Saturday, November 13, 2010


Remember that these are only notes for a book not yet written. Feel free to comment.

The story of the bronze footprints of the sign talkers neatly fits this decade. The conference that they commemorate was in 1930 and the building that was built in part to locate and protect that circle was the Museum of the Plains Indian. This filmed convention was meant to record the basic gestures of the last sign talkers from several tribes. Bits of it are on YouTube and Piegan Institute has put the whole thing on DVD but, as far as I know, it’s not commercially available. Ironically, it was organized by a general who had lost parts of his hands! When he made the sign for elk, making one’s hands into antlers, it was not a trophy head. In addition to the film, each man was asked to make an impression of his feet in plaster, which was then cast in bronze, now arranged in a circle in front of the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Montana. The men were wearing their regalia, not the “citizens’ dress” of their daily lives, and so their toes show plainly through their moccasins. At first very formal, by the end of the film the men are having an hilarious time telling jokes and clowning.

This incident and the eventually ensuing edifice record some of the ambivalence about the Blackfeet at this time. On the one hand, “salvage anthropology” (the idea that anthros should gather up as much of vanishing cultures as they could) was important. Voisin, the sculptor, was in Browning about then, making portraits of outstanding people, though the real salvage was filming the sign talkers. Then the museum was built through the efforts of John Ewers, the first curator and author of the classic "The Blackfeet: Raiders of the Plains," The museum was meant to be a double institution: partly a repository of objects and partly a workshop where people would create modern versions of them to sell to tourists. They were not defined as “art” but as “crafts” but crafts were an elevated category.

This movement had started years earlier in the valuing of folk skills in Britain and across America, handwork like baskets, blankets, quilts, pots and the like. (At this same time, high art revolved around Paris and Manhattan, leaving representation behind, but Charlie Russell and others were engaged in what was essentially a pictorial version of salvage anthropology, painting the West that was gone by the Thirties.) The Museum was funded in part by the US Crafts Board, which was working desperately to help people make enough money that way to stay alive, and partly by the Lions Club.

Ironically, in 1930 just as the Depression gripped the nation by the throat, “Tip” O’Neill and Louis Hill hit the first big oil gusher on the Michael’s ranch near Cut Bank. Agent Stone asked for a geological survey of the reservation but was denied. This was a poker game and no one wanted to show their cards. In 1933 the Santa Rita well came in and there was much drilling in the Cut Bank area. There were many bids for leases, but they were hit-and-miss with no systematic criteria or process developed to keep track of them.

In 1934 the Indian Reorganization Act, which was part of the New Deal, created the present form of tribal government. Out of roughly a thousand Indian families, 747 were receiving federal welfare assistance and 138 were making it on their own. By 1935, with Warren O’Hara as superintendent, the Blackfeet Tribal Constitution had been prepared and the Tribal Charter was approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1936 the superintendent is C.L. Graves. An inventory shows that the tribal goods and equipment have been quietly looted -- the value of the missing things is estimated at $100,000. In 1939 an attempt to balance the Council’s cashbook couldn’t succeed because entries between January first and September first had not been recorded, nor had Nancy Goss, the treasurer, been making receipts. Hazlett was the chair, a controversial figure as always. Brian Connolly, Wright Hagerty and Levi Burd are on the council.

Paul Rosier’s “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912 - 1954” is a careful, detailed, evidence-based account of what was happening through this period. It may seem dry to those who don’t know the people involved, but for we who do recognize individuals -- might be related to them -- or for the individuals themselves who are still living, this book deserves careful reading and discussion. This is the time period when the idea of a reservation for a dying and essentially different people has to be replaced by the idea of people with a special heritage who are entitled citizens like everyone else. Denial dominates strategy. The larger world has never admitted this shift. They want ghost Indians, not real players.

Outsiders have very little understanding of the many factions or the depth of the schism between full-bloods and double-bloods. Blood quantum (really provenance rather than blood DNA) for enrollment is reduced and reduced again until it stands at roughly a quarter-inheritance from an enrolled ancestor, male or female, but it is always challenged. One parent’s family might have both enrolled and un-enrollable children, with consequences being fairly crucial for entitlement or subsidy. All of this, combined with the riches of oil, make the job of the Tribal Council overwhelming, to say nothing of the constant accusations of corruption.

The continuing intervention and supervision by the Agency Superintendent and the Bureau of Indian Affairs meant that three-handed games were inevitable. One entity plays the victim, the second plays the oppressor, and the third plays the rescuer. Everyone swaps roles as is convenient. Some of the organizational problems seem irresolvable. The reservation is separate, but wants to be sovereign, meaning decide its own affairs. But the people are not quite ready to negotiate the perils of Washington, D.C., nor do they have any way of supporting themselves except through oil and government dependence. This is when the land lease payments began to be diverted out of the hands of the owners assigned by the Dawes Act. In addition, the people are dependent on the US government for major law enforcement (murder, arson, etc.) but have no Supreme Court that can resolve locally rigged outcomes of lawsuits. To imagine what these times were like, think of Afghanistan without the explosions.

Education in this time period was functional on the reservation where Doug Gold, son of the Presbyterian minister, had organized and built the first public school in Browning. Many students were educated at the higher levels at regional Indian high schools and vocational schools. Then came international war and a new kind of education by experience. It was suddenly very important to be American.


Some things you might want to add:

By 1931 the railway was feeling the pinch of the Depression, and cut
back almost entirely the road trips on which it used to send Blackfeet
delegations east to promote Glacier. Those trips were financially
important to those who were entertainers for the railway. Rather than
just three months of work, June 15 to September 15, at Glacier Park
Hotel, the trips east could add one to three months of additional wages.

Also, the group of Blackfeet who remained on hire to work at the hotel
was smaller, and starting in 1934 did so without front-man Two Guns, who
had died earlier in the year. His death along with the subsequent death
of Bird Rattle marked a further evolution in the lineup of entertainers,
with people like Mike Short Man and the Wades-in-the-Waters, among
others, becoming more prominent.

The promotional work the railway did, however, laid the groundwork
(raising the profile of the tribe) for the hiring of a group of
Blackfeet to appear with Shirley Temple in the Hollywood production of
Susannah of the Mounties.

You also don't mention the "Big Claim," the land claim compensation
issue left over from 1855, launched as a lawsuit about 1925. So many
people in the 1930s thought it would be the big payout, which it later
proved not to be. I think each person got about $85.

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