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Episode 3: Unearthing the Indigenous Narrative in Northeast Montana

Also heard on award-winning podcast by PRX and Wyoming Public Media, The Modern West.


Eddie Hentges: The reason we learn and study history is because it informs us who we are and why we are the way we are.


Megan Torgerson (narrating): This is Reframing Rural, the original podcast series that elevates unexplored stories from rural America. I’m the founder and producer Megan Torgerson and this episode features Eddie Hentges, an impassioned educator who embraces a multicultural and decolonial approach to teaching U.S. history.


Eddie is a descendant of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in Belcourt, North Dakota, and he grew up on the Fort Peck Sioux and Assiniboine Reservation, which spans four counties across Northeastern Montana. Eddie may not be a famous public scholar, yet, but listening back to our conversation was like hearing an interview with a Fresh Air guest on NPR, or one of my favorite podcasts, On Being with Krista Tippet.


Eddie and I went to high school together in Williston, North Dakota. And while it had been nearly ten years since we’d last caught up, by the end of our conversation it was as if no time had passed since we were getting in trouble for chatting on the choir risers in Mr. Parker’s music class.


Hentges: I get very tangential so thank goodness you have editing software.


Torgerson (narrating): So back to Williston, let’s hear a bit about Eddie’s journey moving from Wolf Point, Montana to Williston, North Dakota, which is the major center of commerce for the MonDak region and since we graduated, the epicenter of the Bakken Oil boom.


Hentges: Williston didn’t seem totally different. The difference was in how I was perceived. I am a descendant of Turtle Mountain, but Wolf Point, Montana is a Sioux and Assiniboine Reservation so Chippewa is a different type of native. I wasn’t treated like an Indian up there really and I have a darker complexion but I also have my Dad’s side of the family and so I have very kind of wavy or curly dark hair, so I don’t necessarily look super native – looking Native is a whole other thing to get into, especially different tribes have different ideas of what that means. Like I wasn’t Soiux or Assiniboine up there and worked on farms with my Dad and stuff like that and I always thought of myself as one of the white kids. I didn’t exclusively hang out with white kids or anything like that, that’s just how I pictured myself. I wasn’t really thinking of myself it was just like this is how I think of me, and then I moved to Williston in 5th grade and that’s when kids started calling me dirty Indian and making jokes and it was really perplexing that I would move 100 miles away and there I wasn’t really traditionally Native American or anything and now I was just some stereotype. And some of it was just tongue and cheek and kids being dumb or whatever, but then there were also times, this was in later on in high school, when a kids was at a party and somebody called me from the party and there was a kid behind there and he was like who is it and he said it’s Eddie and he started yelling prairie n word, repeatedly and I was like wait why is this and I don’t know if it was just to provoke me, but I was definitely treated very differently there, so I became this almost like a token Native American friend and I now quite a bit about the rez and I’ve been to lots of different reservations but it was a stark difference in how I was perceived by other people. Cause you know you just think of yourself as Megan or Eddie, especially in junior high years, like those formative years you start to think, well, o.k. I have my ego already, I understand who I am to myself, now I try to understand myself in relation to groups. So that was very, very strange.


Torgerson (narrating): My experience moving to Williston was quite different. I left Dagmar, Montana, the Scandinavian farming community you heard about in the first two episodes, for Williston, North Dakota, when I was 15 years old to attend a larger high school that afforded me more opportunities. At the time Williston was also largely populated by descendants of Northern European homesteaders, but what set it apart from Dagmar was its population. For some perspective, for most of Junior High, I was the only girl in my class among three boys. In Williston, our graduating class had 124 students.


Williston has changed a lot since Eddie and I were teenagers there. The oil boom doubled the population what seemed like overnight, bringing with it men from all over the country looking to make fast cash. It was the height of the boom, after Eddie finished college, when he found himself back in Williston working in the oil industry.


Hentges: So I finished college, I didn’t really have any job prospects and I talked to my best friend Patrick and he said the oil field is going on I need good workers you should come join my crew you won’t even have to do any of the crappy jobs. We’ll start you at $19.50 an hour, you’re going to make time and a half overtime, you’re going to get a lot in over time. I said alright I’ll do it. I built oil field drilling tools for a year in Williston during the height of the oil boom, that was interesting. It was a very strange year of my life. It is the most physically fit I’ve ever been in my life.


Torgerson (narrating): After a year, Eddie determined the oil field wasn’t a good fit for him, but he did note that it was the most physically fit he’d ever been in his life.


Hentges: I literally lifted lengths of pipe that were between 90 and 220 pounds. I fit them and used four foot monkey wrenches, but all I did was work. You work and then you blow off steam with the guys you go drink and then I’d go home and read.


I’m glad that I did it. I made some money that I have long since spent, but it is very hard living and I’m glad to see that it’s become more stable, because the infrastructure couldn’t keep up with the oil production and it was just wild west. It really was. It was quite lawless. It was very dangerous. Being a woman there, and just being alive. There were a lot of unsafe people who had not great intentions. The whole mentality there was everything is disposable, the environment, people. I had a really really hard time dealing with that.


Torgerson: I hope that doesn’t tie down to the culture at large.


Hentges: No I don’t think so. Williston has really mellowed out. The infrastructure has caught up and there’s a lot more diversity that moved in which I think was really good for the community in general. That was sorely needed.


Torgerson: I agree. I agree with that. That’s refreshing to go home and see more diverse cultures at the grocery store.


Hentges: Absolutely, and some of the best Mexican food now. I can absolutely get behind bringing that in and that’s good to build a healthy community. And even if it was a PR fund, all that money that got donated from giant oil companies to community theater and playgrounds and all those public goods, even if it was just a photo-op, that was good and that needed to happen. We could be as sad about it or as angry about it as we want, but a lot of people there are very very thankful for it.


Torgerson (narrating): When Eddie’s stint working on the Williston Basin was over, he packed up his truck and explored around Montana.


While visiting family on the reservation in Wolf Point, he found out the town’s high school history teacher had left half way through the year. The school was looking for a sub and the timing was serendipitous. He took the job and through Eddie, his students rediscovered American history, through the eyes of Indigenous peoples.


Hentges: I found myself as a teacher in Wolf Point, Montana. I really kind of fell into it. I did that for the rest of that year and I did two more years teaching there.


Torgerson (narrating): With a population of 2,700, 50% of whom are Native American, Wolf Point is the largest town on the Fort Peck Reservation. Wolf Point was recently the subject of an associated press story because of their annual Wild Horse Stampede. That’s the oldest professional rodeo in Montana, that, despite a tribal vote against going ahead with the rodeo this year, was hosted on the reservation in early July.


COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Native American communities. According to the AP article, Native Americans make up 37% of Montana’s COVID deaths while they are only 7% of the population. Both of these figures are devastating, the recent deaths and that the genocide of Indigenous peoples that now makes them reflective of less than 10% of Montana’s population!


So when Eddie walked into Wolf Point High School’s history classroom willing to talk about this history, you can imagine how excited his students were. Just a heads up, parts of this next conversation may not suitable for young children.


Hentges: A lot of kids very distinctly do not like history, because it’s white people’s history. My first lesson, I teach a lesson about Christopher Columbus and I get into, so he discovered America blah, blah, blah, and ‘he didn’t discover it,’ you know – everybody is on that page now, which is so cool to see, because it’s different than what we were taught, just the tone and the words used and dumb stories. And a lot of kids are not very pleased about Christopher Columbus on the reservation, some are definitely like yeah, of course he didn’t discover us. ‘Perfect, why do we tell these stories about history?’ ‘Well, I don’t know, you tell them to little kids.’ We have a discussion on that and we talk about o.k., well what did Columbus actually do? ‘Like he came over.’ ‘Yeah what was Columbus doing over here?’ Well, what Columbus was doing was taking over Native American populations and shipping them back as slaves. He was using them to harvest gold dust and he would cut off their hands. Columbus and a lot of his lieutenants would just rape Native American women and kill them. So like he was doing all this in the name of God – and so I don’t this so everyone hates Columbus, but wow, that’s kind of brutal, and that story you’re not told. So, doesn’t it make more sense if we make nice little sing-songy lies up about Columbus – ‘1492, discovered the ocean blue.’ Everyone thought he was crazy, because the world is, you know, flat. Those are lies but they’re more palatable for kids to listen to. The real story is far more brutal. And then from that we talk about the Columbian exchange, diseases, decimating Native American populations. So right away a lot of kids are like, whoa, o.k., he’s going to like talk about Native Americans.


Torgerson (narrating): I can tell history class has changed a lot since I was a kid, even if I can’t remember much to begin with.


One lesson Eddie does not want his students to forget has to do with the civil war and how this moment in history helps us better understand today.


Hentges: Civil war was fought over slavery. Any way you slice it, all of it goes back to the institution of slavery. The economic system is based on it. States’ rights are based on it. So right away I did that. I pretty much said, this is what it is. Anyone can try and argue me, but this is not up for debate. But it’s so important for you to move on for you guys to understand it was about the institution of slavery. Then we go into reconstruction. Now the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments are passed. African Americans are now citizens. They need to be part of governing bodies. We consider them not property anymore, so let’s get them integrated into government and all aspects of society. Then you have covert racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan start killing and silencing people and then reconstruction fails. So that’s why about a hundred years later you have the civil rights. We have to understand that context in everything we’re doing. So that’s the first part, then I start talking about women’s history and eventually we start talking about the American Indians and how they were subjugated.


Torgerson (narrating): As the country-wide protests, also happening in our country’s rural pockets, have signaled this summer, we are still a long way from racial equality. That’s why it’s crucial to understand these cycles of history and how the pervasive institution of white supremacy functions in this country.


Talking honestly about this history, won Eddie the 2018 Global Educator of the Year award from the Montana World Affairs Council. Eddie’s approach has also inspired students who are struggling to engage.


Hentges: I can think of one student in particular who had a really really rough family life and ended up having a really bad drug problem and dropped out of school, but he was always in my class. When he was in there he was engaged. I just remember him yelling, this is what I wanted to learn about, which as a teacher your’e just like wait I did it. Awesome. I think absolutely to be represented in history is so important, by like all groups. Multi-culturalism is just the way to teach history. It makes it so much more interesting and diverse than just going through and having a boring subject.


Torgerson: Could you share with me a bit about the history of the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes and the creation of the Fort Peck Reservation? This is a big question but how the history continues to have an impact today?


Hentges: Originally, this area around Wolf Point, was Assiniboine land. Assiniboine and Siouxan tribes were enemies, which is interesting because a lot of different reservations you have historical enemies grouped together and basically these are plains nomadic tribes. So the origins go back, so you have like Sioux and Assiniboine, historic enemies. This happened until the Indian wars start going on. You know, westward expansion is happening. More and more homesteaders are coming out. They want the land. They don’t want Native Americans in their way. They don’t want buffalo in their way. They feel with Manifest Destiny that it is their God given right to go out and make something of this desolate prairie. So they want to start farming it. And there’s a whole lot of support. The Civil War is over. There is a lot of investment into the building of agricultural colleges and just becoming a farming powerhouse. And there’s lots of people, with the Homestead Act, that want all this free land to go make it a farm. And then they get it. So with all these people coming out wanting land Native Americans are getting pushed further and further West. As these treaties are being broken, people are being mistreated, they start joining war party leaders like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, etc.


Native Americans are feeling more and more pressure and you have different groups like Apache and Comanche that are down by the U.S., Texas, Mexico border raiding and stuff. You have Chief Joseph who is making treaties with people because they see that as the only way out. And then you have war chiefs that try to negotiate but find themselves disillusioned and decide that they’re going to fight. So Custer the famous Indian killer dies at the battle of Little Bighorn. It’s considered an overwhelming Native American victory and after the Battle of Little Bighorn which is by Billings, Montana, the chiefs realize o.k. we brought down the wrath of the government, there’s going to be a lot more soldiers coming and we need to find a place to hide out.


So you have all these different tribes that banded under Sitting Bull. They start going past, what is now the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Assiniboine, historical enemies of the Sioux, you don’t think they would want to around there, but they have this pressure. They’re going up to winter in Canada, so they’re going to cross the border out of U.S. jurisdiction, and spend the winter up there. So on the way there, Sitting Bull drops off a bunch of different random Sioux tribes who aren’t going to make it or who don’t want to go. So they start living with the Assiniboines.


Sitting Bull does his winter up in Canada, and then comes back down and passes through the Fort Peck Indian reservation, or the area, again. And he drops off more people. So that’s why you have both Sioux and Assiniboine on that reservation who used to be historic enemies.


Torgerson (narrating): Sitting Bull took his followers to Canada in 1877. By the summer of 1881, which was ten years after the Fort Peck Indian Agency was established, “the Milk River bison herd was disappearing, and with it went the ancient nomadic lifestyle of the Plains Sioux and Assiniboines.” That’s from the book The History of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation 1600 – 2012.


Author, Dennis J. Smith continues, “Once the process of establishing permanent homes commenced, with it would come the scorched earth assault on tribal communal beliefs and practices by the dominant white society, and particularly federal Indian policy officials, missionaries, and white citizens from all orbits of society: local and community, territorial and state, and national.” Known for his fearless bravery and leadership, Sitting Bull was murdered by Indian police at Standing Rock Agency in 1890.

Divested of their land, and their nomadic way of life, Sioux and Assiniboine peoples live quite differently today than they did six or seven generations ago. Eddie speaks to what this looks like in Northeastern Montana.


Hentges: It’s weird seeing how Native Americans feel like foreigners in their own land. For a lot of Native Americans, even to this day, on the Fort Peck Reservation, the world was just kind of black. There was a world map and there was the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and then it was all blackness and then 300 miles away there was Billings. There is not the same sort of adventuring spirit. Like when I travel, I wander. A lot of kids [on the reservation] did not have that in my experience.


Torgerson (narrating): While I shed light on this history, of how white settlers and the U.S. government oppressed Native Americans, of how the injustices continue to reverberate across the reservation today, I also hold dear, my family’s history in this region. As a fifth generation Montanan, I also feel connected to this land. I acknowledge that my Scandinavian ancestors have been here for far fewer generations than the Assiniboine have seen on this prairie. Still, I want to acknowledge that over the past 115 years, my family continues to work incredibly hard farming the rocky, arid terrain of Eastern Montana.


There is a lot to unpack here, and however bumpy the road to reconciliation may be, I know in my heart that it’s worth the journey. For me personally, learning more about the history of these ancestral Assiniboine lands, has not only been enlightening, but its’ really helped me build empathy and hope.


And while this relatively recent history is full of loss and grief, I don’t want that to be the only story we hear about the area’s local tribes.


Eddie shared with me a bit about the spiritual connection to animals and the land that is abundant on the high plains, as well how as his cultural traditions connect him to Wolf Point, Williston and Belcourt, North Dakota.


Hentges: This is a whole other story, but there’s a sleeping buffalo stone by Saco, MT, by the Saco Hot Springs. It’s an old landmark carved by Native Americans and it looks like a buffalo and a calf in this giant bolder they carved into it.


I’m pretty agnostic, but I find myself, whenever I go past it, I’ll cut a piece of my beard off, give it an offering. It doesn’t feel right if I don’t. So those make me feel really connected to my heritage in Wolf Point and the surrounding area on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. And then I go to Williston, you know, and it’s very different. I have different associations, more that have to do with music, going to shows, and even skateboarding around. And then I go to Turtle Mountains and, I guess I should say, I always sort of felt like a White guy, or Wašícu, in Wolf Point, even though there’s a lot of cultural traditions that are very much a part of me because of that. In Williston, I always felt kind of othered. Before the diversity now, I was one of the darkest kids around, you know? And I’m not even very dark, but being in Belcourt and stopping at the gas station in the summer, looking around, I look like every Indian in there. That was really a cool feeling.


Torgerson (narrating): Eddie also feels a sense of belonging there, because of his family.


Hentges: …big extended family over there, and I’m just kind of quite, sitting there and this  Indian lady comes over, like ‘who are you now?’ ‘Oh, oh, I’m Eddie.’ ‘Who’s are you?’ Like who do you belong to? And I’m like ‘oh I’m Jenanie’s boy,’ and she goes ‘oh my god my cousin Jeannie’s boy! Come here.’ And they’re like shoving frybread and like ‘you like owls?’ And I’m like ‘yeah.’ ‘Here take this one.’ And I still have this owl porcelain planter. And this was within minutes of meeting her. Being in Belcourt with that family is when I feel the most Native. They immediately take you in.


Torgerson: I have a big smile on my face.


Hentges: And it’s been years since I’ve been there, but at a community gathering like that, you’re just a part of it, thick as thieves. So I have really, really good memories of going up there and just feeling included, immediately.


Torgerson: I love your descriptions of home. Like you have sage, a boulder, an owl, and so many beautiful geographic landscapes that invigorate your understanding of home and I feel like that probably serves you as you’re living in a city, Fargo. Like no matter where you go, you have that with you


Hentges: Yeah, that is a really cool way to think of that, a mixture of all these things, because I’m absolutely a product of these different people and different experiences. And maybe that’s why I wanted to share that with education


Torgerson (narrating): Eddie and I both live in our state’s largest cities. He lives in Fargo and I live in Seattle, but we both agreed that even if we live in cities right now, the rural Great Plains setting of our childhood is always a part of us.


Hentges: It’s hard to convey to some people, just the vastness, the shear vastness. We grew up around that so it seems normal. It’s just massive and it’s beautiful and it’s pretty well empty and that makes some people nervous, but it’s a very soothing thing as well. When I lived in Wolf Point this last time, you know drive into the country to clear your head and just stand in a field and look around. There might be a house way down yonder or something like that, but you are in the midst of it, just immenseness.


Torgerson: Yeah, do you miss that living in Fargo right now?


Hentges: I do, a lot yeah, yeah absolutely. To be out and feel something like that is very, like I said, I think it makes some people anxious because it can seem so oppressive, you know, just this vastness weighing down on you. But I love it. It makes me feel very humbled.


I’m sure if you closed your eyes Megan, you can just, think of yourself out in the field, dusk. It’s just starting to get dark. What are the sounds that you hear?


Torgerson: Crickets and the wind in the golden wheat.


Hentges: Yep, it almost looks sounds water how the wind is blowing it, and it goes back and forth. It has kind of a rustling sound.


Torgerson: Mosquitos, biting me.


Hentges: Buzzin’. A coyote yippin’ every once and awhile.


Torgerson: Yeah. A truck on gravel.


Hentges: Yeah, and so that is, that is absolutely a part of us. I really like thinking of it that way, because I am absolutely a sum of all these parts and experiences, and that really enriches and colors the way that I look at things, the way that I approach things, the person that I am, how I build relationships with others.


Torgerson: I love that. Is there anything you would want people outside the MonDak region to know about the area. What do you care about people knowing about this region?


Hentges: In Max Ehrmann’s poem Desiderata, it starts with ‘go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence,’ and I think that’s a really, really good way to think about the urban rural divide. With the silence and being close to nature, and the strength that you have to have, the hardiness, the self-sufficiency of the country. It takes a lot of hard work and planning to live in a rural area like that. But a lot of people get it because they’ve been there for so long and they’ve watched their family do it, over and over. I think that’s just a really important thing that could bridge the urban rural divide.


Because like you said before, there’s so much talk of politics and so much divisive differencing, but I think that there is a lot of grit that rural people have that urban people could really dig, and I think that there is a lot of more exposure to different things that would really benefit the rural areas. But I think simply the peace and contentedness in being in such a vast immersive landscape, is really good for people in the city to see too.


 You feel it thin out. You feel everything stretch, and you just have to make peace with that. It just humbles you to have to slow down and take it as it goes. So, with all the wealth of information and diversity and access that urbanites have, that can benefit the rural area. And I think the absolute slowing down of the pace, of having to process that information could really help the urban population.”


Torgerson: I’ve never thought of it before, but the slowing that you need to do in rural areas is a consequence of life or death, like if you don’t slow down and take that precaution before getting out into your car, I don’t know, scrapping the ice off or whatever, you could die.


Hentges: Exactly you can’t make fool hardy decisions. That’s why you have to be good to your neighbors, because in these climates, you would die without them. You need that support system.


Torgerson (narrating): It’s not just amidst a harsh prairie environment that you have to be good to your neighbors. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again, no matter what, if you’re urban, or rural, coastal, or inland, Black, White or Indigenous, our fates are all intertwined. The good news is, we’re in it together and there is endless wisdom that we can learn from one another.


Thank you to my old friend Eddie Hentges for your generous storytelling. Thank you to Andrew Drinnan for creating original music for this episode’s interludes, and to our friends Dan Sadomka and Ryan Manthey for helping make the theme music.


The next episode we’ll hear from my neighbor Ralph Summers.


Ralph Summers: All you need is faith the size of a mustard seed and you can move a mountain.


Torgerson (narrating): Reframing Rural was made with support from Seattle University’s Arts Leadership Program and the Guest House Cultural Capital Residency. I produced and edited this episode on  Salish and Kalispell Aboriginal Territories. Thank you for listening!


Host, creator, producer and editor: Megan Torgerson

Guests: Eddie Hentges

Episode Music: Andrew Drinnan 

Theme Music: Andrew Drinnan, Dan Sodomka, Ryan Manthey and Megan Torgerson

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