Fort Peck has always been poor, even by reservation standards. By 1881, early in the reservation's history, the buffalo of the region were gone. Federal rations weren't enough to make up for the loss. In desperation, the starving tribe took up farming, but northeastern Montana's dry climate and short growing season led to crop failures and more hunger.
Some tribal members still scrape a living out of the soil. But non-Natives now own more than half of Fort Peck's 3,200 square-mile land base, a legacy of the federal government's early attempts at forced assimilation. The 1887 Dawes Act allowed the government to break tribal lands up into individual tracts. The law was one of the first to use blood percentage as a measure of Indian ethnicity, though the purpose was quite different than it is today: Natives with a larger proportion of "civilizing" white blood could sell their allotments without restriction, while those with more Indian ancestry faced heavier constraints. Once each tribal member had received an allotment, much of what remained was available for white homesteaders.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 turned the management of Indian lands over to the tribes and made them largely self-governing. But it also led most to require that their members have a particular percentage of Native blood. The Bureau of Indian Affairs handed out boilerplate constitutions that barred anyone who had less than a one-quarter heritage. And for the most part, the tribes -- having no background in constitutional government -- adopted these documents without complaint. (Fort Peck's citizens voted against doing so, but by 1960, the tribe was also requiring its members be at least one-quarter Assiniboine and/or Sioux.) Indian Country had internalized the concept of blood quantum.
Some believe that the fractional breakdown of Native blood over generations was factored into the federal government's plan from the beginning, a sort of statistical extermination. "The one-quarter blood quantum was a criteria that federal officials devised in the early 1900s to reduce the number of Indians and save themselves some money," says University of Minnesota professor David Wilkins, an expert in federal Indian policy. "And by then, most tribes had been so brow-beaten they weren't in a position to challenge those criteria."
If the blood-percentage system was indeed part of an insidious plan to eradicate the Native American, it is slowly having the desired effect. Based on current requirements, most tribes will have no new eligible members in 50 years, and many will cease to exist within a century. In an effort to combat this inevitable breakdown, many tribes are considering loosening their enrollment requirements. If the initiative at Fort Peck passes, for instance, some people of mixed Native American ancestry, like young Ryan Padraza Comes Last, would suddenly be considered full bloods. And hundreds would be able to enroll in the tribe who now cannot, including some of Fort Peck's 1,600 "associate members." (They're at least one-eighth Assiniboine and/or Sioux but less than one-quarter.)
Fort Peck currently has just over 12,000 enrolled full members: 4,405 Assiniboine and 7,691 Sioux. Nearly half of them live off the reservation; most of the rest live either in Wolf Point, a former fur-trading post of about 2,500 near the reservation's southern border, or in Poplar, 22 miles east, with about 900. The remainder are scattered across the 2 million acres of arid farmland that stretch north towards Canada, or in hamlets of dilapidated houses that look as if they might at any moment pitch headlong into the shortgrass prairie.
The seat of tribal government, a modern complex topped by a pagoda-like glass tower, sits on the edge of Poplar, northeast of the other well-kept structure in town, the community college. The rest of Poplar looks as though it had been conquered some time ago and left for dead, which isn't far from the truth. Many houses, especially on the edge of town, are boarded up. Stray dogs wander the wide empty streets. Here and there, the hand-painted signs illustrate the faces of meth addicts, before and after. The empty A & S Industries warehouse on the southern edge of town once employed 500 people who made camouflage netting for the Army and other products. The business crashed in the 1990s, after the Persian Gulf War ended and its minority preference status expired. Now the chief employment opportunities on the reservation are with the tribal government or the college, unless you happen to be well-versed in dry farming.