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Where the Buffalo Call Home

It can be exciting to see a herd of buffalo, or perhaps astonishing natural beauty is more your thing. Or maybe you’re hankering for a little gunslinger history. Fort Belknap can show you all that, and much more. It is located in northeastern Montana, fairly close to the Canadian border, and encompasses about 650,000 acres, much of which was once staggeringly beautiful buffalo country; huge herds would migrate through from the south in the spring and return to the south as winter approached.

The Fort Belknap Reservation, home to the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribal nations, has a one-man tourism office handled by Ray Gone. He is a Gros Ventre tribal member, and he knows the reservation, the history handed down from earlier generations as well as current history, and he has an easy and entertaining way of telling those stories and answering all questions.

Ray Gone (Gros Ventre), of the reservation’s tourism office.

Ray Gone (Gros Ventre), of the reservation’s tourism office.

He offers two types of tours. You can visit one of the two buffalo herds on the reservation, or Gone will take you on what he calls the “Mission Canyon Tour,” which progresses up Mission Canyon to pow wow grounds in a beautiful alpine meadow. Gone frequently gets groups from local tribal schools, grade school through college. On those tours, his focus is on the cultural background of the visitors. He talks about who they are and where they came from and how buffalo were important to the tribes and how various cultural activities were involved. Snake Butte was where many tribal members once fasted. It has been important for cultural and religious ceremonies for centuries.

“The area on and around Snake Butte contains the larger of the two herds of buffalo, roughly 600 animals,” Gone explains. “This was once an excellent place to camp and wait for the huge buffalo herds to pass as they migrated between summer and winter ranges. The area between Snake Butte and Many Buttes, now called Bear Paw Mountains, was a main migration route. Buffalo provided not only meat but hides for tipis and clothing and even for bull boats to cross the Missouri and Milk Rivers.

“There were numerous types of berries and fruit to pick as one waited for buffalo: June berries, currants, chokecherries, strawberries and raspberries are all plentiful, plus other such plants as onions, potato plants and wild turnips. There were tipi rings in every direction around here. Seven springs emerge from the butte which provided good water.”

“The tipi rings on top were for ceremonial purposes. If buffalo didn’t come right away, a scout would go up on top during the day to watch for dust in the distance indicating buffalo were coming. When that happened the families below would prepare for the hunt.”

As you reach the crest of the ridge at Snake Butte, Gone will point out the rocks, laid out in a circular pattern, that once helped hold tipis in place, because stakes could not be driven into the solid granite on the butte.

Shrine at entrance to St.Paul's Mission in Hays.

Shrine at entrance to St.Paul's Mission in Hays.

Snake Butte ridge is an excellent spot to sit and look for buffalo. It requires little imagination to visualize tribal members at their tepees waiting and watching for buffalo to pass. The huge buffalo pasture to the south of Snake Butte is about 25,000 acres. Some animals from that herd are annually harvested for use in the tribal diabetes program, because the meat is healthier than beef, and was the primary source of protein for the people who lived here for many generations. Some animals are also harvested for cultural activities as pow wows and other celebrations, including singings for Sun Dance and Hand Game and feasts for wakes and funerals. Other buffalo may be sold to outside sources and the tribes also allow a limited trophy hunt through their Buffalo Management program.

On the Mission Canyon Tour, visitors travel south to the town of Hays, where the old St. Paul’s Catholic Mission is located. It dates back to 1898 and is actually the third such building, the first two having burned down. The original mission was a log building built in 1888, a year before Montana became a state. The stone building has great emotional appeal. It’s simple in design yet elegant and built with stone from the nearby Little Rocky Mountains. “Every person I take over there wants to see inside,” Gone says. “We’re proud of that little bitty church.” Once inside, visitors are astounded at how beautiful the interior is and how immaculate.

The stained glass windows show an Indian woman wrapped in a blanket and holding a child. The altar area is enclosed with Indian designs in a light blue background.

Fort Belknap Indian Reservation welcoming sign, home to the Aaniiih and Nakoda, or Gros Ventre and Assiniboine, tribes.

Fort Belknap Indian Reservation welcoming sign, home to the Aaniiih and Nakoda, or Gros Ventre and Assiniboine, tribes.

The tour then proceeds up Little People Creek which flows through Mission Canyon. This gorgeous drive leads uphill to the pow wow grounds. It may not be the most scenic pow wow grounds in the country but it’s certainly in the running. High peaks surround the upper meadow where pow wows are held.

During this tour, you might stop for a picnic along Little People Creek and watch trout in the pools. Gone will stop to let you photograph the Natural Arch. This massive stone arch stretches high above the road and surrounding forest.

Then it’s onward and upward to the pow wow grounds, situated in a high meadow encircled by small aspens and conifers. They provide shade and seclusion for tipis in this beautiful location. The pow wow here is held on the second week of August and Gone offers tours for those dates as well.

Buffalo graze at Snake Butte on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northern Montana.

Buffalo graze at Snake Butte on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northern Montana.

Any time of year can be a good time to visit Fort Belknap, with the exception of winter, when snow makes travel difficult, if not impossible. Photographers prefer spring and summer, when the new crop of buffalo calves follow their mothers and their beautiful golden brown coats contrasts vividly with the dark brown, nearly pure black, of the adults.

 To sign up for a tour or for more information contact Ray Gone at discoverfortbellknap.com or (406) 353-4260.