Since 1987, faculty and students at Blackfeet Community College and Blackfeet tribal members have gathered near the Marias each Jan. 23 to commemorate the massacre and the survival of their relatives.
Two days before this years’ commemoration, Blackfeet Tribal member Bob Burns presented his PowerPoint at the college during a seminar about the massacre. His great- great-grandfather – Chief Heavy Runner – was killed during the massacre, and he is descended from Heavy Runner’s lone surviving wife.
On Jan. 23, 1870, Chief Heavy Runner and his band were camped in 30-below zero weather in the sheltered river bottom land of the Marias River. The U.S. Calvary, under orders issued by Gen. Philip Sheridan and under the command of Major Eugene Baker approached the camp that dawn, looking to arrest a Blackfeet Indian named Owl Child, who had killed a white trader named Malcolm Clarke.
Baker assumed the camp was Mountain Chief’s, who reportedly was sheltering Owl Child, but both had already fled to Canada. But two Indian Scouts working for the Army told Baker they recognized that the camp belonged to Heavy Runner, who was on good terms with the U.S. According to historical accounts, Heavy Runner heard a warning shouted by one of the scouts, and ran toward Baker, waving a written agreement that guaranteed his band’s safety.
But Heavy Runner was killed, and the resulting battle turned into a massacre of 173 Blackfeet, mostly women and children, because most of the Blackfeet men were away hunting buffalo. (The fatality numbers differ between military records and Blackfeet histories.) Some of the prisoners were then released on their own into the Montana winter after they were discovered to have smallpox.
Later in 1870, The Military Department of the Dakota defended the military action, saying “It is to be regretted that in the attack on the Camp, some women and children were accidentally killed but the number was very greatly overstated in the newspaper account… emanating from unreliable sources of information in Montana.”
In an interview, Bob Burns said that the Baker Massacre “wasn’t a battle; it was a war crime.”
This Jan. 23 along the Marias River, Lea Whitford, chair of the Blackfeet Studies Department, welcomed tribal members, descendants of Heavy Runner, two school bus loads of high school students from Browning and Bigfork, Mont., and members of the Blood Tribe of Canada, one of the four tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy.
After driving down a winding, on- lane dirt road, participants gathered around two bonfires in the zero-degree weather and blowing snow. Whitford began the commemoration by saying how important this day is for the Blackfeet, and that everyone at the commemoration proved “the Blackfeet are survivors and always will be survivors.”
For the first 23 years, the annual commemoration was held on a high bluff on the south bank of the river which looked down into the brushy bottom. But the owner of the private ranch land began restricting access when an agreement over the sale to the Blackfeet of an easement couldn’t be reached.
For the last three years, the annual commemoration has been held on the north bank of the Marias, on land administered by the Bureau of Reclamation. The Blackfeet Tribe has a five year permit from the agency to gather.
During this year’s two-hour commemoration, the Blackfeet Nation Color Guard presented the flags of the Blackfeet Nation and gave a 21-gun salute to the victims. The Crazy Dogs Society, traditionally a warrior society tasked with protecting the tribe, honored new members and Iraq war veterans.
Whitford and Carol Murray, past Blackfeet Community College president and current Tribal History Project director, told stories and shared perspectives.
Whitford said that many people have written about the tribe, and “we always come down here and share the stories and the ceremonies, but it’s time that the people out there learn about it and hear our side of the story of the Pikuni (Blackfeet).”
Murray told the story of Long Time Calf. She said at the time, “She would have been about an 8-year-old girl. She picked up her 2-year-old niece, and ran barefoot over on the south side of the river. When they started shooting, they shot her brother…. She swam the river with this little one hanging on her back. She walked for two days and two nights north to the camp across the Sweet Grass Hills.”
Murray continued, asking the audience to “think about the strength that we should have every day for our people when there was an 8-year-old girl, running barefoot right where we are standing today.”
Whitford said she envisions building a tribal memorial to the massacre by 2012, and asked tribal members for feedback. In 2007, the Montana Department of Transportation placed a historical sign on Highway 2 a few miles north of the river, telling the story of the Baker Massacre, the first such collaboration between the MDT and the tribe. Whitford said that the Toole County Commissioners have been very helpful with the commemoration each year, clearing snow each Jan. 23 from the road to make the site accessible during the harsh Montana winter.
Burns’ PowerPoint became an unexpectedly important part of this year’s commemoration. Some tribal members came forward for the first time and identified themselves as descendants of the surviving children of Heavy Runner. Burns said the massacre is little known outside of the Blackfeet world, and within the tribe, it has been difficult to identify descendants of survivors.
Recounting stories of the massacre, Burns said, “One of the things that was really wrong with this whole thing it was really a war crime by the United States government, and they tried to call a war to get away with it. All who was in camp were old people and women and children.”