GREAT FALLS – A historic conference encompassing one of Great Falls’ landmarks took place on Saturday.
The Hill 57 Conference examined the importance of the hill northwest of Great Falls for the Chippewa and other landless Indians.
Organizer Glenn Gopher explained the examination and preservation of Hill 57’s history is for a book about cultural beliefs and ways.
“We’re trying to compile all of the history so that the young people can come back and know who they are, what they are, and the history of Hill 57,” Gopher said.
His father, Robert Listening Thunder Gopher, was instrumental in preserving his people’s and his family’s history and carrying on traditions that have been threatened.
Karen Robertson of Denver worked closely with Robert and recorded his family history. According to her documents, Hill 57 had been home to a designated Indian camp in the early 20th century. Robertson wrote it wasn’t until the 1990’s that the majority of residents left Hill 57 and integrated into Great Falls.
However, Robertson’s document states that descendants and survivors of Hill 57 have no tribal council or federal recognition to support their efforts to preserve their unique culture and history with most still living below the poverty level.
Nicholas Vrooman, a historian and folklorist whose area of deepest study is with the Chippewa-Cree, Assiniboine, Michif/Metis people of the Northern Plains and borderlands, said Hill 57 holds national and legendary status not only in the United States, but also in Canada.
“There’s never been a full historical recounting, one that has veracity and authenticity and integrity to it that really tells how it came about and what occurred there and how it fits into the larger indigenous story of Montana,” he said. “I work very closely with the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa and have been serving in the capacity of historian for the tribe for a while. What I’m trying to do is unravel all of the knots that have been built up over the generations.”
Vrooman said he evaluates primary sources and brings together documentary information that exists about the Chippewa-Cree and Metis people in Montana.
“My job is helping where I can to fill in some of the blanks of historic memory,” he said. “Because it’s been an oppressive situation all this time for these people.”
Vrooman added that without a central location, many traditions and traditional mechanisms have been fractured through outside circumstances. He works to create a strong center to rebuild their society.
One important piece of the puzzle is a 13-star flag given to the Gopher family in 1933. The flag is believed to date back to 1793-1810.
For Vrooman, the flag is an incredible Indian peace flag and is significant of a time and place in American history.
“What is its story and its relationship to Hill 57? What is Hill 57’s story in relationship to the larger landless Indian story, and what is that story’s relationship, the larger landless Indian’s story, to the other indigenous people’s in Montana, and what is that story in relationship to the formation of the American nation?” he asked.
Although still in the planning stages, Gopher and Vrooman hope the book about Hill 57 will answer some of those questions and more.
Aside from an evaluation of Hill 57’s history, organizers also planned to submit a proposal for a permanent sweat lodge at First Peoples Buffalo Jump in Ulm.
The first sweat lodge at the site was built in September of 1995. Only a skeleton of that first lodge remains.
“It’s critical for the buffalo jump as the Natives would put up a sweat lodge and pray to have a successful hunt,” Gopher said. “We want a permanent one so it could be used by all tribes.”
On September 12, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would provide federal recognition to the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
The bill will restore recognition allowing the tribe to purchase 200 acres of land to serve as its reservation. The legislation would make the Little Shell Tribe eligible for federal resources for economic development, healthcare, and education.
Reporting by Natalie McAlpine for MTN News