What is a Blackfeet? The answer is mixed. They are defined as much by time as place; fiction as much as fact; a span of assortments as much as a definable given. To use a computer game term, they are “avatars” which started out to mean the incarnation of a Hindu god (other places, other Indians), then went to meaning “an embodiment (as of a concept or philosophy) often in a person,” and now is a computer term for a manipulable identity.
Pre-contact people on the northern prairie next to the Rocky Mountains living off the vast bison herds thought of themselves as “us,” or “the People,” or “folks who live the way we do and speak our language.” The kernel of each of the several dozen groups of maybe a hundred people would be genetically related, originating from a man and his descendants through several “wives” under various circumstances, including captured women from other groups of either the “People” or “Others.” This is genetically healthy but they knew nothing about genes. It was partly a matter of opportunity and partly a matter of just how willing a man was to act. The children of the bold were probably more assorted and numerous than those of the meek. Uncles and aunts acted as fathers and mothers.
By the 1600’s the group included some Frenchmen, Voyageurs. They were welcome to join the group so long as they accepted their ways and learned their language. If they fit in well, they would be distinguished mostly by their beards. But soon the white folks back East became aware of “Indians” through the writings and paintings of adventurers. So they gave them a name or picked up the names their neighbors called them, often not flattering.
At that point they WERE avatars, ciphers invented for convenience with no detail and no reality as human beings. The term “tribe” was invented to be parallel with the Euro-notion of “nation” which corresponded to a delineated piece of land and which in the 20th century became “corporation,” which is a fantasy invention of a business acting as though it were a person, like the Hudson’s Bay Company, conveniently amorphous in terms of land.
In terms of bookkeeping, a corporation is a collection of assets, so now -- legal “tribes” which had once been loosely united nomadic affinity groups -- had become bookkeeping avatars at the mercy of the definers in Washington, D.C. They were no longer real people who needed to eat, but they did have assets that could be managed: timber, grass, scenery and railroad access. There were no international high tension transmission lines or oil pipelines then.
In fact, no one thought about genetics except that these Blackfeet looked different -- they were bigger, handsomer, and darker. At that point their avatar got a little bit entangled with the avatars of African slaves and everyone pretended that they didn’t notice that the children were often a little paler than usual.
When those pesky do-gooders raised hell about starving Blackfeet, the Washington DC. quantifiers and book-keepers decided to count actual human heads. So some unlucky young cavalryman (the young were more likely to read and write) was seated at a rickety little table in the wind and dust in front of a tent, given a ledger and a dip-pen and told to make a list of all the people in this “tribe.” No one was sure what tribe meant, but they were hungry, so they lined up and sent runners to tell their relatives and friends because if you were on the list, you got commodities. In theory.
The unlucky scribe confronted people with multiple names -- not even counting nicknames -- that had consonants within them that there is no English letter for. (English used to have those sounds; German still does.) He misunderstood, he was given wrong names, he may have enrolled some people twice, (This was ENROLLMENT.) and a few people figured the whole thing was a white man’s plot and stayed away. Maybe arguments broke out in the line about who was properly there.
This was RECENT, not even two hundred years ago, but that record has been the foundation for all the entitlements and allotments and payouts ever since. No one had any notion of blood types or genomes. No wedding records, no birth certificates, a few baptism records in missionary accounts, above-board polygamy, secret liasons, and a policy of free adoptions that no one recorded. A baby belonged to the whole group and was assigned where a baby fit, with people who were willing.
It may be that when some individuals get into the matter of their “blood quantum” or even their “provenance” which is a practical record of descent, that they will find that (like Charlie Russell paintings) they have claimed a membership for which they technically don’t qualify. Since it is the equivalent of membership in the tribe that is defined as a corporation, will they have to give back all the per capitas they have received over the years?
The government with its Magic Definition Pencil has been busy saying which tribes exist and which ones don’t. (It’s the same pencil the IRS uses. These days it's a computer mouse.) In Canada “Metis” is a nation with the status of tribe. In the US it is not. Since the Blackfeet live on both sides of the Canadian border (before parts were ceded to Glacier National Park and Homeland Security) they often belong to the same tribe but two Euro-style nations. That poor clerk probably wrote down the names of a lot of people who were on the US side at that point, but as soon as Canada began making lists that would give access to food, they skedaddled up there. Were they struck off the list?
Even the government can be overwhelmed, as Eloise Pepion knew, and at some point they threw up their hands over trying to decide who was in and who was out, and said, “Okay, you guys decide for yourselves what the rules are for having shares in your corporation.” Grandparents said, “All my children must be included.” Those who stayed said, “If you don’t live here, you’re not one of us.” Those who left insisted, “I am your brother and I will return so I AM one of you.” A small voice said (in Blackfeet), “If you speak our language, you are one of us.”
The government, which knows little about human families, said, “We can only accept quantifiers of avatars. Um, shareholders.” Then later, finally seeing a need, they began to invent programs to subsidize education and Indian preference and loans specifically for tribal people. But they defined the people who could receive this help in their own way, regardless of what the tribe had decided to honor, so then sometimes the same person was an Indian and then he wasn’t. The same as a tribe was and then wasn’t a tribe, depending on potential casino revenue.
Outsiders might see all this as avaricious maneuvering for money, but it’s much more than that. (It IS that, too.) Its really is a game of “Do you love me?” Which always has financial and genetic consequences.