Saturday, December 18, 2010


From the point of view of the British Empire -- which was a strange melding of international corporation, religion, and monarchy (Queen as CEO) --  “Rupert’s Land” in western Canada was simply a feeder for the Hudson’s Bay Company.  The trapper’s trading forts there were profitable until fashions changed away from beaver-fur felt hats.  Then the region became troublesome when even the buffalo were about gone and ersatz whiskey became the commodity for profit.  Mounties restored order, but law enforcement always costs money.

In the meantime the factors who ran the forts and the adventurers who came to join the indigenous people in their world of nomadism on the prairie had mixed enough to create a new people, the Metis, who saw themselves as a nation.  Their culture was a sturdy melding of creaking Red River carts (marginally better than travois), fiddles, hand-woven sashes, buckskin britches and stroud cloth shirts.  But Canada/the Empire chose to ignore them mostly and so did the Hudson’s Bay Company.  In this vacuum of power, the Red River people formed themselves into a true nation led by Louis Riel, a religious syncretist with burning eyes, and his brother, who was an excellent military tactician.  This annoyed the Empire, esp. since the new nation threatened to be a refuge for those ever rebellious Irish and a foothold for those constantly alert French.  So they sent military to disperse the new nation and hang the leaders.  If this reminds you of Star Wars, it ought to.  Pakistan?  Yup.  Iraq.  Over and over.

The hunted Metis people came to Montana -- upstream from Choteau, tucked into St. Marys, fiddling and dancing in Heart Butte -- they became part of the peoples of Montana and particularly the Blackfeet.  But they never forgot that they were capable of rebellion nor did they give up their independent consciences.

Larry Salois, descended from Metis more recently than is easy to imagine, was my UPS man.  We exchanged information about history because, as he often said with brimming enthusiasm,  “Every day as I make my deliveries I can see the history in every coulee, on every ridge, along every streambed.”  We talked about “Strange Empire,” the definitive history written by Joseph Kinsey Howard, who was Metis.  (Charlie Russell was not, but wore a Metis sash.  Peter Bowen writes a vivid mystery series about a Metis fiddler.)  I know a LOT of people named Salois.  There are many French names on the Blackfeet rez.

The new “beaver felt hat” is wind energy.  It is pushed along by international corporations who have been doing this in Europe for years.  The problem in Montana has been shipping it out, which has been the same business problem from the beginning, or would have been without steamships on the Missouri and steam locomotives on the government-subsidized railroads which took eminent domain on the necessary land, timber and grass -- often from the Blackfeet.  Wind energy, in the form of electricity, must be shipped out of Montana because there are not enough consumers in the state.  One of the reasons electricity is relatively cheap in this state is that there’s no place else to sell it.  

Clearly, transmission lines must be built to get the profit back into the wind.  Three of these lines are underway:  the Montana Alberta Tie Line (called MATL) which is being built by a Chinese box sequence of Canadian developers (Tonbridge); the “Green Line” between Great Falls and Townsend (a joint effort of Tonbridge and Gaelectric, which is Irish); and Mountain States Transmission Intertie (a project of Northwestern Energy).  These entities are trying to buy right-of-way across the ranches but are running into resistance, sometimes because they’re a pain-in-the-butt to grain farmers, or maybe because people are nervous about the electromagnetic energy released by the lines, or because they are disrupting historical, geological, and natural history patterns.  Some people don’t like the way they look, though they are far less conspicuous in the daytime than they are at night when windfarms are lit with red light so strong that they look like a landing pad for a starship. 

The companies must file ecological statements that include rules like not disrupting wetlands or disturbing evidence of early life, whether Amerindian or prehistorical.  (There’s plenty of both.)  When the locations of the towers were marked, land owners went out to look and Larry discovered that on his land both wetlands and tipi rings indicating past tribal campgrounds were in the way.  Therefore he asked that the line location be moved over a bit.  Until this was done he refused to sell (actually he is acting on behalf of his mother who is in a nursing home).  The company’s response was to use public condemnation, a process in which private land is seized for the public good.  No one likes it.  Ever.

The MATL line is already making mistakes, breaking its own agreement by misplacing towers and destroying archeological and wetland sites.  (A truck got stuck in the mud and by the time a bulldozer got it out, the land was rutted and uprooted.) When hauled before the regulators, the latter simply changed the rules to be more convenient.  But the real import of this collision of interests was asserted by Larry’s lawyer, Hertha Lund.  Condemnation is a process meant for the public good IN THE NATION WHERE THE LAW APPLIES.  Tonbridge et al is Canadian.  What business does a for-profit corporation based in foreign country, friendly as it may be, have using a “public good” law in the USA?   District Judge Laurie McKinnon ruled there was no justification.  There will be an appeal, of course.  We can cross our fingers for Larry Salois and his mother.

But behind the scenes, where we have no access -- not even Wikileaks -- we can only imagine the negotiations.  If Tonbridge and Gaelectric are stalled, that’s all the better for Northwestern Energy, but the latter is a South Dakota Country.  Good old dependable Montana Power committed suicide, hanged themselves with delusions of cybergrandeur.  Republicans, torn between profits and nationalism, will be confused.

Some people around here read history.  They are aware of how nations and corporations are entwined, have been since Anaconda gripped Montana.  The whole planet is in a Laocoonian tangle over boundaries, profits, rules and violence.  Probably Larry, like myself, sees this present struggle as only an extension of the Euro-intrusion over the centuries.  In the meantime, the Blackfeet Business Council sent a formal endorsement of Larry Salois’ desire to protect the land.

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