Friday, November 05, 2010


By the time we begin to look at this decade, there are living people who witnessed and remember. Writing history becomes something different because people are invested in defending their own families, their own lives, their own political causes. Some (Indians) have said to me that this is one reason that a white person should write Blackfeet history, because whites are outsiders. They are mistaken. In fact, one of the ways white people from far places have participated is political. They were involved in intimate matters but unknowingly, ignorantly, self-servingly. But still, writing history is not a matter of DNA. It’s about access and motivation.

By this time formal, possibly local, history begins to offer alternatives. I’ve been using Foley, who was writing evidence for a lawsuit against the US government -- not that he had to stretch much to find indictable offenses -- and Rosier, who was as objective as he could be while writing for an academic degree. Also, there are now picture books like William Farr’s “The Reservation Blackfeet, 1882-1945” so we can see for ourselves. (These are not the romantic posed tableaus made by Roland Reed.) The “cabinet” photos collected by Adolph Hungry Wolf in his four-volume history of the Blackfeet are also revealing.

This was a time when families lived in log cabins (one is recreated at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary) furnished with a metal bed, a wood stove, a simple table, a few chairs, and a washpan hanging from a nail on the wall alongside a nailed-up wooden box for salt and baking powder. In a trunk under that bed would have been a fabulously beaded white buckskin parade suit now worth as much as some Russell paintings. In 1961 I saw both. Up in the rafters I saw the Thunder Pipe Bundles. Local historians like Jack Holterman, who had taught in a one-room school on the rez, began to write his memories in the Sixties. “Blackfeet Heritage, 1907 - 08”, derived from a card file meant to indicate who was entitled to commodities, is invaluable, though packed with gossip. By now the historian must research the materials as well as the events.

Around the world this time period meant a recovery from war, a taking of stock, and an effort to regroup. It had become very clear that the Indian situation, with no attention being given to it, was out of hand. The decade goes back and forth between people being appalled when they realize what has happened (or rather NOT happened) and then making mighty efforts at reform. Some fascinating personalities began to emerge.

1921 was the beginning of the F. C. Campbell years. He had served one year in the tumult after Wilson left (In the end convicted of bigamy! Talk about greed!) and now returned with enough energy and determination to last until 1929. He was a big red-headed man, a type like George Washington and William Clark. Louis Hill, the railroad tycoon, had secured a ten year lease for oil from Wilson, but Campbell was more concerned with agriculture. His first act was to travel house-to-house, succeeding in meeting four-fifths of the people. His awareness of the people fueled his obsession with family gardens and small animal management. Over the winter of 1920-21 two-thirds of the people had needed rations to survive. Half of the full-bloods had no money at all and not everyone was cutting wood for winter. The suffering was enervating and pervasive.

Campbell believed in cooperative granges which could pool resources to buy farm equipment, but also liked motivating competitions in terms of who could grow the most bushels of grain per acre and who could raise the heaviest sheep. He organized fairs. A small flour mill was started in Heart Butte. But it was always an uphill battle and the opposition was powerful. Among the most critical was James Willard Schultz who was convinced that his father-in-law, Yellow Wolf, had been allowed to starve without help while Schultz was in exile in California. He founded “The Executive Committee for the National Association to Help the Indian” and published a pamphlet entitled, “The Blackfeet Are Starving.”

Two brothers, Oliver and Richard Sanderville, become effective intercessors for the older full-bloods, though their origins are Mexican, “Sandoval.” They were related to the Clarke family on the Blackfeet side as well as to Pablo, a Flathead personality, through George Starr. (Yes, Starr School.) Richard Sanderville stayed in Heart Butte, calling himself “Chief Bull” and aligning himself with the Methodists who clustered around Swims Under. He also has lively ties with Washington big shots. Oliver Sanderville goes by Kyiyo and attaches himself to Starr School. Other important names are Richard Hazlett, Robert Hamilton, Joseph Spanish, Levi Bird, and Oliver Racine. Paul Rosier’s book, explicates details of the interests, influence and achievements of these men. Rosier is working from files and letters, which means his sources are primary, but the loss is that the women are largely missing. I knew some of these women as old ladies and cannot believe they just stood by, but they tended to work through their husbands.

1924 is the year Native Americans become citizens. 1926 is the year of the Merriam Report which really lays out all the management failures of Indian Affairs and the failure to meet treaty obligations to address Indian poverty, unemployment, lack of health care and shortage of education for all Indians, not just the Blackfeet.

In 1929 Campbell is replaced by Stone, who had been his assistant. By now there had been major investigations and hearings by Senators Frazier, Wheeler and Pine.) Senate investigator Liggett wrote a long report, so “hot” that it was not released until 1932. He identifies six cluster of complaints:

1. Indians are defrauded by deliberate conspiracy.
2. Tribal possessions are dispersed without compensation.
3. There is no account of the tribal herd.
4. Indian interests are always secondary. (Primary seems to be the Great Northern railroad.)
5. Agency officials dominate the Tribal Council.
6. No accounting is made or reported to the legal owners of leases. (This is the matter that is now being pursued by Eloise Cobell that the lawmakers in Washington STILL refuse to pay.)

Something like the split between having a bare table in a cabin that shelters priceless objects, Glacier National Park achieves a population density and development status that is separate from the Blackfeet Reservation, though important Blackfeet people still put on their regalia to meet the train. The three resort towns -- East Glacier (Midvale), St. Marys and Babb -- are the face of the Blackfeet to many people, including Winold Reiss who recorded so many of them for Great Northern calendars.

In 1930 Holy Family Mission was closed, blamed by some on foreclosure for debt by the Sherburne Mercantile.

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