I am on the mailing list for Gyasi Ross, an enrolled Blackfeet lawyer, who sent me this url for an article he co-wrote. I have decided to respond to it from a white woman’s perspective, speaking about my own fifty-year-long experience on the Blackfeet Reservation. (I was gone for long stretches.) This will be a continuing thread, not just one post.
Ross and Michael Finley are addressing sovereignty and statistics. I’m going to take a personal and anecdotal angle plus some theory. I might get into trouble. I might get it wrong. But it’s past time to shut up.
When I was with Bob Scriver in the Sixties, he was both the City Magistrate and the Justice of the Peace. This was on the Blackfeet reservation. The police, which were both tribal and city-hired at the time, brought to Bob for arraignment both whites and Indians. Even the ten major crimes, which were the responsibility of the FBI (more present on the scene in those days), began with an appearance before the JP.
There were two JP’s in Browning, the other one being Wilbur Renshaw, who was married to the elementary school principal. Until citations were numbered, it was possible to siphon off quite a bit of money by accepting fines and losing the ticket. Canadian “speeding” tickets alone could be profitable. Wilbur wrote pulp Westerns and self-published them. Highway patrolmen and some white officers preferred Renshaw because he was more punitive than Bob, who grew up on the reservation and often employed these same drunk and disorderly characters as day labor. He had gone to school with some of them, or maybe their parents, and had taught many of them, so his loyalty was divided. He had that local’s resentment of outsiders, so when a highway patrolmen told him what the penalty for an offender should be (by writing a code on the back of the ticket) he ignored it. Renshaw was always “on the side of the law.” He liked to drink coffee with officers and pick up story ideas. They fancied themselves in the Old West.
Bob was also the backup coroner if the local mortician was out of town, so he attended a few scenes of crime and accident. Not often, which was lucky, because he hated it so. He said dead humans stunk, unlike dead animals.
On weekends, in hot weather, on holidays, when there was a big tribal payout, women showed up at the door late in the evening, wanting restraining orders or warrants for the arrest of violent men. Sometimes they were coming from the hospital, escorted by family members or officers. Then at 3AM the same women came pounding on the door with the bail money, desperate to bail out the same man and wanting to drop all charges. This is a familiar pattern everywhere that women are dependent on the men who abuse them.
This pattern is alive today in Valier, except that the sheriff here might refuse to drop charges and other authorities might press for changes in the household. Public opinion has shifted. Don’t ask me for specifics. Everyone who needs to know already knows. The instances I know about are not Indian though there are Indians living in town. The Pondera County sheriff is enrolled. So is the Glacier County sheriff. The rez is mostly in Glacier County.
In Heart Butte a few years ago one of my former students -- who had gotten involved with a pack of drinking, drugging people -- was beaten to death. It was daytime, summer, in a small house, and the whole community heard her screaming and knew she was dying. The lone cop was out of town. Everyone was afraid to intervene. I intended to go to her funeral but it had been scheduled earlier than the notice reported because, the priest told me, her body was so beaten that it could not retain embalming fluid. I spent a lot of time reflecting on what could have been done -- not that I would have had the courage to do it. Set the house on fire. Turn a firehose in through the window. Blast off air horns. Bear spray. Firecrackers. Get the town to stand in a circle around the little house -- well back -- and yell the names of the people we knew were inside. Shoot off a shotgun over the house. No one had a taser. Desperate stuff. The community told me it was hopeless -- nothing could be done.
Another former student came home early, surprised his wife with her lover, and the wife held him while the lover cut his throat. The stories we tell about these incidents do not serve to deter violence -- rather they tend to discourage intervention. Even to shut down the pressing of charges or any access to information. They also illustrate that much violence is ABOUT women and sexual jealousy even when the victims might be men, and that the transgressors’ courage come from running in packs that claim all the mystique of urban gangs they see on TV. There are drugs, alcohol, always. Women also can be violent.
As I go along, I need to balance the scales and keep a sense of proportion, so I’ll tell you some good things. In today’s Great Falls Tribune are stories about oil drilling on the Blackfeet Reservation. Two Blackfeet men are featured: Grinnell Day Rider, one of the best senior students I taught at Heart Butte high school, now the guy in charge of all the Blackfeet oil leases, and Wesley Bremner, another outstanding guy who works directly on the drill rigs. These are family men. I would be very surprised to hear about either one of them beating up anyone or even getting drunk. The constantly violent people are a small minority, a larger group is potentially violent, but the great majority of rez folks are peaceful and orderly.
When I was with Bob in the Sixties, I was never afraid. Partly I was just dumb and partly I was walking around in the White Woman’s Bubble, because a man of color knows that if he hurts a white woman, the white man will destroy him. (That bubble is thinning out quite a bit now.) The White Woman’s Bubble is strong if she is respectable and honorable, like a teacher who doesn’t drink and chippy around. But it is strongest if she “belongs” to a powerful man. I was owned, like a horse. They thought Bob Scriver would punish them harshly, maybe outside the law, though the law in this case would probably function properly, not be ignored as it so often was and is when the victim is tribal, especially if the woman is no church-goer but parties with the lowest.
Stigma, especially that of stigmatized women, is interpreted as a marker indicating fair game for abuse. It is one source of the white-man-on-Indian-woman abuse. This social dynamic is at work in all human societies. But ironically, if an Indian man is virtuous and gentle, he is also often a target for abuse, even murder, from the jealous and from those who interpret him as powerless. One of the most tragic recent deaths was the knifing of an outstanding young honor student and ceremonialist as he arrived at a party. The killer, a young man I know, is retarded, feeling stigmatized himself. Stigma-based violence triggers vengeful retaliation, creating a cycle.
(to be continued)