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The Rich Culture of Montana, from Their People to Their Powwows



People of Montana

Montana is a large state with a small population. In most years, the population has grown slowly. According to the 2020 census, the population of the state was 1,084,225. Montana ranks 44th in population among the 50 states. The estimated population density is 7.4 people per square mile (2.8 people per square kilometer). Today, the western part of the state is gaining population, while the eastern part is losing population. Most growth is taking place in Montana's urban centers.

Montana has a higher percentage of White people and of Native Americans than most other states. In 2020, Montana's population was 84.5 percent White; 0.5 percent African American; 6.2 percent Native American; 0.8 percent Asian; 0.1 percent Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander; 6.6 percent two or more races; and 0.6 percent other groups. In addition, 4.2 percent of Montanans identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino (they can be of any race).

Native Americans

Since 1900, the Native American population of Montana has more than doubled. More than 67,000 live there today. Most Native Americans in the state live on seven reservations. Many families, though, live outside the reservations.

The Kutenai-Salish live in the Flathead Lake area on the Flathead Reservation. The Piegan Blackfoot make their home on the Blackfoot Reservation east of Glacier National Park.

The Gros Ventre and Assiniboin live on the Fort Belknap Reservation in north-central Montana, while the Sioux and other Assiniboin are at Fort Peck Reservation in the northeast. The Crow Reservation is south of Hardin; the Northern Cheyenne Reservation is near Lame Deer. The Chippewa-Cree occupy Rocky Boy's Reservation near Havre.

The reservations vary in size and type of location. Several reservations are large and have many natural resources, while others are small and have poor land. On each reservation, tribal councils oversee education, law enforcement, and other matters for the nation.

In recent years, Montana's Native Americans have felt renewed pride in their identity. Annual powwows are held on the reservations, and each reservation has a tribal college. Problems persist, however, including a lack of good jobs.

Diversity - Past and Present

The history of Montana is one of diverse groups migrating to the state. During the gold-rush and mining days of the 1880s and 1890s, Americans and European immigrants came to Montana. Some Jewish, Chinese, and African Americans also arrived during the gold rush.

In the early 1900s, railroads brought thousands of farmers to eastern Montana. Many of them were American-born; others were immigrants. Russians, Germans, and Scandinavians founded their own communities, and some of these exist today. Many Hispanics came to Montana to work in the sugar-beet fields in the 1920s.

During World War II, some Japanese Americans were shipped to Montana to work in the sugar-beet fields. Some stayed afterward, and there are still Japanese American families along the Yellowstone River.

More Asians arrived after the Vietnam War, when Laotian Hmong people came to the Bitterroot Valley, Missoula, and Billings, and some still live in Montana. Still, the population of Montana today has few African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or Jewish people compared with many other states.

A Rural State

Montana is a rural state. There are no huge metropolitan areas. Helena, the capital, has a population of 32,091 (2020 census).

There are many small towns supported by farming and small businesses. Montana ranks among the ten states with the lowest percentage of resident population living in metropolitan areas. Families living in remote rural areas, however, may feel less isolated today; many of them are connected to the world through the Internet.


The state-university system, Montana State University and the University of Montana, represents the two largest universities in the state. Montana State University has its flagship campus in Bozeman and others in Billings, Havre, and Great Falls; the University of Montana includes campuses in Missoula, Helena, Butte, and Dillon. There also is a selection of private, public community, and tribal colleges in the state.


Most of the people in Montana are Christians. The largest single denomination is Roman Catholic, but more people belong to the Protestant denominations. Lutheranism, brought by the Scandinavian settlers of the eastern plains, is the major Protestant denomination in Montana.

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The Mormon Church, headquartered in Utah, is growing quickly in Montana, and many Evangelical Christian groups have formed. In fact, the number of Evangelicals exceeds the number of mainline Protestants. Less than 1 percent of the population is Jewish.

Arts and Recreation

Montana has a rich heritage in the arts. The Montana Arts Council and the state tourism office work with community organizations and with individuals to support the arts. Music, theater, and dance are alive and well in Montana.

In many communities, musicians get together in orchestras and other musical groups. Universities and colleges present concerts and recitals. Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Missoula, Helena, and several other communities have symphony orchestras. The Cascade String Quartet and the Chinook Winds Quintet are parts of the Great Falls Symphony Orchestra.

Theater and dance are available year-round in Montana. The Virginia City Players, founded in 1949, is the oldest theatrical company in Montana. The Montana Repertory Theatre, based at the University of Montana in Missoula, presents plays by regional playwrights to communities around the state. Bozeman has the Montana Ballet Company. The Montana Dance Arts Association encourages dance-company performances statewide.

Many musical and theater events blossom in summer. Festivals featuring jazz, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, and classical music are found throughout the state. Music events include the Red Lodge Music Festival for high-school students in Billings, the Montana Folk Festival in Butte, and the International Choral Festival in Missoula.

Summer theaters include the Port Polson Players in Polson, Fort Peck Summer Theatre in Fort Peck, and the Bigfork Summer Playhouse on the northeast corner of Flathead Lake in Bigfork. Shakespeare in the Parks gives performances in many Montana communities.


The International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula is an important film event in Montana today.

Montana's spectacular scenery has been featured in many movies, including The Horse Whisperer, Forrest Gump, and A River Runs Through It. The Montana Film Office, created in 1974, encourages film production in the state.


Montana literature includes Native American myths and stories, explorers' journals, pioneers' diaries, poems and stories of the mining towns, and the literature of today. The book, The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology, is filled with a sampling of this literature.

Thomas Dimsdale was the first white settler in Montana to publish a book, Vigilantes of Montana, or Popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains. Dorothy M. Johnson, A. B. Guthrie Jr., and Norman Maclean are important Montana writers of the past. In 1950, Guthrie received a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Way West. Today, Ivan Doig's This House of Sky is a favorite Montana book, as is James Welch's Fools Crow.

Fine Art and Photography

Charles M. Russell is Montana's best-loved artist. His sculptures and paintings portray the history and culture of the West. Edgar S. Paxson's paintings also have western themes. Paxson worked on his famous painting Custer's Last Stand for 21 years.

F. J. Haynes rode the Northern Pacific Railway to photograph early Montana. When pioneer Evelyn Cameron died in 1928, she left 1,800 negatives and 2,500 photographs of eastern Montana. Cameron's photographs were published long after her death. John Smart is among the many who have photographed Montana's landscapes.

Sports and the Great Outdoors

Montanans enjoy many kinds of sports and outdoor activities. They hike, swim, fish, ride horseback, and appreciate nature in 10 national forests, two national parks, more than 50 state parks, and many state recreation areas.

Float trips, ice fishing, and hunting are popular activities. Archery, target shooting, cross-country and downhill skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, and dogsledding are other outdoor pastimes.

Montanans enjoy spectator sports, too. Billings, Great Falls, Helena, and Missoula have minor-league baseball teams in the Pioneer Baseball League. Junior-hockey games are growing in popularity.

Of course, many people are enthusiastic followers of high-school and college teams. The annual football and basketball games between Montana State University at Bozeman and the University of Montana at Missoula are major sports events.

Skating takes place indoors year-round. The speed-skating oval at the High Altitude Sports Center in Butte is the highest in the world. The sports center is a former training site for the U.S. speed-skating team. It also has hosted the World Cup Speed Skating competition.

Montana has numerous major rodeos and many other smaller rodeos held in communities and on ranches. Montana's Alice Greenough, a true rodeo queen, was named to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. In earlier times, rodeos featured cowhands showing their skills at roping steers and riding broncos and bulls. Today, many rodeo participants are professional athletes.


Native American nations hold powwows on Montana's seven reservations to celebrate their heritage. The Crow Fair and Rodeo is a famous powwow held each August. Native Americans from many states and Canada camp in tepees along the Little Bighorn River. Dancing, horse races, games, foods, music, and a parade are part of the huge event.

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