Wednesday, August 17, 2011


It’s so easy to slip into Us vs. Them thinking.  That’s how we got so screwed up with this question of jurisdictions.  At first white contact it might have been possible to defend the idea that tribal people were fundamentally different from Euro-whites, because the former had been here for enough millenia for the land to shape them, both genes and memes.  But the Euro-whites were still shaped for Europe with a whole different set of ideas in their heads.
In Montana the state law requires that the history of the Indians be taught.  A well-educated, even bookish, white woman said to me,  “I don’t see why I should have to study THEIR history.”  She said this standing on land with thousands of years of Indian history and maybe 150 (pushing it) years of Euro-white history, much of it conflict.
In an essay by James Clifford about the Mashpee tribe trying to establish in court that they WERE a tribe, I found a good answer.  A Indian woman on the stand (everyone seemed to agree she WAS Indian, though the whole definition was in question) said that she was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  “How could that be?” questioned the lawyers.  
“Well, 149 members of my tribe died fighting in the American Revolution on the side of the Colonies,” she said patiently.  They are us.
But we are many.  The arbitrary distinction between Indian and white was full of exceptions and contradictions from the beginning and now that’s even more true than ever.  The idea that there should be one set of standards about sex and violence for Indians -- either because they are naturally savage and uncontrollable or because they are naturally noble and protective of the vulnerable -- and another for whites (unnatural?) is pretty much nonsense.  In terms of both genes and memes, the ecology (which IS the economy) is pulling everyone back into a unity, lumpy and contentious as it may seem.  We are far more alike than different.  Our interests are mostly common interests.  We learn as we go.
You can go to any number of websites that will tell you the average rez salaries (low), the value of the homes owned (the websites won’t know what to do about tribal housing), the age groups and racial groups, though only the ones that the questionnaire makers put on the list, which change quite a bit over the years.  (We don’t think about how many “octoroons” there are these days.  We question the definition of “race.”)  Surveys can’t capture things the surveyors never thought of.  One variable that does show up is that a high proportion of the population is quite young and the rate of births to single mothers is high.  Not only does this mean a burden on the welfare system but also that the maturity to raise kids is diminished and fathers are not involved.  In fact, male death rate due to violence, drinking and now diabetes is high, which forces single motherhood.  A high diabetes rate also means problematic pregnancies.
A variable that does NOT show up is the kind of grandmothers that were present and involved when I came in 1961.  Born in 1880’s, they had gone through enormous hardship but had also been mission-educated by tough no-nonsense people, whatever some of their faults.  Those old Indian ladies would not put up with nonsense.  Their grandchildren, born in 1920 or later, were the first educated in public schools and employed as clerks, nurses, and teachers.  Then the children of those women, born in 1940 or later, were the seniors I taught in 1961.  
They were “tracked” in school and in life.  The “high track” has done extremely well, often becoming professionals and leaders in the tribe.  The low track despaired and thought their lack of prosperity was due to being Indian.  But they still obeyed their grandmothers, who never despaired, even when their granddaughters became drunkards.  It’s the children born in the 1980’s and later -- beyond the lifespan of those original hardy grandmothers -- who are now enmeshed in careless sex and violence.  
The three towns against the border of Glacier National Park (East Glacier, St. Marys, and Babb) which are tourist towns in summer, have quite different seasonal dynamics but are pretty “acculturated”.  The two “old-timey” towns (Heart Butte and Starr School) have no bars but more poverty.  Browning, as the hub, is a multi-celled town with its own jurisdiction problems.  Most of the federally subsidized housing projects are outside the formal city limits while the older part of town has deteriorated and fallen into fractionated ownership (split out repeatedly because of inheritance without re-consolidation) so that there are always derelict buildings where drunks can cluster with their dogs and broken glass to risk fire.  They are regarded with both shame and derision.  At the same time, there is a center where such people can go, especially in winter.  
The number of bars in Browning is far fewer than it was in the Sixties and the number of AA meetings have multiplied quickly.  Dry-out programs abound and the old hospital building is now dedicated to it.  The adults of 2000 are actively addressing the problem.  It is clear to everyone that rape and violence are wrong.  It is not clear how to get a grip.  In the case of men from other places (who might be any other races) who are already drifters and felons, law enforcement needs all the help they can get.  Such men defeat far more formidable jurisdictions than a remote Montana reservation, but that doesn’t excuse the community from demanding a higher standard of order, particularly and specifically in regard to intruders.  The message needs to be sent that a reservation does not exist in order to host parties.
Last summer I went to attend Curley Bear Wagner’s funeral, as I try to do for all my former students.  I was too early and sat out on the steps of the church with a little cluster of street people, both men and women, visiting about who we knew and just life in general.  I thought how natural and easy it seemed.  How much we shared.  Then they wandered off to sleep in the brush along Willow Creek.  They had a bottle.

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