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Montana's Golden Triangle

A map of the Golden Triangle region in Montana. The triangle denotes that area often referred to the Golden Triangle. The wheat growing are shaded in red, however, is more truthfully the Golden Triangle.

The Golden Triangle in Montana is often mentioned within rural and small town circles in central Montana, but for the most part, many people don’t know exactly where the Golden Triangle is, or its significance. This article is intends to shed some light and provide some information about the Golden Triangle in Montana and highlight photos of the Golden Triangle I have made over the years, too.

Located in north central Montana, the Golden Triangle is generally considered that region south of the Canadian border and north of Great Falls. If you were to draw a line from Great Falls and through Cut Bank to the Canadian border and from Great Falls through Havre to the Canadian border, that would be what most people in these parts consider the Golden Triangle. But that would be unfair those those area immediately adjacent to the Triangle (see right). And just such a definition also fails to explain the people, places, and things within this region that make it worthy of just such a name in the first place.

Back in September last year I contributed photos of the Golden Triangle to Montana Magazine for a piece about the Golden Triangle. I liked the article, which was written by someone else, but I didn’t like the title. It was called, “Wind, Snow, and Mountains: Montana’s Golden Triangle.” For starters, aside from affecting the weather, which contributes to the reason why the regions is well suited to growing wheat and other cereal crops, mountains are not located anywhere in the Golden Triangle. And more to the point, it missed the most crucial ingredient and the reason why the word “golden” is added to its name. Wheat.

Growers in the Golden Triangle of Montana produce more wheat than most other regions of the country. While other regions produce strictly winter wheat, for example, the Golden Triangle is known for its winter AND spring wheat. Wheat, barley, and pulse crops of the engine of the economy in the Golden Triangle, and without it, the Golden Triangle would not be what it is today.

There aren’t a lot of cattle operations in these parts. The soil is far to valuable for growing wheat, barley, and other crops. No, this is wheat and grain country. The word “golden” refers to the amber waves of grain that cascade over the plains in late summer just before harvest. Oceans of wheat move in unison with the wind as far as the eye can see. And then once harvest begins, the late afternoon sun is choked with the dust and chaff kicked up by harvesters and combines, which are busy cutting the crops in the field.

The communities in the Golden Triangle largely depend on the economy that wheat and other crops provide. Even the skyline of Great Falls, the largest city in the region and the Golden Triangle’s anchor, is dominated by grain elevators whose silos are filled with grain in the late summer and early autumn. Other communities, such as Havre, Shelby, Fort Benton, Cut Bank, Conrad, Big Sandy, Choteau, and Chester (just to name a few) exist in large part because of the money wheat and the Golden Triangle provides.

As one of many Montana photographers I enjoy photographing the more hidden haunts of Montana. While there are other Montana photographers working in the vicinity of the Golden Triangle to be sure, I think I am the only one who has dedicated much of his time photographing the rural lifestyle of the region and making photos of agriculture there. While many others photographers would feel more at home making photos of Glacier National Park, I am more at home on the dusty roads and fields of places like the Golden Triangle. I have made many photos of the Golden Triangle and will continue to make many more.

To check out my gallery of Golden Triangle photos be sure to click here: Photos of the Golden Triangle

Be sure to check out my photos of wheat and my photos of combines, too.

When Cowboys Are Indians

Katie Bell, a Fort Belknap cowgirl, member of the Fort Belknap Reservation, and a native Nakoda Indian sits on top of a row of hay bales on her family ranch at Fort Belknap, Montana. → License Photo

PLEASE NOTE: This is the entire unedited article I wrote for the July 2018 issue of Montana Magazine along with all of the ranching photos and photos of native American life on the ranch in Montana that appeared in that publication. Now that Montana Magazine has closed its doors, I am publishing all of my articles here for my blog readers.

Saddles on horses lined up on the Fox Ranch near Hays, Montana on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. → Buy a Print or License Photo

For those far removed from the rural American west, many great misconceptions about the history of cowboys and Indians exist. Hollywood movies over the years have convinced us that American Indian scouts can track any human or animal across any terrain, and that any good cowboy can hit a beer bottle tumbling through the air with his revolver. But perhaps the most damning of all the legends is the notion that cowboys and Indians were once at war with each other. The truth is this simply is not the case.

While cowboys certainly armed themselves against both predators and rustlers, the fact is nearly all the armed conflicts with Indians involved the United States Army, not cowboys. Which is not to say cowboys and Indians have not had their problems over the years. Towns bordering Indian reservations were once the scene of much anti-Indian bigotry. And as farmers and ranchers built their homes on land between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River under the guise of “manifest destiny,” something many Native American Indians saw as nothing more than an excuse to annex Indian territory. Thankfully, there are many more examples of cowboys and Indians getting along today than not. And in a few cases here in Montana, native American Indians are cowboys, too.

Michelle Fox, whose family ranched on the Fort Belknap Reservation in north central Montana for generations, says that in many ways the Native American Indian was America’s first cowboy.

Seth Talksdifferent is a native American Indian who works as a cowboy on ranches in Blaine County. Here he is seen rounding up cattle on the Gordon Ranch near Chinook, Montana. → License Photo

“For a generation or more plains Indians rounded up buffalo on horseback,” she said. “And the skills those early Indians had, in what was surely a very dangerous task, helped them do well as horsemen in ranching, and also inside the rodeo arena.”

According to Fox, Indians in Montana were riding horses long before the ranchers from back east settled here in the state. Montana’s Indians first received horses by trade with tribes in the south, who got their horses from the Spanish explorers, who first brought horses with them to North America.

Native American cowboys started to appear on ranches in Montana in the mid-1800s when settlers all but killed every buffalo in the state. Until then, plains Indians such as the Nakoda (Assiniboine), Aaniiih (Gros Ventre), Niitsitapi (Blackfeet), Nēhiyaw (Cree), Apsáalooke (Crow), and Suhtai and Tsitsistas (Northern Cheyenne) relied on buffalo for sustenance and they were integral to their way of life. Already expert horsemen, some Indians had no other choice but to turn to ranching to help their families survive.

Mackenzie Fox, the daughter of Stephen and Michelle Fox, native American Indian ranchers, fetches her horse early in the morning to round up cattle on the Fox Ranch. → License Photo

Fox’s great-great-grandfather, Belknap Fox, from the Aaniiih tribe, was sent to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania as a child. From 1879 to 1918 Carlisle was the most famous Native American boarding school in the U.S. as it was well known nationally for its football team, which featured the likes of Jim Thorpe and Pop Warner. It was at Carlisle where Michelle’s great-great-grandfather learned the art of cattle ranching. And upon returning to Fort Belknap Reservation he used that knowledge to ranch on his own.

“He was a remarkable man. He is the reason why much of his family are still cowboys and cowgirls today,” Michelle Fox said.

Jerome Bell and his wife Desiree, former high school sweethearts and members of the Nakoda tribe, are also Native American ranchers. And traditional cowboy culture runs deep in their veins. They have four children, all of which have worked by their side since they were young. John Bell, their only son, is a talented roper who competes around the state in the professional rodeo circuit. Their oldest daughter Emily still competes as a barrel racer today and also coaches the MSU-Northern rodeo team with her husband. Daughters Jenna and Katie are also accomplished barrel racers and once competed for the same team her older sister now coaches. Where did they get their passion for rodeo? From their parents of course, both of whom still compete in rodeos themselves.

Stephen Fox, of Hays, Montana, who is a native American from the Kainai tribe, rounds up cattle in the shadow of the Bear Paw Mountains on his ranch. → Buy a Print or License Photo

Jerome says his grandfather began the ranching tradition in their family. “He was active in rodeo but my father was not. Our entire family had a love for horses and that ultimately led to us raising cattle on our land,” he said. In fact, the brand Jerome uses today was inherited from his grandmother.

Desiree Bell says their ranch started small nearly 35 years ago. “We only had 12 head of cattle; a real rainbow heard. Every animal was a different color and different breed,” she said. “But today our heard is made up entirely of black Angus cattle.”

On their ranch everything is done the old-fashioned way. They rope instead of using branding tables. They ride horses instead of using four-wheelers. And they use methods handed down to them from two or three generations of Native American Indians ranchers in their family.

And though they admit ranching is hard work, they consider the ranch they have scratched out for themselves their dream. “The best thing about ranching is the freedom. There’s nobody to answer to except yourself and your family,” Desiree said. “And the banker at the end of the year. But if you do your job right, you don’t even hear from him.”

Jerome said keeping animals healthy and strong is the hardest part, and fighting with the weather, machinery breaking down, and long hard days of work. “But those are problems every cowboy faces,” he said. About the only difference is that they also have to deal with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which they say can be very difficult at times.

Michelle Fox, of Hays, Montana, rides her horse while rounding up cattle on the Fort Belknap Reservation. → License Photo

In their spare time the Bells teach the cowboy code and rodeo to new crop of children on the Fort Belknap Reservation, which culminates every July with the Snake Butte Youth Rodeo Association Rodeo, which they host on their property.

Both Jerome and Desiree Bell see ranching becoming more popular among the younger members of the reservation. “More and more younger people seem interested in ranching,” Jerome said. “And many of them are learning the trade by working on some of the larger ranches off of the reservation.”

Native American cowboys have a rich history in America’s cowboy culture. Their contribution to the world of ranching and the world of rodeo is unmistakable. But their Native American roots are never forgotten on the Fox ranch. Every morning the Fox family starts the day with smudging, a traditional Native American ceremony and prayer practiced by many indigenous peoples throughout America and Canada. It involves the burning of sacred herbs, such as sweet grass and sage. The smoke is then used for spiritual cleansing or blessing, and to help protect their family as they work on the ranch. Elsewhere the Fox family is also active participants in other Native American events on the reservation, too.

The Foxes said the greatest benefit of ranching is teaching their five children what it is like to work hard. On a reservation that regularly suffers from 60 to 70% unemployment, it is hard to find work and the lessons learned on a ranch are valuable indeed. “The work ethic my kids will learn will stay with them through their entire life,” she said. “And at the end of the day, that’s the most important reason we enjoy life on a ranch.”

Portrait of the West: Josh Granell

A close up portrait of a rodeo cowboy in Chinook, Montana. → License Photo

PLEASE NOTE: This is the entire unedited article I wrote for the July 2016 issue of Range Magazine along with my photo of cowboy Josh Granell, of Havre, which also appeared in that feature. I will continue to publish my articles in full here in my blog after some time has passed from the print date. I wait to encourage you to buy a copy of the magazine. If you don’t, I will no longer receive work from magazines. Here is the text of the article below.

Real cowboys aren't born, they're made. Such is the case with Josh Granell, 39, who was born on an Angus ranch on Montana's plains north of Havre, placed on a horse for the first time before the age of two, and began riding on his own by age three.

Quick with the wit and rarely without a smile, Josh describes his hometown (pronounced Hav-uur): "Havre is the little blue dot on the map in the winter where it's coldest and the little red dot on the map in the summer where it's hottest." But he adds, "I love it here and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."

Married to Jennifer, who shares Josh's love of rural life, together they have raised two young girls. Every day Josh works with horses, and when he's not spending time with his family, raising rodeo horses with his father, shoeing horses, or helping neighbors brand cattle, he is practicing and competing in the Montana Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rodeo circuit in team roping and steer wrestling.

"There's a wonderful camaraderie among the competitors in a rodeo just like there is when ranching," Josh says. "Even though you compete against one another, you also help each other become better at what you do."

Western Identity

A cowboy and a black Angus calf take a brief break during a round up near Chinook, Montana. → Buy a Print or License Photo

PLEASE NOTE: This is the entire unedited article I wrote for the May 2018 issue of Montana Magazine about branding season on Montana’s ranches. It included many of my photos of cowboys and photos of cowgirls, too. I will continue to share my published articles here on my blog. Here is the text (and photos) from that article below.

Branding season in the spring is an important time of the year for Montana’s ranchers; not only because it is an important tool to help inventory and track their herd, but it is also opportunity to network and renew fellowship with friends and neighbors. If you have never attended a branding you owe it to yourself to do so. Branding, after all, is quintessential Montana. And it is a living, breathing touchstone to our state’s past.

Much to the surprise of many city folk, branding is required by law in the west. Years ago, before Montana became a state and long before its frontier was tamed, there were no barbed wire fences dividing the prairie land from Jordan to Miles City. Or from Havre to Winifred. Or from Clyde Park to Emigrant. Even today much of Montana’s prairie is considered "open range." Cattle wander far and wide as they feed on grass. Branding season each spring allows ranchers to separate each other's stock and brand that year's annual crop of calves.

M is for Montana. Here it also stands for Mitchell, as in the Mitchell Ranch, near Cleveland. → Buy a Print or License Photo

Another reason ranchers brand their cattle is to help prevent the theft of their animals. Some might thing wrangling is something from the past, but it still happens all too frequently today. Ear tags and electronic radio frequency identification (RFID) can be easily cut and removed from cattle. Branding is the only permanent way to tag an animal to help prevent it from being stolen.

Young Gus Melin enjoys a drink of milk while watching the rest of his family brand cattle near Pray, Montana. → License Photo

Branding, however, is much more than a tool for ranchers to use. Branding is also a tradition and right of passage of sorts for many Montanans. It is a community affair. After the long hard winter, family, friends, and neighbors, often separated by many dozens of miles, come together to help one another on branding day. And although it is not necessarily easy work, branding is something most men, women, and children look forward to in Montana’s cattle country each spring.

Tim Malsam of Chinook, while riding his horse Max, gathers a large herd of black Anugs cattle north of the Bear Paw Mountains. → Buy a Print or License Photo

The moment the morning sun crests the horizon, cowboys and cowgirls saddle up and work together gathering cattle scattered over many acres of Montana’s grasslands. Some ranchers, yes, use all-terrain vehicles (ATVs)—otherwise known as Japanese quarter horses in these parts—but most still prefer using a horse to round up their herds. Every crevice and coulee are searched, high and low, for cows and their calves. Soon all the animals coalesce and skirt over the land in one large pod; moving like a flock of starlings in slow motion across the rural landscape. It is a magnificent sight to behold.

Most of Montana’s cattle are pasture raised. By far. In fact, over 80% of the food in their lifetime comes from eating the native grasses that have grown on Montana’s plains for centuries. The ranchers use grazing practices to prevent overuse of the land—which might damage the grasses their cattle consume. Very little else can grow where in many places the annual rainfall is only one inch more than what is classified as a desert. So, raising cattle on these Montana plains is really is the best use of the land.

Gail Malsam of Chinook races across the prairie on her horse Chance chasing after some cows that separated from the herd. → License Photo

Once the herd is gathered in the corral, sorting and counting begins quickly. This will be the only time these animals are huddled together this closely. They are usually scattered all over the wide-open plains. In less than 30 to 45 minutes the cows will be sorted, separated, and released so they can go back to spending their days outside eating grass, playing, and exploring the open range. Only their calves remain in the corral. Finally, it is time for a break.

A man carries a branding iron back to the "pot" in the midst of a flurry of activity on the Malsam Ranch near Chinook. → License Photo

Everyone looks forward to the food on branding day. Some ranches do a better job than others, but for the most part, the food they feed their helpers is very good. And after the herd is rounded-up, but before branding begins, everyone takes break and has a quick snack. No one will eat a full meal until all the animals have been branded and horses are put away. On the Mitchell Ranch near Cleveland, Montana Doug Mitchell's cinnamon buns are legendary, and they are probably a big reason why the Mitchells have more helpers on branding day than most.

Ethan Klingman and his father Larry take a break in the action on branding day on the Gordon Cattle Company ranch near Chinook. → License Photo

After their brief break, roping begins. Calves are plucked from the corral one-by-one to be branded. Many of these ranchers still use the same ranching methods handed down from generation to generation. The quality and care of their herd is very important to them. They spend their lives raising and respecting their livestock and giving them the best life possible. Many who have never met a real Montana cowboy probably picture a person who is big and brash. And though all but a few are strong to be sure, the truth is they are also modest and reserved. And they are very caring when it comes to tending to their animals. After all, the beef they produce for you to eat is the same they beef they feed their families. So, caring for their livestock is important to them.

Craig Benzing of Lloyd is shrouded in steam rising from a herd of cattle before sorting them early in the morning on branding day. → Buy a Print or License Photo

Children are also commonplace on branding day. Most ride horses with their parents in the saddle when rounding up cattle. Later they will command a horse on their own for the first time (with some guidance, of course) around the age of four or five. And before they are seven or eight they will rope cattle on their own. With few exceptions, these kids are perfectly happy working side-by-side with their parents on the ranch and seldom complain about not having the latest electronic gizmo or video game. No, these kids would much rather receive a new saddle or pair of leather chaps for Christmas. Just ask them.

It only takes a few seconds to brand a calf. They are then counted. And then they are then released so they can be reunited with their mother, who is often baying nearby. Despite these herds having hundreds and hundreds of animals (all of whom look nearly identical), it is amazing to see every calf standing alongside its mother at the end of the day.

When the day’s work is finally done, and the fires are turned off, and after the horses are fed and put away, everyone gathers inside the warmth of the rancher’s house to share a hearty meal that is richly deserved. And often it is a meal that would rival any served on Easter or Thanksgiving Day. Young and old, everyone sits around the table; laughing and telling stories. Some will share a sip of whiskey, others will share a glass of milk. But all of them share a common sense of accomplishment and community often missing in many other homes these days. It is pure Montana.