By KIRK JOHNSON
Published: September 10, 2011
ABSAROKEE, Mont. — The bitter tale of Indian-white conflict that unfolded at this spot more than a century ago was told not in blood and battle, but in the legalese and fine print of a contract.
Now an archaeologist hired by the Montana Department of Transportation to plan for a road rebuilding project has found the physical evidence, in stones and building fragments that were until recently buried beneath shimmering waves of alfalfa just off State Highway 78.
“An Indian tribe faced the end of its traditional way of life, and it happened right here,” the archaeologist, Stephen Aaberg, said as co-workers sifted dirt through mesh screens on a recent afternoon.
For the Crow tribe, the events of March 1880, on which Mr. Aaberg has focused his research, proved devastating. That was when a draft agreement from Washington was read aloud to tribal leaders for the first time here, at a compound that served as the arm of the federal government on the reservation.
The document ultimately forced the tribe, which once dominated a vast swath of Montana, onto a smaller reservation. It echoed a theme that scarred the West again and again as white settlers coveted lands that Indians had been promised but did not seem to be using: new document, new constriction of space.
What made the story even worse for the Crow is that they had allied with Gen. George Armstrong Custer against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne only four years earlier at the Battle of the Little Bighorn — 100 miles east of here — and might have expected a reward, Mr. Aaberg said, or at least fairer treatment. The compound was abandoned in 1883 after the agreement was signed, because this spot, about 50 miles southwest of Billings, was no longer on the reservation.
“If we agree to be farmers, will you stop taking our land?” one Crow leader asked the government officials, in comments written down that day as the draft agreement was read.
The Crow tribe is now considering how the ruins should be remembered. The tribe’s archaeologist, Tim McCleary, a professor of anthropology at Bighorn Community College, located on the Crow reservation, said that the events of March 1880 were huge historical markers for the tribe, but that many families with mixed Crow and white heritage also trace their ancestry to marriages that began as contact grew between the tribe and federal administrators, making memories complicated.
“It’s obviously an important site,” he said. “But feelings are mixed.”
Because a federal worker in the 1880s drew up a detailed blueprint of the site, now on display in a local museum, Mr. Aaberg said, he was able to identify many specific areas inside the compound, including the doctor’s quarters.
Among the poignant pieces found in the local rubbish pit was the arm of a doll. In a compound where most of the children were mixed race or Indian, and darker skinned in any event, the arm was made of porcelain, still gleaming white after all those years underground.