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Montana, the fourth largest state, is largely known for its mountains in the far western part of the state. Its name, after all, comes from the Spanish word montaña for “mountain.” But east of those peaks, a far larger slice of the state is defined by its expansive prairies, the Missouri River, and its many tributaries. The beautiful Montana landscapes Meriwether Lewis and William Clark saw for the first time just over 200 years ago, especially the prairies along the Missouri River, have changed very little. And although Montana’s rugged ranges and awesome summits are a sight to behold, the solemn prairies east of the mountains are teaming with wildlife, beauty, and culture not available anywhere else in the world.  

The only traffic jams in some parts of rural Montana occur when ranchers move cattle from one pasture to another, as seen here south of Havre, Montana. Cattle drives are as old as ranching itself in the Big Sky State. “Neighbors,” who often live dozens of miles away, help each other with large tasks on each other’s ranch. Few people outside of Montana’s interior ever get to see a cattle drive up close. In Montana, however, which has almost three times as many head of cattle as people, cattle drives are commonplace, and they serve as a touchstone to America’s past.

Windmills, as they are called in rural Montana, do not technically mill grain at all. They pump water. And they can be seen everywhere on Montana’s plains east of the Rocky Mountain slopes, where the wind is stiff and blows hardest. Windmills harvest the wind and turn it into energy to pump water for cattle in pastures often many miles from the nearest electricity. And on an otherwise barren (though beautiful) landscape, they are frequently the only landmark one can see for many miles around. This particular windmill, seen after a summer rain shower passed, was found near a small placed called Laredo, Montana.

Most English-speaking native American Indians in Montana traditionally refer to bison as “buffalo,” such as these three buffalo flying across the wide-open prairie at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana. The buffalo was very nearly hunted into extinction in these parts many years ago, but the Assiniboine (Nakoda) and Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) tribes at Fort Belknap are bringing their numbers back. The Nakoda call them tatanka, and the Aaniiih call them ‘íítaan n’i. Whatever they are called, they are strong, swift creatures that once ruled the grasslands in these parts for many centuries.

The neon sign for the Elk Bar in Chinook, Montana is a landmark of sorts in this small ranching town in north central Montana. Popular in the first half of the last century, neon signs are now being replaced with brighter and energy efficient LED signs. But there is an effort in Montana to preserve the ones that remain, and beautiful examples of these beautiful old signs are seen in many small rural towns in Montana today.

Seven Indian reservations are located in Montana, including the Blackfeet, Crow, Flathead, Fort Belknap, Fort Peck, Northern Cheyenne, and Rocky Boy’s reservations. And each tribe located at them celebrates their own culture and heritage in different ways. Here Amy Claire Cochran, of Hays, Montana, is a young powwow dancer wearing colorful native American Indian regalia at the Wasay Wakpa Wachi Powwow in Lodge Pole, Montana. Powwows are a native American Indian ceremony that include food, singing and dancing and they are common all across Montana. Most of these ceremonies are open to the public and they are a great way to learn more about native American Indian culture.

The Marias River is a tributary of the Missouri River located in north central Montana. It was explored by in 1805 by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, who mistakenly thought it was the main branch for the Missouri River. The river twists and turns through deep canyons and lush, magnificent prairies. The Piegan tribe called it “The River that Scolds at All Others,” but Meriwether Lewis who scouted the river named it in honor of his cousin Maria. Today it is rich with fish and wildlife and the Marias provides water to farms and ranches along its fertile banks.

Eastern Montana has stunning sunrises and sunsets that are every bit as glorious as those seen on the shores of tropical islands, such as this sunset at Hell Creek State Park on the eastern side of Fort Peck Lake in Montana. And although the name “Montana” comes from the Spanish word montaña for “mountain,” its nickname, “The Big Sky State,” comes from its wide-open prairies where the skies are big, beautiful, and uninterrupted. Huge swaths of native grasses and large fields of wheat wave in the wind like the lapping waves of an ocean. In one of the most sparsely populated places in the continental United States, 40 of Montana’s 56 counties are larger than two of America’s smallest states. Combined.

Once the grass turns green, nary a weekend goes by when there isn’t a rodeo someplace in Montana. Such is the case seen here at the Blaine County Fair in Chinook, Montana, which hosts one of the best independent rodeos in the state on the second weekend in August every year. Cowboys and cowgirls, both young and old, compete in various events, a tradition that dates back more than a hundred years. Montana’s first big rodeo took place in Wolf Point, Montana in 1915 and it is known as the granddaddy of all Montana rodeos.

Recognizing Cowboys
Great Plains Minimalism in Photos

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