Monday, October 20, 2008


BORDER STUDIES is a formal discipline that looks at the economics, politics, geography, and sociology of places along both sides of a border like that between the US and Mexico or the US and Canada. The two sides of the border, which may seem very similar geographically since they are only divided by a river or an arbitrary surveyed line along a parallel, generate differences like the economic gradient between Mexico and the US that drives a constant stream of illegal immigrants north. This in turn creates law enforcement entities as well as emotional prejudices that can “justify” violence.

“The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada
” is Tommy Lee Jones’ comment on a real life incident in which a goatherd plinking at coyotes triggered a high-tech lethal shooting by a border patrolman. Jones’ addition was borrowed from “Lonesome Dove,” the return of a body home for burial. But the guilty border patrolman is made to do the heavy lifting in this journey of learning. (The movie makes an excellent compare/contrast exercise with “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.”) The result is a powerful movie, best seen twice, once for the story and again for Tommy Lee Jones’ comments.

The Canadian border has been so peaceful for so many years that it hasn’t attracted much study except in terms of the past when whisky trade, displaced tribes, and the Riel Rebellion in Canada made life exciting, but maybe that is changing. Homeland Security has suddenly electrified all borders, the hardening of the Mexican border has shifted the attention of drug dealers and illegal immigrants to the north, and energy development along the east slope of the Rockies has changed economic dynamics, especially for the tribes that straddle the border.

Some people study the borders of the Indian reservations where white people on one side pump money out of the tribe through liquor sales and financial dealings and renegades use the on-reservation ambiguities and underfunding of law enforcement to their advantage. Mexican drug dealers stand out in white towns, but not on the reservation. The previous economic gradient here has lasted so long that the white towns have bought into the idea that Indians have no power, no economic clout, and therefore are fair game for hatred and the violence that goes with it. It is a rule of thumb that the closer to a reservation a white community is, the more likely the whites are to have contempt for Indians. This is ironic, since they are also more likely to be part-Indian, which leads to the nasty predicament of self-hatred.

Recently, as their prosperity and education grows, Indians have become politicians, able to pass laws that criminalize hate-violence. Such a law has been passed in Montana. The next step is convincing small town white officials that they must enforce this law: Montana Code Annotated 45-5-221, "Malicious INTIMIDATION or HARASSMENT relating to CIVIL or HUMAN RIGHTS." Carol Juneau, one of the sponsors of this bill, remains a state senator, well-situated to insist that the law be observed.

A recent fight outside a Cut Bank bar in which the assailants shouted racist obscenities as they beat up two respectable Indian citizens, one of them a county commissioner, has put the heat on Larry Epstein, the white county attorney, to enforce the law.

Cut Bank is not typical of the state of Montana. First of all, it occupies most of that portion of Glacier County not on the Blackfeet Reservation. The story goes that when the capital of the county was up for election, Browning would have won except that a trainload of drunken Indians were brought to Cut Bank and paid to vote for the capital to be there. The town turned out to be a place for white people to live while draining reservation people by acting as a conduit for any state business while stepping out from under tribal regulation. Also, the eastern boundary of the rez was jiggered to put the major oil pools on the Cut Bank side. Maybe it’s time to go back to the idea of conflating the county with the reservation, thus eliminating many complications.

The depleted huge oil reserves combine with a new influx of semi-skilled single male labor, this time focused on wind energy. The latter re-invigorates bar culture, centered on bragging, violence, and rough talk. It’s not a good place to be law enforcement. New Homeland Security officers are finding places to live in Valier, even though it adds thirty miles to their drive.

I taught in Cut Bank High School for a few months one fall. Teachers were ordered to stand in the hall between classes to monitor violence as the students passed. Winning at sports was the goal of the school, whose superintendent was an old coach -- and of the local newspaper whose owner is the basketball coach. Boys good at sports had a discipline “free pass,” if not a scholastic advantage. Drugs were everywhere in spite of regular inspections by a sniffer dog. The town has had a problem with “extreme fighting” in back alleys. Anyone weak, poor, female or “different” was fair game for harassment, sometimes extreme. The coach and superintendent were frank about considering hazing and other “pranks” to be simply amusing. I quit after a few months.

Before I did, several boys confided in me. One underage white boy said he spent his evenings hanging out in a local bar because his parents had moved in search of work and left him behind to finish his senior year alone in the house. When I expressed disapproval, he assured me that he always sat with Larry Epstein, the county attorney, and “just talked.” He found this a sign of high status. Another big goofy boy was never persecuted by classmates. I asked the usual suspects why not: they said, “Are you kidding? His family is a motorcycle gang!” As it turned out his father was a former student of mine in Browning, one I liked though not for his skill at grammar. (I have a fifty-year history in Browning and other reservation towns.) He never struck me as violent, but the reputation worked. To Cut Bank High School boys anyone on a motorcycle is a gang.

The macro-forces of economics give permission for violences (not always physical) that play out in micro-attitudes and actions in individuals so complex they are hard to describe. The school wanted Indians if they were good athletes. The coach wanted “red-meat-eating” players and didn’t mind them preying on their own student body so long as they functioned as a team. Old men with deep pockets nostalgically remembered the wild and woolly days of oil boom while today's younger men scrambled to make a killing, trying to learn from those old guys. Seen “There Will Be Blood”? Happened all over the West. Read “Mean Spirits” about the Osage oil strikes in Oklahoma? Happened on reservations everywhere there was something worth killing over.

And the women? How do the women play into this? I can say that even the most dedicated athletes who had mothers and grandmothers imposing good behavior managed to escape the violence. But many townswomen of Cut Bank want prestige, assurance that they’re as good as the women on TV. The way they understand “good” is well-dressed, faux-manicured and driving a nice car. That means money, honey. Add that to the mix.

A law against hate crimes is the first step in a sequence. Next comes enforcement. Then officers who will arrest offenders. The school and newspaper will change when the administration and ownership change. They will change when Cut Bank realizes why they are often called “Crank Butt", Montana, and that having a winning ball team won’t get them the right kind of respect. In the meantime, someone ought to be taking notes for a thesis in border studies.


Bitterroot said...

Fascinating post, Mary.

bigskygal said...

Great post, Mary. Not sure if you remember me, the new legal services attorney who visited you shortly after arriving to practice here? It's been a year now and I'd love to sit down with you for another cup of tea and share some of what I've learned since then. Hope you are well!