Tuesday, September 05, 2006


A reservation is not a Native American concept. Exactly what an American reservation is has not been settled. Is it a sovereign nation within the larger nation? Is it a sort of state? Then what is its relationship with the United States? Is it a reserve in the same sense as a refuge for animals? Or is the reservation a kind of concentration camp where tribes are confined? Maybe it is just a way of redefining free land so that white homesteaders and prospectors can move in -- one cannot define a governed territory as NOT a reservation without setting a boundary with a reservation. All of these ideas have been milling around against each other since 1850 or so, when the first prairie treaties were signed.

The clearest concept is that reservations are where white people confront Native Americans. In that sense, the first American Blackfeet reservation began with Fort Benton and the associated enterprises made possible by steamboats that could bring people and goods right into the heart of what became Montana -- then turn around to transport buffalo hides and beaver pelts back to St. Louis, where William Clark (of Lewis & Clark) was the Indian agent of the whole territory. This “highway” was a huge advantage for the Americans. It allowed access to artists and aristocrats from Europe without long horseback or wagon trips, and got them to the interior much more quickly. It also supported the slaughter of the buffalo, since a ship could transport many hides economically. In Canada pack trains had to take commodities either to Hudson’s Bay or to the Pacific Coast over the mountains.

On the Canadian side reservations are called “reserves” and have different history. White people were there much earlier and represented Hudson’s Bay Company more than any nation. When the reserves developed, it was pretty clear that they were meant to keep white people out. The land was never subdivided and alloted to individuals as it was on the American side. Brits were much more experienced with handling colonial populations and though they were patronizing and patriarchal, the bulk of the Blackfoot nation, which was on that side of the border, was able to keep its identity much longer. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were able to establish and maintain law and order both earlier and more effectively than the politically vulnerable forces on the US side.

The first Montana Blackfeet agency was in Fort Benton. It was a rough settlement where the first governor of the state, Meagher, was mysteriously lost overboard, and where trouble constantly brewed with the Blackfeet -- sometimes with the help of Meagher, who was not a mild-mannered or conciliatory person. Then the agency was moved to Sun River, where troops were stationed to protect the gold rush underway in Helena. Again, to suit ranchers, the border and agency were moved north to Choteau, then to Old Agency on Badger Creek, and finally to Browning where it has remained. The boundary of Birch Creek on the south edge of the rez has remained pretty much the same, though it was often violated by nearby white ranchers seeking new grazing.

The western boundary was the pre-existing Rocky Mountains, a geological barrier that the tribes of the plateau crossed with some risk. So did the railroad. To the north the edge of the Montana reservation is the Canadian border, determined via survey by Lewis & Clark to be the 49th parallel, the farthest reach of the Mississippi drainage. To the east the boundary was pushed in as far as it would go when oil was struck. Mysteriously, most of the oil patch is just off the reservation, but Cut Bank Creek is roughly the edge.

At the beginning of the 21st century about 8,000 enrolled tribal members live off the reservation and around 8,000 live on tribal land. The land was allotted, homestead-style, to individuals at the beginning of the 20th century. Much of it has been patented, which means it can be sold to anyone or used as collateral for loans. Estimates of how much is no longer owned by tribal members go as high as fifty per cent. It is possible for tribal members to put patented land back into trust with the U.S. Government, if they feel it will be safe there.

Because the population of Blackfeet is expanding, land that was allotted a hundred years ago has been inherited through many generations until the present ownership of even a town lot might be splintered into a hundred people, some of whom have disappeared into the larger diasphora of the world so that legal agreements are impossible. This means that sale, occupation, improvement, and taxation are all made dubious or paralyzed in family quarrels and accounts for some of the shabbiness that accumulates. Recently, leaders have begun to take action to seize this land by condemnation or something similar, so that hazardous old buildings can at least be bulldozed. In some cases people have figured that if there is no majority to rent them the land, then no majority can be mustered to throw them off -- so they just squat.

Nevertheless, the Blackfeet were fortunate in keeping their lands. There was no Trail of Tears or deportation by boxcar. Ancient visionquest sites, the locations of major events, and even much of the patterning of pre-Columbian life (Spring Bundle-Opening, summer berry-picking) still remains, so long as the tribe is alert and conscious of what they have. Elouise Cobell has been quick to understand legal and financial “instruments” that will take advantage of tribal sovereignty. For instance, Nature Conservancy was able to protect the Scriver ranch estate, Flatiron, by partnering with the tribe the same as they would with a state. The Blackfeet are just beginning an experiment with a major casino after two small ventures.

Consciousness of the four entrances to the reservation have been raised by the emplacement of two huge guardian warriors at each compass point. Welded together from parts of abandoned cars, these warriors embody new uses for old materials, proudly identifying the home of the Montana Blackfeet.

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