Reflections on Memorial Day Traditions: A Column by Tony Smith

For the past twenty years or so, a solitary trek to Central Montana in order to pay homage to the graves of my ancestors (The small communities of Moccasin, Hobson, and Moore near Lewistown) has initiated a greater sense of urgency as I’ve aged over the years. For one ensconced in the wooded corner of Northwest Montana for most of the year, crossing over the Continental Divide on a glorious spring day, with the eastern, snow-clad escarpment of the Rockies (aka “the backbone” to Native American tribes) rising above the lush green hue of the Great Plains, stretched out beyond the horizon under an infinity of bright-blue sky, is a sight one never tires of experiencing. According to Stephen E. Ambrose, author of “Undaunted Courage,” a seminal work on the Lewis and Clark expedition, “no American, not even the professional naturalists such as John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson, had ever seen anything to surpass the Great Plains of the early 19th century.” (William Clark described the “plums the most delicious he had ever tasted, the grapes plenty and finely flavored, the grass sweet and nourishing.”)

Besides the native grassland, wetlands, and aspen parklands existing along the 1.5 million acre Rocky Mountain Front, most predominate are Kettles (vernal ponds), the result of glacier activity in the 10,000 year- old Wisconsin glaciation period, where the decaying ice sheets left “Kettle-lake” depressions, numbering literally in the hundreds across vast regions of the prairie. Since these vernal ponds are unconnected to surface streams, they are devoid of fish, allowing fragile amphibian populations such as a variety of frogs, Blue Spotted Salamanders, Dragonfly, Nymphs, and Midget Larvae to thrive. (And of course, mosquitoes! Clark had no less than 20 different spellings and descriptions of these nuisance insects which were a constant torment, especially to Captain Lewis’ dog, Seaman, a black Newfoundland.)

Additionally, these vernal ponds support an estimated 50% of North America’s migratory waterfowl, including the Red-Winged Blackbird, Western Meadowlark, Long-billed Curlew, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and Ferruginous Hawk. Birds that breed in these prairie potholes include the Hooded Merganser, American Golden Plover, the Blue-winged Teal, and the Northern Pintail, to name just a few.

The accounts of early to mid-19th century trappers and traders, most significantly, James Willard Schultz (aka Apikuni) and Hugh Monroe, both of whom arrived out on the plains while in their teens, married and lived with the Piegan Blackfeet, and met numerous other tribes occupying the Great Plains, including the Gros Ventre, Crow, Chippewa, Cheyenne, and Siouan-speaking tribes, describe a rich, free-roaming lifestyle, one dependent on the horse, but overflowing with an abundance of game, especially the bison. Driving along towards Browning, one can vividly imagine a band of Native warriors approaching a vernal pond to water their horses, surrounded by perfumed sage and sweet grass. That one hundred and fifty year period (1720-1870) for Native Plains Indian people was surely equivalent to the industrial Gilded Age, where wealth was measured, however, not by the accumulation of dollars, gross inequality, and extravagant dwellings, but rather by the number of horses obtained from one’s rivals (The Crow were the best at “borrowing” horses from other tribes) as well as generosity.

THE BAKER MASSACRE: My return route invariably takes me to Fort Shaw, 24 miles west of Great Falls, founded as a military outpost in 1867, and from which an intoxicated Major Eugene Baker led a contingent of troops on January 23, 1870, to Heavy Runner’s peaceful band of Piegan Blackfeet in winter encampment above the Marias River, massacring at least 200 (the military claims 173 were killed, mostly women and children, while scout Joe Kipp claimed the number was closer to 217. James Willard Schultz’s future wife, Natahki, aka “Fine Shield Woman,” was permanently disfigured from that episode).

In 1891, Fort Shaw was converted into a boarding school, and produced the remarkable girls’ basketball team that won a “World Championship” at the 1904 St. Louis Fair. Their exploits were portrayed most recently in a book entitled “Full Court Quest,” by authors Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith. As a boarding school, Fort Shaw was closed in 1910 due to declining enrollment, and although, relatively benign compared to the boarding school horrors many Americans and Canadians have only recently been exposed to, the most poignant passage for me in “Full Court Quest” describes the reminisces and longings of a young basketball player as she travels by train to St. Louis, seeing the landscape out the train’s window that she and her grandfather used to ride together on horseback.

The most excruciating and damming description of the boarding school experience is portrayed by David Wallace Adams in “Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Board School Experience.” Adams writes:

“In the final analysis, the boarding school story constitutes yet another deplorable episode in the long and tragic history of Indian-white relations. For tribal elders who had witnessed the catastrophic developments of the nineteenth century—the bloody warfare, the near extinction of the bison, the scourge of disease and starvation, the shrinking of the tribal land base, the indignities of reservation life, the invasion of missionaries and white settlers—there seemed to be no end to the cruelties perpetrated against Native peoples. After all this, the white man had concluded that the only way to save Indians was to destroy them, that the last great Indian war should be waged against children. They were coming for the children.”

David Wallace Adams, 1995

Hand Count plus Same Day


Would have been a Huge


Thank God our election crew was free from same day voter registration this year! Sometimes legislation comes home to roost in a good way.

“Our crew” is the Lincoln County election team, which was blindsided with a snafu that led to organizing, at the very last minute on Election Day, a hand count of all ballots cast in the primary election, a process that then took three full days to complete.  What an incredible extra burden same day registration would have been.

I never imagined when we began crafting election integrity bills that they would have such a positive impact so immediately.  It was about two years ago, just after the 2020 primary election, that I began talking with Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen and other legislators about the ideas that became those election integrity bills.

I represent Senate District 1, which borders Idaho and Canada, and happens to coincide with Lincoln County’s borders. I was born in the long-gone hospital on Dewey Avenue in Eureka, and my parents were also raised in the Tobacco Valley. We like to compete hard but to play fair and square. That includes elections and voting procedures. We also like to figure out more efficient and better ways of doing things.

We saw unnecessary complications created by same day voter registration, so we found a simple fix: move the registration deadline back a bit. We also thought requiring photo ID could eliminate future problems, and we knew other problems could be avoided by cleaning voter rolls every year to remove people who were now deceased or had moved away.

Democrats fought these bills fiercely. I sponsored photo ID requirements, supported Rep. Sharon Greef’s registration day bill, and spoke in favor of Sen. Doug Kary’s bill on cleaning registration rolls. Democrats filed lawsuits to prevent the new laws from taking effect, but eventually the Montana Supreme Court allowed them to stand for this election. That was the right decision. The small change in registration deadline kept Lincoln County’s situation manageable when it could have been a complete mess. And the other reforms, especially voter ID, greatly improve Montanans’ confidence that our elections are free and fair. These new laws are working well and should be kept in place.


By Senator Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, Mont.