In early 2020 the North Pacific Union Native Ministries Director reached out to AFM wishing to collaborate efforts to reach Pacific Natives. Three reservations were identified as meeting AFM’s criteria of an un-reached people. Ultimately the Fort Peck reservation in Montana was chosen to become AFM’s first project site on the North America Continent.
Fort Peck Reservation lies in high desert, the portion of Montana that has a “continental type climate.” Annual rain fall is 12.72 inches and is correspondingly dry. Winters are extreme with high winds and sub-zero temperatures. The Fort Peck Reservation is located in the extreme northeast corner of Montana, on the north side of the Missouri River and is the ninth-largest Indian reservation in the United States. It is home to two separate Native nations, each composed of numerous bands and divisions. The Sioux divisions are: Sisseton, Wahpetons, the Yanktonais, the Teton-Hunkpapa. The Assiniboine bands are; Canoe Paddler and Red Bottom. The Reservation is 110 miles long and 40 miles wide, encompassing 2,093,318 acres (approximately 3,200 square miles). Of this, approximately 378,000 acres are tribally owned and 548,000 acres are individually allotted Indian lands. There are an estimated 10,000 enrolled tribal members, of whom approximately 6,000 reside on or near the Reservation.
Educational history on the Reservation includes a government boarding school program which was begun in 1877 and finally discontinued in the 1920s. Missionary schools were run periodically by the Mormons and Presbyterians in the first decades of the 20th century, but with minimal success. There are now five public school districts and the Fort Peck Community college located in Poplar(1).A joint study in 2001 by a Fort Peck high school and the Harvard medical school found the life expectancy on the reservation was 20 years lower than the rest of Montana and a more recent report listed the reservation’s top substance abuse concerns were; 1. methamphetamine, 2. alcohol, 3. gambling, 4. opiates, and 5. tobacco. The top chronic disease concerns were; 1. Diabetes, 2. cancer, 3. heart disease and 4. obesity. The report cited contributing factors as; poverty, low education rates, diet, nutrition, family breakdown, neglect, and hopelessness(2). Montana has the highest suicide rate than any other state and suicide among native youths 11 to 24 are five times higher than non-natives. In 2009-2010 the Fort Peck Indian Health Services (IHS) reported that in the Poplar middle school, seven children succeeded in killing themselves and “dozens” more tried. The IHS called it “suicide contagion”. “We’re at a loss” Said Larry Wetsit, a traditional spiritual leader and former tribal chairman(3).
For more than a decade churches from Michigan, Illinois, Washington, Idaho, and Oregon have been working with the Montana conference and the North Pacific Union as the hands and feet of Christ on the Fort Peck reservation providing free health seminars, cooking classes, medical and dental clinics, vacation Bible schools and more. Property was purchased and a building named ‘The Living Hope Center’ was built to facilitate these programs. David and Cindy White will help coordinate these events, and by God’s grace, deepen established relationships by studying the culture to identify and answer their spiritual questions Biblically, provide an ongoing discipleship program , and identify and train local leaders to prepare their own people and others for a soon coming Savior.
(1) Fort Peck tribes.org
(2) The 2016/2017 Fort Peck Community Health Assessment
(3) July 23, 2019 Mountain West News Bureau (& Billings Gazette 2013)