Wednesday, December 09, 2009


Today's tribal chief: Willie Sharp's senior portrait.

It was 1973 and in Browning one of the worst winters I ever lived through (barely). The snow was so deep and the wind was so strong that you could not walk outdoors. I mean, you could get maybe ten feet from the doorway -- then you could neither see nor breathe. The road between Browning and East Glacier was closed beyond the ability of snow plows to open it up again and the notorious “y” on the way to Cut Bank trapped the biggest snowplow. The driver radioed for help, crawled out the window and left the motor running. The next day when the wind died, the road crew went back out and found only a little blackened hole in the snow, the poor motor chuffing along nearly airless down under the surface. Finally the Great Northern Railroad, which had been blocked for weeks, sent a huge rotary locomotive that punched the teachers through to their homes in East Glacier. When all that snow melted in the spring, icebergs were floating across highway 2. I saw them.

In those years students, teachers and parents sometimes felt hopeless. We did not know it was the year we would graduate a future chief who would be in office when the fortunes of the Blackfeet turned around. Eloise Cobell had graduated a little more than a decade earlier and not from Browning, where her husband, Turk Cobell, graduated. I remember him as being in the same class as Stan Juneau, father of Denise Juneau now State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Turk and Stan were basketball players, the same as Willie. On the rez every boy over five feet tall played basketball. And girls did, too.

The fortunes of the Blackfeet changed this year in part because of a swing in the temper of the administration, but far more than that because of quiet work done behind the scenes all across the nation. Settlement of the Big Claim is only the tip of the iceberg. Education is a major part of what has happened in the last 46 years. Much of what turned out to be the courage of a woman to challenge the United States of American came out of a high school girl who diligently did her bookkeeping homework, then was able to understand banking well enough to start one of the first Indian banks in the nation in Browning, and finally had made enough national contacts to meet the kind of high grade lawyers a person needs for such a task.

The second new source of revenue for the tribe is a contract to drill into the Bakken oil formation beneath the rez. Horizontal drilling is the new technique -- in this case one might say that it was “reverse” horizontal drilling since Cut Bank appears to have been sucking oil out from under the rez for a century. The Bakken formation is supposed to have more oil in it than all the Arab countries combined. The man in charge of this big deal is Grinnell Day Chief, an earnest and intelligent member of the Heart Butte High School Class of 1990. Those eight seniors were the first to graduate from the new high school.

I wish I had more yearbooks on hand. Those young people were the usual human assortment of geniuses, steady-eddies, screwups, pluggers and scoundrels -- with the extra mystique of being Native Americans. For some of us oldsters, it’s impossible to look at T.J. Show and not see generations of smart funny people. Bob used to love telling the story of the Texan in a Cadillac convertible, complete with longhorns mounted on the front, who pulled into Bill Show’s service station in Browning. (That would be T.J.’s grandfather or maybe even his great-grandfather.) Bill was taking a break in the sun on the bench out front with his hat pulled down over his eyes.

“Well,” drawled the Texan, hiking up his pants, “Whatchoo got in Montana we ain’t got in Texas?” Without pushing up his hat, Bill remarked crisply, “Green grass and water.” This is why T.J. understands conservation, even the conservation of greenbacks, which the Tribal Council has been putting into practice, so that this time around the tribal per capita, which goes out to street people and Ph.D. degree holders in big cities alike, because it’s a dividend from the corporation that is the Tribal Council, will be $200 this year. That’s four times what it has been recently.

From the beginning the Blackfeet were expected to be ranchers, but for reasons that are suspect, they have not been able to borrow money in the way that white ranchers on the rez could. It is impossible to ranch without borrowing money. This is now being addressed. In the meantime many Indian ranchers have done what white ranchers did: sent their wives to town to get jobs as teachers and BIA employees, which was possible when those women got degrees and the BIA started Indian Preference. It works. Probably more legitimately when the Indian rancher is on the original Dawes Act alloted land assigned to him, not having had to marry an Indian to get ownership.

Eloise is on the original family allotment to Polite Pepion on Blacktail Creek. I tried to find a photo of him in William Farr’s terrific photo reference book, “The Reservation Blackfeet, 1882-1945” but failed. I DID find a photo of Mountain Chief, a truly legendary figure who was as much a mystic as a leader. He was visionary in the sense of really having visions and he began to worry about the endangered species called “buffalo.”

This portrait is from a group photo of a Blackfeet delegation in Washington, D.C., in 1903. I was entertained by the NPR reporter interviewing Eloise in person and expressing naive liberal city-girl surprise that Eloise was wearing a sharp suit with very nice jewelry. In my mind’s eye, I saw Mountain Chief with his honorary chief’s medals and crucifix. Eloise remains a “practicing” Catholic and I wouldn’t be surprised if her jewelry included a cross, but I suppose the medals are in some museum. I’ve seen that expression on Eloise’s face.

A century to make the transition from one culture to another -- not just to a new culture but to a new prosperity -- seems like an awfully long time when you’re struggling alone at the midpoint. But Willie Sharp had the dream and now he sits at the table, knowing that on this round the stick game had a good outcome.

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