In September, the Extreme History Project, a nonprofit organization co-founded by historians Marsha Fulton and Crystal Alegria, was selected by the Montana Preservation Alliance to receive a 2012 Historic Preservation Excellence Award. Due to their unflinching look at the history of Fort Parker and the Crow Indian Agency in Montana, the duo was chosen as the year’s Outstanding Tribal Preservation Project.
In 2011, Fulton and Alegria, who have extensive experience in education and archaeology, received a grant from the Montana Department of Transportation to research the history of Fort Parker, the first Crow Indian Agency in Montana, established by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 was built along Mission Creek about nine miles East of Livingston. The project also included obtaining oral histories of Crow tribal descendants.
Through their video interviews with respected Crow tribal members and audio interviews with respected elders, Fulton and Alegria uncovered an unedited history.
They discovered personal accounts of the massive loss of tribal lands taken by the government, Indian children sent to Carlisle Indian Industrial School, broken treaty promises and the establishment of boarding schools in Montana.
Both historians say there is a desperate need for an honest and accurate account of history. “History has to be acknowledged,” says Fulton. “The denial of the truth is what causes so many problems. A true and honest portrayal of this history has the potential to do enormous good for everybody.”
Through lectures and documented oral histories, they have worked to expose how the creation of Fort Parker by the U.S. government forced the transition of a vibrant hunting tribal community into a sedentary ranching and farming community.
More often than not, funding does not cover their costs to continue their work. Driven by their passion to tell an unedited and truthful version of history, Fulton and Alegria often fund their efforts out of their own pockets. “Crystal and I are not paid any money for what we do, we just received our 501(c)3 so now we can start fundraising. We both invested our own money into the work we do.”
In addition to the oral histories, Fulton and Alegria have done extensive research on the history of Fort Parker in order to write a book, with all proceeds going back into their project. The duo has also been approached by PBS Montana to create a documentary to highlight the history of reservation life up to today.
Fulton says the oral histories are in the process of being transcribed and DVDs, CDs and written and digital transcriptions will be made available to the public through five Montana institutions including Little Big Horn College, Plenty Coups State Park and Museum, Montana State University, the Western Heritage Center and the Montana Historical Society. They will also be made available online on a Fort Parker digital database to be set up by the Extreme History Project.
Though Fulton and Alegria say there is not a specific deadline, they’d like to finish their book by 2013, and their documentary will be in the works soon thereafter.
Fulton shared a story told by many of the elder women they spoke with. The elder described tribal members returning annually to the site of Fort Parker to reconnect with other Crow Agency members. During these joyous reunions, women elders of the tribe would collect special stones used to tan buffalo hide. The women said the special stones get buffalo hides extra white.
“One of the women we interviewed said they called these stones adobe,” Fulton said.
Fulton said she had an “aha” moment when she and Alegria realized the adobe stones were most likely leftover from the crumbled remains of Fort Parker. “It was a beautiful full-circle moment that was reflective of the perseverance of the Crow culture,” she said.
In addition to all of their research, The two are also working with their regions Archaeological Conservancy to raise money to purchase seven acres at Fort Parker, which is privately owned. Fulton and Alegria believe if they own the site, its true history can be sustained.
“We are working to record the history of the site, but we are also working to purchase the site of Fort Parker so it will be preserved and protected in perpetuity.”
Fulton realizes not everyone will embrace their honest approach.
“We are just a couple of white chicks trying to tell a story,” she says. “I want people to understand we are not trying in any way to be a mouthpiece for anyone, we are more of a conduit and we want people to understand this is not history told through our perspective. We are trying to keep our voice out of this as much as possible.”
Fulton was honored to play an important part. “It was an honor to hear everyone's stories. We were fascinated by all of them. We will be writing another grant to do more next year and we're really looking forward to it,” said Fulton.
"We know that we are not going to make everybody happy,” says Fulton. That's why we're called the Extreme History Project. We are going to push buttons. We are going to cause people to be uncomfortable. We are going to do things which aren't necessarily popular but that is the message that needs to get out there.”
“We are so excited to be given this award, and it couldn't have come at a better time,” Alegria said.