Thursday, January 31, 2013


A major oversight on the part of those trying to understand the dynamics of the 19th century prairie clearances and the confinement of indigenous persons to reservations is the impact of the larger world:  what was going on throughout the planet but particularly in Europe where the generating forces of politics and economics often directly impinged on tribes in America.  It was a perfect storm.  Not just empire building by nations, but also the ideas that are always sweeping through populations, from romantic notions about nature; to the obsession with sexuality that became such a force against the separately evolved cultures of Indians;  to rivalries among religious bodies that prompted emigration as missionaries.  For instance, in France in 1817 the Rev. Jean de Lamennais formed an institute to “supply Christian teaching to areas unable to afford Christian Brothers.  When the French government outlawed all religious teaching orders in 1904, many of these brothers found work in other countries.” (p.95 of the unpublished thesis by Hugh Black.)  Two worked at Holy Family until 1909 when their order sent them elsewhere.

Reading Hugh Black’s history of Catholic missionaries on the Blackfeet reservation, I’m struck by their obsession with polygamy and birth outside church-sanctioned marriage.   (When it came to atypical gender roles, they seem to have covered their eyes.)  Alcohol (the drug of the times) was as much a curse then as now.  (Why do I never hear tales about drunken priests among the Indians?)  Priests had to share constantly the need for food created by the decimation of the buffalo, and the need for shelter in a climate of harsh and quickly changing conditions.  Canvas and cabins weren’t enough: fuel was a constant pressure.  For many, these things have not changed, neither for the Indians nor for the priests.

Because the priests felt an emergency response was demanded by the need to save souls, they often made strenuous life-threatening trips in bad weather. They were literally self-sacrificing. The Indians had evolved “Indian time” in part as a safety adaptation: no need to travel if the weather doesn't allow it.  For themselves, as contrasted with the Indians, the priests’ markers of success were baptism (preferably after instruction), and taking the sacraments to the ill.  Their conviction was that this provided entry into the afterlife of Heaven and they were so convincing that many Indian people would keep away from them when they were ill, for fear that the real goal of the priest was to push them over the line into that unseen place.  

Black robes were seen as wizards with special resources but also inscrutable goals.  No doubt much of the strategy of priests had evolved after the Black Plague of Europe reduced the population to a third of what it had been.  Some orders, like Cistercians, were clearly a response to that emptying of the land.  The Euro-values of cleanliness, obedience, farming as a privileged land-use, and the arbitrariness of God could probably be traced back to that time.  These were THEIR evolved response to conditions so severe that only belief in an afterlife could make it bearable.  

Euros came onto the prairie as creatures from an alien planet with a “more advanced” technology: guns, mostly.  They claimed to “know better.”  There is still insistence that white people are specifically obligated to be successful, admired, and worthy of imitation.  A slovenly, drunken, stingy, criminal white person bears more stigma than the same character if Indian.  Simple failure, economic or personal, is seen more harshly if the failing person is white.  They have no excuse.  The power and “magic” of the priests came largely from their access to the white world far away -- their ability to make contact with people who had resources, by-passing the politicians and power-brokers of the new territory.  They could read and write and the early religious people made haste to learn the Indian languages, so they could interpret.  Like Hudson’s Bay factors, they sent a steady stream of letters and collected artifacts back to headquarters, even to Rome.  It’s said that the world’s finest collections of tribal artifacts are in Rome.  This assertion has never been documented or inventoried, but occasionally something will surface on loan.

Many letters to Rome and patrons would have been begging for money.  No professing religious person on the Blackfeet Reservation that I know of has ever lived any better than their congregation and many have worked hard to bring in resources for charity and to build.  The mission schools were able to save children from starvation.  That IS documented.  I’ve never seen an accounting of how much money the Catholic church has spent on the Blackfeet Reservation but it would be significant.  And that would discourage criticism if there were little slips here and there.

The great advantage the contemporary reservation has is that it is still land-based and the identity rooted in that land is still alive.  This means that when the white rancher’s son goes off to a good college, earns degrees, takes an urban job, marries a city girl, and creates a busy life in that context, he doesn’t come back.  But the Blackfeet offspring still yearn for home and DO come back, even returning as retirees.  Some of them return as soon as they have the skills they need to do some good on the rez.  Things are changing.

Those educated tribal members have solved the problem of food and shelter, earning a living, though they might find they have assimilated more than they had intended. They find that on the rez drugs and sex remain as sources of violence, property loss, stigma, and damage to children, intensifying at adolescence.  One Browning priest said sadly,  “I came here thinking I could help to change lives, but instead I only bury young people.”  But the problem is so intense that the reservation can serve as a test ground for the world -- because the same forces affect the whole world.  It’s as though the tribe as a whole could become nearly a religious order of counselors, but one with responsibility to succeed in place rather than missionizing through some hierarchy someplace else.

One of the interesting people thinking about these issues is David Brooks in the NYTimes.  Recently he brought up the issue of working class kids getting fancy educations that separate them from home forever. A link follows.  He is curious and even admiring about tribes (the really aboriginal ones) but feels excluded.  Of course, this is obtuse if he thinks about how Euros have generally treated indigenous people: eliminated them either with death or conversion, or patronized them as “natural” or “deprived.”

Brooks still thinks there is something “magic” about Indians, a kind of romantic reverse of the old priestly assertion of magic; in fact we are all simply human and doing the best we can with the conditions we’re stuck with.  Here’s Brooks’ bottom line:  “People are not better off when they are given maximum personal freedom to do what they want. They’re better off when they are enshrouded in commitments that transcend personal choice — commitments to family, God, craft and country.”  In the constant struggle between individual and group, he votes for group.  Most Indians would do the same.  ("Shroud" is an unfortunate choice of word.)

I am uneasy about Catholic restitution that takes the form of large amounts of money, especially when the lawyers will take a major cut.  I even get nervous about the repatriation of artifacts when things like Chief Joseph’s shirt turn up at auction. I would rather see restitution in the form of translation of the archives of all those letters to Rome that were written in French and Italian.  Then posting on a website accessible by the tribal colleges and the growing number of personal computers on the rez.   If Hudson’s Bay can do it, so can the Catholic Church.

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