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Hi-Line Living: Continuing tradition at Fort Belknap with the fiddle and jig


Last updated 2/15/2020 at 7:46am

Havre Daily News/Jack Lambert

Band Member Brad Morin plays his fiddle Friday during Mid-Winter Fair fiddle and jig competition on Fort Belknap Indian Community at the Bingo Hall.

The fiddle and jig event at the Mid-Winter Fair on Fort Belknap Indian Reservation is something personal and special to many people on the reservation, with the event spanning across several generations and the tradition stretching far back into their heritage. 

Many of the people at the fiddle and jig event Friday were there because of family and the pride of their culture. Young and old gathered together for the event, listening to music and dancing.

"It's a part of us," volunteer Robert Fox said.

He said the fiddle and jig comes from the French heritage of some of the members of the tribe, particularly the tribal members who have ancestry related to the Metis and the Little Shell Tribe of the Chippewa Indians. He added that many of the tribal members have Metis or Little Shell tribal members in their families and that part of their history is something the reservation has celebrated as long as he can remember.

Ken "Tuffy" Helgeson said many other reservations across the state have a long history involving the Metis and the Little Shell people, as well as Fort Benton. He said that before the reservations were created, the Metis and the Little Shell tribes, whose tribal members share both Indigenous and European heritages, came down from Canada into the United States. Many of the members of these tribes at the time had issues being accepted by both the Native American communities as well as the newer American settlers due because they were a mix of both, he added.

But as settlers moved west this mix became increasingly more valuable for communication between the settlers and the tribes, he said. The Metis and the Little Shell became very important in bridging the language gap between the two groups. Helgeson said that wherever there were Native American tribes, most likely, people could find Metis and Little Shell members nearby. This is true even to this day.

Taking a look at history, he said, especially in Montana, the Metis and the Little Shell tribes played a very important role.

"It's pretty much how Montana was founded," he said.

Fox said that the fiddle and jig was a very important part of the culture of the Little Shell and the Metis people and is something that has been celebrated for many years on the Fort Belknap reservation. He added that it is wonderful music and is a great way for youths on the reservation to connect with the older generation.

"All tribes across the country need to preserve their music, they need to preserve their language and they need to preserve their art and their way of life because it's so important for any culture," he said.

It is critically important for the history of the tribes to be preserved, and it is important, especially with the older generation dying out, for it to continue to be passed down to the youth of the tribes. Many of the dancers and musicians at the fiddle and jig event learned it from their elders or their family members, he said. In addition to learning music and dances it is also important for the youth to learn and teach their languages.

"Once you lose your language there is hardly anything left," he said. 

He said that on Fort Belknap reservation, especially in the Hays area, many teachers and elders work to teach the youth of the tribe at a young age and teach them how important language and art forms are to maintaining their culture. He added that just as it is important to teach history, such as the Founding Fathers and national and global events, it is also important to teach family history. 

Family history is something personal to everyone and is a large part of what makes a person who they are, he said.

Helgeson said that he remembers coming to the Mid-Winter Fair when he was younger and his grandmother would bring her booth every year to the event. He added that it was a large source of pride to her. 

"It's just a lot of fun," he said. "It just brings a person a lot of enjoyment."

He added that, back in the day, before there was internet or other advancements in technology, events like the Mid-Winter Fair were important to people because it was a way to entertain themselves and get together as a community.

"If somebody has never been to the Mid-Winter Fair, it's something they ought to come to experience," he said.

Warren Spang said that he has been auctioneering at the fiddle and jig event for six to eight years and enjoys the event. He said that the event is very special and, although he is not from the Fort Belknap community, he has many friends on the reservation and enjoys the event.

"It's unique in its development," he said.

He added that the Mid-Winter Fair is something of a grass roots event and the fiddle and jig, although not as popular as it used to be, is still very powerful.

"It's right here, you can feel it," he said.

The event also brings out a lot of great musicians, he said.

He added that the Fort Belknap community has recently experienced a lot of death and gatherings like the Mid-Winter Fair and the fiddle and jig are a good way for people to come together and heal. He said it preserves the heritage and is something that needs to continue.

Youths Nina Fox and Amy Cochran were both dancing a variation of the Red River Jig, a fiddle tune dance which they dance without a partner and change up the foot work between rhythm changes between verses of the songs.

Helgeson said the Red River Jig is something that is very unique to the Metis and the Little Shell tribes.

Havre Daily News/Jack Lambert

Band Member Brad Morin concentrates while playing his fiddle Friday during Mid-Winter Fair fiddle and jig competition on Fort Belknap Indian Community at the Bingo Hall.

Fox said that she learned the dance from watching a number of Youtube videos online, but put her own variation on the dance and made it something personal to herself. She added that the first year she danced at the Metis Powwow she won first place for her dance. 

Fox also jingle dress dances, at powwows she said. She added that it is important to learn the dances and continue the traditions because it is an important part of the tribes' history. 

It is also a way for people to connect to their families, she said. Many people on Fort Belknap Indian Reservation remember a time when fiddle and jigs were more popular, and continuing the event is something that brings many of the elders closer to the younger generation.

"This is something we cherish for our family," she said.

Cochran said she learned how to jig from her aunt, and it is something she enjoys doing because it brings joy to the elders of the tribe. She said it is something that she finds important to continue and wants to help carry on to the next generation. 


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