Little Shell Chippewa (Central Montana)

The Place 

Central Montana features a variety of landscapes including Rocky Mountain ranges, intermountain valleys, and low-elevation foothill prairies. Situated east of the Continental Divide, this region hosts the Elkhorn and Big Belt Mountains, extensive National Forest lands, expansive native grasslands, and a region of the Missouri River watershed ecosystem. Resting in the rain-shadow of the Continental Divide Rockies, this eco-region has a semi-arid climate. The mountain ranges are heavily forested, while the valleys and foothills contain an expanse of short-grass prairie vegetation. Many of the present day valleys of Central Montana contain numerous agricultural fields for grain and/or cattle production or show the presence of urban sprawl. Towns in this region include Helena, Great Falls, and Lewistown. 

Little Shell Chippewa State Flag

The People

The Little Shell Chippewa tribe is a state-recognized tribe in Montana. Yet, the tribe is currently without an official reservation as it seeks federal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Many Little Shell Chippewa are concentrated in Great Falls and Helena with their tribal headquarters in Great Falls. Yet, because the tribe it without a land base, many members live throughout Montana, the surrounding states, and Canada. Tribal enrollment is approximately 6,500. The Little Shell Chippewa people continue to work for national recognition of their tribe and their associated rights.

The Plants

Bitteroot (Lewisia rediviva)

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva)

State flower of Montana. The bitteroot has abundant prevalence in North American indigenous culture. Many Western Montana tribes held annual harvesting ceremonies honoring the sustenance provided by the bitteroot. The plant has both edible and medicinal uses. The root is calorically dense while the plant boosts purifying properties that may ease heart pain and increase milk flow in nursing mothers. Bitteroot foraging grounds were tended to and respected by many tribes across Montana, including the Little Shell Chippewa.

Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum)

Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum)

Nodding onion is one of the most common edible indigenous plants due to its abundant distribution in the northwestern United States. It can be eaten from root to tip. Its medicinal uses include application as topical pastes for skin ailments, teas to suppress vomiting, and antibacterial properties as an eyewash. Nodding onion is often paired with bergamot for medicinal use.  

Alum Root (Heuchera cylidrical)

Alum Root (Heuchera cylindrica)

Alum Root can be harvested for its roots and has been used medicinally by indigenous people as a powerful astringent and antiseptic. Taken internally, Alum Root can be used to control hemorrhaging, ease inflammation, and treat gastrointestinal stress. When ground into a powder, alum root can be applied externally as a coagulant to stop bleeding.

Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis): 

Image of blue grama

The Blue Grama bunchgrass is widespread in the central Montana plains region. This plant had varied cultural uses as a medicine, seasonal indicator, and as a useful material. Stalks were used in basketry while the roots of the plant were utilized as a poultice for cuts as well as onto castrated colts. The grass was used to foretell the coming winter. One floral spike meant that that mild winter was approaching. The more floral spikes the harsher the winter. While grass stalks often have two floral spikes, some plants produce more. Sioux children would hunt for stems with three spikes, much the same as looking for four-leaf clovers. The whole plant was made into a soup and used as a postpartum medicine for mothers. 

Maximilian Sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani):

Image of Maximilian's Sunflower

Maximilian sunflower grows well on deep upland soils and heavier lowland soils in areas receiving a minimum 10 inches of average annual precipitation at elevations of 2,200 feet to 4,000 feet. It is a long-lived perennial that is known to inhabit at least 15 of the 56 counties in Montana. This plant is a valuable source of nourishment for wildlife as well as native and modern peoples. As a crop, Maximilian sunflowers may produce cut flowers, vegetable oil, fuel, commercial fiber, and seeds for snacks and bird food. 

Historically, sunflowers have been used by humans as a nutritious food source, a medicinal treatment for many ailments, and as a dye for body paint and coloring basketry. Native Americans boiled and ate flower buds and raw seeds. Drinking an infusion of the plant alleviated rheumatism, soothed chest pain, and stimulated appetite. Purple, black, and yellow dyes were made by boiling different parts of the plant. The thick rhizome is edible and provided a food similar to the Jerusalem artichoke for numerous Native American groups. 

Golden Currant (Ribes aureum): 

Image of golden currant

Golden currant provides for wildlife habitat and watershed protection in addition to golden orange fruits. Golden currant is a highly preferred spring and midsummer browse for big game and therefore its growth geography serves as an indicator of wildlife populations. 

Native American tribes mainly used currants for making pemmican; a high protein, high energy food made with meat, fat and fruit in a dry, edible form. Currant berries were dried and mixed with these other ingredients for a nutrient dense food source. Pemmican is experiencing a resurgence in modern food culture as an energy bar like snack suited for hiking or endurance tasks.

Species List

  • Alum Root (Heuchera cylindrical)
  • Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa)
  • Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva)
  • Blue Grama (Bouteloa gracilis)
  • Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha)
  • Maximillian Sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)
  • Needle and Thread (Stipa comata)
  • Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum)
  • Penstemon (Penstemon procerus)
  • Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum)
  • Pussy Toes (Antennaria microphylla)
  • Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)
  • Spring Chickweed (Cerastium arvense)