GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — When Carol Murray of Two Medicine was a freshman in college, she didn’t know what to write about for a research class.
A Native American literature professor suggested she write about the Baker Massacre, which occurred Jan. 23, 1870, when the U.S. 2nd Cavalry, led by Maj. Eugene Baker, reportedly killed 173 members of the Blackfeet Nation at a camp near present-day Shelby.
Carol hadn’t heard of the massacre, which she thought was odd, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
She asked her great-aunt Annie whether she had heard about it.
Her aunt simply replied, “Yes.”
Confused by Annie’s vague response, Carol asked her to elaborate. She remembers her aunt said something like, “I’ll think about it because if I tell you, you will go down to the bulls (tribal police), and I will end up in jail.”
Carol was hurt. It was the first time she experienced deep mistrust from a relative. She was surprised, too. Why, in 1978, 108 years after the massacre, would someone still be afraid to talk about it? she wondered.
Carol’s curiosity burned – she had found her research project.
She read articles and interviewed people about the massacre. She even went back to her great-aunt, bearing cough drops and cigarettes, which helped persuade Annie to eventually tell the story. Details of the massacre consumed Carol. Even when she wasn’t trying to think about it, her thoughts drifted to the horrific event, sometimes in her dreams or while she was driving. It was the most effort she had put into a school project.
“She got a C,” Carol’s husband, John Murray, recalled. “It wasn’t because of the grammar or spelling. It was because of the content.”
But the average grade didn’t stop Carol. Rather, because of it, she grew even more fascinated by the event in 1870.
“It became my passion because no one seemed to care,” said Carol, who is now 66 years old and vice president of the Blackfeet Community College.
Though many young people today haven't heard of the Baker Massacre, it holds historical significance. The attack is critical in the invasion and conquest of Montana and marks the end of Blackfeet people’s violent resistance against the United States’ government, according to experts. Trauma from the massacre continues to affect tribal members today. Family structures fractured, and the Blackfeet Nation suffered language and culture loss.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the horrific event, and tribal members plan to commemorate the massacre Thursday Jan. 23 near the actual site, where they will focus on resilience and healing.
What happened during the Baker Massacre?
Experts trace the origin of the massacre to the murder of Malcolm Clarke, a prominent fur trader, who, according to Carol, raped a Blackfeet woman related to his wife.
The rape victim was married to Pete Owl Child, a Blackfeet warrior and member of Mountain Chief’s band. Outraged by the rape, Owl Child killed Clarke.
The U.S. Army heard about Clarke’s death, and Gen. Philip Sheridan, who was leading efforts to repress Native Americans, selected Maj. Eugene Baker to lead a retaliatory attack against the Piegan Indians, a branch of the Blackfeet peoples.
Sheridan famously instructed, “Tell Baker to strike them hard,” an order that the Blackfeet Nation’s current tribal chairman considers particularly heinous.
Baker and his regime left their camp at Fort Shaw Jan. 19, and traveled north toward the Marias River, about 10 miles southeast of present-day Shelby, where they thought Mountain Chief’s band camped. Shelby is 85 miles north of Great Falls and 58 miles east of Browning.
At around 8 a.m. Jan. 23, 1870, Baker’s regiment reached the site. But it was the wrong camp. The U.S. 2nd Cavalry had instead reached Chief Heavy Runner’s band.
The temperature was 30 degrees below zero, and Baker had been drinking alcohol, a practice sometimes used to keep soldiers warm on cold winter days, according to historical documents. Scout Joe Kipp, who was married to an Indigenous woman, sensed they had mixed up the camps and told Baker. Heavy Runner was known for his friendliness and had a medal from an 1855 peace treaty with the United States, according to Carol. Additionally, the able-bodied men were out hunting, so Heavy Runner’s camp mostly consisted of the elderly, women, children and victims of smallpox.
In attempt to calm his camp, Heavy Runner approached the army, waving a note of safe passage he received from the superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Montana Territory. The soldiers shot Heavy Runner in the chest, and he collapsed in the snow.
For the next hour, the army attacked. They shot at the tops of teepees, then through the middle and finally near the bottom, where frightened children crouched.
There was little resistance from the smallpox-ridden camp.
The cavalry threw everything, including bodies, into a raging fire.
The Sun River Sun, a Montana newspaper, published an account years later, detailing the fire and devastation of the attack: “they piled all the tents and truck, as well as the robes what the traders had in a big heap, and sot fire to ‘em – burnt ‘em clear up. … That ar (sic) fight broke up the Piegans awful bad.”
Carol’s husband John, who is the Blackfeet Nation’s historic preservation officer, said this tactic is reminiscent of “scorched Earth policy,” a military strategy where the attacker destroys everything that may be useful to their enemy before retreating.
Baker later reported to the Secretary of War that his cavalry killed 173 Native Americans - though later reports reveal there may have been more than 200 casualties - destroyed 40 lodges and all of the band’s winter supplies. Baker also reported that his army suffered one casualty and one injury.
Though the attack killed most of Heavy Runner’s camp, there were some survivors.
“I think the intended outcome was genocide,” said Carol. “But as we say, ‘They failed.’”
When Carol gained the trust of her great-aunt, Annie ultimately told her the story of a little girl.
According to Carol, as the army’s gunshots sailed through the camp, a mother sat in a teepee with her two young daughters and a newborn child. Terror reigned, and the mother yelled at her older daughter to take her little sister and run.
The older girl grabbed her little sister’s hand, and when they got near the teepee’s door, the little sister was fatally shot in the head. The mother looked at her older daughter and yelled at her again to run.
Carol thinks about this moment often.
“This mother, who just watched her little girl drop to the ground is still pushing her older daughter to want life and to survive,” said Carol. “I just have to admire that mother. Something in her upbringing, in her belief system, in her value system, in that moment made her want her daughter to survive. I contemplate those little scenarios sometimes, piece by piece.”
According to Carol, the girl ran from the teepee to a river bank, where she dug in the snow and hid. She stayed there all day.
“She heard all the noises,” Carol said. “She heard the fire burning, she heard the gunshots. All she could do is hear it because if she stuck her head up, she would be dead, and we wouldn’t be telling this story today.”
Chief Heavy Runner’s 5-year-old daughter, Spear Woman, also survived the massacre. Though she died in 1920, she left her children with a description of the massacre, which was published in a 1932 edition of the Billings Gazette:
“Spear Woman rushed into a tent where there were a number of sick and dying people. She hid under a back rest on one of the beds. While she lay there, she saw a knife cut a slit in the tepee and a soldier thrust himself through the opening. He fired at every moving body. Finally, when convinced that no living creature remained, he withdrew. He had not seen the small Indian girl who, in terror, had watched him in his bloody deed.”
The massacre was initially reported in local newspapers as an achievement.
Five days after the massacre, the Helena Daily Herald reported: “Col. Baker’s expedition has just returned. It was a complete success throughout.”
Nearly six months after the massacre, the Montana Pick and Plow, a Bozeman newspaper, ran a story headlined, “Happy result of Col. Baker’s Piegan Campaign:”
“Never, since Montana’s first settlement, have we so long enjoyed immunity from Indian outrages. Since the severe castigation administered by Colonel Baker last winter, to the red-skinned thieves and murderers, our frontiers, north, east, west and south, have been profoundly tranquil,” the article reads.
Despite the positive initial reports, the massacre would not be remembered the same way in history.
What's in a name?
Often referred to as the Baker Massacre, the 1870 event is also called the Marias River Massacre or the Bear River Massacre.
To reduce Baker’s fame, many began referring to the event based on where it took place – the Marias River. Meriwether Lewis named the Marias River after his cousin, Maria Wood, in 1805, changing it from its Blackfoot name, Kiaayoai’tahtaa, or Bear River.
Carol thinks the river got its Blackfoot name because of its strength.
“I understand it was described by our people that the way of the river was so aggressive … I always imagine if a bear was running at you, that’s how it would look and feel. I think they called it after what they were familiar with. They didn’t know Maria,” Carol said.
Historians use alternating names for the massacre.
“It makes me kind of uneasy framing this entire event around Baker and using his name again and again. He did it, but the story is not about him. He wasn’t the one who was affected, and he’s not the one who is remembering it today,” said Ryan Hall, who is writing a book, “The Backbone of the World: Blackfoot People in the North American Borderlands 1722-1877.” In the book, which is expected to be released in April, Hall refers to the event as the Marias Massacre.
Some believe, however, that using Baker’s name rightfully assigns blame.
“Calling it the Marias River Massacre is perfectly accurate and legitimate, but in some ways, it removes Baker a bit more from the story than he deserves to be because he is so responsible for the events that transpired,” said Andrew Graybill, author of “The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West.”
However, calling the massacre Bear River can be confusing because there was a massacre against Native Americans in Idaho called the Bear River Massacre that happened around the same time.
“If you look it up, you’ll just see a massacre of a tribe in Idaho. That’s why I don’t use that (name),” Carol said.
Like Carol, Leo Bird, didn’t hear about the massacre until he was in college.
“They were talking about descendants of the massacre, and I heard one of my grandparent’s names mentioned. That’s when I went home and started asking about it,” he said.
Bird, a history professor at Blackfeet Community College, said people were hesitant to talk about the massacre.
“No one wanted to rock the boat. The fear was built up inside them from years of not talking about it. They were afraid people would come kill the rest of us,” he said.
After asking many relatives, Bird learned he is a descendant of one of Heavy Runner’s three wives, Whole Woman.
“The trauma that was associated with the massacre had been carried down to our extended families. Until then, we hadn’t realized the effects that it had on all of us, like alcoholism, drug abuse and a lack of education,” he said, adding that since his family visited the massacre site and acknowledged the history, they have seen a “big turnaround.” He said members of his family practice sobriety, are earning degrees in higher education and try to live up to Heavy Runner’s reputation of kindness.
“This event is part of our family story now,” said Bird, now 66 years old.
Bird has only visited the massacre site once for a commemoration.
“We went through a ceremony to send our ancestors on because they were trapped in that area from the devastation and trauma. And then peace came over a lot of us, and the healing started,” he said.
Though he hasn’t attended another commemoration since, Bird plans to bring his students to the upcoming commemoration Jan 23. He said many of his students hadn’t heard of the massacre before taking his class.
“It’s a very important part of our history to understand why we do certain things. It’s different to talk about in class than to actually go there because place-based education helps with historical understanding. And it helps students understand their purpose moving forward,” he said, adding that history is often told from a European perspective.
“It’s important to look at the story from both sides of the event and realize the atrocities that happened and what the consequences were so that we don’t repeat them,” he said.
Why didn't somebody tell me?
When Iva Croff was about 9, a classmate told her they were related. She asked her grandfather whether that was true, and her grandfather ultimately told her they were part of the Kipp family.
Joe Kipp, Baker’s scout who warned him that they attacked the wrong camp, suffered immense guilt after the massacre. To absolve himself, he adopted and raised several Native American survivors, so some descendants of the massacre bear his last name.
Like Carol, when Croff finally learned of the massacre, she felt a sense of betrayal. Why was this kept from me? Why didn’t somebody tell me? she thought.
Upon reflection, Croff thinks people kept the massacre a secret because of assimilation.
“The government’s main focus was to ‘end the Indian problem.’ We had removal, we had massacres, we had relocation to different parts of the United States, then we had boarding schools, all to strip us of our identities. So you forget what you’re made of because you were made to forget. You lock it up, put it away and don’t talk about it,” she said.
As a descendant of Heavy Runner and an adopted descendant of Kipp, Croff felt a personal connection to the traumatic event.
“Their blood is coursing through my veins. I think of their resilience and their survival against what could have taken all of their lives,” she said.
After learning more about her family history, Croff got more involved in researching the massacre. She helped plan a commemoration, worked with Carol, conducted her own research and presented her findings to the Blackfeet Community College, where she is now the division chair of liberal studies and Piikani studies.
Croff said she was initially anxious to attend a commemoration event. Though it was very emotional, she said attending the commemoration ultimately “strengthened my resolve.”
“I thought, we’re going to be alright. I’m happy that we’re finding a way to rebuild ourselves after this happened to us.”
How come you just don't get over it?
Because the massacre happened 150 years ago, Croff said many people do not consider its lasting significance.
“One thing we hear a lot of is: ‘That happened so long ago. How come you don’t just get over it?’” said Croff. “But it’s part of our DNA. What they went through affects us today. It’s our history, and we won’t quiet history. So we can’t just get over it.”
Despite this criticism, the massacre holds historical significance and present-day consequences.
“It was an extreme cultural event that changed the Blackfoot people from who they were to who they were going to become,” said Carol.
Ryan Hall said understanding the massacre is fundamental to understanding the invasion and conquest of Montana.
“Montana doesn’t exist without the dispossession of Indigenous lands,” he said, adding that the massacre marks the end of the Blackfeet people’s violent resistance in North America. “The violence that the American government is willing to perpetrate is so immense at that point, that it really ends that cycle of violence and forces Blackfeet people onto reservations.”
Around the time of the massacre, there was a movement to have Indian Affairs controlled by the War Department, as it had been in the past. However, after the massacre, that movement ended, and Indian Affairs were handled instead by the Department of Interior, where they continue to be handled today, according to Andrew Graybill.
The massacre had lasting cultural consequences as well.
“Our language is crippled, our relationships, everything that makes up a society was fractured, and in my mind, the massacre was the event that started that,” Carol said, adding that she intentionally chose the word “fractured.”
“I can’t say it was broken. Broken implies there’s no coming back. The Blackfeet people believed they had something to live for. We are still here, rebuilding,” she said.
As the Blackfeet Nation remembers the massacre, honors their ancestors and teaches younger generations about the event, they focus on healing.
“The massacre was real. Are we hateful or spiteful? No. We are patriots,” said Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Tim Davis. “We are moving on in a good way.”