The blue sphere that is our planet is like a balloon in that if you press on it in one place, that force will affect all the other parts. Not many studies that I’m aware of have considered the native inhabitants of the North American continent in terms of the other continents and what was happening there at the same time. Yet, the butterfly-wing theory reasoning that the tiny insect flurry of air in Australia can combine with many others to create hurricanes in Florida, or that one malfunctioning combustion engine or cow with indigestion can add up to a change in the atmospheric temperature, would suggest more global interaction than we might guess. Not so separate.
What got me thinking about indigenous people specifically was reading about the plague of locusts that hit the US mid-west in the 19th century. Materials promised to and meant for the reservations of the prairie were diverted to the Euro people newly homesteading in the states from which most tribes had been displaced. “After all,” said government officials who endorsed the repurposing, “These white people are citizens, but Indians are only dependents.” Something similar happened when the Irish potato famine or the Scots enclosure movement shoved out many many emigrants to America where they soon overcrowded the east and invaded the west. Starvation is more powerful than any other human force. Whose starvation wins makes history.
The point is that not all of that manifest destiny stuff was simply greed for land with no other motive. In fact, many people had no other place to live but a miserable ghetto. in Scotland the Highland Clearances caused families to be thrown off the estates and wastelands where they had lived for centuries in order to make way for sheep, Newly homeless people were living in graveyards for the sake of the shelter behind the tall headstones. They emigrated for survival. If they had filtered west one-by-one, or a family at a time instead of in a huge onslaught justified by blindness and corporate/government greed for the profits of railroads, commodities and taxes, maybe the US would be a blended population. (Well, at least sooner. It’s blended now and getting more so.)
The Blackfeet -- in the US the Amskapi Pikuni division -- had the great good fortune of staying in place, though their rez kept shrinking. (It also turned out to be an advantage to have the main body of the People remain in Canada where the indigenous population was treated differently, but we can come back to that another time.) In my thinking for “The Bone Chalice,” about the experience of Holiness, which is essentially deep human meaning, I asked the question, “What is the one crucial element that cannot be removed without making a people into something different?" For the Blackfeet it has to be their relationship to the high prairie along the east side of the Rockies. It was adapting to this place -- it’s resources and pressures -- that made them who they were at first contact. No matter what ceremonies are observed, it is more deeply crucial to keep the underlying relationship to the land that the Sacredness came from. Otherwise rituals are hollow.
The Blackfeet land was unique because of the Mississippi/Missouri drainage which made it possible for Euros to navigate right into the heart of the country. The earliest Euros probably worked their way West a few at a time as French voyageurs and Spaniards may have marched to a place close by. French explorers (Verendrye) and then the Hudson’s Bay Company came in from the north. But the wealthy, the titled, and the artistic came up the big rivers from the very beginning. This has informed the unfolding of life on the rez. The original Cobell was an Italian sailor. The crucial interlocutors of the two Blackfeet speaking communities were two mostly Mexican brothers properly called “Sandoval” but also “Sanderville.”
Everyone is very conscious now of the pressure of an oil boom returning, activating memories of the last boom in the Fifties and the long fall-out from it. Not so many are aware of the long-time split between the people who took their Dawes allotments out on the flats where grain could be grown, mostly people with a white patriarch who understood credit and machinery, versus the people who settled in Heart Butte and Starr School, old-timers good at hunting and, later, livestock. Not everyone has thought about the implications of the three “resort” communities: East Glacier, St. Mary and Babb, which bring in great numbers of international outsiders over the summer. And I myself still don’t understand why there is some kind of onus on being from the South Rez, except that there is always a split between those who want to be as modern and self-managed as possible versus those who think the government still has an obligation to fulfill treaty obligations even if they are paternalistic.
What no one saw coming was the emergence of pan-Indians, people who are full-blood or nearly so, but from a number of tribes. There were several strong forces working against the localisms of the tribes: regional government boarding schools (gathering young people at just the right age), political alliances, relocation, and AIM (which is as much an emotional as a political force). To some degree I expect that military service both took people off the rez and drew other people, attached to veterans, back onto the reservation. The pow-wow network across the continent also stirred people together. Since federal crimes mean criminal incarceration and quite a few crimes (if prosecuted) on a reservation are technically federal, then the federal penitentiaries play a part in “relocation.”
I’m always sympathetic to those tribes who want their definition of a tribal member to derive from residence on the reservation, esp. if that land was not a banishment to unwanted swampland or desert. But the formal governmental fashion at the time of the present laws was to make a tribe into a corporation. Clearly the federal aim was to evade the treaties that give tribes sovereignty, the right to set the terms of their own reservations. So then the membership in the corporation -- how many “shares” a person had -- was based on provenance -- that is, family descent instead of place. If the families could see their land as merely an asset, they would lose their deeper connection to it.
Of course, I’m sympathetic because the idea is self-serving to an extent. White as I am, I have a fifty-year relationship with this place and the people here. I can at least be an observer, but genetically I’ll always be a rainbird with Scots tendencies. Because what happens here affects the rest of the world, even the Highlands where people know what it is to be displaced.