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Homestead History
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Little Raven, Head Chief of the Arapaho. 1870. Courtesy of the National Archive.

s settlement proceeded westward, the question of what should be done with the Indians plagued both settlers and the government. At best, Indians were viewed as the responsibility of the U.S. government. Many felt that the Indians should be Christianized, educated, and taught the skills that would ensure their survival in white America. Major James Brisbin, writing in Montana in 1889, explained:

"It is with faint hope that I may awaken for the Indian some interest in the hearts of good citizens that I write these words ... The shame of having first robbed a people of their lands and homes, and then left them to perish in poverty, ignorance, and without even knowledge of God, is ours ... to make the education of the young Indians effective, they should be separated from their parents and placed in the midst of civilization where they would be compelled to attend school regularly."

frontier fact
In January of 1870, the United States Calvary raided an undefended Piegan Blackfoot camp of 219 people in Montana. One hundred seventy-three men, women, and children were killed.

Other settlers felt that the only way to effectively deal with the Indians was to get rid of them permanently. Montana settler Frank Elliott argued, in 1867, that "Making treaties with Indians will not do. Uncle Sam ought to have found that out by this time. Something has to be done and immediately ... I tell you we [the early settlers of Montana Territory] are getting hostile. The Indians have to be chastised and we are going to give them the best in the shop. There is but one way to treat them, and that is extermination."

Neither of these two prevailing viewpoints -- to annihilate or assimilate -- took into account the idea that the Indians might not want or need to learn "the ways of the white man," or that their society had managed to survive for thousands of years without the benefit of outside interference.

The first people to inhabit what is now known as Montana arrived more than 14,000 years ago. These early tribes were entirely dependent upon bison, migrating alongside the buffalo with the cycle of seasons. The Crow, who would be the neighbors of FRONTIER HOUSE participants, are a relatively "new" tribe, first entering the area in the 1600s as a part of the Hidatsa tribe. In addition to their hunting activities, the Hidatsas raised crops, and they lived in permanent settlements. The Crow people were a faction of the Hidatsas who grew more and more interested in hunting, and finally separated from them to pursue a nomadic lifestyle. In the Hidatsa language, the Crow are known as the "Absarokee," or "children of the large-beaked bird." The tribe most likely came to be known as "the Crow" when early white explorers misinterpreted the hand signal meaning Absarokee, which was two hands fluttering like birds' wings.

The Crow's first contact with Europeans came in the middle of the 18th century, but the majority of interaction with whites began in the early 19th century, after Lewis and Clark blazed their way across the continent. In the early 1800s, white fur trappers became regular visitors to Crow Country. The Crow embraced the fur traders as friends, establishing the fairly stable alliance between the tribe and the United States. An association with outsiders was particularly appealing to the Crow, since their relationships with the nearby Cheyenne and Sioux tribes were precarious at best. In 1823, a combined force of Cheyenne and Sioux Indians attacked a Crow camp, and killed more than 5,000 tribe members; the Crow were bitter enemies with practically all of their immediate neighbors. Yet, despite their cooperation and friendliness to whites in their country, the Crow ultimately lost as much of their land and resources as neighboring, hostile tribes.

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