Blackfeet oral tradition tells of the death of the last bison in Montana. It was felled by a gunshot as it stood alone by a gully in the autumn of 1883. The winter that followed was harsh. Heavy winds and deep snows drove the remaining game animals south. For nearly eight solid months, deep freezes swept across the western part of the state. The Blackfeet called it the “Starvation Winter.”
Virginia Howard was 13 years old during the Starvation Winter. She was born in 1870 to Joseph Howard and Mary Woods, near Helena, 150 miles or so from the border of the Blackfeet Reservation. Little is known of her parentage but that Virginia was of the South Piegan people, or the Amskapi Pikuni tribe. Montana itself was only a few years older than she was: An Act of Congress first made Montana a territory in 1864 and it would be decades before it was granted statehood in 1889.
“The Blackfeet people have occupied the Rocky Mountain region for more than 10,000 years,” says the tribe’s official website, Blackfeet Nation. “In the 18th and 19th centuries, the four Blackfeet bands—the North Piegan, the South Piegan, the Blood, and the Siksika—occupied much of the northern plains and were nomadic, following the seasonal grazing and migration of the buffalo.” The introduction of horses in 1730 gave the Blackfeet farther range for bison hunting and their territory stretched from southern Canada all the way to present-day Wyoming
Few of these modern state borders existed at the time, of course, and it wasn’t until the mining boom of the 1860s that Montana, and the territory of the Blackfeet, began to be carved by the European immigrants and white colonizers. “During 1861-62, as miners began the rush into the newly opened goldfields of present-day north-central Idaho, settlers demanded a new territory in the Northern Rockies,” authors Michael P. Malone, Richard R. Roeder, and William L. Lang write in Montana: A History of Two Centuries. “Congress responded in March of 1863 by creating Idaho Territory. Carved out of Washington, Dakota and Nebraska territories, Idaho embraced an enormous area, including all of present-day Idaho and Montana and most of Wyoming.”
By 1880, at age 10, Virginia worked as a live-in maid for a middle-class Irish couple in Helena. Dee Garceau for Alexander Street writes, “Boarding out children as servants was one strategy that impoverished parents sometimes used, to make sure their child had adequate food and shelter.” It’s likely Virginia’s parents had little money or reliable access to food; such conditions were common among the Blackfeet. Even before the death of the last bison, their economy had dwindled with the animal’s numbers and the tribe had yet to find a replacement trade.
Founding years of the Blackfeet Reservation vary. The Blackfeet Tribe itself asserts the land was granted by an 1855 treaty. Other sources give the year 1888, with the signing of the Sweet Grass Hills Treaty. What is not in dispute, however, is that white European colonizers had heavily encroached on the lands once freely enjoyed by the Blackfeet bands. (Not in dispute, also, is the U.S. government’s habit of ignoring or violating the terms of a treaty.)
“Blackfoot culture has been internally consistent in one respect,” notes Bruno Nettl in Blackfoot musical thought: comparative perspectives, “it has constantly been under the pressures of white people and their culture, and its development is driven principally by the need for adaptation and survival.”
Her elders would have told Virginia about the sad years that preceded her birth. The European immigrants brought with them diseases that were new to the continent and unfamiliar to the immune systems of its population. Smallpox had, just fifty years earlier, killed nearly 6,000 people, in the Blackfeet bands alone. Then, in 1883, came the Starvation Winter.
At 13 years old, Virginia would have been old enough to understand what was happening to her people. She was old enough to carry the memories with her for the rest of her life. As Dee Garceau writes, “She saw that the federal policy of Indian removal and confinement on reservations, combined with bureaucratic incompetence and anti-Indian racism, made a lethal combination that cost 1 out of 4 Blackfeet their lives.”
At 18, in 1888, Virginia married Edward Billedeaux and the couple relocated permanently to the Blackfeet Reservation. Cattle had emerged as a replacement herd animal for the Blackfeet, and Virginia and Edward moved north to participate in the federal ranching program.
President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Act in 1887. This Act divided existing reservation land into individual allotments of 160 acres for farmland or 320 acres of grazing land. Those who accepted these plots of land, and its stipulations, would be allowed to become U.S. citizens. In their write-up on the Dawes Act, the National Park Service noted its unfair aspects: “Tribes already controlled the land that was being returned to them at a fraction of the acreage, Native Americans were not accustomed to a life of standardized ranching and agriculture, and the lands allotted to them were often unsuitable for farming. ... The desired effect of the Dawes Act was to get Native Americans to farm and ranch like white homesteaders. An explicit goal of the Dawes Act was to create divisions among Native Americans and eliminate the social cohesion of tribes.” The U.S. government viewed tribal connections and leadership to be a threat to its authority.
Virginia, like many indigenous people before her, faced difficult—and all unsatisfactory—choices: To comply with the U.S. government was to accept the terms of the invader. But their numbers could not endure another fight; the war had already been lost. Compliance, therefore, was often the only path to survival, even as it demanded painful compromises to the spirit.
To add to the wound, the U.S. government rarely approached these deals with respect or equity. Another stipulation of the Dawes Act was that the indigenous farmers had to pay taxes. Those who were unable to pay taxes—which was most of them—would have their allotment seized by the government, allowing the government to further carve away reservation lands that had been granted by treaty. The ultimate result of the Dawes Act, according to the NPS, was, “the government stripping over 90 million acres of tribal land from Native Americans, then selling that land to non-native US citizens.”