You could feel the spirit in the land, on the warm breeze as the Marias River winds its way through the valley behind approximately 200 members of the Blackfoot Confederacy, who gathered to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Marias Massacre. Spanning generations, they gathered to observe the anniversary with several events at the Blackfeet Community College, designed to educate the public about the Massacre, as well as a visit to the site on January 23, the day of the slaughter.
Remembering the Marias Massacre is sacred for the Blackfeet and its importance of observing the tragic event has not diminished with the passage of a century and a half. Many turned out to share their version of events and personal stories of survival and resilience. While the historic record is riddled with inaccuracies, omissions and revisions, the anniversary of one of the greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S. troops and is an opportunity to shed light on a tragedy that captures the injustice of long-standing U.S. governmental policies to remove American Indians during the colonization of the West.
The United States Army carried out what is also known as the Baker Massacre, as part of the Indian Wars and Ulysses S. Grant’s “Peace Policy.”
On this clear, beautiful day, as snow melted from the recent cold snap, it was a far cry from that day in 1870, when temperatures reached over minus 30 degrees below zero, when U.S. soldiers came to this valley and massacred the wrong camp of Piegan Indians on the banks of the Marias River, that literally ran red with the blood of our ancestors. The slaughter took place in sub-zero temperatures on January 23, 1870 just southeast of Shelby, Montana where, about 217 Indians were killed, most of who were women, children and elderly men. Many were suffering from small pox.
“We are all here, because of those who ran as hard as they could from the soldiers. And many of you are here today because of those who ran so hard from the atrocity being carried out by the U.S. Army. Many here are descendants of those who survived that cold, cold day,” said Carol Murray, one of the many organizers of this year’s tribute to Holy Bear Woman and others who fled the bullets and bayonets raining down on them. “You’re here today because of her and those who were able to escape. There are so many stories. And all you young people need to study your history in the context of today’s times, its absolutely important, your language and the stories of how we survived. Tell your children. Keep their memory alive.”
At daybreak on the morning of January 23, 1870, Colonel Eugene Baker ordered his men to surround the camp of about 40 tipis in preparation for the cowardly attack. As the darkness faded, Baker’s scout, Joe Kipp, recognized that the painted designs on the buffalo-skin lodges along the Marias River were those of a peaceful band of Blackfeet led by Heavy Runner, who had papers from the government indicating they were to be left alone (he was killed while greeting the soldiers with his papers). Declaring he did not care whether or not it was the rebellious band of Indians he had been searching for, Baker orders his men to attack the sleeping camp of the peaceful Blackfeet.
The previous fall, Malcolm Clarke, an influential Montana rancher, had accused a Blackfeet warrior named Owl Child of stealing some of his horses; he punished the proud brave with a brutal whipping. In retribution, Owl Child and several allies murdered Clarke and his son at their home near Helena, and then fled north to join a band of rebellious Blackfeet under the leadership of Mountain Chief. Outraged and frightened, Montanans demanded that Owl Child and his followers be punished, and the government responded by ordering the forces garrisoned under Baker at Fort Ellis (near modern-day Bozeman, Montana) to strike back.
Strengthening his cavalry units with two infantry groups from Fort Shaw near Great Falls, Baker led his troops out into sub-zero winter weather and headed north in search of Mountain Chief’s band. Soldiers later reported that Baker drank a great deal throughout the march. On January 22, Baker discovered an Indian village along the Marias River, and, postponing his attack until the following morning, spent the evening drinking heavily.
Mountain Chief and Owl Child, Kipp quickly realized, must have gotten wind of the approaching soldiers and moved their winter camp elsewhere. Kipp rushed to tell Baker that they had the wrong Indians, but Baker reportedly replied, “That makes no difference, one band or another of them; they are all Piegans and we will attack them!” Baker then ordered a sergeant to shoot Kipp if he tried to warn the sleeping camp of Blackfeet and gave the command to attack.
Baker’s soldiers began blindly firing into the village, catching the peaceful Indians utterly unaware and defenseless. By the time the brutal attack was over, Baker and his men had, by the best estimate, murdered 37 men, 90 women, and 50 children. Knocking down lodges with frightened survivors inside, the soldiers set them on fire, burnt some of the Blackfeet alive, and then burned the band’s meager supplies of food for the winter. Baker initially captured about 140 women and children as prisoners to take back to Fort Ellis, but when he discovered many were ill with smallpox, he abandoned them to face the deadly winter without food or shelter. Only later did the soldiers learn Mountain Chief was camped a few miles downstream.
“Ii’kskoonataapii aa’noom ksahkoom ii’taa’poi’yope. Oomhkita’piiks aa’kaaniwa, Ii’taapiss’kowa,” said Jack Royal, CEO of the Blackfoot Confederacy Tribal Office. Translation: “It’s very powerful this land we’re standing on. The old ones say there is spirit here.”
“We’re all connected. The ground that you’re standing on has always been Blackfoot/Blackfeet territory. Our land, this is who we are, along with our language, land and ceremonies. It makes us who we are, we are very strong, we have to stick together and support each other and a lot of you are here because of what happened, those who survived.”
When word of the Marias Massacre reached the east, many Americans were outraged and called it a war crime. One angry congressman denounced Baker, saying “civilization shudders at horrors like this.” Baker’s superiors, however, supported his actions, as did the people of Montana, with one journalist calling Baker’s critics “namby-pamby, sniffling old maid sentimentalists.” Neither Baker nor his men faced a court martial or any other disciplinary actions. However, the public outrage over the massacre did derail the growing movement to transfer control of Indian affairs from the Department of Interior to the War Department–President Ulysses S. Grant decreed that henceforth all Indian agents would be civilians rather than soldiers.
Initially, Washington tried to cover up the shameful act and under public pressure, U.S. President Grant instituted a policy of peace and permanently wrested control of Indian policy from the War Department (instead putting it under Interior). For the Blackfeet, it was a turning point in their war with the government, seeing it as the penultimate “crushing blow” before the extinction of the buffalo in their territory 14 years later. Some 145 years later, the tribe did exact a measure of revenge when one of Mountain Chief’s great-granddaughters, a Browning banker and rancher named Elouise Pepion Cobell, sued the U.S. Government for trust monies owed to Indians across the country; Cobell, who died in 2011, lived long enough to win the largest settlement ($3.4 billion) ever against the government. Blackfeet members, including descendants of survivors, gather at the massacre site every year to commemorate the tragedy.
“It is important to observe and commemorate these events, through ceremony and education, because when you look back at it historically this massacre had all the symptoms of the scorched-earth policy this country adopted wholesale,” says Blackfeet Elder John Murray. “For years we tried to raise awareness among younger generations about the Marias Massacre, and we weren’t really succeeding.
Many others shared song, stories and histories of its cultural significance, at the site of the massacre on January 23rd, including tribal chairman Ahpahmahka (Timothy Davis), descendants of Holy Bear Woman and 5the event wrapped up with an honour guard and round dance. The 150th commemoration wrapped up with a round dance and feed on January 24th in Browning that featured more sharing and tributes.
In his tribute, Jack Royal concluded by saying, “It’s a good opportunity to reflect on who we are, where come from and that we never left. Like I was saying, ii’taa’pisskoowa, people are still here, you can feel it, there’s power here. There is resiliency and what we went through, it’s in our hearts and its in our spirits, there is spirit here. So go out and tell people what happened here today and what you experienced, to create understanding and awareness and education. We need to honour those who sacrificed and survived. I hope this becomes a bigger and better event because there are a lot of direct descendants here, I’m sure we can all trace a link back to what happened here.”