In an apparent repeat of history, at least 31 Native people from Wolf Point, Montana, were rounded-up, arrested and removed to the town of Poplar, the apparent contemporary town site of the original Indian Agency of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The police action, which rounded up Native people, vagrants, drunks and undesirables, on July 12, 2013, was accomplished by the town police, and ordered by the city council. The people rounded up were stuffed into vehicles, to the point that one person passed out, and suffered a ride to the detention facility in Poplar. There they were not housed indoors and had to suffer the elements for 24 hours before they were released with no charges proffered.
The round-up and removal of these “undesirables” was not precipitated by any actions by the people rounded-up, and there were no charges, nor any other court documents ordering the arrest of anyone. Those rounded up were placed in a 24 hour hold, which is apparently a legal procedure that police anywhere can use. Those rounded up were taken to the town of Poplar and retained in a locked outdoor holding facility which did not have facilities for overnight stays or shelter from the weather. people have stated that the guard struggled to erect shelter for them in the night.
The day after the people were removed, was the Wild Horse Stampede, one of the largest events in Montana. The event attracts hundreds of cowboys come to compete, and thousands of tourists come to watch the rodeo and eat a “Catholic Burger”. The conclusion to be drawn here is that the city council did not want the undesirables to ruin the appearance of the town for thousands of tourists. Police suggest that they simply received a call, and the caller said that all of the town authorities were on board with the action, and so they were just complying with their orders. This appears to have been acts taken against the Human and Citizen rights of these people, and is now under several investigations and there has been a lawsuit filed. The federal government has been informed but there is no indication of what they are going to do about it.
I heard of this event recently, and immediately began investigating. The reports online at this time all impart the same information. Few of the people interviewed have any hope that the cases will result in finding anyone at fault. A broader search for more information on racism in the town reveals additional problems in the town school system which was being acted on in 2009. Apparently, about one quarter to one third of the students come from outside the town district. These apparent Indian students are at least 200 of the 1000 students in the town. There were no figures for the number of Native students who live in the town but some figures suggest that at least 40% of the town of over 2,600 are Native people. The media reports about the school suggest that Native students are more apt to be labelled as troublesome and violent and be subject to suspensions, than other students. Non-partisan observers have suggested that the reports from the school authorities about Native students are not accurate.
There appears to be a big problem with racism in this town. As a border town, near the edge of the reservation, and at the cross-roads of white American and Native worlds, there are likely to be many points of contention. The number of students bused into town may be a point of contention for the people in town, even if the school get BIA funds and tribal funds to help fund the school. Then there is a healthy Catholic and Lutheran presence in the town. In times past, missionaries from these religious organizations were very negative toward native peoples.
There is a 19th century history of war and conflict in the region, some of that may be transferred to the natives. Many people in town will view the native people as inherently violent and perhaps hold long-term grudges against Natives. This is a problem across the west in places like Redmond, and Madras, OR, Jacksonville, OR, northern California, and in many areas where there was a serious conflict or war between the tribes and the settlers. In many of these locations the tribes sought to defend their lands from invading and encroaching settlers, resulting in conflicts between area Ranger volunteer militia, and later war with the US Army Dragoons.
The Fort Peck Indian Reservation contains representations from the Sioux divisions of Sisseton/Wahpetons, Yanktonais, Teton Hunkpapa, and the Assiniboine bands of Canoe Paddler and Red Bottom. The population on the reservation is an estimated 10,000 people. The reservation began in 1871, and the reservation was allotted to Indians in 1908. Wolf Point had been a reservation sub-agency in the early days, where it is noted many Indian people starved to death and died. This situation is common enough with the federal government unable or unwilling to write timely checks for food, regardless of the treaties or their obligations, so they insisted that the people feed themselves, but the lands they were allowed to have were poor for farming and many tribal people were not allowed to possess guns or other hunting weapons, so they just starved. In 1913, the remaining un-allotted lands were opened to white settlement. Americans could prove up on their claim in 5 years, but soon after the original opening, the prove up time was reduced to 3 years, facilitating quick settlement and development of the area.
The early history of western reservations is very similar across the West. The tribes had a series of wars, they lost, and were removed to reservations after signing treaties. Missionaries come among the people and worked to begin assimilation. Indian schools, boarding schools, and the like, were established to fully assimilate the children to imprint Christianity and American culture on the children. The next generations were then Christians, and had a trade, and would work very hard for their families, many people working in agriculture in support of the settlers. Tribal people were never ever able to get through the glass ceiling of acceptance, have always been the other, and were subject to termination. Those tribes not terminated learned to accept the American way, and accept an elective government. White American communities who had moved onto the former reservation lands resented what the tribes had, resented their “welfare”, and the fact they did not have to pay taxes, and their apparent free education. The tribes were forced to live on poor lands, surrounded by a racist society, and with no opportunity. As well in the previous generation, their people had sold, or been forced to sell, millions of acres of land in exchange for a reservation and services. And now the Americans resent what they still have (remaining). So racism becomes rampant as the Americans never really choose to get to know their Native neighbors, and its likely that few of the non-Natives in the community even know the history, culture or lifeways of the tribe. This is a common pattern across the west.
Now, in the present, the Native community works to live in the area, as they always have. The town of Wolf Point began in 1914 and since then their most successful event is the Wild Horse Stampede, ranked first among all similar rodeo events in the nation. The town wants to provide a good tourist experience and get rid of the “town trash”. Native People are now discouraged from attending, regardless of their long history of support and attendance at the rodeo.
Interestingly, the cowboy tradition began with the Spanish Gauchos of Columbia. In its heyday, late 19th and early 20th centuries cowboys and the rodeo had Black and Native and Latino participants in good numbers. The most famous Native rodeo rider was Jackson Sundown of Oregon, arguably the best of all time, anywhere. The Rodeo then, has always been a multi-ethnic event, regardless of what people believe today.
I do not know the community of Wolf Point, nor much of the Fort Peck Reservation. I have no friends among the communities there, that I am aware of. However, the 2013 round-up of Indians and undesirables in the town, on the eve of the rodeo, is so eerily similar to the 19th century round-up of Natives peoples and their removal to reservations. Then the objective was to remove the tribes from the best lands, to the worst lands to preserve the best for white Americans to settle and prosper. The 2013 round-up is apparently for similar reasons, to remove the undesirable elements from the town, and to make the experience better for rodeo attendees. The town managers did not want the base reality of tribal peoples to disturb their stereotypical and racist vision of what they want their town to look like for the rodeo.
Ironically, the town uses images of Native people to sell the Wild Horse Stampede to tourists and cowboys in all manner of promotional materials. The above and following are their preferred characterizations of Native people that they want to see and they believe tourists want to see.
Furthermore, one article implied that people on the Fort Peck tribal council may have been aware of and approved the action of July 2013. I have a hard time believing this, but I am also aware of the realities of how money works. If this is the case, then there are some serious issues at the reservation that the general council will need to handle. Today’s casino political culture has certainly spawned a number of acts of internal discrimination and perhaps even racism against people that are members of tribes. I have not seen any comments from the Fort Peck tribal council against the events of 2013, and if they exist, I hope someone reposts them here or elsewhere. Indian Country is watching what happens in Montana.
newspaper media reports of the 2013 event -all available online, wolf point city website, Wolf Point images from their heritage site, Wikipedia, Fort Peck Indian Reservation website, Pechanga website.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.