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Revealing History: MSU Student Joins Archaeological Team to Help Unearth Relics from Crow Tribe's Past

November 14, 2011 -- by Amy Stix
This traditional scraper was made of bottle glass indicating a transition in technology away from stone. Photo courtesy of Project Archaeology
MSU student and crewmember excavating, pauses to pick out a bead from the dirt and place it in the bag next to her. Photo courtesy of Victoria Bochniak
Crewmembers working in pairs to screen material for artifacts such as nails, beads, glass, metal fragments, ceramic fragments, and even fragments of spoons and knives. Photo courtesy of Victoria Bochniak
MSU student Victoria Bochniak excavating near the icehouse, coal house and shop at the Absaroka Agency. Photo courtesy of Victoria Bochniak

One might not automatically associate archaeology with the Montana Department of Transportation. But because of a MDOT road widening project commencing in 2012 on Highway 78 just south of Absarokee, clues about the Crow Tribe’s wrenching transition from its traditional way of life to a sedentary one on a reservation are slowly being unearthed.

And MSU students, including senior Victoria Bochniak, have played a key role in the process.

For Bochniak, the opportunity to join the professional archaeological dig, which took place last summer under the direction of Billings-based Aaberg Cultural Resources Consulting, “was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

The Chicago area native, who is completing a major in Anthropology and minor in Museum Studies, has a particular interest in “historical archaeology,” the time after which Native Americans had contact with Europeans. For this reason, the recent dig was of particular import to her, because, “We can look at these historic records and really connect those with the culture itself and the people…this is a site where we see transition happening.”

The transition was poignant and often tragic, Bochniak noted. Between 1875 and 1884, after witnessing the loss of millions of acres of their reservation lands to encroaching settlers and miners, the Crow Tribe consented with the U.S. government to settle on a second Crow Agency in the Stillwater Valley that today consists of grass and ranchland divided on both sides by Highway 78. It was on this land said Bochniak, that, “Crow leaders acknowledged their traditional way of life was over. They agreed to learn to farm if given land.”

At the same time, the tribe grappled with the loss of the buffalo as their main food source and was hit hard by measles and scarlet fever epidemics.

In 1884, impacted again by miners moving onto their land, the tribe moved once more to its present location at Crow Agency southeast of Billings. The Absarokee Agency Fort, the tribe’s home for nearly a decade, was abandoned and then burned to the ground.

Until last summer, most remnants of life at the fort remained entombed beneath the earth. But an 1878 map enabled excavation crews to locate the original buildings of the main compound, including the agent’s office, clerk’s office, school, and a doctor’s office. The crews were also able to uncover the foundation of one adobe Crow residence.

Particularly exciting for an up and coming archaeologist, said Bochniak, was “being able to connect the archaeological record with the historical record.”

That connection between archaeological discovery and history revealed itself in items such as scrapers, which were household blades used to scrape animal hides and meat. The traditional Crow scraper was made of stone, but the ones found at the dig were all crafted from glass bottles. Bochniak said this discovery of traditional tools made with new materials supports the historical record of the tribe’s shift from its traditional nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one.

Bochniak shared the crews’ discoveries with the public by providing regular educational tours of the dig. She also helped welcome Crow elders, who visited the site and shared stories about life at the fort passed down through generations. Now she’s assisting Project Archaeology, a national nonprofit organization based out of MSU, with the development of an oral history and curriculum project.

According to Project Coordinator Crystal Alegria, Project Archaeology focuses on “making archaeology relevant to the public.” She is working with Bochniak and Project Archaeology curriculum writer, Shane Doyle, himself a Crow tribal member, to create curricula geared for third to eighth graders about life at the old fort.

Alegria said that for MSU students, the opportunity to work on a professional dig and share the importance of preserving humans’ archaeological legacy with others is special to MSU. “It is really unique in that they (students) get a lot of experience doing outreach and education in archaeology early on in their undergrad careers.