History talk revives Crow tribal history in Livingston area
Joseph Bullington — Enterprise Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
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Enterprise photo by Joseph Bullington

The Fort Parker site, located off the Mission Creek exit of Interstate 90 several miles east of Livingston, is pictured on Tuesday.

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Photo by William Henry Jackson/courtesy of the Montana Historical Society

The caption of this historical photo reads, “Chiefs and head men at old Crow Agency on Yellowstone, 1871. Left to right: Poor Elk, Black Foot, Long Ears, He Shows His Face, and Old Onion.”

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This William Henry Jackson photograph taken about 1872 of Fort Parker is pictured on a historical marker at the Fort Parker site.

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Graphic courtesy of Montana Office of Public Instruction

Tribal Territories in Montana as defined by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 and the Flathead and Blackfeet Treaties of 1855 are shown in the graphic above. Tribal boundaries were determined by non-Indian officials at treaty time and do not accurately reflect traditional tribal territories.

A few miles east of Livingston, in earshot of Interstate 90, lie the remains of Fort Parker, the first U.S. government agency for the Crow Indian Tribe. The fort itself is all but gone now, its corners marked by four posts, its foundation fading into the grass like the time it represents — a time when the Crow ranged across much of present-day Montana, when the tribe had treaty rights to 30 million acres of land from the Yellowstone to the Powder River, when the future site of Livingston itself sat in the heart of Crow territory.

Historian and Apsaalooke (or Crow) tribal member Shane Doyle teamed up with Extreme History Project Director Crystal Alegria to give a presentation Thursday evening about Fort Parker, to rescue this history from obscurity. The talk, called “Fort Parker: The First Crow Indian Agency” and put on by the Yellowstone Gateway Museum, drew around 100 people into the seats at Park Photo in downtown Livingston.

The U.S. established Fort Parker in 1869 to provide the annuity goods — flour, sugar, coffee, etc. — promised to the tribe in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 in exchange for the tribe relinquishing claim to lands outside the boundaries of the reservation defined in the treaty.

The location of the fort was not great, Doyle and Alegria said, and anyone who has been out to the place in the winter knows why. The location was probably chosen, Doyle said, because of its proximity to Sheep Mountain — “The Hide Scraper,” Doyle called it — which towers over the place, the dominant feature on the surrounding landscape.

“That’s probably the main reason the fort was located there,” Doyle said. “(The Hide Scraper) was an important rendezvous point for thousands of years.”

The government hoped to use the agency to encourage the Crow to give up their nomadic way of life following the bison herds in favor of a sedentary life of farming around the agency.

“The U.S. government had a lot of ideas for the Crow,” said Alegria. “They wanted them to come and live at Fort Parker, to farm at Fort Parker.”

The government built houses so the Crow would live at the agency, but few did. Even the ones who did, Alegria said, preferred their traditional lodges to the square, drafty, poorly-built agency houses, and often pitched their lodges next to the houses and used the houses for storage.

Doyle explained that, before they acquired horses and took to a nomadic life of hunting herds of bison on the plains and gathering the abundant wild plants, the Crow were renowned farmers. But when they came into the Yellowstone River country and tried to plant corn, they realized it wouldn’t grow here. There is even a place on the Yellowstone, he said, that the Crow call, in their Apsaalooke language, “The Place the Corn Died.”

“For the white people to come in here and tell us, ‘we want you to farm’ — man, we were better farmers than anyone you’ve ever known!” Doyle said, laughing. “I want to see you farm here!”

When the government reduced the Crow Reservation, again, in 1875, Fort Parker was outside the new boundary and the agency was moved to a site near present-day Absarokee, Montana. The agency was again moved east in 1884, to its present location on the Bighorn River south of Billings.

“One of the reasons they kept moving the agency is the reservation kept shrinking,” Alegria said,

“Whatever excuse you want to throw at it, they wanted the land,” Doyle said, referring to the government and local capitalists.

The life story of Doyle’s great, great grandmother, Strikes the Gun, follows the shrinking boundaries of the Crow Reservation as the U.S. government reduced it over the years, Doyle said.

Strikes the Gun was born on the Musselshell River in 1850 and was married at Fort Parker in 1869. When she died in 1934, she was buried on the Little Big Horn River, near present day Crow Agency.

“When she was born, she inherited over 30 million acres,” Doyle said. “By the time she died, she’d lost over 90% of her heritage.”

In 2016, the Archaeological Conservancy purchased the Fort Parker site to preserve it and revive the history it represents.

“I learned a lot of good Montana history,” Alegria said of her schooling in Park County, “but I did not learn that I grew up right by the first Crow Indian agency.”

“I think the thing that shocks me is the ignorance,” Doyle said. “Even I was ignorant. After all these years, it’s still hardly known.”

Doyle said he hopes that one day soon, the Fort Parker site will be a place that people visit in large numbers to learn about. It’s fenced in now, but he hopes it will be open — “so kids can run back and forth in the sunshine.”

“That’s why we protected it!” he went on. “Not so we could put it away as a museum piece.”