Wednesday, June 10, 2009


The following message came to me on my blog from Dr. Hypercube, who

“I saw this: and thought of you. I'd be interested in your thoughts and observations. The 20's always make me think of the end of some things - people who remembered the previous world were almost gone. Is that a dance lodge at 2:10 or so? Best - J “

“Dr. Hypercube” writes the blog “Diary of a Mad Natural Historian” at which I love.

Indeed, the Twenties in Browning, Montana, where this footage of Blackfeet chiefs was taken at Indian Days (still the second weekend of every July) even then were barely the end of the 19th century. Probably the real end was WWI, which heralded the industrial age even more definitively than the Great Northern Railroad coming through, because at this point oil was struck on the reservation. Oil is still being pumped today, though at nothing like the same rate since most of it has been removed. The big fields were and are Kevin/Sunburst and Cut Bank.

An oil strike was a fateful event and everyone knew it, because oil had previously been struck in Oklahoma and everyone learned from how things played out there. A fictionalized version is in the fine novel “Mean Spirits” by Linda Hogan. Native Osage and Ponca people had little understanding of what was going on and swindling opportunists rushed to marry enrolled women so that they could inherit their oil rights. The impatient ones removed older members of the family the old-fashioned way: murder.

For the Blackfeet events were more muted. The boundaries of the reservation was juggled over a bit to accommodate the Cut Bank predators. A long struggle over the legal arrangements split the leaders. Briefly, the issues were very basic: since the people, especially full-bloods, were in dire poverty, they wanted the money right now. Their idea was that they needed to live through today. They also wanted the government to handle all the leasing arrangements because they didn’t trust the mixed-bloods, who had white fathers. Those people thought that the oil rights should be divvied up among tribal members for their own individual use and that the tribal council should make all the leasing arrangements. The hangup was that it takes money to drill for oil and the tribe had none -- therefore they were dependent on an outside entity or the BIA.

Fred Campbell, the tall red-headed agent (who always makes me think of George Washington though he evidently had better teeth) felt that too much cash flowing too quickly would ruin the people and that their best bet was to turn away from oil and stick to developing the land. But outsiders with carpet bags were constantly on hand to tell the people they were being robbed and oil was “the new buffalo.” Campbell was eventually forced out by the issue.

Other forces were in Washington, D.C., where they tried to argue that the oil didn’t belong to the Indians since it wasn’t specifically mentioned in the treaties of 1850. James J. Hill managed a ten year lease, but didn’t drill. In fact, there were test wells on the Blackfeet land but no real pumping. Meantime, the whole High Line from the eastern reservation boundary (which mysteriously somehow moved to the west) towards the east exploded with oil exploration and development. Some felt that the oil reserves under the rez were being emptied by aggressive drilling along the boundary. It’s instructive to look at a map that shows the wells.

In 1924 Indians were given citizenship. Some had fought in WWI. If they were individualized, they could be dealt with politically much more easily. Divide and conquer always works with Indians. Foley details events after that. My notes from Foley are included in “Reservation Blackfeet” which can be purchased at It’s hard to get one’s hands on an original full copy since it’s not really a publication but rather a lawyer’s brief on the mismanagement of the reservation by the government. Eloise Cobell’s lawsuit against the US government comes in large part from the Foley report and oil asset corruption.

H.L. Lambert (not Fulton), a personal friend of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, finally managed to secure a lease from the tribal council at a 7 to 1 vote (not 9 to 1). (See Paul Rosier’s “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1812-1954” for details.) This film footage was intended to celebrate and certify that. Note the “flappers” getting a little thrill from squeezing into the line of “chiefs.” The chiefs, which may or many not have been members of the elective Tribal Council, were well-accustomed to wearing their full buckskins and feathers to ceremonial events, though the poorer ones stayed in their “citizen’s clothes.”

The closeup photos were taken in front of the “Big Hotel” in East Glacier, not at the campgrounds just west of Browning. There was normally an “encampment” of several lodges in front of the “Big Hotel” and after everyone else had eaten, the Indians were allowed to come into the employee cafeteria to finish off the leftovers. The people complained that the meat was always gone. Then around a campfire the Indians would dance and tell stories.

The boys whose faces appear would have been about retirement age when I arrived on the rez in 1961 and I probably knew them if they lived that long. Attrition among rez boys is always high. I don’t know anyone who might recognize these boys in their early years. They would be very old now.

Lambert’s coup was certified by a vote of the tribe, 55 to 1 in favor of Lambert. That’s right. 56 voting members. Women still didn’t have the vote. The Office of Indian Affairs shut everything down, probably for fear of scandal. An early Twenties oil scandal concerned a formation in Wyoming, the Tea Pot Dome, that was illicitly and secretly leased under the Harding administration. The La Follette investigation panel's most junior minority member, Montana Democrat Thomas J. Walsh, led what most expected to be a tedious and probably futile inquiry seeking answers to many questions, which turned out to be anything but. It was very major scandal, played up big in the newspapers.

Two Guns Whitecalf, the fellow with the famous profile, was one of the leaders of the full-bloods at Starr School. His son, James Whitecalf, as “Old Jim”, became famous for being famous and also for being very old. Even his son, “Young Jim,” is gone now. He was a little older than myself. Old Jim Whitecalf has been chronicled by two writers: R.L. Lancaster in “Piegan” and Adolf Hungry Wolf in several volumes, (somewhat more reliably than Lancaster.) Ray Djuff, a writer in Calgary, is currently tracing out the entire Whitecalf family.

James Earle Fraser was the sculptor of the buffalo nickel and protested that he used several people as models and that he didn’t know Two Guns Whitecalf, but this didn’t slow down the conviction of many people that Two Guns was “the one.”

The brushy structure at 2.1 in this video COULD be only a dance pavilion but was likely for a Sun Lodge Ceremony. The framework is constructed of heavy cottonwood logs and will remain for many years, long after the leaves that provide shade and privacy have shriveled away. Of course, the structure could be a rather ambiguous blending of secular and religious, since most whites didn’t really know what they were looking at. Torture was forbidden.

How much of the ancient ways could survive depended in large part on the agent at the time. The original version required that an ancient and universally acknowledged virtuous woman should fast in a lodge for three days, then emerge to pray. Sometimes they didn’t survive the ceremony. At the same time warriors would use dancing to exhaustion and torture (thongs tied to skewers in the breast) to achieve an endorphin-fueled mystic trance. This is what alcohol provided without so much effort.

Bob Scriver, who was born in 1914 in Browning, attended the erection of this structure and was deeply impressed by it. All his life he remembered the thrilling song of the men riding in on horses, carrying the leafy branches.

This precious video shows the power of the Internet to find and connect history with today.

1 comment:

Levi Colby Blackfeet said...

i loved it my name is levi colby my grandma was born an raised in browning an im from great falls and i feal like theres something i need to do to help out my nation please get at me i remember my grandma telling me about the great flood from swift damb an the dark storys of the boarding schools i jst wish she could see some change before she passess