(This post is one of a series responding to an article in Indian Country Today by Ross and Finley.)
In spite of taking on violence against Indian women on reservations, I’m talking about men and women, enrolled and white, different countries, reservations and none, because I think it’s all complexified together -- one of those “five per cent” problems [see the book with that title -- I reviewed it earlier] that just doesn’t seem to get solved because the questions are all too small and too abstract. I looked at some of the questionnaires in various studies that were supposed to turn up some kind of solution, but they’re coming from assumptions made someplace else. So I’ll try this my way this time, wandering all around.
One of the cases that has haunted me for fifty years was not a woman. It was a young man, Blackfeet, handsome, intelligent, bound for great things, well-respected family, father on the school board that originally hired me in Browning in 1961. It was Indian Days, mid-July, and back then violence sometimes crept into the camp. The boy was beaten nearly to death, his eye kicked out of his head. The culprits were Canadian tribal and quickly fled back to their home reserves.
Canada and the United States are nations of law. Differences are settled and crimes are punished according to law, but there are slight differences between the two countries. Inside Canada, each province has its own laws. Inside the United States each state has its own laws. In Montana each county has its own law and towns have their own laws and so on. It’s a cat’s cradle of which law applies where and when and to what.
When Indians are involved, one must take into account international treaty law. That’s why the attempted murder suspects weren’t stopped at the border: Blackfeet are a divided nation and part of their rights is crossing the border without stopping. To call a grand jury and indict the bad guys, witnesses were needed. North American Indian Days last less than a week, then people disperse back across the Americas (some to Europe) and since many stay on the Pow Wow Trail all summer and this was before cell phones, there was no way to even find them, much less take statements. Those who wanted justice could not find a way.
When the US laws were originally brought in, the Blackfeet still had their old ways of doing things and didn’t understand all the written laws, particularly since no one was very careful about explaining them or enforcing them. The ten major crimes ( murder, rape, arson, and so on) were handed over to the FBI. A case like this one didn’t interest them. It could not be won. Before white contact, matters like this had been handled by families. A small band of warriors would have gone out to seek vengeance. They might or might not have been successful. But this family was a modern family: Catholic, educated, assimilated. They would not send out an assassin, though that was not unknown in the Sixties of America. (Kennedy, King)
Today sovereignty is the cry, but how to reconcile all the sovereignties? In the days after WWII when veteran men came back traumatized, alcoholic, desperate, only partly sane, families broken, there was so much crime in Browning -- theft, violence and rape -- that the town fathers went together to hire their own police force, the way that college campuses hire their own security police. They worried about property loss and home invasion more than anything else. But they also justified what they did by asserting the sovereignty of Browning within the reservation, just as the reservation had sovereignty in the state of Montana. In those days it was claimed that as soon as land property belonged to private individuals (usually but not always white) it was taken out of the trust managed by the government and was therefore not part of the reservation any longer: subject to state law and taxation. In those days most of the town real estate was owned by white people, because the businesses were run by white people, so they were the ones with money. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and all the other federal entities and employees hired mostly white people.
Then came Indian empowerment. BIA hires had Indian preference. Businesses, especially tribally owned, had Indian preference. The school began to have Indian applicants for teaching jobs. Enrolled people put their houses and lots back into the tribal trust to avoid taxes. In the next decades the whites who had arrived in the Fifties to start businesses and ranches aged out. Some had by that time intermarried with Indians, some sold their businesses to local people who were Indian, and some just locked the doors and left -- maybe in a coffin. By the time the first Headstart kids of the Sixties were out of college and returned, most white people were gone.
The reservation had always had a political split between non-English-speaking full-bloods and mixed-bloods, who often had white fathers and therefore advantages when it came to business -- contacts, access to loans, bookkeeping skills, start-up capital and so on. Because the full-bloods didn’t trust the more assimilated people to have their best interests in mind, the full-bloods were willing to accept the paternalism of the government to make deals for them. They felt the government had an obligation to protect them and ought to be held to it. Now that faded away and a new determination from tribal members to run their own affairs began to drive matters.
Browning was no longer defined as an island of jurisdiction. There was a huge squabble (as usual) over who should oversee the police force, ironically led by a guy named Saurez who wore huge down coats because he was always cold away from the south. All officers went back under the feds, not the tribe or the city. Jurisdiction has been handed back and forth ever since, but the real problem is not who is in charge of them -- it is who will pay the cost of proper training, maintained vehicles, and enough gas to cover a rez fifty miles on a side. Then there’s the jail. Who pays?
Somehow, the paler and more assimilated people took into themselves the white contempt for poverty, drunkenness, illiteracy, violence, and being old-fashioned -- they accepted that stigma against their own people. A big tough felon whispered the words to me when he said “blanket-ass Indian,” his face full of shame and fear. This was before it was fashionable to reclaim your heritage and award expensive Pendleton blankets as a way to honor achievers. The Indians who were doing well wanted separation from the Indians who were not. Street Indians are like a president’s embarrassing brother -- family, but not exactly welcome when you're trying to maintain an image. Yet often it is those people who have the real knowledge of old ways. Often, not always.
The big kahuna of boundaries is still the United States/Canadian border, a means of taking refuge from the law since the days of Chief Joseph, who didn’t quite make it across to the north, and Louis Riel, who DID make it across to the south. Now the customs and immigration officers at the line are fortified by border patrol, DEA, Homeland Security, RCMP, all joining the web of laws unknown, unenforced, misunderstood, outdated or too new to be known. The most passionate problem is jurisdiction over white people on the reservation. These days they are sometimes Mexican or Columbian drug peddlers who can fade into the background on a reservation, mixing with Mexican or South American families looking for a peaceful place. That adds immigration law and the southern border.
That boy who was beaten up at Indian Days fifty years ago, Lockley Bremner, did recover pretty much, though he was not the same. His family was always religious and he, spiritually inspired, became a respected pastor. His son, who is also Lockley Bremner, is now the Mayor of Browning but earns his living doing cable installations for one of the successful Tribal enterprises. He reads this blog sometimes.
(More to come)