Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Reservation Whites

Synchronistically, the newspaper came last week with the obituary of William Bercovich, son-in-law of J.L. Sherburne. I copy it here:

William “Bill” Bercovich, 91, a longtime resident of Browning and a California native, died after a stroke Monday (4-18-05) at his home in Sacramento.

A memorial service will be held at his cottage in East Glacier at a later date.

Survivors include Bill’s daughter Elaine, a schoolteacher in Sacramento, her husband Ric Elliot, and their daughter Rachael.

Bill was born Feb. 27, 1914, in Sacramento and grew up in San Francisco, where his parents lived. He worked in California, Texas, Massachusetts and Montana as a U.S. Border Patrol officer.

In Browning, he met Faithe Sherburne, from a pioneer family that operated the Sherburne Mercantile Co., on the Blackfeet Reservation. They were married in 1943 and then Bill operated the Sherburne Mercantile lumber and hardware business until he retired. In 1988 he moved to California with Faithe, who preceded him in death.

Bill was active in local organizations in Browning including the Lions Club and Shriners. His favorite pastime was golfing, and he spent many evenngs pursuing the sport on the East Glacier Golf Course with numerous good friends from Browning.

He will be remembered by all who knew him for his keen wit and great sense of humor.

Out there on the book shelves is a good deal of historical material about the split between the old non-English-speaking full-blood Blackft and the next generation that was half-white, English-speaking, and educated to some degree -- some quite assimilated. But no one says anything about a similar split within the WHITE community on the reservation between those who grew up there, attending school with local people (necessarily mostly Blackft), and relating to them as friends and equals, versus those who came in from “outside,” who always saw Indians as Indians. It’s a hard difference to explain, except that some people (I would say Bob Scriver, his brother and dad) identified with the place and whoever lived there -- marking off outsiders without regard to sociology. The other group identified with white people and the larger state and nation, partly out of feeling superior, more knowledgeable about the world.

Bill Bercovich brings this to mind because he was always an outsider. His wit and humor were funnier to people with whom he aligned (prosperous whites) -- otherwise they often amounted to put-downs. Notice that J.L. Sherburne’s biography makes a big point out of how friendly he was to Indians. But J.H.’s biography (which J.L. probably also wrote) reports that he spoke Indian languages and signtalk.

Bill didn’t like Bob Scriver much until Bob began to have a national reputation for his art. Then at least Bill concealed his dislike. For contrast, Cooper, another border patrolman, was an enthusiastic friend of Bob’s and never cared about status, even though he came in from outside. Wessie was in the opposite dilemma. She had been taught to value social status, especially since her ancestors were landed gentry in Scotland. That didn’t even register on an Indian reservation. I think she took refuge in thinking that her birth family exceeded in status all represented here. Since Eula Sherburne (nee Churchill) thought rather the same way, they didn’t exactly get along.

Poor Bill is taking the brunt here, but a different split was within the Sherburne family between J. L Sherburne (Eula’s husband) and Frank Ponca Sherburne (J.L.’s brother). Only family members know how the original division in style and goals began, but it ended with J.L. anxious to be a politician, a state-wide force, and a wealthy man. Frank Ponca was far more aligned with the tribe and the locality of Browning.

According to Herb Sherburne (Frank Ponca’s son), when the “big green book” (in which the previously blog-posted biographies originally appeared) was published, J.L. Sherburne felt it was good advertising, a chance to represent himself well. Frank Ponca said he was not inclined to “brag and bray” and was not recorded in the book. T.E. Scriver the same. Herb, a loyal soul who came to Frank Ponca by adoption, speaks fondly and gratefully of the whole family and was friendly with Bill Bercovich. He is a geologist with a special interest in laccoliths, like the Sweetgrass Hills.

The point is that while schisms among the Blackft were affecting events, so were small competitions and resentments determining who socialized with whom (oh, those bridge parties!), how contracts and stock tips went, who had political links out to Helena and who dealt only at home. When it came to ethical matters, one’s frame of reference was very much controlled by these alignments. A person who focussed on white business contacts other places would come to a very different understanding of what to do than a person who was friends with someone whose grandfather was starving at Heart Butte.

The usual socioeconomics of whites applied to the reservation. Both Thad’s sons made first marriages to the daughters of Scandinavian carpenters who worked for the Agency. Whether that was desired or equitable, I don’t know. Bob’s subsequent marriages were to outsiders. The Sherburnes mostly married “up.”

Outsiders from the artistic and literary world (who tended to be critical of local whites) were not trusted by the white burghers. Walter McClintock, Charlie Russell, Frank Bird Linderman, James Willard Schultz, or George Bird Grinnell put the local white-identified-whites on the defensive. Most of what we know about Blackft was gathered by these romantic visitors during summer weeks. They wasted little time on white townsmen because they identified with the Indian people. In terms of respect from the outside world, the split that really counted, ironically, was between whites who identified with other Montana whites and whites who identified with Indians -- with the latter having the advantage.

Even MORE ironically, the Indians who were anxious to offer themselves as experts were often the Indians who identified with whites and wanted to be close to them. Indians who identified with their own old people were elusive, even invisible. They never met trains or went to Washington or took in stray writers. Most of them slipped away without being entirely known, even by their own families.

What I’m saying is that you should never assume you know the real truth about a reservation.

1 comment:

Calvin Tatsey said...

I love it! Finally someone besides me states The Truth. As Malcolm X referred to his brothers and sisters who were and are descendants of slaves who’d lived and served within their masters’ homes, as, “House Niggers,” the Blackfeet “Experts,” were and are referred to as, “Fort Indians,” for similar reasons, i.e., they loved and worshipped their masters and many past Blackfeet families, or parts of current Blackfeet families still do...

My grandfather lived, I was born, permanently lived until five, and partially grew-up on Birch Creek, the furthest point from “The Fort” as one can possibly be and still be a resident of The Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

My great grandfather, Joe Tatsey, did take in a “stray” writer, visited Washington, DC, and most likely,” met trains,” but in the end, what did he apparently-accomplish and most importantly, did he noticeably-benefit my grandfather, my grandfather’s siblings, me, my children, my grandchildren, or most importantly, himself, by his activities? Absolutely not, and there I leave you with a means of measuring, ascertaining and categorizing past, present and future Blackfeet Familial Society, by their contributions and transgressions…

You have to be fair here, my friend. Some of the “elusive” were elusive purely because of cowardice, laziness, or lack of intelligence, so you might want to state the fact, to prevent creating another glorious aspect of Blackfeet Historical Society: The pedigreed “volunteer Indians,” whose only claim to fame (pedigree) would be based upon no one from their line’s ever accomplished anything to be proud of, primarily because they were “invisible”. That would be cruel, and I certainly do know some Blackfeet who are lame enough to go the route, believe me.

ps, You’ll still find me on the outskirts, watching, listening, thinking, and writing.