View item information

Betsy Berger was a member of one of the first Metis families to come to Fergus County, Montana in 1879 and lived there the rest of her life. Courtesy of the Lewistown Public Library via Big Sky Country Digital Network.

American Indians

In the 1850s, treaties were drawn up to define the boundaries of land Indians were reserving for themselves, closely mirroring traditional hunting grounds and tribal territories. Due to language barriers and different styles of governing, confusion reigned. The treaties supposedly gave non-Indians permission to build roads and railroads through the reservations in exchange for annuities. Despite protections promised by the treaties, settlers were encouraged to trespass on Indian lands to log, farm, ranch, and mine. The government sometimes neglected to pay the agreed-upon annuities, and when they did, they paid with low-quality or broken equipment and spoiled food.

The US government wanted to profit from Montana’s natural assets and gave executive orders to reduce the size of reservations and used military force to ensure compliance. The Indians did not believe in land ownership, and this caused problems as assimilation efforts pushed the Indians to settle in one place to farm or ranch. In order to free up more land for white development, Congress passed the Dawes Act in 1887, which divided tribal lands into allotments of 160 acres for each head of household and 80 acres for each single man. Any land left after these allotments were established was considered surplus and sold to white settlers. In Montana, 400,000 acres were surplused.

Many people still felt the tribes were not assimilating fast enough and felt Indian children needed to be raised like white children to speed the process along. Indian children were forcibly taken from their parents and sent to military-like boarding schools to be educated and taught to work.