Eating with Relatives in the Fort Peck Reservation

Landscape with blue sky, bales of wheat, and a single tree

The Northern Prairie

In northeastern Montana, grasses and sagebrush interlace with wheat farms and cattle ranches to create a modern Great Plains landscape. Birds fly between prairie and field to land among antelope, badgers, prairie dogs, tractors, and Chevy trucks and can often be spotted circling above working fields, hunting mice and shrews. On occasion the larger birds of prey dive down to the surface only to rise with a squirming Plains Garter Snake, another frequent guest to any local farm. The region’s mixture of native short grasses once fueled millions of bison that freely migrated across this area and a majority of the continent. Today, the grasses share a root network with more recently introduced European varieties and are far more likely to feed cows and horses than buffalo.

Witness to the migration patterns and ecological shifts of the Montana Prairie is the Missouri River, which flows east across the region despite its origin on the western side of the Continental Divide. Being the continent’s longest river, connecting the waters of the northern Rockies to those of the Gulf of Mexico, the Missouri provided not just subsistence to Indigenous communities but also a main transportation route. Across the region, Indigenous groups travelled the river following bison herds and visiting one another, exchanging goods, supplies, food, seeds, and ideas. When colonial invasion brought Europeans up the waters of the Missouri, new goods accompanied them along with western diseases, military force, and new value systems surrounding the landscape. 

Blue river winds through plains
Missouri River near Fort Peck Reservation. Photo by Chris M Morris, 2009.

By the mid-19th century, bison robes and tongues—easy to transport by rail—were an in-demand commodity, leaving the local Indigenous lifeway hunted to near annihilation. As millions of bison were exterminated from the Great Plains, the federal government set out to do the same to the area’s Tribal Nations. Nakota and Dakota people were increasingly outnumbered and forced onto the ever-shrinking Fort Peck Reservation, established in 1871 just north of the Missouri River. The reservation was named after the short-lived Fort Peck Trading Post set up nearby by colonial traders. Migratory bison were removed, humans forcibly settled. On the reservation, the lack of buffalo meat was replaced with flour, sugar, and other government rations that often went unfilled. The Missouri River was no longer a great roadway; it was the reservation’s southern border.

Today, just over half of the nearly 12,000 Fort Peck tribal members live on the reservation. Among them, a few dozen knowledge holders, activists, and food producers have established two community groups focused on reclaiming local foodways. The first works to perpetuate the people’s relationship to buffalo while the second grows traditional vegetables as an agricultural cooperative. Although each pivots around different Indigenous foods, the project’s members are united in their values, communicate, and support one another. Ultimately, this cooperation between multifaceted local food initiatives is not just restoring relationships among the human community but Fort Peck’s ecological communities as well.

Buffalo Nation

With over two million acres, the Fort Peck Reservation is the second largest in Montana and the tenth largest in the United States. Buffalo, culturally central to the reservation’s Indigenous people, are also at the center of their land base, where as of 2020, a couple hundred head roam 13,000 acres. Bringing bison back to Fort Peck is an opportunity for tribal members and their buffalo relatives to heal from the ills of colonization together while reaffirming their relationship on the local landscape. 

The bison of Fort Peck’s Turtle Mound Buffalo Ranch are related to those of Yellowstone National Park, which sheltered a majority of the animals that survived colonial slaughter. The Yellowstone herd, unlike many others today, never interbred with cattle, making the animals particularly interesting to Tribal Nations looking to reintroduce bison in their own communities. Fort Peck was the first Nation to acquire bison from the Park in 2012 and again in 2014 when the herd was expanded three-fold.

Dozens of bison grazing on pasture, one in focus facing forward
Bison herd at the Turtle Mound Buffalo Ranch, Fort Peck Reservation, Montana. September, 2015. Photo used with permission from © Thomas Lee / WWF-US

The buffalo transferred to the reservation from Yellowstone are those that wandered outside of the Park’s boundaries. Until Fort Peck began taking these animals, they were captured and shot out of concern that they would transmit the brucellosis disease to cattle. Brucellosis has made the bison’s return controversial and was cited as the biggest obstacle in tribal restoration efforts by the Fort Peck Tribes Game and Fish director, Robbie Magnan. Recognizing this, the InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), made up of 69 Tribal Nations across 19 states, supported the development of a buffalo quarantine space in Fort Peck. Since being built in 2018, more than 200 animals have been saved from slaughter and undergone quarantine in the reservation. After years of testing and isolation, the bison can safely integrate into the established herd or be transferred to other Tribal Nations looking to reintroduce and grow their own bison herds with the assurance that the animals are healthy.

In Fort Peck, restoring the buffalo herd is imperative to healing the tribe and their animal relatives.

By rescuing the wandering Yellowstone buffalo and addressing brucellosis concerns, the Fort Peck-based initiative is supporting all of Buffalo Nation. This came to fruition in the summer of 2020 when buffalo from Fort Peck’s quarantine program were sent to 16 Tribal Nations across the country, an exchange documented as the largest intertribal buffalo transfer ever. The move was overseen by the ITBC and supports their mission of “restoring Buffalo to Indian Country, to preserve [the] historical, cultural, traditional, and spiritual relationship for future generations.” In doing so, Tribes reaffirm that restoration is an ongoing project of reconnecting fractured ecosystems and recentering the interspecies relationships central to Native foodways. 

Fort Peck’s Turtle Mound Buffalo Ranch is helping bring Tribal Nations together around the buffalo while also supporting grassroots organizing among the Nakota and Dakota People of the reservation. This is demonstrated by the Pté Buffalo Group, a community collective that gathers regularly to discuss the herd and is actively involved with the various projects happening on the ranch. Pté meetings are open to all community members who take up matters such as research with the herd, designing a walking trail through the range, or simply sharing knowledge pertaining to the buffalo. Every year, the group helps promote the annual buffalo lottery, a process that selects 30 Fort Peck tribal members to hunt one of the buffalo. Once cleaned and processed, the few dozen bison will feed the winning families and, through sharing, their extended families and friends for months. While the Fort Peck herd supports all the cultural connections between buffalo and local Indigenous people, its project of making buffalo meat more accessible connects it to the network of communities and other local projects focused on reclaiming Indigenous foodways.

Woicago Tipi: Home Where Things Grow

Twenty miles south of the buffalo, just north of the Missouri River, two large gardens stand out on the golden prairie. The growing spaces, as well as the chicken coop that sits between them, are the work of Woicago Tipi, a community farm cooperative that provides fresh vegetables and eggs to the community and local elders’ center. Improving access to produce is just one of the goals of the group, which also strives to create spaces for community members to come together around food. Whether it be for an educational opportunity, pooled-labor task, or meal, Woicago Tipi Cooperative Farm aspires to produce food in meaningful ways. 

Farm field with sunflowers, corn stalks, and squash plants, part of a cooperative farm project to restore Indigenous foodways.
Corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers at Woicago Tipi Cooperative Farm. Photo by Becca Dower, August 2020.

To do so, the farm makes its decisions based on the local community and landscape. For example, in deciding what seeds to plant, cooperative members seek out Indigenous varieties from the region. Having primarily focused their food production on buffalo, especially after the arrival of the horse, the Tribes of Fort Peck historically traded for cultivated vegetables and seeds with the nearby Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) who are master agriculturalists.

Today, the Three Affiliated Tribes (as they are collectively known) share the Berthold Reservation, about 150 miles down the Missouri River from Fort Peck. Their seeds are adapted to the short, extreme summers of the northern prairie that can bring high winds and thunderstorms without warning. This place-based seed adaptation alongside the historical and continued relationship between the tribes influenced Woicago Tipi’s decision to grow MHA corn, bean, and squash varieties. They also grow pumpkins, Nakota corn, and sunflowers, one of the region’s most important commodity crops. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, seeds that have had a relationship to this region for a long time grow well for the cooperative. In addition to these place-based cultivars, the group also grows a variety of popular garden crops including carrots, greens, tomatoes, summer squash, cucumbers, and herbs. To do so, Woicago Tipi members enact sustainable and organic farming practices. To amend the heavy clay soils of the farm site, members add and hand-till local sand to encourage root development and aid in drainage. The group fertilizes with fish emulsion, a favorite of nitrogen-loving corn. Each large garden space is hand weeded and mulched with local straw in efforts to retain as much moisture as possible in the dry summer heat. 

Three teenagers stand in a prepared garden bed surrounded by grassland, part of a cooperative farm project to restore Indigenous foodways.
Youth helping plant seeds at Woicago Tipi Cooperative Farm. Photo by Becca Dower, May 2020.

Despite all that they are doing, cooperative members are the first to admit how much they have to learn. Cooperative workers have traded labor and lunch for local growing tips and stories from community members and elders that have experience with backyard gardens. In an effort to create more spaces on the reservation where foodways knowledge can be shared, the farm invites both those who want to teach and learn about their local foodways. For those particularly interested in cooperatively growing food, next summer Woicago Tipi will host two teenage interns. These positions are meant to encourage intergenerational information exchange with youth looking to learn and pursue their interests in local foodways.

Any community member can participate in rebuilding their local Indigenous foodways in ways fit to their own skills, abilities, and interests. In the long term, internships and cooperative projects are meant to create economic development opportunities on the reservation. While not everyone will be interested in growing food, the farm envisions a variety of skills, interests, and endeavors being supported by the cooperative. The group is interested in partnering with community artists, herbalists, home cooks, and bakers to create farm merchandise and launch new businesses that use farm products to create value-added products. Others with social media and marketing skills are also helpful at the farm in that they build public interest and trade connections. In the process, they are also a part of the interconnected goal of re-Indigenizing not just Native foodways but entire economies.

Seasonal Harvest

As the summer days wane, sunflower necks bend to form flower showers above corn tassels and beanstalks. At their base, squash leaves sprawl to conceal foot-long Arikara squash and dozens of smaller variegated green and orange Mandan squash. The first frost typically hits in early September, when all but root vegetables will need to be either gathered or covered for protection. Despite all the work still needed to finish the harvest and put the beds to rest for winter, the first frost indicates a seasonal shift. In the next few weeks, all the vegetables will be dried, canned, or stored in perfect time for the buffalo hunt that will fill some local freezers. In the Fort Peck Reservation, community groups grounded in place-based knowledge and member cooperation like the Pté group and Woicago Tipi Cooperative Farm are working to improve local food access to make this vision a reality for more tribal members. 

Rainbow against a dark sky over a wheat field
Rainbow over Poplar, Montana. Photo by Becca Dower, July 2020.

The ongoing project of revitalizing Indigenous foodways and economies is diverse, influenced by region, ecosystem, and cultural understandings shared through time. While their work on the ground may look very different, those participating in Indigenous food projects across Turtle Island (North America) are united in stewarding the cultural and interspecies relationships between people and landscapes. In Fort Peck, restoring the buffalo herd is imperative to healing the tribe and their animal relatives. To supplement the buffalo meat processed for the year, cooperative farmers are growing Indigenous and place-based crop varieties while providing opportunities for economic development in sustainable foodways in the reservation. In stocking Native kitchens with local produce and buffalo meat, these projects are walking the path of reclaiming Indigenous foods to reaffirm the relationship between humans and the environment.

Featured image: Wheat farm near Poplar, Montana. Photo by Becca Dower, November 2019.

Becca Dower, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, is a graduate student in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research explores First Nation and Native Food Sovereignty initiatives across Turtle Island. Currently she is working with communities to develop a digital intertribal trade network of foodways, knowledge, and skills as a tool for Indigenous food sovereignty. Contact.