Reflections: A Memorial Day Tradition

Submitted 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 (“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  (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.


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.

Construction is Anticipated to be Completed in Early June

Submitted By Becca MacLean on behalf of the Montana Department of Transportation

The construction along US Highway 2 (US 2) continues outside Libby, roadwork is anticipated to be completed in early June. This will allow crews to avoid traffic delays during the peak summer tourist season. The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), in partnership with Hi-Tech Rockfall, are finishing up ditch clearing and installing rockfall mitigation structures. Drivers will continue to be directed to one lane via signals through the work zone. Drivers should anticipate 15 to 25 minutes of delays when traveling through the project area. Please slow down throughout the area and watch for drivers, crew members, equipment and signs. Work is scheduled from 7 a.m. – 6 p.m. but the lane closure is present 24/7 until the project is complete. By supporting and fixing the current rockfall structure, this project will enhance the safety of the road.

For more details and a map of the project area, please visit the project webpage linked here:      Questions? Please email or call our project hotline at 406-207-4484. Slow Down, Montana! Safe, Cautious Driving Saves Lives. Speeding and other reckless driving behaviors create unsafe conditions for you and others traveling Montana’s roads. Even if you are abiding by posted speed limits, you can still be traveling too fast for safety – particularly in inclement weather, low/no light conditions, or around emergency response or work zone sites.

One simple and effective way to protect all roadway users is to lower your speed when driving a motor vehicle. In the event of a crash, the higher the speed of the vehicle(s) involved, the more deadly the collision – especially when a vulnerable roadway user is involved (pedestrian, bicyclist, motorcyclist, etc.). While driving a motor vehicle, remember to always follow posted speed limits, adjusting your speed as needed for current conditions, and keep your focus on the road ahead and the task of driving to help ensure we all reach our destinations safely. To learn more about safe driving behaviors and how you can help Montana reach the goal of Vision Zero, visit