Chippewa Cree, Rocky Boy Reservation
Minnie Big Knife was born at her family’s home. The first words she heard were Cree. Her parents were members of the Cree group who had been displaced from their homelands after the Louis Riel Rebellion of 1855. Traveling throughout Montana, they joined a band of Chippewa who were also landless. Cree Chief Little Bear and Chippewa Chief Rocky Boy sought a homeland for their people looking to other reservations in the state and finally to political support from three prominent white men—and prayer, always prayer. The Rocky Boy Reservation was designated by Executive Order in 1916, with Congress allocating 55,035 acres for a reservation in north central Montana. In 1947, Minnie’s birth year, 45,523 more acres were added to the reservation. Minnie says, “As told by the past tribal elders, their ancestral homeland was made possible by prayers, smudging of the sweetgrass, and lifting of the pipe.”
Growing up on a ranch with a large family, six sisters and three brothers, Minnie learned the responsibility and reward of hard work necessary to sustain a home. Without the luxuries of things such as electricity, hauling water half a mile was an everyday chore. Everyone contributed and Minnie’s father, a constant, steady force in her life, modeled hard work, intelligence, and ingenuity. He navigated an English language driven economy and laws, obtaining his driver’s license by providing verbal answers to the driver’s test. Mr. Big Knife was influential and respected by his family as well as the community. A credit to her father’s influence, Minnie and her siblings all graduated from high school. And she did not end her formal education with a high school diploma. While raising her own six children, Minnie went to college and obtained an associate degree in Computer Science.
Minnie’s life is the realization of her Cree elders’ wishes and dreams. Her life embodies the hope and goodness of the original elders of the newly formed reservation. She was a witness to their lives. She kept and followed the Cree culture and traditions, and after raising six children, she is passing the language on to her grandchildren. Like her father, Minnie shared the value of all forms of education and that is evidenced in her grandchildren’s college degrees and their fire for the Cree language.
The Rocky Boy Reservation is a place of rolling hills, horses, quiet, and the Bear Paw Mountains. Minnie is connected to this land through her people’s history and stories. She knows the places of prayer and ceremony that are carried on today. She holds the collective memory of her people, and connects the generations—past, present, and future.