Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Benjamin Shors, son of a local lawyer now deceased, and both an investigative journalist and a professor of writing in Pullman at the University there, spent a morning with me to ask about the ’64 flood.   He graduated from Cut Bank High School.  We had a lot to talk about besides the flood and water politics in general, which are a very hot topic at the moment for three reasons:  frakking, the consolidation of water sources to Tiber which I suspect is preparation for privatization of town water sources, and the restoration of legal water rights to tribes.  This summer he will be teaching journalism in a special program for “Arab” students from Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Oman, and Bahrain.  This enterprise is far more key to world peace and homeland security than anything military.  

But what is “Arab”?  I went to wikipedia in hopes that the entry will have been written by an “Arab.”  One never knows -- they are anonymous -- but if it is trustworthy (and Shors agrees with me that Wikipedia is more of a football scrum than an authority), this is what I found out.

Arab people, also known as Arabs (Arabic: عرب‎, ʿarab), are a panethnicity primarily living in the Arab world, which is located in Western Asia and North Africa. They are identified as such on one or more of genealogical, linguistic, or cultural grounds, with tribal affiliations, and intra-tribal relationships playing an important part of Arab identity.”
Jokingly, I called them “Sand Blackfeet”, mounted nomads organized into tribes and evolved in a tough climate who have now pretty much settled into towns.  Historically, they represented all three of the Abramic religious systems: Jewish, Christian, and Islam which has come to be primary today.  But there were Arabs before the founding of ANY of these three big dominant groups. Here’s a mind boggler:  “If the diverse Arab pan-ethnicity is regarded as a single ethnic group, then it constitutes one of the world's largest after Han Chinese.”

What then defines “being Arab”?  Like the pre-white Blackfeet (whose name for themselves was Siksika, so maybe I should have said “Sand Siksika”) it is language.  "The word "Arab" has had several different, but overlapping, meanings over the centuries (and sometimes even today). In addition to including all Arabized people of the world (with language tending to be the acid test), it has also at times been used exclusively for bedouin.”  The latter are possibly the most “Blackfeet-like” if you think of both in 19th century terms.   

“A widely quoted Bedouin saying is "I against my brother, my brothers and I against my cousins, then my cousins and I against strangers". This saying signifies a hierarchy of loyalties based on proximity of kinship that runs from the nuclear family through the lineage, the tribe, and, in principle at least, to an entire genetic or linguistic group (which is perceived to have a kinship basis). Disputes are settled, interests are pursued, and justice and order are maintained by means of this frame, according to an ethic of self-help and collective responsibility .”   (More under “bedouin.”)  I certainly recognize this bedouin pattern of organization, which is rarely understood by whites, among Blackfeet.  Whites don't generally see it, since they are used to a system of written laws.  Bedouin were generous about taking in new members, perhaps feeling that they represented new energy and ideas for the whole group, though they were also sharply aware of the need for the whole to help parts that were in trouble.  Plains Indians were like this once, before the government starting imposing limitations and lists.

Tauregs” were the most romantic bedouins of all, camel-nomads who farmed oases a little deeper into Africa, who maintained long caravan trade routes and had many artistic craftsmen among them.  They took slaves and wore engulfing robes dyed with indigo which sometimes made their skin blue.  (See “The Sheltering Sky” either the book by Paul Bowles or the movie made from it.)  Outside forces were constantly trying to confine them, change them, suppress them, which worked better when the Euros or Berbers or whomever tried to contain them were backed up by drought.   I say “romantic” in the sense of the eternal story (roman) about the individual or small group trying to maintain an identity in the face of a larger society that wants to control them.

So what would make an attorney’s son from Cut Bank want to be an investigative journalist who sometimes teaches Arabs in the Palouse hills of Eastern Washington?  I asked him.  He said simply, “Curiosity.”  Does anyone these days not realize there are always psychological Arabs, if not Tauregs, among us?  Ben is hip enough to understand that there are many factions and attitudes among the Blackfeet.  Most journalists tend to see generic “Indians” or at best “tribe,” so that they naively ask,  “What do the Blackfeet think?”  One can only answer “which Blackfeet”?  Many younger male journalists will find one young male Blackfeet informant and assume that everyone else thinks just like him.  It’s the old anthropological way that became a blind corral.

Controversy becomes more bitter as groups are smaller, maybe because there is more at stake in a personal way, until the most dangerous quarrels are between brothers, but brothers might not be defined in the suburban nuclear-family way.  Among tauregs “family” is defined by those who share the tent: usually three or four adults and a scattering of children from various sources.  This is useful to think about on the rez.  I advised Ben to find thresholds for interactive places, like coffee shops or the tribal college commons room or the casino.  Simply be present and wait to see who comes.  Euro-type sources like archives, libraries and authorities have proven to be less helpful.  But ceremonies are communities of memory and hope, often rich with detail and emotion.  It will soon be time for the annual memorial for those lost in the ’64 flood.

“At the turn of the 19th century, the Tuareg territory was organised into confederations, each ruled by a supreme Chief (Amenokal), along with a counsel of elders from each tribe. These confederations are sometimes called "Drum Groups" after the Amenokal's symbol of authority, a drum.”  A Blackfeet ceremony is a kind of drum group.  But today’s tribes, whether taureg or plains Indian, are complex and no one sub-category would capture the experiences of the whole.

A Blackfeet is defined many ways: genetic, provenance of descent (who’s your grandmother, which is what “blood quantum” really means), location, emotional attachment, culture, historical connection, and so on.  One of the side-effects of the 1964 flood, which mostly affected residents along the rivers including the southern boundary river called Birch Creek, was that the people on the rez side had federal and tribal resources for recovery.  The people outside had to rely on the state and their own ability to borrow and so on.  This led to bitterness between the two sides of the river which fed into racism.  Boundaries can create quarrels which feed back into old bitterness.  But a boundary can also become a narrow territory with shared lives, a “long town.”

“Ben” (meaning “son of”) says his growing up years in Cut Bank coincided with the exhaustion of the oil-bonanza, now renewed by frakking.  The women in his family are helpers -- some define lawyers that way.  I think this is relevant and I hope it is reciprocated, a chance for Blackfeet and other veterans of that ’64 flood (like me) to explore the body of interactions and changes that persist even decades later.  Perhaps the noblest study for writers is themselves -- and their closest others.

If you have any good stories about the ’64 flood, you can contact Ben by email:  bshors at   Or if you see him around, you could just buy him a cup of coffee.

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