Friday, November 01, 2013


A friend suggests a book about all the white people who have come to the Blackft country and stayed, even burrowed deeper.  In his phrase “a very weird lot, often with shady motives, personality disorders, and sordid histories.”  I think over the assortment I know either personally or from history and find there’s truth to that, though not all of the whites who came and attached were disreputable.  When I first arrived, the Bureau of Indian Affairs still employed whites, and professionals or business owners were white.  They were the usual mixed lot found in small towns with some standout “good guys.”  I think of Phil Ward, the  thoughtful superintendent who hired me, Bill Grissom who was the heroic rez agent at the time of the ’64 flood, and “Cookie” a public health nurse who spread nurturing and cleanliness where ever she went, even though her scrubbing and feeding could get a little carried away.

On the historical Canadian side in particular, the frontier pattern was white men (usually fur buyers) who married and had children with tribal women (which on the Canadian side kept those women off the tribal rolls for a long time).  That category splits again between those who loved those wives and stayed with them versus the ones who abandoned their local family when they went “home” to Britain and white wives.  (Part of the reason Custer’s wife was so insistent on her version of reality that she was trying to expunge the memory of Custer's Indian family.)  Culbertson and Natawista stayed married but at the end each reverted to their own culture.  Dr. McLaughlin, the “White-Headed Eagle” who ran the Oregon territories so long also stayed married to his wife and arranged for his son to be educated as a doctor so prestigious that he treated the French king.  But in old age that son returned to “home” and resumed his moccasin life.   Malcolm Clarke evidently had more Blackfeet wives that we have been led to believe, but sent his daughters back east to be educated for prominence.  (His sons balked.)  The Conrad brothers also had doubled families, one Indian and one white, and mixed success with the sons.  There’s something about gender assignment here: not sexual desire but roles in society.

During the time period after the Civil War traumatized men sought out reservations where there was more tolerance of abusive men, partly because they sometimes were money-makers and partly because it was a legal gray area.  WWII saw white men marry Indian women who owned enough land to start a ranch.  Another time period after the Vietnam War brought in seeker white men, traumatized, looking for both freedom and attachment.  And the ensuing New Age prompted some men to want a ceremonial life drawn from the land, a few of them using the prestige gradient of it as a kind of endorsement and others using the same gradient for profit, selling what the missionaries had taught Indians was empty to the distant white people seized by the desire to have artifacts, sometimes as war trophies.

But there were others who came as hopeful contributors:  the Gold family, despite their own struggles with depression and alcoholism, tried to help by founding the public school and healing trachoma.  Many priests and protestant clergy dedicated themselves to helping people, even if not on their traditional terms.  Some came as raiders -- the Conrad brothers quite literally were teenaged Confederate raiders -- and others came hoping the rez would be a business opportunity.  There was a difference between the people who came as single men and those who came as whole families, as the Sherburnes did.  The Scrivers came as one man who later went home for a wife and established a family.  In the second generations, each family had one son who wished to be Blackfeet but was prevented from marrying into the tribe.  Bob, of course, became a peripheral ceremonialist.  These families have mostly left.
Clare Sheridan went everywhere on this contraption, but drove a fancy car to Montana.

Others, like Adolf Hungry Wolf or John Hellson, married tribal women and entered deeply into the old-time life.  The Reiss brothers came (temporarily) as artists and founders of a summer art school that welcomed indigenous people to the European ceremonies of portraiture.  (Winold also had warm ties to the Harlem community in New York City.)  His brother, Hans, was a close friend of Winston Churchill’s cousin, Clare Sheridan, whose book about her experience on both sides of the tripwire we call the 49th parallel is entitled “Redskin Interlude,” a vivid memoir about her sojourn with the Tailfeathers family.  Gerald Tailfeathers began his outstanding art career at the Reiss school.  His mother was half-Irish, as was Clare.  This is all pretty much lost history, but shouldn’t be.

Buffalo soldiers

Someone could probably research a whole book about the relationship between the German enthusiasts over historical Blackfeet life, often tied to authentic manufacture of new “artifacts” and the persistent romantic streams of thought among the Germans.  There are emotional ties between black Americans and “Blackfeet” -- occasionally I get an inquiry about ancestors but the number of blacks on the rez, except those produced by ventures into cities, is very small.  I don't know what happened to the descendants of the Buffalo Soldiers who were here.  There was one black man in town when I came.  On the Canadian side there are a few Japanese who have joined the civic community, but none that I know of as ceremonialists.  Many hispanics now live on the rez, easily merging.

People have always known about quiet white men who were sexuality atypical in an honorable way.  Some have connected with the “Two Spirit” tribal people and others have seen themselves as conscientious and essentially motherly protectors of youngsters.   Jack Loadman -- teacher, historian, foster parent -- published with the Montana Historical Society.  

A few have not been so benign.  The movie “Warparty” notoriously depicted a gay man as the consort of the brutal military-type law enforcer.  A. B. Guthrie also included a gay man in "The Big Sky" who in the movie version of his novel was converted to a “fool.”  We don’t know whether these authors were drawing on people they knew.  Any population with a high proportion of ex-felons (meaning most dark minorities) includes atypical men, not so honorable.

Euros often fancy that a tribe is a genetically defined group of people who are “different” and therefore either attractive or repellent, depending on the motives and prejudices of the whites.  But in fact the People had a genetic core that spread out from family into a fringe of all sorts of people who might or might not become active participants in the vital enactment of their beliefs.  They were not strict island populations or species.  Many who arrived by water came simply because the geological chance of the techtonic break that created the Mississippi and Missouri river network, a kind of highway -- gave easy access into the heart of Blackft territory.  Some came as loners, some as rich people looking for excitement, some artists (Audubon and Catlin), and always for profit -- maybe furs and maybe booze and maybe weapons trafficking.  The ancestor of the Cobells was an Italian sailor.  The Weatherwax, Kennerly and Wetzel family names come from rum runners, some with criminal connections and others simply resourceful entrepreneurs.

Such tangles of personality thrust up against the hardships of survival on the high northern east slope of the Rockies produced a set of people formidably shaped for survival.  In the earliest years ritual renewals were shared openly.   But when the government saw the ceremonies as sources of strength for enemies in war, they were suppressed.  Finally opposition ended, Indians were by law hired to be Indian service employees, white business dwindled in the face of other forces, and "roots" became popular.  Then the old ways -- like compressed springs -- came back in force.  To think of them as merely benign and even child-like would be a mistake.  They are tough, edged, and useful in carving out a future.  Enter the scene at your own risk.  Those who joined the People in that heart-and-soul way have brought the gift of themselves.  What that means is up to Fate.

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