their territory. The Lakota quickly violated the treaty, which gave them control of Western South Dakota and a small part of Nebraska, by joining the Cheyenne for war against the Crow and (under Running Antelope’s leadership) attacking Arikara. Within a decade they were also attacking Arikara and Mandan.

The Gros Ventre had become enemies of the Assiniboine and their Cree and Chippewa allies by obstructing their efforts to trade with the Arapaho, and when the Gros Ventre became members of the Blackfoot Confederacy around this time, the Blackfeet went from being the allies of the Assiniboine to being their bitterest enemies. By this time, the Assiniboine bands that would eventually find their way to the Fort Peck Reservation had come west, settling variously near Big Fork on Flathead Lake, Fort Peck, and Waterton Lake in Glacier Park.

The Santee Sioux found themselves split by the Dakota War. The Sisseton and Wahpeton has largely been converted to Christianity by Presbyterian missionaries, had gotten rations on their reservation, and generally supported peace. The Mdewakanton and Wahpetonuke largely followed traditional religion and had been denied rations, and supported war. The Sisseton and Wahpeton were therefore spared battle and the mass hanging ordered by President Lincoln that followed, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. However, after the defeat of the “hostiles,” all the Dakota were ordered to leave Minnesota with a $25 bounty on their heads. A few bands went to Fort Peck where they became part of the Fort Peck tribes.


Conflict between United States forces led by General Fetterman and their Crow allies, and an alliance of the Lakota led by Mahpiya Luta (Red Cloud), the Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho, following the attempted construction of railroads in Sioux territory in violation of the treaty and Sioux raids on Crow reservation territory ended in the killing of over 80 U.S. soldiers in one battle, and victory for the Sioux and their allies, allowing Red Cloud to negotiate a new treaty with Grant’s government giving much of the Crow reservation lands in Montana and Wyoming to the Lakota.

Conflict broke out again after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills and the army’s slaughter of the buffalo with the aim of forcing the Lakota to move away. “Hostile” bands of Lakota led by the Hunkpapa Chief Thathanka Íyotake (Sitting Bull) and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies fought the U.S. and their Crow, Arikara, and Pawnee allies, largely on Crow Reservation lands in Wyoming. General Custer, relying on reports from Indian agents on reservations where “friendly” Lakota has settled, assumed there were few hostiles, since the Indian agents exaggerated the number on the reservation in order to get supplies from Washington they could sell for profit. The Lakota and their allies, armed with repeating rifles, killed Custer and nearly all the whites in his army at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. However, after Crazy Horse’s defeat by General Miles at the Battle of Wolf Mountain, Sitting Bull knew he had lost the war and attempted to lead the Hunkpapa following him to escape to Canada. On the way, they stopped at Fort Peck to get supplies from the Yanktonai and Santee there. Although most of the Hunkpapa followed Sitting Bull (who eventually returned to the U.S. and was later murdered there) to Canada, a few surrendered at Fort Peck and remained behind there.

Following flooding at Fort Peck, President Hayes, who had succeeded Grant during the war, established the Fort Peck Indian Reservation with the seat of government at Poplar. Taken away to boarding schools, the Sioux were forbidden to speak their Native Siouan languages (Dakota Sioux, source of our word tepee and the stereotypical Indian greeting “how,” and the closely related Lakota Sioux), their men’s traditional braids were cut, and they were forbidden to practice traditional religion or to wear the eagle feathers signifying honor by the warrior societies, the hawk feather headdresses signifying noble birth, the grizzly bear claw necklaces worn by hunters who had proven their bravery by killing grizzly bears, or traditional buckskin clothing. Girls were forced to learn sewing, a traditionally male skill, while men were forbidden from learning it.

The Assiniboine had largely already adopted white clothing after a visit by Wi-jun-jon (Chief Pigeon’s Egg Head) to Washington where he met with President Jackson. Their chief traditional gods were Sun Man and Thunder Man, and they practiced the sun dance and vision quests. Their language was closely related to the Sioux languages. Different bands had different political organizations due to different historical circumstances and influences. Bands represented on Fort Peck include some with male chiefs inheriting power from their fathers, some with female chiefs inheriting power from their mothers, some with male chiefs chosen by warrior societies, and some with elected male chiefs. Chief Tchatka (Left Hand) who inherited power from his father, the leader of one band now found on Fort Peck, became famous for using poison to eliminate his Assiniboine rivals and gain vast wealth based on horses and fur.

During the Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur administrations, an alliance of Assiniboine bands led by Chief Wakahezabina (Little Girl) carried out a number of successful raids against the Gros Ventre. An alarmed President Arthur sent the military after them, and they were confined in a concentration camp at Wolf Point on the Fort Peck Reservation, where hundreds died of starvation. The descendants of the survivors, forced to send their kids to boarding school and give up their traditional ways, are the Fort Peck Assiniboine.

The Fort Peck tribes today are largely ranchers. They supplement their incomes with payments from the government for land cessions and as compensation for the sale of tribal land to whites under the Dawes Act introduced by Senator Dawes and signed by President Cleveland, and for decades of embezzlement and mismanagement of tribal funds by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Fort Peck is the 2nd-largest reservation in Montana at about 2 million acres of which about 900,000 acres is Indian-owned. Poplar is the seat of a government overseen by an elected tribal council and tribal chairman. Wolf Point, with a population about half white, is the largest town. Poverty is widespread and diabetes, HIV, and alcoholism are all serious health concerns. Christian missions on the reservation and in Minnesota among people who later moved there have resulted in a population that has a Presbyterian majority and a large Mormon minority. It is known for having more powwows than any other place in the U.S.

Dolly Akers, Assiniboine, from Fort Peck, was the first Native American elected to the Montana legislature. Elected as a Democrat, she switched to the Republican Party after the tribal council voted to bar her from serving based on her support for tribal termination.

American Indian Movement activists from Fort Peck took part in the occupation of Alcatraz and the confrontation with the FBI at Wounded Knee during the Nixon administration.

Today, a large lawsuit over pervasive discrimination against Natives in hiring on the Fort Peck Reservation is being litigated.

Traditional Sioux and Assiniboine music relies most on the group repetition of vocal phrases, often nonsense words, and begins with high pitches, descends to low pitches, and then partly repeats the pattern. It is often accompanied by polyrhythmic drumming and much less often by flutes. It is used in religion, for entertainment, as lullabies, and to honor warriors. Performances at powwows today often also feature Christian hymns and rap.


The Sioux’s sacred site in the Black Hills was later turned by a KKK-affiliated sculptor into the Mt. Rushmore monument to 4 U.S. presidents, including Lincoln who ordered the mass hanging of Sioux. In an attempt at compensation, National Park officials have since rolled out a Crazy Horse monument, even though in life Crazy Horse never permitted himself to be depicted after being told in a vision quest that he would lose his power if he did so.


The high school girls’ basketball team from Fort Shaw Indian School on the reservation had an undefeated season in 1903 playing against high school and college teams from around the state; the next year no other team would agree to play against them.


In 1899, Hunkpapa Chief Running Antelope was pictured on the $5 silver certificate; however, he was inaccurately depicted wearing a Pawnee headdress.