No journey through Montana is complete without an immersion in the rich Indian culture that remains today. That experience best comes to life on the Warrior Trail through the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations in the south-central part of the state if you take the time to look. This is not an adventure for the ill-prepared or naive. A large section of the route is on gravel roads albeit well maintained through remote country that lacks the services to which travelers are accustomed, even by backroads standards. Life looks and feels decidedly different, and while the tribes are striving to overcome two centuries of cultural upheaval, the challenges are daunting. Alcoholism, unemployment, and general hopelessness are rampant, and even Indian leaders concede the reservations are reminiscent of Third World countries. It’s readily apparent in the small, colorful, box-shaped, one-size-fits-all homes with the rusting skeletons of old cars in the yards filling the landscape. All the inherent risks of driving rural Montana roads at night wildlife, alcohol, fatigue are compounded here.
THE TONGUE RIVER, WHICH MEANDERS ALONG THE EASTERN EDGE OF THE NORTHERN CHEYENNE INDIAN RESERVATION, IS THE ONLY STREAM IN THE STATE TO HOLD ROCK BASS
Yet, there are many more reasons to make this journey than not, starting with the people themselves. You can explore their cultures anytime, but to catch the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and other Plains Indians in full celebratory regalia, visit during the Crow Fair Powwow in Crow Agency every August. A less boisterous affair is the Northern Cheyenne 4th of July Chief’s Powwow & Rodeo in Lame Deer. At Crow Fair, the rolling grasslands in and around Crow Agency become a jovial, sprawling teepee city with thousands of revelers drumming, dancing, and telling tribal stories.
Of course, there’s also the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument just outside Crow Agency, where the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne outwitted General George Armstrong Custer and, ironically, his Crow and Arikara scouts in the Indians’ most famous military success. The Crow believed if they sided with the U.S. government against the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Nez Perce, they would get to keep much of their vast historic homeland for a reservation. Like every other tribe that signed treaties with Washington, they were sadly mistaken. At 2.3 million acres, their reservation is the largest in Montana, but the Crow lost their prized Stillwater River drainage, the wildlife-rich Paradise Valley, and their sacred Absaroka Mountains.
The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation is about one-fifth the size and was born out of desperation. After the Northern and Southern Cheyenne were subdued and finally surrendered in
1877, they were sent to a reservation in Oklahoma, where the hot and muggy climate was deadly for the unacclimated Northern Cheyenne. When a small band tried to escape, most were killed, but about 125 made it north to Montana and settled near the Tongue River, not far from their traditional homeland in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Eventually, the government provided the small reservation that exists today.
Much of the route hugs the Tongue River on the edge of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation and traverses rugged prairie, range, and badland country with sharp geological features. Consider bringing a canoe and fishing rod. The meandering Tongue might be Montana’s best warm-water stream fishery, with prolific numbers of smallmouth bass, sauger, chub, the prehistoric paddlefish, and the state’s sole population of a Midwest fish called the rock bass.