Sunday, February 10, 2008


One of Langdon Gilkey’s very best books -- perhaps the least theological -- is “Shantung Compound.” Gilkey, who was one of my professors at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a whole lot besides, was a child in a mission family in China when that country was invaded by Japan. The family was interned in a compound in Shantung where the other Westerners rounded up were the best and the worst: several kinds of Christian missionaries and a slew of dock and black-market toughs and sex workers.

The book, while a memoir, is also a reflection on the moral capacities of this mixed bag when put under severe pressure to survive. It turned out that the only person who could be trusted to guard the precious food supply was a hardened criminal sailor who knew that if the food were lost, the whole community was lost -- so he slept at the door, preventing theft by the hungry or by the greedy who would sell it. The Trappists, who suffered the most from the loss of their vows of silence, were big, bearded, robed bears of men who were indistinguishable from each other to the Japanese and therefore got away with small acts for the benefit of the whole.

The most troublesome people were the Protestant missionaries who had families to think of and who constantly agitated for more food, more space, more fuel, for their children and wives. The compound had its own internal Westerner’s government, but at least on one occasion the leaders had to go to the Japanese head of the guards and ask him to have soldiers come to settle quarrels at gunpoint.

That’s background. The Rocky Boy’s Reservation in Montana was originally federal land because it was a fort. When the Indian Wars ended, Rocky Boy’s people had been left with no land of their own and were making trouble on the Blackfeet Reservation where they had been unceremoniously shoved in. So the old fort was converted to the use of Rocky Boy’s people, to be their own reservation with their own sovereign tribal government as well as Federal BIA oversight. Tribes are proud of their sovereignty, which sometimes means economic advantage since they can choose not to accept some state laws. But there is a dark side.

When sovereign tribes turn against members of their own tribes, there is no recourse except the tribal council and tribal courts who may have decided to penalize their members for their own selfish reasons. So Jeanne Hobbs, a Chippewa-Cree elder, has been accused of “slander” and the possible penalty includes the sale of all her property (home, possessions, horses, vehicles), a declaration that she is dead, and banishment from the reservation. Oh, plus a $5,000 fine. Hobbs is accused of writing anonymous letters with copies of canceled checks proving misappropriation of funds. She says she didn’t write the letters.

State supreme courts have no jurisdiction over reservations unless specifically given it in a contract with the tribe. Federal courts and the BIA are very reluctant to get involved. I suspect they feel rather like the Japanese did when trying to pin down the Trappists who defied them.

Reservations were created out of the realization that indigenous peoples with their own culture could not be fairly judged by a dominant invading culture, particularly one that had been trying to eliminate them from existence. But as Indians have assimilated to white ways, they have absorbed the bad with the good. What would once be settled by people going off to cool down or join another band, is now confined to the social pressure cooker that is a reservation with too few resources for the people expected to live there. Leaders have taken on the strategies of the white men they have observed in the school systems, the hospitals, and the businesses of the high dry prairie. As one nursing home administrator put it, “If anybody gives you trouble, fire the sunnavabitch. Plenty of other people need jobs.”

My sympathy with Jeanne Hobbs is born of experience, not with a sovereign tribe but with bullying administrators who keep control through threats and punishment -- following by firing if they can swing it. What will prevent that, and possibly lead to the leaving of the administrator, is a strong local coalition of family members. Thus, I know that probably if Jeanne Hobbs has a strong family that wants her protected, it will be the criticized leadership that may find themselves “declared dead” and ordered to leave.

Thus such strategy leads in circles, feeding back bitterness on itself and often fomenting violence in a place that can ill afford it. There’s not a lot of difference -- except for the naked naivete of tribal leaders doing such a thing as compared with the sly behind-the-scenes pit traps invented by Washington D.C. lawyers -- from the sort of thing the Bush administration has been doing: marking internal critics (ie. enemies) for destruction. I’ve taken to quoting over and over whoever it was who said that Russia’s fatal flaw is their belief that “the last man standing” is the way to define superiority. Sure, if you don’t mind standing there all by yourself in a howling flat lonesome snowscape, having destroyed everything else.

In 1961 when I first came to teach in Browning, I had a speech and drama class and was quick to launch what I had just learned from Dean Barnlund at Northwestern University. Discussion techniques like “bird-caging,” repeating opinions back to the expressor of them, summarizing what had been said so far, pointing out agreement, making an opening for the quiet or shy, were -- we hoped -- the salvation of democracy. But you couldn’t learn these techniques without issues that the discussers cared about. The kids wanted (BADLY) to discuss being beaten up by the cops. So we did. But the chief of Tribal Police immediately showed up at my classroom door with his citation book out, another version of “beating up,” though he had no jurisdiction over white people.

The superintendent, Phil Ward, had a long talk with this man -- pointing out that the defense for slander and libel is simply proof that the allegation is true. But he also ordered me to drop the topic. Later, one of the students witnessed a beating in the jail -- her bedroom overlooked the jail window. By that time I was with Bob Scriver (city magistrate and justice of the peace) and he stepped in. I don’t know what he did, but the cop in question stopped. At least for a while. That’s how things work on a reservation -- or did then.

In the past there have been efforts to organize a National Tribal Supreme Court that could adjudicate sovereignty gone haywire. It hasn’t worked, probably at least in part because threats like those against Hobbs are so useful to some people. What they don’t see is that eventually the erosion of sovereignty will end tribal courts, tribal justice, and possibly reservations. Then they can stand with pride on a flat, howling, lonesome snowscape -- all alone.

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