Friday, April 29, 2005

Whose History Is It?

In 1961 when I came to Browning, Bob Scriver’s outfit on the highway was next to Ed Anderson’s Fifties ranch-style house was next to Bill Kipling’s quite modest frame house was next to Alonzo Skunkcap’s log cabin. ‘Lonzo, very old, had been blinded by epidemic trachoma in the early part of the century and so had his wife. Their allotment was out of town to the West, maybe ten miles, and to heat his log cabin in town ‘Lonzo would hitch up horses and bring wood to town on the running gear of a wagon. If he needed to get out to the ranch and didn’t have his horses, he’d come over and ask for a ride. Since he was agreeable to waiting until we had a break in our work, we always took him. Bob said he had been one of the best hunters on the reservation and his sons were as well. But they verged on the disreputable.

Recently the governor of Montana appointed Gayle Skunkcap to a state commission. Shannon Augare, Elouise Cobell and Wayne Smith have also been appointed to various posts. In four generations, maybe five, the Skunkcaps have gone from subsistence life in a log cabin to being on state regulatory bodies that require a good bit of expertise, which they have acquired in part through managing the reservation. The American story and we’re all proud, right? Wrong. The governnor has gotten DEATH THREATS by phone in the middle of the night for being “too Indian friendly.”

Part of the reason I began this blog project was that in conversation with a town librarian she remarked, “I don’t see why WE should have to learn THEIR history.” She was a bit taken aback by my reaction, probably because she’d never been taught how interwoven is the history of both whites and Indians, Belgians and Blackfeet. The stories of the Conrads and the Sherburnes make that clear. The plot lines include all humans here as well as “natural” history -- even geology. (Coal? Gold? Rivers?) And world history. Blackfeet were warriors in both World Wars.

The story of Bob Scriver is also the story of the Cree Medicine family, skilled foundrymen and mold makers. My autobiography must include all those students I taught (and who taught me). Those who try to draw a line between white history and Indian history are simply not paying attention. The dynamics, both personal and political, alternate between opposition and collaboration, tragic error and idealistic intimacy, business downturn and economic success.

For a while the claim has been made that only Indians can properly write about Indians. Indian scholars wish to claim back the right to look at events from their own perspective, so that they can reap the benefits of Indian intellectual achievements and so they can tell parts of the story that are resisted by the larger society. (Today I read a review that said if Hitler had won WWII, there would have been genocide of Jews in the United States. There was no consciousness that genocide of Indians only stopped a little more than a century ago.)

A lot of energy has been wasted on the pedigrees of “volunteer Indians” (sounds nicer than “wannabe,” don’t you think?) when the same amount of attention to their ideas might have been more productive. If it’s a good idea, who cares what color the author is? If it’s a bad idea, what does the color of the author matter?

At a recent “health fair” in Browning, Thunder Pipe Bundle Keeper wives formed a panel. These women were nothing like each other. One is the young wife of a rather colorful restauranteur. One is a diligent television producer. One is the wife of a prominent Neotraditionalist, a man who once objected to whites being Keepers but who now includes a white Keeper in his Bundle Circle. Another wife is a former president of the Blackft Community College -- her husband is also a strong Neotraditionalist. All are relatively prosperous. The focus of the panel, surprisingly, was “letting go of the past.”

In the past it was unheard of for Bundle Keeper wives to be on a panel that advised others what to do. And only recently people thought of Bundle Keepers as people of status, not as people with an obligation to guide others by their example and advice, though that was clearly the role of very old Keepers. These are not “old-timey” women, but modern, educated professionals. Some of them have devoted many years to recovering the past, for instance, organizing the annual commemoration of the Baker Massacre.

I’m forever telling a story though not everyone appreciates it. Bob and I went fishing out at ‘Lonzo’s place which is full of beaver dams and willow. We waded and lounged and generally were lousy fishermen, but we did catch one small trout. When we stopped back by the log cabin house, Bob put the wee fish on the bare table and told ‘Lonzo we’d brought some fish for dinner.

‘Lonzo felt around until his hands touched the fish and then he laughed, which is what Bob had hoped he would do. Afterwards, thinking of that bare house, I thought it was a cruel trick for an old couple and we’d ought to have given them some real food. But then I remembered that Blackft don’t even eat fish, at least old time ones never did, even when starving. To me, this little story is like a koan or a gospel lesson. But what does it mean? It tugs at my mind.

‘Lonzo laughed. That’s the point. No matter what we did -- what mattered was how ‘Lonzo took it, and he chose to laugh. After all, he could SEE what lousy fishermen we were, so wasn’t the joke on us?

As history meshes and morphs, engages and elaborates and withdraws, the joke is on different people at different times. Certainly the advice of the Bundle Keeping Women is wise in terms of not hoarding old grudges and past offenses. Their own behavior shows that they are not against innovation and experiments. They are not pretending to be 19th century Indians by only preserving ancient rituals, but pointing the way forward towards how Indians can be in the future. They are making history. So is Governor Schweitzer.


Bitterroot said...

What a wonderful perspective! Our family history has it that my great-great grandfather (an Irish revolutionary who came over during the potato famine) was made a blood brother of the Blackft tribe. I've always been very proud of this, but wasn't sure in this day and age whether the Blackft people would be. said...

I like the, "volunteer Indians”. The term does sound nicer than, “wannabe". Good writing and wisdom, my friend!