Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Norval Morris’ technique is certainly effective. I want to try applying it to this blog, just to see what happens. I’m going to use the approach, not of fiction, but of imaginary fictional commentators. This case really happened, but it hasn’t come to trial yet so probably not all the facts are present. I wasn’t there, naturally, so I’m getting my “facts” from the newspaper which is notoriously wrong. The problem is the slant of reporters and editors, who are always from some definite point of view, though they may not realize it.

The local small town weekly paper is deeply invested in making everything look good, minimizing any damage to their friends, and controlling information. The larger regional daily paper is run by white people, though they are much more sympathetic to Native Americans, and the reporters are usually young, partly because the salaries are so low. This makes them prone to romantic idealization of Indians. Therefore, they don’t even think of some of the questions that us old locals would like to know. I choose this case not because I have a point of view but because I’ve heard strong and conflicting points of view.

The narrative: Three brothers, not Indians but possibly with some Mexican blood, liked to fight and had been drinking all evening. At closing time, 2AM, they chose as their victim a hired hand, a Native American single guy who was mild-mannered and well-liked, but not very good at self-control or social smarts, esp. once he was drunk. They picked a fight with him and all three began to beat on him. When he went to the ground, they began to kick.

A Native American county commissioner came out with his wife, saw what was happening and decided to intervene. At first he just remonstrated, saying he was going to call the police. (He had a cell phone.) So the brothers began to beat him and took him down. His wife tried to help but she, too, was shoved and sent flying. By that time enough people were there that the brothers thought they should get scarce.

But the county commissioner, a handsome and resourceful man from a strong rez family chose to make an issue out of it. He tried to press charges, saying it was a “hate crime” because the men were shouting phrases like “dirty Indian.” The white county attorney refused, saying that it was NOT a hate crime, just a fight as usual. The state officials did a punt by saying it was not a hate crime, but that it amounted to “assault with a deadly weapon” because of the boots. No one asked why bar fights were so common and acceptable in this town.

The case will go to trial in Libby, a long drive from the county, because tempers are flaring and people are radically opposed to each other. The court is afraid the bar fight will be reenacted a little too realistically in court and an open-minded jury would be hard to find. I don't know how Libby feels about bar fights. They are away from reservations.

You need to know that the reservation occupies almost all of the county except for a small part that is the location of the county seat and the oil businesses. Until recently it was the only place to bank, which is why the Indian bank was so important. From the beginning this has been a “white” town that wants to be like suburban America (at least their mental construct of it) and to control, contain, and exclude minorities. People from this background say, “What was a county commissioner doing in a bar at that hour? He ought to have known better than to get involved. Anyone who goes to such a place at that hour can expect trouble and he ought to gone to a more high-class establishment.” What’s disguised in this opinion is the idea that no Indian can drink at all. They are essentially bound to get into fights no matter how fancy they are.

Lately, as economic power has shifted, the white towns are shrinking and the reservation population, which is growing quickly, begins to move into the empty housing. Also, the reservation now has a solid middle class that expects to be treated as equals, or what they perceive to be equal. Therefore, these educated and savvy people, often in early middle age, have been elected county commissioners. Businesses need to cater to them to succeed. So the opinion from them is, “Don’t offend Indians! We need the business!”

The white town has a history as an oil town, which means roughnecks, floaters, and bad actors from many sources, mostly not local at all -- the original Red Necks of dubious background and no education: brute force labor. In 1961 when I came, they inhabited a whole string of bars worthy of Deadwood. I come from a teetotaling family, know very little about bars and bar culture (I don’t even know how to run a tab, since I’ve never had more than one drink at a time!), but was in one of those places back then. The experience convinced me that they were no place for a lady. I never went back. This point of view is that brawling bars are a necessary evil, sort of like brothels.

On the reservation is a history about drinking which is split. On the low end is the binge-drinking street alcoholic everyone treats with contempt. On the high end is the idea that what sophisticated people do on the weekend is go to a “watering spot” to sit and talk, show off good clothes, interact, demonstrate generosity by buying drinks for others, and so on. When I read through the old Browning newspapers, every issue had ads about how truly important men sat sipping expensive drinks by a hearth, wearing slippers, accompanied by a faithful dog of some bird-hunting kind. The ads were aimed squarely at the newly returned WWII veteran, who wanted to be like his officers and who had either witnessed or participated in their “clubs.” It was a marker of success. It is surely what the doctors and lawyers do in the bigger “cities” of Montana. Those who hold the first opinion will stigmatize all drinking as symptomatic of the low class. Those who hold the second opinion will defend the right to indulge in the same vices as the professionals and politicians. How can they succeed otherwise? (It’s one of the forces that keep women out.)

Both the white and the Indian context are strongly affected by family relationships and status. Being well-connected, having a good reputation, being able to call in “chips” created by helping people, and all the other “lubricants” of society, will come into play on this case. There will also be strong reasons to disguise one’s true opinion so as to avoid retaliation or being aligned with someone who might later turn out to be a loser.

Young people and outsiders look at such a case and have an instant opinion. Older folks and insiders know there is no ideal solution, but that it is a marker on a long line of incidents leading into a new future. What that will be like might be indicated by this trial.


Lance Michael Foster said...

Shoot, you could write a book on this stuff.

I was raised in Helena, and was raised around people who drank a lot and often. There were certain bars here, and still are, that have that kind of reputation.

The first year I went to the University of Montana back in 1978, I roomed in a wing of Miller Hall that was a mixed group. There were a couple of guys from the Hi-Line and some Blackfeet and Assiniboine guys. The guy I roomed with for a while was Al, and I remember James and Garland too.

There was a white guy named Mac on the same wing who always wore his cowboy boots and hung out with other Hi-Line white kids like Pete and a couple others. And between all these Indian and white guys I learned a little about Hi-Line culture, which is a distinct subset of Montana culture. For instance, I had never heard someone use the phrase "put the boots to 'im" until I heard Mac talk about it.

There was a wary regard and dislike between Hi-Line whites and Indians. Very old school. As in old old old school. They disliked each other a lot, but also there was a kind of wary respect based on your group's relative numbers and therefore ability to do damage to the other. There was a clarity. No such thing as "hate crime", just the facts of rez life, and the fact that each side regarded the other as an enemy from cradle to grave. Kind of like the old Texas Rangers and Mexicans. No quarter asked, and none given. But because of that, a certain distant respect too.

Although it was the first and only time, light as I am as a mixed blood, that I also every heard the term "prairie nigger" and when I threw my lot in with the Indians, had it applied to me as well. A blondish pale as hell "prairie nigger" they called me.

But boy those Blackfeet liked to party and have a good time. Neither side stepped back from a fight unless you were totally outnumbered. But the main difference was that the Indians stayed to themselves, never looking for a fight. When they picked a fight, it was pretty much only when they were totally wasted.

But the Hi-Line whites, as soon as they had a six-pack and they had the numbers, they went looking for an Indian to pick on and abuse. That was the difference then and there, in my own personal experience.

A few years later when I returned to school, I got to know a Crow guy named Shawn. By that time I had no curiosity about bars any more. I knew all about them. or at least enough to realize that it always ends up the same way. Shawn didn't know many Crow kids right there and then, so he kept asking me to go to the bars with him. I didn't want to, as I had got all that out of my system and didn't feel like it.

Finally he talked me into it one night. He said "We are always told anywhere we go, to go with a buddy, in case something happens." I guess I was honored to be picked like that. Luckily we only had a couple of close calls that night. And Shawn could take care of himself, being a big guy and on the football team, but he was really much more interested in finding a girl to snag.

Well, long story short is that he found him a girl, I didn't, and, without wheels, I walked all the way back to the UM campus from the other side of town in the early morning hours. Shawn had much more "elk medicine" than I ever did.

JHD said...

Prairie, I quoted your post over at mine. Let me know if want me to pull it.

prairie mary said...

JDH: No need to do any pulling! I'm honored to be quoted by you! It's way past time to talk about this stuff and I'm not talking about name-calling.


Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of Mike McKay's comments during one of his comedy/satire performances. He explained that someone who drinks from from a glass is considered a connoisseur, while someone who drinks from the bottle is a wino.

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of Mike McKay's comments during one of his comedy/satire performances. He explained that someone who drinks from from a glass is considered a connoisseur, while someone who drinks from the bottle is a wino.