NEAR THE MARIAS RIVER, Mont. (AP) - The Blackfeet Nation commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Baker Massacre on Thursday, hearing calls to learn their past and embrace their ancestry.
"This was a tragedy. Today could be viewed as a day of mourning, but it is a day of triumph. Look at all these Brown people," Iva Croff, who planned the event, said as she gestured toward the crowd. "We are still here!"
The crowd cheered, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
More than 100 people, including Blackfeet tribal members from Canada, attended the 26th annual observance about 10 miles southeast of Shelby, near the site where the attack occurred.
Hosted by the Blackfeet Community College, the event, which featured speeches from tribal leaders and community residents, honored Blackfeet history, while promoting resilience, acceptance and healing.
Also known as the Marias River Massacre or Bear River Massacre, the Baker Massacre occurred Jan. 23, 1870, when the U.S. 2nd Cavalry, led by Maj. Eugene Baker, killed at least 173 members of a friendly, smallpox-ridden Blackfeet camp.
"We have people who are here today because someone in their family ran as hard as they could on Jan. 23, 1870," said Carol Murray, vice president of Blackfeet Community College.
The attack holds historical significance, as it is critical in the invasion and conquest of Montana and marks the end of Blackfeet people's violent resistance against the U.S. 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.
"We have the opportunity to reflect on who we are, where we come from. Our people are still here. You can feel the power here," said Jack Royals, who works for the Blackfoot Confederacy. "It's in our hearts, in our spirits, in our DNA. We need to create awareness, education and understanding to honor the people who sacrificed their lives for us."
Despite devastation from the massacre, many tribal members only recently learned of the tragedy. Because of assimilation policies and widespread fear, few people talked about the massacre, and it was not taught in schools.
However, thanks in large part to efforts made by the Blackfeet Community College, tribal members are learning more about the attack. Students from Heart Butte, Browning and Cut Bank high schools and Blackfeet Community College were in attendance, signifying an educational shift. Many speakers at the commemoration called on young people to understand Blackfeet history and practice culture.
"Whatever your ancestry is, learn it. That is what this Baker Massacre is to me," said Murray, who has devoted much of her life to researching the event. "When I look at young people in the community who have trials and tribulations, they have to have purpose. Today is about purpose."
Tribal members, young and old, stood together listening to stories of the horrific attack from which their ancestors survived. As she listened to other speakers, Croff looked down at her 3-year-old granddaughter.
"One day, you'll be telling this story," she said.