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Windy Boy: Sweet Grass Hills purchase monumental for Chippewa Cree


March 15, 2019

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

Clouds blow over the Sweet Grass Hills Wednesday. Tribal officials say the purchase of 280 acres of land in the hills helps regain and preserve a key part of history and culture for the Chippewa Cree Tribe of Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.

Wednesday, March 6, was a monumental day for Chippewa Cree Cultural Resources Preservation Department Director Alvin Windy Boy Sr., he said.

That was the day the Chippewa Cree Tribe of Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation regained a piece of its history, purchasing 280 acres of land in the Sweet Grass Hills.

"We, as indigenous people to this land, became strangers in our own land," he said. "Accessibility to sites was always a hindrance over the course of time. But fortunately ... my grandfather, that I have seen and witnessed, had a good relationship with many farmers and ranchers in the area, and their old-timers at the time understood who we were and understood what we did."

Chippewa Cree Business Committee Vice Chair Ted Whitford said the Business Committee purchased the land to preserve its historical significance.

The Chippewa Cree Tribe comprises the descendants of the band of Chippewa led by Stone Child, or Rocky Boy, and Little Bear's band of Cree that were put on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation when it was created by an act of Congress in 1916.

The two bands had been in Montana for decades, often traveling or camping together.

Stone Child had lobbied officials for many years to obtain a reservation, a home for his band.

The creation of the reservation in 1916 also followed years of prominent Montanans trying unsuccessfully to find permanent homes for the bands.

Windy Boy said he has lived his whole life on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and had the opportunity to live with his grandparent Standing on Cloud Windy Boy. When they were growing up, his grandfather took him and his brothers to areas that were historically and culturally significant to the tribe.

Many of them were in the Sweet Grass Hills.

He said he remembers that in 1959, when he was about 8 years old, they camped in the Sweet Grass Hills, spending the majority of their summer there. When they were there, he said, he remembers being shown sacred ceremonial areas of the hills which the elders held in high regard.

"And the hill that we purchased was certainly one of those," he said.

The Sweet Grass Hills are culturally significant and sacred to many Montana tribes which still utilize the area, such as the Chippewa Cree, Blackfeet, Aaniiih and Nakoda tribes.

In the 1970s when he was a young man, Windy Boy said, Manhattan Mineral based out of Calgary, Alberta, proposed mining that area.

"The elders at the time didn't speak English," he said. "I tried to relay for my grandpa what they were doing and the response that they relayed is, 'Don't do it.'"

As time progressed, the mining plans were abandoned, he said.

He said he credits prayers made by his and other tribes for circumventing any development of the area.

"The significance to it is, certainly, one that we would do everything that we can to preserve, to protect and to defend that area," he said.

He and his family members still use sites on the Sweet Grass Hills for cultural reasons, he said, although he realizes not everyone may be as culturally astute.

"But we need to pay attention to who we are," he said. "Who we are, certainly, is mindful that the ceremonial areas, that have cultural significance to my tribe, makes us who we are. If we don't know who we are, we have to ask ourselves who are we."

Last year, Kathrine Lehmann, who is not a Native American, inherited the 280 acres, he said, and while he was talking to her she asked if the tribe would be interested in purchasing the land. Without hesitation, Windy Boy told her yes, he said, before even considering where the money was going to be coming from at the time.

Windy Boy added the he is grateful to Whitford, who worked hard and took special interest in the Business Committee getting funding to purchase the land.

Whitford said he was overjoyed with the deal.

"We don't want it to be destroyed, because it has cultural significance to our tribe and other tribes in this region," he said.

He said the landowner gave first priority to the tribe to purchase the land, before speaking to any other interested parties. The deal has been in the process for close to 12 months, he said. After the year of negotiations, the tribe was able to purchase the land for $200,000.

"It's hard to describe how it feels to have the land back," he said.

Chippewa Cree Business Committee Chair Harlan Baker said the main reason for the purchase was that the tribe wanted to preserve the land. He said the deal to purchase the property has been in the works since Windy Boy notified the committee that the tribe was offered first purchasing rights to the land.

"It feels good," he said. "It's a good thing for our tribe to be able to protect those sites that have been used and very important to our people for centuries."

Baker said the property that was purchased is landlocked by other property owners who are ranchers and farmers. He said the tribe already has a good relationship with some of these property owners and he will work to get a right-of-way agreement so the tribe can access the land.

The land does not have road access, and the tribe sees no reason to change that, he said, with access by foot being perfectly sufficient.

"I hope that we can work with the landowners out there so tribal people can access land, use those lands," he added.

In the past, the tribe has worked with landowners in the Sweet Grass Hills to get students, on school field trips, foot access, he said. Students are educated about several sacred sites on the hills which hold great historical significance to a number of tribes, he said. In the future, he hopes they will be able show people some of those sites and increase the historic teachings for students, Baker said.

Because many sites on the property are culturally significant to more than the Chippewa Cree Tribe, Baker said, he wants to contact other tribes, including in Canada, to help preserve the whole area.

Windy Boy said the Chippewa Cree Cultural Resources Preservation Department, has several archaeologists and tribal elders who want to help further identify these site.

Hopefully the tribe will be able to "gain a better understanding of who we are as Cree people and an understanding that we still preserve and practice our way of life," Windy Boy said.

The tribe also wants to maintain a positive relationship with the farmers and ranchers in the area, he said, while also practicing their traditional way of life.

"As Native people, Cree people don't technically have a religion," he said. "We have a way of life that is consistent with nature, the water, the air, the being, the plain, that is our way of life, because we live in existence with them."

He said that by allowing tribal people to practice their way of life, it helps preserve the tribal people, with language and tradition, which is priceless. Once something sacred has something attached to it, such as a price tag or is used for personal financial gain, it is stripped of what made it extraordinary and, therefore, made ordinary, he said. Windy Boy added that the tribal people cannot lose their hearts, can't lose what is sacred to them.

"We have to make sure that our elders, who have since gone on, (know) that we are still here, we are going to be here and that we are adhering to their direction to us," he said, "to always make sure we understand who we are, what we are and why we are here, and being a Cree Indian helps us understand."


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