Tuesday, November 02, 2010


As soon as I posted the beginning of this century of notes about the Blackfeet, I got emails that provoked me. One was the comment you can read for yourself from the kid (I assume) who wants info about 19th century Blackfeet so he (I assume) can write a paranormal novel about a Blackfeet woman who falls in love with a wolf. (Him, I assume.) I was entirely out of patience and bit his head off. The other was an offer to advertise with Indian Country Today, the flagship Native American publication. I thought about it and then declined.

The best message I got was from another writer (Ray Djuff, I know for a fact) in Calgary who started out a few years ago with all the standard assumptions about what an Indian “is,” and as he began to research was able to expand and refine his ideas into something more like reality, without discarding the seductive mythology that is part of this continent.

For instance, he says in an email to me:

“Mostly, all I’ve seen [in terms of post-frontier histories of the Blackfeet] are reviews of the “modern”, as in present-day, Blackfeet, and items about these modern people now trying to bridge that gap in terms of preserving knowledge that was known but nearly lost in the post-Great Northern Railway entertainers era.
“The passing of the Wades-in-the-Waters and, more lately, Molly Kicking Woman and Mary Ground being about the last of that “Great Northern entertainers” generation.
“As much as people might rail [sic] on about how the railway exploited the Blackfeet, its promotion of the natives kept alive traditions that waned much sooner on other reservations.
“So there are Blackfeet grandparents alive today whose parents were involved with the railway directly or indirectly through relatives, and these people had regular contact with those who regularly performed traditional activities (songs, dances, story telling, “costume” making) right up to the 1950s, and were encouraged to do so. Can’t say that about most reservations.”

Now we begin notes about the second decade of the 20th century, in which the frontier is ended, which reveals a problem not solved even now: the Indians stay Indians but that doesn’t mean the same thing. They do not stay “raiders of the plains” but their legal structures are all based on that assumption and on a treaty outdated and hardly observed anyway. Horses, when they came at the end of the 18th century, fitted easily into the pre-existing dog paradigms; but industrial patterns and machines of the 20th century don’t. First the steamboat and now the railroad bring in outsiders and goods, but the railroad changes the pattern by being much quicker and running east/west rather than north/south. St. Louis/New Orleans is displaced by Minneapolis/Chicago to Seattle/Portland. Even today Browning is at the end of the mercantile distribution systems from those latter two centers.

A new kind of person arrives through birth, individuals I prefer not to identify as “half-breeds” in the conventional divide-the-pie-minded way, but rather as a “double-breeds” -- maybe a two-layered cake idea, the top layer with a white frosting of money. (I tried to invent some way to get berry jam into this between the layers but failed.) By the Twenties there were enough of them to be a force both economically and politically. When World War I broke out, the Native Americans recognized that situation and many were able to become warriors again, though they still were not citizens.

In the economic dynamics of the time the local mercantilists were small fry. The land was surveyed for the Dawes Act and divvied up among families with some of it mysteriously becoming “surplus.” Two strips were separated from the main rez, one along the east side where oil was suspected and one along the southwest edge of the Rockies continguous with Glacier National Park. Oklahoma’s oil boom was on everyone’s minds.

The agent of the first half of this decade was McFatridge, who was famous for his highly volatile wife, and who finally departed to Canada with $1200 of money not his. The plagues of the decade were tuberculosis, trachoma and VD of various kinds, but all the rez doctors had quit, so McFatridge had to treat them himself as best he could. The Methodist minister, R.A. Riggin, was running cattle instead of doing mission work. The on-again-off-again irrigation canal system, some of it dug by hand by married couples, was now charged against the tribal assets: a million dollar assessment in a time when few men were millionaires. The Great Northern was given right-of-way, timber, grass, and town sites. But the real action was in the tug-of-war over oil leases between full-bloods who wanted paternalistic white management and double-bloods who wanted to manage themselves, with Washington DC trying to figure out what was best for white men, namely THEM.

In 1919 an election was held to choose whether Browning (newly incorporated) or Cut Bank would be the capital of Glacier County, which includes the bulk of the Blackfeet Reservation plus an off-rez strip to the east, much of which land had been conveniently removed from the rez. When Cut Bank won (for suspicious reasons) it became a platform for predation on the reservation. Only recently have there begun to be Blackfeet sheriffs and county commissioners. Only now have the remarkable number of lawyers thinned out.

After McFatridge left, a series of temporary agents was capped by Horace Wilson, famously drunk right through Prohibition along with all his staff. He may have been related to the infamous Wilson on the Sioux Reservation in the Sixties, but was once sighted drunk in Navajo country. The new doctor, George Martin, is reputed to have been a morphine addict.

During the War two commodities were gold mines: beef and sheep (for wool uniforms). Cutting “wild” grass hay was a ready source of profit for full-bloods without capital. But the fence around the reservation that was supposed to keep out the white cattle herds had been taken down and there were few internal fences. Worries about overgrazing begin to arise. By 1918 there have been four years of severe drought.

Though it’s easy to see the reservation as a bubble, it is much affected by outside events. WWI was a long, miserable, destructive event that probably helped the reservation economy at the time, but brought to bear new pressures in the next decade.

In this decade the U.S. Census reports that 2,268 Indians are living on the Blackfeet reservation, about the same number that lived there in 1885. About the same number that attended my high school in Portland, OR. A high proportion are young. The present population of Browning inside the city limits is about half that, but when the many housing projects surrounding the town are counted, there are probably more like 3,000.


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