New sculptures at museum honor Fort Benton icons

New sculptures at museum honor Fort Benton founders
Posted at 8:00 AM, Jul 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-13 10:00:43-04

With over a hundred years of history, Fort Benton is referred to as the 'Birthplace of Montana.' It started as an American Fur Company trading post. It was also a hub for trade throughout the Northwestern part of the U.S.

As a way of recognizing the influences made by those who have made an impact on the small town, one local artist decided to get creative and design bronze busts of Fort Benton founder, Alexander Culbertson and his native wife, Natawista Iksina.

The busts were sent to the Old Fort Benton, the remaining monument of the old fur trading days that lies near the Missouri River on River Drive.

"It started with my interest in Natawista," said artist, Marlena Hankins Nielsen. "She was significant in Fort Benton's history. I was born and raised in Fort Benton, but I was an adult before I learned about her. It was real important for me to see her recognized because she's not only important in Fort Benton, but the entire state of Montana."

After attending Fort Benton, Nielsen moved to Oregon working in the Health industry. Art was her ultimate passion, and after years of walking along the levee, reading historical signs, she noticed there was little to no mention of Natawista.

Nielsen said, "I went from making a lot of small things that are on shelves in people's homes to deciding that history was real important, and one of the ways to get people to pay attention to history is to have a visual. If a child is visiting this museum, and wondered, 'who is that,' it forces people to question. It's a visual way to perpetuate history and getting people to be curious about it.

Natawista worked as a diplomat, a hostess, and an interpreter with her husband for nearly thirty years to bridge the gap between the white traders and the native inhabitants of the region.

Alexander was the chief trader for the Upper Missouri Outfit of the American Fur Company. Due to the intense competition between American and British traders for the Blackfoot trade, it was common for officers to marry the daughters of chiefs to cement trading relations.

On July 8, the public gathered at the Old Fort to witness the unveiling of the bronze busts. The event was hosted by the River and Plains Society, bringing together committee members and delegates of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Descendents of the founding family also took part in the presentation.

Committee member, Renee' McDonald stated, "it's always a great opportunity to renew our friendship with the Blackfoot and to welcome them. This fort is their history as much as it is Fort Benton's."

The old Fort site has undergone many dramatic changes that have affected its integrity since the Fort was abandoned in 1881. The Fort is being reconstructed, and historical artifacts are displayed inside.

McDonald says over a hundred years later, the Old Fort continues to attract tourists.

The busts are on display by the doorway of the Starr Gallery of Western Art inside the Old Fort.