Sunday, October 21, 2007


Bob Scriver used to say it’s always better to be a pessimist, because then if you turn out to be wrong, you’ll be pleased. So right away I was pleased to arrive in the conference hotel next to Blackfeet scholars! I didn’t expect to see any there. None were advertised in the publicity beforehand. Willene Old Person, who gave the fine archeology talk about Glacier Park last August at the Piegan Institute history conference, was there, as well as Patty and John Murray and others I didn’t spot right away since I don’t know them so well.

They had been encouraged and enticed by a special program showcasing Montana Tribal College History Scholars and managed by George Oberst, a quiet force for good, who gave out some nice money rewards supplied by the Washington Foundation (the millionaire, not the state). It was enough for gas for whole families of the presenters to travel, so you know it was generous.

Deanne Morris, Blackfeet daughter of Jackie Parsons who is the head of the Montana Arts Council, gave a Power Point presentation that was elegantly simple in concept but one of those door-opening bits of work: she simply researched the lives of the Blackfeet signers of the 1855 Lame Bull Treaty and even managed to find drawn portraits. What surprised me most was that several had signed both the Lame Bull Treaty and the Canadian Treaty 7, which was with the Blackfoot tribes up there. She didn’t explore the political implications or even outline the splits among the Lame Bull signers, which were severe, but somehow that helped to give the audience a sense of who those men were.

The other presentations were by Jason Smith from Salish/Kootenai and Peter Bearcomesout, a Cheyenne from Chief Dull Knife College. I had very little sense of what they said since no effective microphones had been provided and they had soft voices. Just another of the little oversights that make minorities feel shushed. On the other hand, I went around beforehand and turned all the lights up, in hopes of seeing the faces of the speakers. But then someone else had to go around and turn them all back down so we could see the Powerpoints, which all worked very well. Remarkable. The IT man was on his toes.

Two “regular” presentations were about Native Americans but not from them. The one I really drove down there to hear was by Andrew Graybill from the University of Nebraska, who has been researching the Clarke family, esp. Helen Clarke, the first female (as well as mixed-blood) school superintendent in Montana (in Helena) and the first owner of a piano in the state. Blackfeet on one side and upper class white on the other side, Helen’s accomplishments included touring Europe with Sarah Bernhardt. She declined to continue with her acting career on grounds that she could not “step out of herself” to be the characters, but maybe it was a case of people being so curious about her genes that they didn’t pay attention to her stage work. Anyway, she never lacked for things to do.

The Blackfeet emerged from the Dawes Act vivisection of the rez with better results than some tribes, probably because of the efforts of Helen. She’s a beautiful woman with the hair-curler bangs still popular among Indians today, but with a back arrangement in a kind of roll, more in keeping with her period. She never married. Who WOULD she marry? She was a “Parlicoot” -- a unique being. But she was an accomplished hostess and kept house for her brother, Horace who also sometimes was called Malcolm, on their ranch behind the Big Hotel in East Glacier, surely one of the most beautiful locations on the planet. Graybill is proceeding through the documentation in many places, reading accounts by friends and actual correspondence to and from Helen as well as newspaper stories.

Which leads me to a conversation that began about a session concerning Teddy Blue Abbot. I was talking to Dale Burk, there as the owner of Stoneydale Press to promote their books, about whether the descendants of the persons being researched had been invited or would receive accounts of what was said. Abbot’s son, for instance, is living and could attend, as is Joyce Clarke Turvey, John Clarke’s daughter. It has been my dismaying experience that historical societies and so on are quick to separate historical individuals from their families and communities. Maybe it’s because they are afraid of interference, or out of a sense of ownership, or because it’s too confusing to address, but research tends to be limited to what can be found in papers and books, especially those in official archives. Maybe it’s a simple matter of those institutions promoting their own services.

But the effect is a kind of flattening and a loss of context that could make the subject both more accurate and more alive. For instance, I believe that Sherry Smith, in her book called “Reimagining Indians,” got Walter McClintock entirely wrong. For a while there was such a tendency to candy-coat major figures, that maybe we’ve gone too far in the other direction, demanding that evil and conspiracy be unmasked on all sides. Sometimes it's a matter of (again) ignoring minorities. No one has ever interviewed the Cree Medicine family about their long relationship with Bob Scriver.

We speculated on whether this might be aggravated by the dynamic of researchers and writers having come from the East, educated in eastern schools and simply not realizing that people living a hundred years ago have descendants alive today who actually knew their ancestors. The West seems to these researchers a mythic place without real connections to the ordinary. While looking up something about Bob Scriver, I sat with one young archivist who told me with great feeling the contents of an essay about the death of Bob’s daughter. She regaled me with the facts, not realizing that I was THERE when Margaret died and had written the piece she was quoting. I felt both disrespected and invisible. Like an Indian.

The second speaker at this session was Carol Williams from the University of Lethbridge, just a little over a hundred miles to the north of me here in Valier. In Canada many of the US movements live on even as they sputter out on this side of the line, so Carol is an “old-fashioned” feminist who thinks in terms of labor, specifically NA and Aboriginal women’s labor, both professional and -- what to call it? “Women’s work?” You know: cooking, laundry, typing, and all that. Indigenous women have always been pressed into that sort of jobs, but some manage to escape mission and school categories. I want to put her in touch with some of the professional women among the Blackfeet. Margaret Bell is particularly interesting since she worked as management in the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs in Chicago during some major transitions.

But I also want to point out to Carol the “sister chains” that often govern employment around Browning. I’m thinking of the Bremner girls, the Bullshoe girls, the Pepion girls, and Lucille McKay’s “Drive-In girls” who were not genetic daughters but were trained by her. One member of a family would get a job clerking or cleaning or cooking or even teaching, do well and then show the way and recommend sisters. Sometimes this system would go down several generations. It always made me think of the old polygamous chief who recommended to the young man that when he chose his wives, he should marry close relatives so they wouldn’t get into fights over how to run things.

The conference center in Helena, a part of town developed when the old rail yards were abandoned, makes me shake my head. Organized around a sheltered carousel, everything is in a faux antique style with no edges knocked off, very studied and for some reason DARK. Dark woodwork, dark brocade unholstery. The two big federal buildings, both named for living politicians (Hatfield and Baucus) look like penny banks or industrial kitchen equipment. The ridged dome on the Hatfield Court House looks like a juicer. Some of the buildings feature “quilted” stainless steel. I don’t understand this architecture at all. Maybe it’ll mellow. But it’s clear what the main amenities in that section of town are: coffee and ATM’s. Presumably a little justice and knowledge gets worked into the pattern now and then.

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