Both Chief Rocky Boy’s band and Chief Little Bear’s band were Plains Indians, a primarily hunting and gathering culture. The hunting of buffalo was central to the lifestyle of Cree people for thousands of years and to western Chippewa since the early1800’s.
The Chippewa and Cree tribes had long been associated with each other as they traveled between Montana and Canada hunting the buffalo. Neither the Chippewa Chief Rocky Boy nor the Cree Chief Little Bear had signed treaties for land during the treaty period; therefore, early in the twentieth century they found themselves unwelcome in a land where most Indians were on reservations. They were without a home, without a place to call their own: a place where they could make a living, raise their children, and practice their religion according to their beliefs.
While the Chippewa and Cree have unique histories, they are now building a common heritage.
The Rocky Boy”s Indian Reservation is different from other reservations in Montana in several ways. It was the last reservation to be established in the state. It was established not by treaty, but by congressional act; and it is the smallest reservation in the state, home to the smallest tribe, the Chippewa Cree.
Both Rocky Boy and Little Bear began petitioning the government for a home for their people and soliciting support from prominent white citizens who were sympathetic to their cause. Since they spent much time in and around the cities of Montana, they found supporters in Great Falls” William Bole, editor of the Tribune, artist Charles M. Russell, and Helena’s Frank B. Lindennan.
Rocky Boy”s petitions for a home met the greater success than Little Bear”s because he was considered an American Indian while Little Bear was often considered a Canadian Indian.
Rocky Boy”s request was first answered with a proposal that his band settle on the Flathead Reservation. The bill died in Congress. Next, Congress set aside $30,000 and 60 townships in Valley County for the support of Rocky Boy”s band. But the government was unable to gather the band together to send them to Valley County.
Besides that, the railroad proposed to charge an exorbitant rate to transport Indians. Added to those hindrances was the fact that white settlers had declared “declarations of occupancy” on the land during the winter months. So much for the Valley County idea!
Then in 1909, Rocky Boy”s band was ordered to the Blackfeet Reservation.Eleven thousand acres, eighty acres per member was set aside in the far northwest near Babb, Montana. By June, 1910 only fifty Chippewa had agreed to make selections on the Blackfeet Reservation. Many said eighty acres was not enough: the land was too high, the winters too severe. There was not enough acreage to support cattle and the land was not suitable for farming. Many band members deserted Rocky Boy.
THE BEAR PAW MOUNTAINS
In the meantime, others besides Rocky Boy and Little Bear were looking for a home for the Chippewa and Cree People. Pah-nah-to, a Chippewa Chief married to Prairie Dog, was also seeking land. He had his eye on the abandoned Fort Assiniboine in the Bear Paw Mountains, south of Havre. When Pah-nah-to became sick and knew he was going to die, he sent for Little Bear. According to oral history, his words to Little Bear were something like these:
“My cousin. I won’t sec the day when we get our land. I am dying. I have already started the plans to get this land in the Bear Paws. Rocky Boy will not he able to survive in Browning. There is no farm land and winters are severe. Therefore, concentrate on the Bear Paws. Do your best to gel this land for our people.”
These mountains that Pah-nah-to was referring to were sacred to the Cree. They reminded them of a bear crouching on the ground, so they called them the Bear Paw Mountains, Ah-si-ni-wah-chi-sik.
Centennial Mountain is the bear’s head. K.ah-kis-kahto- we-ah-mah-nah-ti-nahk., or Fore Top Butte. Square Butte is called Mahs-ko-chi-chi, the Bear’s Paw. Baldy Butte is the Bears Heart. It is called 0-che-ah-chi-nahs-ik, or Heart Butte.
Little Bear planted this idea concerning the Bear Paws in the mind of Fred Baker who in 1912 was sent by the Indian Office to investigate Montana with a view to a permanent settlement for Rocky Boy’s band and other landless Indians.
It was the first time the federal government had taken responsibility for all non-reservation Indians in the state.
In 1911 Fort Baldv Butte Centennial Mountain Assiniboine closed as a reservation. It contained 160,000 acres of grassland, mountains, and streams; much of it is in the Bear Paws south of Havre. Baker recommended the abandoned military reservation be set aside for the Chippewa and Cree.
Since it was away from major population centers, he reasoned, it would have the support of the citizens of Helena and Great Falls.
A lame duck Congress and president failed to act on the proposal in December of 1912. Havre citizens journeyed to Washington D.C., to protest the settlement of the Chippewa Cree near their city. William Bole and Frank Linderman followed the Havre citizens to the nation’s capitol to urge Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane to settle the Chippewa and Cree on the southern mountainous portion of the military reserve to quiet Havre’s objection to having them close by. Lane must have been influenced by their presentation because in December 1913, Little Bear and Rocky Boy were given pennission to winter camp at Fort Assiniboine in anticipation of making a pemenent home there.
Still Congress moved very slowly on the question of a home for the Chippewa Cree. During the spring of 1914 Lindemian wrote letters threatening to take the story of Rocky Boy and Little Bear to easterners if the issue were not addressed.
ROCKY BOY’S RESERVATION ESTABLISHED
Finally, on February 11. 1915. Secretary Lane ordered a survey of old Ft. Assiniboine and its opening for settlement. The total acreage of the fort was 72.000 acres or 14 ‘4 square miles. On September 7. 1916, an Act of the 64″‘ Congress of the United States designated a tract of land, once part of the abandoned Ft. Assiniboine Military Reserve, as a refuge for ihc “homeless and wandering Indians.”
President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law and created a tract of land that would soon be known as Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. Located south of Havre, the refuge consisted of 56,035 acres. It was given as a “permanent home of the Chippewa Cree bands.” The same act of Congress setaside 2,000 acres of the old military reserve to the state of Montana for public use and 8,880 acres to the city of Havre for use as a no-fee recreational area for the residents oi Chouteau Hill.
A man by the name of Martin is credited with writing the bill requesting part of Ft. Assiniboine as a home for the Chippewa Cree. According to the records, he requested four southern townships which totaled 113 sections. The requested sections were divided as follows: 21 tillable. 80 grazing, 12 timber. Martin’s request was sent to Congress in August of 1916.
The Senate passed the bill with one drastic amendment, the removal of one township containing the lower valley of Beaver Creek. This was done to placate Havrc officials. Just as Little Bear had feared, his people received only land suitable for grazing and practically no tillable land.
They were given three townships instead of the four that were requested, two townships of mountainous low-grade timber, and one township of some grassland and broken bench lands. In later years, more land was added to the reservation so that its present size is 107.613 acres (as of 1979).
For the Chippewa Cree in 1916 it was land they could call their own.
No longer did they have to go begging from town to town. In fact as soon as they moved onto the land, even before they knew it was theirs, they planted potatoes. They filled two root cellars with their harvest and sent some produce to the State Fair in Helena where it won prizes.
When Congress established the reservation, an enrollment list of over 600 people was created. The Indian Office allowed 400 to settle on Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation how many additional landless Indians resided in the state no one knew.
In June 1917 James McLaughlin was sent to Rocky Boy”s Indian Reservation to complete an official
enrollment list. He produced a role of 425 people, including all Chippewa Cree living at Ft. Assiniboine in the last three years, those who came from Browning with Rocky Boy and those who could demonstrate their association with Little Bear.
EARLY YEARS ON THE RESERVATION
The first years on the reservation were difficult ones.There were few jobs and many people had to go off the reservation to find work. Those who stayed tried to garden, hunt, pick rock, and collect bones, wool, tin, and other metals. Rations were provided which included rice, beans, salt pork, flour, sugar,and coffee. It was difficult to transport the rations to Rocky Boy”s because there were no roads from the Box Elder train depot. Someone would have to ride out with horse and wagon, and as often as not. the train would arrive without rations. Officials tried sending large quantities at a time, but problems arose with storing and issuing the rations.
Hard feelings often resulted if people used up their rations and the official could not issue additional rations from those stored on the reservation. Along with food rations, the government also issued amiy surplus clothes, shoes, socks, overcoats. Many women would rip up the clothes and make quilts.
Reimbursable grain wagons, horses, and other fann implements were loaned to people and they were encouraged to work their land. But it was difficult to work a farm when one had to go off the reservation in the summer to work.
Even though times were hard, there was a spirit of cooperation during the early days. The government furnished seeds to the people: oats, wheat, and barley. When the harvest came, everyone got together and went from one field to the next until all the crops were harvested. Everyone helped put up hay, too. And when someone needed a house, people went out together to cut and haul logs. They worked until the house was finished. Women helped by chinking the logs and preparing food. The people were all finends. They helped and loved one another as the Elders taught them. Between September 1915 and November 1916, thirty-five cabins were completed and ten more were almost finished.
EARLY CHIPPEWA-CREE LEADERS
Rocky Boy and Little Bear were the accepted leaders of the Chippewa Cree. though Little Bear had deferred to the leadership of Rocky Boy after 1904 because of the stigma of Canadian birth. The two men were related through their wives. Several of the elders of the community acted as advisors which included Ke-nah-wash. a spiritual leader who spoke to the people every morning from the hill behind the flour mill. It was said his voice could be heard all the way to Parker Canyon!
Other councilors were Bucket, Spread Wing, Alexander, and Chief Goes Out.
When it came time to name the reservation, these men and others decided to name it after Chief Rocky Boy whose Chippewa name was similar to the Cree Ah-si-niw-i-yi-niw, which means Stone Indian. White men translated it as “Rocky Boy.” Rock) Boy had not lived to see the reservation officially given to his people, for he had died on April 18, 1916. In naming the reservation after Chief Rocky Boy, the people wanted to honor their departed chief.
The video below shows a panoramic view of the Rocky Boy Reservation.