Sunday, April 13, 2008


Lately there seems to be a much greater willingness to talk about corruption and to point out examples. This muck-raking, esp. in the media and during a political season, may be self-serving and a corruption in itself with unjustified accusations and phony indignation. But today the GF Tribune took on a story about the Blackfeet tribe’s long struggle with corruption. Of course, this must be considered in terms of the birth of the reservation, which was accompanied by much hornswoggling and boundary gerrymandering, then continued by crooked Indian agents who sold food meant for the starving tribal members and local opportunists who soon held title to land patented by tribal members who should never have been certified competent (some retarded, some demented, some blackmailed), and finally crowned by the United States government -- as trustees of tribal assets -- embezzling the tribe’s legitimate income for its own ends, like bailing out Chrysler or New York City.

I often wonder WHY? WHY is corruption such an on-going problem here? These are some of my brainstormed possible answers.

1. The first is in my introductory paragraph: things have always been done this way here. But surely not before white contact? Wasn’t everything wonderful then? Buffalo and the other elements of existence were so plentiful that there was enough to go around unless there were weak and dependent people who couldn’t hunt or maintain their lodge. In that case, relatives or compassionate leaders helped them out. In any case, the ethic was that the band (more than the tribe, which is sort of a Euro-imposed notion) had to survive, not the individual. War or theft from another band, so long as it wasn’t closely related, was as close as things came to corruption. And there WERE strong religious precepts against the kind of hoarding that leads to corruption and in favor of generosity, even though it was a world in which one person was not notably living in more luxury than another.

2. The inflation of wealth fueled by horses -- which not only made it more possible to raid others but also made it easier to haul all the loot around -- took minds off survival in order to contemplate luxurious excess. Then domination by whites pushed survival down, down to refugee camp levels, when enough food to live through the day was the goal. Disease destroyed families, made people fear each other and avoid cooperation, undermined the sense of being one with the world. There appeared to be no future. It was decades before the agent was able to write, “This year is the first in which there were more births than deaths.”

3. Aside from teaching people in the most brutal way that they must compete or die, this dire strait left the people with the vengeful feeling that they “deserve” anything they can beg, borrow, or steal. This is not confined to reservations: think of people who shoplift from fancy stores, rationalizing that the stores can spare it and “owe” a person. Theft is a fine imposed by a wronged victim.

4. Everyone does it. There’s no shame in cheating the IRS, right? Just don’t get caught. But after all, they EXPECT cheating and set the rates to compensate for that. It’s a bit of a game to see if you can beat the system. Who can resist poker played against a fat capitalist? Hacking a system that is heartless? Isn't it a victimless crime?

5. The regulations, inspections, monitors, auditors and investigators are so underfunded, so unwilling to get to Browning, Montana, and stay for the time necessary that they are easy to evade.

6. It’s a sign of intelligence to be able to cook the books, control the odds, create new layers of profit -- just like the big boys do. The paper every day explains how real estate brokers, hedge fund analysts, bundlers, penny stocks, etc. managed to fool everyone into thinking there was profit in something that didn’t really exist. People show their friends how to do it.

7. Just plain simple perceived need, like all the people (especially women) across the state who are constantly caught embezzling and “borrowing” money from school or community programs and organizations -- not for themselves so much as for their families who think they MUST have so much more than they ever did before. (A Blackfeet friend of mine found that one of his grandkids had left his iPod at his house. He wasn’t sure which one of the several kids with iPods had left it. We pondered what he would have thought of an iPod in the Sixties: the technology of it, the cost of it. In those days he was overjoyed to get a free candy bar.) Now the scale of “need” is not a simple treat but for some expensive status toy. Maybe a handsome sports jacket with leather sleeves.

8. Every financial transaction is so dense with rules, all of them with complex footnotes and exceptions, that a person can hardly manage to do the right thing, for lack of being able to figure it out. Therefore consequences seem arbitrary and surprising.

9. The safeguards and oversights too easily become new ways of corrupting the system, either by hiding offenses, or by the enforcers using them for extortion. The ones in charge are the ones who become corrupt. School principals, for instance, have a myriad of opportunities to manipulate money, discipline, athletic rules, access to services, use of space, insurance contracts, kickbacks for materials and even grades. Teachers, less so. The janitor is probably reduced to simple theft and lies, same as the kids.

10. No one cares very much. They despair.

This story in the newspaper was about “Cameron,” the fossilized baby dinosaur lying in state at the Blackfeet Heritage Center, which was built as the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife. The idea is that the tribe will have to sell the fossil to raise money because of huge debts.

In their October 18, 2007, audit report, Forensic Solutions LLC of Fargo, N.D. notes: “There is evidence of pervasive corruption in almost every department. The common theme for fraud appears to be personal use of tribal vehicles, credit cards, travel vouchers, abuse of grant money and political cronyism. ... Further investigations might uncover more schemes such as ghost employees, shell corporations, unauthorized bank accounts, and other criminal conspiracies.” My suspicion is that there are plenty of off-reservation non-Indian co-conspirators -- as there have been since the beginning.

Take the baby dino fossil. The up-front suggestion is to sell it as a fungible asset though it was a gift to the tribe to be kept in trust for people everywhere. The second level suggestion is that it could be the centerpiece of a dino museum that would raise lots of money. The third level suggestion (covert) is “give us money or we’ll shoot this baby dino. We’ll have no choice but to deprive the Montana people of this wonderful object by selling it on the open market.” This wouldn’t be a viable threat unless someone already wants to buy it.


Rebecca Clayton said...

This sounds very similar to government corruption in the Southern Appalachians (where I live now) and also the District of Columbia (where I used to live).

A lot has been written about both places. For Appalachia, some of it has been linked to the Reconstruction policies of post-Civil War governments, which made it possible for "carpetbaggers" to come in and buy up land, timber and mineral rights. Most coal, timber, and factory wealth is still funneled out of the area.

The District of Columbia is another place where self-determination is only a recent innovation, and quite incomplete. (No representation in the Federal government, everything local government decides is still subject to veto by the Feds.)

There's an academic cottage industry in analyzing the history of Appalachian exploitation, so there are plenty of books out there, taking various sides and approaches. I expect you could find plenty of parallels if you are so inclined.

prairie mary said...

Rebecca, the joker in the deck is racism. No less in regard to Appalachians than DC blacks or rez Indians.

Prairie Mary