Fort Belknap Indian Community is located 180 miles northeast of Great Falls, Montana and 40 miles south of the Canadian border. The reservation and additional tribal lands total 650,000 acres. There are approximately 6,700 enrolled members of two tribes, Gros Ventre and Assiniboine, or Aaniiih and Nakoda in their languages. Roughly half live on or near the reservation.
Agriculture is the primary industry and consists largely of cattle ranches and hay production while the largest employers are the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the tribes.
St. Paul’s Catholic Mission was established here in 1898. This striking building still remains. The Mission Canyon drive past Natural Bridge to the beautiful pow wow grounds is outstanding.
Mark Azure is President and Vice President is George Horse Capture Jr. They provided the following list of 10 things about Fort Belknap Reservation.
Fort Belknap Indian Community is composed of two tribes – “Back in history we didn’t get along,” Azure said. “When we were forced onto reservations the leaders decided it was better to get along. We’re still attempting to follow that path. We have bumps in the road but the tribal council is made up of individuals from both tribes. The President and Vice President can’t be from the same tribe. That adds stability so it won’t be one sided.” Azure is Assiniboine while Horse Capture Jr. is Gros Ventre. Adding to this tribal uniting, Azure is the son-in-law of Horse Capture Jr. Both tribes also have such things as treaty committees and cultural societies which help retain the tribal identities. “We don’t forget who we are,” Azure said. “Sometimes it slows progress but maybe it’s a good thing. It gives us time to reflect on who we are and the best way forward. We still struggle with trying to move forward but not forget the past.”
Snake Butte’s cultural significance – Tourism Director Ray Gone explained that Snake Butte has a long history of cultural significance for local tribes. “Between the Little Rockies and the Bear Paws was one of the main thoroughfares for buffalo migrations. It was a good place to keep an eye out for buffalo and has abundant fresh water, lots of herbs and all kinds of berries, plus wildlife. You can throw a rock in any direction and it would land on a teepee ring or some other sort of cultural site.” He also explained that Snake Butte was formerly used for fasting, “a personal interaction with the Creator as to which direction the Creator wants you to go, the gifts to do things, how they’re used, and even songs.”
Snake Butte buffalo herd – Bronc Speakthunder heads up the buffalo program. “Buffalo were brought to Fort Belknap in the ‘70s,” he said. “Now there are about 600 adult animals and 200-250 calves are born each year. This is a commercial herd. We donate buffalo for tribal activities like pow wows and the diabetic program. It’s healthier meat than beef and part of the original diet of Indian people. Both tribal and nontribal hunting is allowed on a limited basis and prices for nontribal hunters can go as high as $6,000 for a trophy bull. The money generated goes into the buffalo program allowing us to buy equipment and pay leases and is now self sustaining.”
Yellowstone buffalo herd -- Mike Fox was on tribal council in 2013 with oversight for the buffalo program when Yellowstone buffalo were released on the Fort Belknap Reservation. Fort Peck had received Yellowstone buffalo the year earlier and part of that herd was sent to Fort Belknap. “We’ve been working with the Intertribal Bison Cooperative for close to 20 years now,” he explained. The population has suffered some losses and is still small, less than 50, but there’s hope the problems are now corrected. “We’d like to increase them considerably,” Fox said. “The pasture is about a thousand acres so additional tribal land will need to be leased to expand that pasture. We’ll also continue to look at acquiring additional breeding stock.”
Supreme Court case of Winter v. United– The federal reserved water rights doctrine was established in 1908 by the U.S. Supreme Court and called the Winters Doctrine, which reserved water for the future needs of reservations. Jiggs Main, Fish and Wildlife Director, explained that Fort Belknap was the first reservation and set the standard for all of Indian country on water rights.
Hunting jurisdiction on the reservation – Main explained that both tribal licenses and non-member licenses are sold but elk licenses are restricted to tribal members, most of which are used for subsistence hunting. “Our constitution was created in 1935 and says we have jurisdiction on all lands as it was when the constitution was created. At the end a clause adds ‘any land that is hereinafter acquired.’ We interpret that as any land added to the tribal government after that was adopted and it doesn’t say ‘trust or fee land,’ but any land. That’s what we’re operating on.”
Aaniiih Nakota College – Carol Falcon Chandler has been president of the college since 2000. Her pride in the school is evident as she talks. “I feel we’re really unique because everything we do here revolves around the culture and traditions of our tribes. We’ve had a language emersion program for children for many years and those early students are now in college.” The school is also ranked nationally for community colleges following a survey of 821 community colleges. “Montana ranked No. 5 in community colleges and of the 10 in Montana we were ranked first and in the top 100 in the nation.” The school just started a nursing program. “We want to grow, train our own people, because there’s a lack of Indian nurses. We have state of the art equipment and are ready to roll.”
Language Preservation Program – Ray Cichosz is Project Coordinator for Language Preservation. He explains the program passed the Montana legislature and is funded by the State essentially to include teaching of Native languages in the schools. “We’re searching for certified teachers of each language. We hope to incorporate teaching some of the words into history, English and reading classes and have the language in everyday use throughout the schools. We have two tribes here and each tribe has a separate language. We’re also trying to use technology to get to younger people because everybody has an I-Phone or I-Pad. We’ve found one of the most useful ways is through technology.”
Fort Belknap Indian Community Council – William “Snuffy” Main comes from a long line of leaders and has a passion for history and tribal government. He spoke of the many changes in the council over the years. “There’s been pretty much an equal number from each tribe on the council since day 1 but the number and voting options have varied. In 1992 the council was changed to 6. They elected a chairman and vice chairman, one from each tribe and elected by all the voters. Two districts were established and a Gros Ventre representative and an Assiniboine representative from each district were elected by the members of their tribe in their district. That changed again in 2000 when it was increased to 10. The 6 positions remained much the same but 4 at-large positions were added. A Gros Ventre from each district was elected by all the voters and a Gros Ventre elected by the Gros Ventres and then an Assiniboine was elected by all the voters and another elected by the Assiniboine only.”
Tribal Historic Preservation Office – Michael Blackwolf, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, explained the office was started in 2012. “Each individual tribe has a Tribal Historic Preservation Office which contracts from State Historic Preservation. We work to preserve and protect all cultural resources within the boundaries of the reservation plus both tribes’ historic/aboriginal territories. This includes historical artifacts, items of patrimony, archeological sites and sacred sites on behalf of both tribes at Fort Belknap.” In addition to the two full time positions, approximately 10 cultural resource monitors, all tribal members, do the research work.