July 17, 1926: Fort Union Again

After an overnight trip, the group arrived in Fort Union for a second Indian Congress organized by the GN. The eleven tribes that participated in 1925 all returned and were joined by representatives of the Cheyenne tribe from the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana. In addition to providing such spectacles as dances, races, making pipes from pipestone, and talking in sign language, the Indians, one historian reported, were happy to “partake of the liberal rations of the Great Northern commissary.”

Not content with giving out copies of the Fort Union paper that had been issued in 1925, Budd had Flandrau write another paper about Fort Union and other forts and other activities from Iowa to Great Falls, Montana. Click image to download an 15-MB PDF of this booklet.

The condescending attitudes that whites of the 1920s felt toward Indians would be politically incorrect today, but they were a great improvement from a century before, when many people considered Native Americans “varmints” suitable only for extermination. “We thought as little of killing one of them as killing a wild cat or a bear; in fact, even less, for the skin of either of these is worth something and therefore we didn’t wish to see them exterminated,” an “old settler” in Oregon told George Bennett, the founder of Bandon, Oregon (as reported in the December, 1927 Oregon Historical Quarterly).

By 1900, with Indians herded into reservations, this attitude had been replaced by the idea that Indian religions and cultures needed to be exterminated and replaced by Christianity. The federal government effectively gave control of most of the reservations to missionaries of one sect or another, and many of them did their best to keep the Indians from practicing any of their native ceremonies or speaking native languages. The two Indian congresses held by the Great Northern at Fort Union may have been some of the first public recognitions that Native American cultures were something worth saving, and not merely something to be displaced by the superior Christian religion.

Some of the Indians at the Fort Union meeting in 1926.

After celebrations, ceremonies, and competitions similar to the one that took place in 1925, the trains then continued to Ft. Benton, where the expedition spent the morning of July 18 with the Society of Montana Pioneers, a group whose membership was limited to people who lived in Montana before 1869. From there they took a short 42-mile ride to Great Falls, where the group spent the afternoon looking at sights once seen by Lewis & Clark.

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