Fort Peck Reservation

Fort Peck Agency

Report of Special Agent Jere E. Stevens on the Indians of Port Peck reservation, Port Peck agency, Montana, December 1890, and January 1891.

Names of Indian tribes or parts of tribes occupying said reservations: Assinaboine, Brule, Santee, Teton, Unkpapa, and Yanktonai Sioux.

The unallotted area of this reservation is 1,776,000 acres, or 2,775 square miles. The reservation has not been surveyed, it was established, altered, or changed by treaty of October 17, 1855 (11 U. S. Stats., p. 657); unratified treaties of’ July 18, 1866, and of July 13 and 15 and September 1, 1868; executive orders, July 5, 1873, and August 19, 1874; act of Congress approved. April 15, 1874 (18 U. S. Stats., p. 28); executive orders, April 13, 1875, and July 13, 1880, and agreement made December 28, 1886, approved by Congress May 1, 1888 (25 U. S. Stats.,p. 113).

Indian population 1890: Assinaboine Sioux, 719; Yankton or Dakota Sioux (including 110 Gros Ventres), 1,121; total, 1,840.

Fort Peck Reservation

Port Peck reservation is located in northeastern Montana, on the north bank of the Missouri River, and is crossed by the Great Northern Railroad. The agency is on the reservation. The name of the railroad station is Poplar, and the name of the post office is Poplar Creek Agency, making it somewhat difficult to determine just where to locate it.

The Indians at this agency consist of 2 tribes, the Assinaboine Sioux and the Yankton or Dakota Sioux (including 100 Gros Ventres), and all may be classed as belonging to the Sioux Nation. The agency buildings, including those at Wolf Point, a sub-agency, number in all 28, and are estimated as being worth about $23,000. The buildings seem to be ample, commodious, and. well situated on a high and dry plateau, where drainage is good. The only objection to the location is on account of the supply of water, which at present is hauled from the Missouri River in barrels by ox teams driven by Indians. The water cannot be obtained in quantities sufficient to furnish a supply for protection in ease of fire. The estimated value of furniture is about $250. The total number of persons employed at the agency, including police, is 58, receiving a compensation of $23,200 per annum.

The value of the stock and farming implements belonging to the agency is estimated at $3,500. There are but few mixed bloods or half-breeds, but what few there are are mostly employed either as policemen at the agency or as scouts at the military posts, herders, and teamsters.

But few of these Indians have any fixed occupation during the Summer season other than trying to farm a little, which in this locality is a failure, owing to the lack of rainfall and to the dry and light soil. In the winter season as many as can do so find employment in chopping and hauling wood and sawing logs and building material.

Polygamy is no longer practiced here, aside from a ‘very few cases of polygamous marriages that were contracted years ago. No polygamous marriages have occurred of late.

There are practically no Indians here who can be termed “blanket Indians”, as they nearly all wear citizens’ dress; especially is this the case with the men. Among the women few can be induced to wear anything on the head, all preferring a shawl or blanket to any, other covering. All or very nearly all wear moccasins, but aside from this they, dress the same as the white people.

It is seldom one meets an Indian here at this season of the year whose face, is not thoroughly covered with Paint, always red, some even putting it on the head. This custom is looked upon by many of the whites as an indication of impending trouble and lawlessness among the Indians, as well as a filthy and savage custom. Nothing could be further from being correct, however. The Indian, as is well known, wears no beard, always pulling it out as it begins to grow. In youth his face is as smooth as a woman’s.  They use this paint as a protection to the skin, claiming that so long as they use it liberally they are not troubled with chapped faces.


Assinaboine Sioux and Gros Ventres in Sun Dance Costume
Assinaboine Sioux and Gros Ventres in Sun Dance Costume

Whether this be true or not, it is a fact that the Indian always has a smooth face. Indians always smear on themselves liberally with paint when going upon the chase or warpath as an additional protection from the inclemency of the weather during such pursuits, and perhaps as a means of disguise in case of capture.

It is estimated that about 20 per cent of the Indians at this agency can use enough English to carry on an ordinary conversation. The Indian is fast wedded to his ancient customs, traditions, and beliefs, and it is very difficult to get him to speak the English language, even though he can do so with tolerable proficiency.

Many lose confidence in themselves after leaving school, and will not speak English when they can avoid it, always preferring to carry on a conversation with the agency authorities through the interpreter, when oftentimes it is not necessary and should not he tolerated.

The Indians at Fort Peck agency, Montana, will compare very favorably in their manner of living with those of the other northern and western agencies.

The 1,840 Indians on this reservation occupy about 500 houses, all log, being an average, as will be seen, of less than 4 persons to a family. The house, if it may be called such, where the Indian family lives during the winter season, is usually about 12 by 14 to 16 feet, built of round logs, chinked and plastered with mud. It is generally about 6 feet in height at the eaves. The roof is made of poles, which are covered with dirt to keep out the cold and rains that, fortunately for the occupants, especially in the winter season, are very light. The floor generally consists of earth, but few having board floors in their, houses. The lighting is from 1 small window, and the ventilating by 1 small door. The houses seldom contain more than 1 room, which is used for the family and as many dogs as the owner may have. The furniture usually consists’ of a few plain dishes, kettles, pans, and cooking utensils.

Very few of them have chairs in their houses. Some have been issued by the, agent, but one is more apt to find them on the top of the Indian house than inside of it. The same is true of tables, and very few have any, as they prefer to sit on the ground and partake of their meals.

They have no system or regularity in the preparation of their meals; no attention is paid to the time of eating or to any routine of that sort. A bedstead is something rarely found in an Indian house, and there is generally but little bedding. The same garments that protect them from the cold during the day are used for a covering at night. Some of them have a very high appreciation of trinkets and ornaments, and decorate the walls of their houses with such pictured advertising cards and other articles of that nature as they can get from time to time. They enjoy studying out illustrated papers or books.

The art of making light bread is rarely practiced. They make a dough of flour and water, rarely using any salt; this they cook in a frying pan, as a pancake, and eat it while steaming hot. Their manner of cooking meat is almost invariably to boil it. They are great lovers of soup; they are also very fond of tea and coffee, using sugar in them when it can be obtained. They are very fond of milk, but would rather do any other work than milk a cow; therefore, a cow is seldom found among them. They are also very fond of vegetables, especially potatoes, onions, and pumpkins. Radishes, lettuce, celery, and such other garden produce, regarded as delicacies by white people, they do not care for. Their favorite method of cooking potatoes is to roast them in hot ashes. Onions they prefer raw, and pumpkins, cucumbers, and melons while green, always boiling them. They gather corn while it is yet green, strip off all the husks but those next to the grain, then boil it and save it for future use. They are very fond of it, and when they have a season that is favorable they raise all they need.

When we remember that generally a family of 3 to 5 persons live, eat, and sleep in one and the same room, where there is practically no ventilation and where it is no uncommon thing to find a temperature of 100°, it is no wonder that we find the Indian degenerating physically. Before he commenced living in these houses his abode was a tepee, which was always supplied with a fire in the center, and, being cone-shaped, with an opening at the top sufficient to carry off the smoke, there was always ventilation.

Few of these Indians live in houses in the summer, season, preferring the tepee or wigwam, which they build on some elevated knoll that is dry. Even in December many of them are yet living in their summer abodes. They say that the vermin become intolerable in their houses in the summer, fleas being very plentiful.

Those who have stock build log stables and put up hay and seem to take very good care of it. Their worst failing is in using their horses when yet too young. It is not an uncommon thing to see an Indian weighing 200 pounds riding a colt a year old.

There are 6 Indians who have been employed as assistants in the different shops here during the year and have done fairly well. There are many employed at this season of the, year in chopping wood. They are good choppers, and work well at anything that they know will be sure pay, preferring to work for wages rather than for themselves. When we consider the uncertainty of raising a crop in this country or getting any returns for one’s labor we can hardly wonder at this.

It is estimated that about 90 per cent of the subsistence of these Indians consists of government rations, issued to them semimonthly, and 10 per cent is derived from their labor. They no longer do any hunting to speak of, the game being about all killed off or driven out of the country. The rations issued are all of a good and wholesome quality, and seem to be distributed in a fair and impartial manner. They have a slaughterhouse with an inclosure, and none are allowed to witness the killing of the beef but those who are employed to assist the butcher.

The beef issued is all bought from the ranges near by. The herd is generally in charge of an Indian, who is known as the chief herder, who, with such assistance as he may need, herds them on the ranges near by, always proving faithful to his trust. On issue day the beef is issued from the block, each family having a numbered ticket. It is not uncommon to see a woman packing away 100 pounds of beef on her back and head. This work is nearly always done by the women.

The beef hides are issued to such Indians as seem to be most in need of them, which are used in various ways. They are experts in tanning them. The heads are issued to such as may need them most. One perplexing question that Indian agents have always had to encounter where beef is killed is what disposition to make of the entrails, or “fifth quarter”, as it is termed here. There is probably no part of a beef but what an Indian will eat with relish, even preferring some parts of the “fifth quarter” to the most juicy steak.
The Indian is not particular as to cleanliness in the preparation of his food.

The food is good; and in addition to this issue of rations every 2 weeks they receive their annuity goods annually. These consist of 1 good woolen blanket for each member of a family, clothing, boots, shoes or shoe packs, socks, hats, caps, mittens, sheeting, ticking, cooking utensils, stoves, axes, and such other articles as the agent regards them as needing. There are also a certain number of wagons, plows, harness, saws, and other tools issued to those who will use them. Some have received horses, others agricultural implements. The agent uses his judgment as to who should receive them, and, taken all in all, these Indians are well cared for.

The Indian is improvident by nature and is not inclined to look out for the future. Under the treaty and agreement these Indians are now receiving aid from the government to the amount of $165,000 per annum. They are to receive this amount for 7 years yet. The moment that ceases they will be poverty stricken and restless, unless in the meantime they can be educated up to some pursuit that will afford them a living. On this reservation and in this particular locality they can never depend upon agriculture for their living, but must become herders and stock raisers.

It can be said that these Indians have morally advanced. White men who have been familiar with them for the past 30 years say there has been a marked change during the past 7 years, and particularly so since the extermination of the buffalo. So long as these people could camp near a herd of buffalo they knew no want. They always had plenty to eat and fire enough to keep them warm; there was no necessity for adopting the ways of civilization. They were always at war with the neighboring tribes, and always ready to join in savage dances. They no longer practice the “sun dance”, “scalp dance”, and other barbarous customs openly or near the agency; yet there are some who like to steal away occasionally to some secluded spot and go through them.

The Indian is a natural orator and lover of notoriety, and he is never so happy as when recounting some of his deeds of bravery and skill. It is a moment of supreme happiness when he can get an audience to listen to his harangue. But this is on the decline among them.

The Indian school at this place is a model school. Everything is well arranged and properly conducted.

There are at present about 175 pupils attending the school, ranging in age from 6 to 16 years. A class of 43 of the larger and more advanced pupils was sent to Carlisle last April. Many of these soon returned, as their health would not permit them to remain. The change from a tepee or wigwam to the schoolroom is a trying period for the Indian child, and many are unable to stand the strain upon the system. Such as show a marked failing are generally allowed to return to their homes for a while, when they try it again. Some finally become able to attend ‘school regularly; others, whose health will not permit it, are allowed to remain at home. Consumption and scrofula are the principal trouble, with an occasional case of constitutional syphilis.

During school hours the pupils were studious, obedient, and industrious, and with the proper amount of patience, perseverance; and drilling they can be educated the same as white children. The greatest drawback is the desire of the parent to visit the school often and ask permission for the child to go home for a few days, where he is very liable to get vermin and lose what refinement he has learned in the schoolroom. This particular problem is one of the most difficult that an agent or superintendent has, to deal with, and it requires one with remarkably good judgment to know when to say no or when to say yes. The attachment of an Indian for his children is as strong as that of a white man, and, being himself uneducated and not fully realizing the benefits his child is receiving at school, he often regards it as a very great hardship to be refused when he asks that his child be allowed to go home for a few days occasionally. There are many very good singers among the scholars, and in learning anything that is taught -by means of the modern schoolroom chart they are very quick to comprehend. By nature-they are disposed to grasp at anything that excites their curiosity or admiration. In this respect they are the equals of white children. They require a great deal of outdoor exercise, and even with the best of care and management many of them are permanently injured in health from their attendance at school. After leaving school many become used to the ways of the tribe again and seem to be but little benefited by what has been done for them.

Assinaboine and Yankton Sioux Indian Children
Assinaboine and Yankton Sioux Indian Children
A Class of 40 Sent to Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, April 1890

There are some students here who have been at school at the Santee agency.  They are shy and bashful, seeming to dislike to converse in the English language, and preferring the tepee to the more comfortable abode of the white man. There are exceptions, yet these are the facts as regards the great majority of the Indian students.

At an evening exercise in a spelling contest, the boys on one side and the girls on the other, the girls won easily, seeming to be far better spellers and brighter pupils. Those who stood up the longest were the smaller ones; the last 2 being little girls not over 6 or 7 years of age, while those of the age of 10 and 12 were the very first to go down. The Indian child that is put into school at the earliest age possible learns much more readily and is much brighter after having been in school a year than those who enter at the age of 10. This is particularly true in regard to the boys, there being but little hope of getting them interested in school if allowed to live in the camp until 10 years of age. If they could be taken in at the age of 2 years and properly cared for, they could be made to learn as well as white children; but if allowed to run about the camp until 8 or 10 years old they become shy, bashful, and dull, and after attendance at school drift back to the camp life and customs and lapse into that reserve and peculiar disposition so characteristic of their race.

The Presbyterian Church has a missionary here, who, with the aid of his wife and other persons, maintains a Sabbath school and other religious exercises. There is preaching in the schoolroom every Sabbath evening, the school children always attending. There are but very few communicants among the Indians at the agency, the Indian, as a rule, believing that he has as good a religion as the white man. The missionaries of the Catholic faith seem to be more successful in gaining converts among them than those of the Protestant faith.

The Indians have means of communication, by couriers or otherwise, that are remarkable. The only system the white man has that equals it is the telegraph, and even then they will sometimes get the news more accurately than it is possible to be obtained by the white man. They have a means of communication by signals, using an ordinary looking glass by day and fires by night. It is a tribal secret.

A great deal might be said about the messiah craze and ghost dance, and different theories will be advanced as to its meaning and significance, but careful observation and inquiry among the Indians here convince me that the dance itself, like most of the Indian dances, is something in connection with their own peculiar religious belief. There are certain limits beyond which they will not go in telling of their dances and ceremonies. They win not allow even the white men who are married into the tribe to witness them.

A characteristic of the Indian is the idea of the person. There .are very few Indians, even though they wear citizens dress in full and work well, who do not wear the ancient and once necessary breechclout. This may seem strange, and no doubt will be scoffed at by some, but it is the case, and who can tell what peculiar idea impels them to do this. No doubt the Indian is very modest in this way and always has been, even to the point of being eccentric, but they may have some superstition in such matters that we do not know of. Army officers say that it is sometimes almost impossible to get Indians or mixed bloods to enter the scouting service, even at good pay, and some have absolutely refused to do so unless they could be allowed to retain this particular garment while passing a physical examination.

They will not use anything that was left by a deceased friend. A single man, who had a field of potatoes and other garden truck, died on this reservation a few years ago. The agency farmer, not wishing to see the articles wasted, and there being no relatives to look after or receive them, offered them to his neighbors if they would save them, but not one of them could be induced to do so.

Another idea is that if the house is struck by lightning it is a warning to move it, which they immediately do, never under any circumstances allowing themselves to enter it again until it is moved, if they happen to be out when it is struck.

The reservation contains 1,776,000 acres of land; population, 1,840, being 965 acres of land for each man, woman, and child. Of this land probably one-tenth of it can be classed as river bottomland, some of it being arable; the rest of it is hay and timberland. Of timber there is plenty; it is mostly cottonwood. Of hay there is not much, but the cultivated grasses, especially millet, could be raised on the river bottoms where there is no timber. After leaving the river bottom the soil is light, sandy, and gravelly, with more or less stone all over the reservation. It cannot be depended upon to produce More than one or two crops, and not even those unless the season is very favorable and rainfalls frequent and abundant; so it cannot be classed as agricultural land, but as grazing land. The grass is the bunch or buffalo grass, which grows in abundance and cures itself in the fall of the year, so that stock live and thrive on it all winter, unless the snow becomes very deep and the weather very severe, which does not occur very often, and is not apt to last long when it does occur. There are generally hills and knolls where the snow blows off, so that the stock can graze. The worst feature that stockmen have to contend with is prairie fires. These are very disastrous when they get beyond control, and result in a great deal of damage to men who have herds near the reservation. Horses and sheep are considered the best adapted to this climate, as they can take care of themselves better than cattle.

Farming here is very uncertain. White men cannot make a success of farming on the lands adjacent to the reservation, nor can the Indians gain a living by farming on it. Several attempts have been made to make a crop here; but success is the exception rather than the rule. The lack of sufficient rainfall and the dry and hot winds that prevail often cure the growing grass in a single day, so that it is brown and dry, yet it seems to be just as good for stock as while growing.

The problem of irrigation is very complex. There are some lands upon which water could be conducted at great expense. There is water enough, but the difficulty seems to be to handle it, owing to the peculiar formation of the soil, which is called a “drift” formation. The river will change its bed or channel in a single night. A ditch was dug several years ago, costing $10,000 or $12,000, with no success, owing to the changes in the river. Irrigation on an extensive scale cannot be depended upon here, and would not be profitable for grain raising. It might, however, pay for a certain amount of gardening, but this entire reservation is much better adapted to stock raising and herding than to anything else. While they are yet receiving aid from the government, and before their treaty money is exhausted, steps should be taken to get them started in the pursuits of ranchmen. They should have some brood mares and sheep and be taught how to care for them.

Agricultural implements issued to these Indians consist of thrashing machines, reapers, mowers, horse rakes, plows, barrows, scythes, axes, wagons, harness, and such minor tools as are necessary in conducting a farm. They do not all receive these. The agent uses his own judgment as to the issue.

The amount expended at this agency for the past year for rations or subsistence was about $60,000; for annuity goods and for aid to agriculture, about $40,000; in all, $100,000. Out of the balance of $65,000 the schools are run, the agency is maintained, and the many incidental expenses connected with the reservation system are paid. Some money was also expended for stock and other articles necessary for the successful management of the agency.

Department of the Interior. Report on Indians Taxed and Indians not Taxed in the United States, Except Alaska at the Eleventh Census: 1890. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. 1894.

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