Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Francis Wall, his art work, and Loren Bird Rattler
Francis was in one of my early English classes in Browning.  At the time of this photo, Loren was managing the Blackfeet Heritage Art Center that now occupies what was once the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife.

In reaction to the post a few days ago about “Cis” Blackfeet (consistent-on-all-levels Blackfeet) I received a thoughtful email from Loren Bird Rattler.  I’ve been impressed with Loren since a conversation some years ago at Blackfeet Community College where he was then serving on the faculty.   He was unusually well-informed, even about matters normally kept cloaked, and quite frank and insightful about all the information he had, but not irresponsible.  With his permission, I'm posting his letter below.

Loren has moved through a number of Indian-related institutions and managed their interfaces with entities like Harvard University.  This is the old Nitsitahpi hunter-gatherer way of life that means a lot of moving, many contacts, and a strong sense of identity.  This is not unique to Native Americans.  Many people are doing it "world-wide" now that the Internet makes it easier for people with computer skills and willing to speak out.

Don't just listen to the radio: broadcast!

There is a crucial difference between computer operators, who must actively participate and seek as they work, and television watchers, who passively accept whatever is playing, only using the remote control to change channels.  To be a good hunter-gatherer, as it was in the old days, one had to actively get out and explore, interact, and intervene to get what they wanted.  To be a television watcher is to be a "hang-around-the-fort" Indian, passively waiting for something to happen.  This difference between two types is found in all peoples.  Being a television-passive person is taught by poverty.  These people become very good at being stoic, accepting, tenacious, focused only on survival.   It works in emergencies, but should be discarded when the crisis is over. 

"Blackfeet identity is a very complex subject and I am certain it was difficult to keep it short with so much information available on the topic.  There is one vital point that I noticed was absent.  As you know, the "traditional" practice of who we are as Blackfeet is embedded in the language.  

"When you study our Creation Story and the number of changes that have taken place during the timeline in both recorded and oral histories, there is one common concept that you find; albeit in the creation story, the practice of who we are today, a century ago, two centuries ago, back to the orthodox Blackfeet practice, that is change.  In our Napi stories, oral traditions, and the earliest recordings, we have always believed that nothing was crystalized in time, that we are constantly changing.  So the orthodox Blackfeet were different from the Blackfeet days of the dog, the days of the horse, and lastly, the days of the automobile.

"When you also add the language, and traditions we still practice today, we are renamed several times in our lifetime.  A person isn't the same person when they are a child, the transition from teen to adult, when we are in the middle of our lifeline, when we become elders, etc. so the practice of renaming is indicative and serves a good example of the practice, that you find in our lifeways, etc.  Nothing is crystallized in time.  

"When we add metagenomics to this concept, it is very clear that it is up to today's Blackfeet to determine what it means to be a Blackfeet.  Just like many of our ancestors did when were brought in members of other tribes to expand the gene pool, just at the Blackfeet did with westward movement and the influx of euro centrics.  You are absolutely right, blood quantum was nothing more than a government trying to avoid liability for agreements that they had entered into.  
Eloise Cobell, Mega-hunter/gatherer

"When you also add federal Indian policy, it is apparent that many efforts were taken to limit enrollment and this didn't change until a Cherokee won a case at the Supreme Court which declared Indian Citizen as defined by the Tribe.  Since then, it has been upheld in related cases.  The Cherokee Tribe also won a case when they decided to go to lineal descent (many say to expand their roles to get federal funding for the hospital in Talequah.  Those individual Tribes have changed their membership criteria, but most are still based on the old standard of one quarter.  

"In my humble opinion, what the Blackfeet need to do is create a commission to oversee what it means to be a Blackfeet in today’s society.  The commission would need to hold public hearings and gather factual data (statistical data that definitively defines when we will reach our membership plateau and begin to decline, etc.  A white paper or report needs to be written and the commission submit the factually based report with its recommendation to the governing body.  Some options that may come out of the commission are an executive vote, a Tribal election, a BIA election (which can be all mail for every member to vote).  Useful information would need to include statistics on future declination, impacts to federal funding if a change is made.  

"Does that change require a cultural component?  What are the financial advantages or disadvantages to expanding the base?  Would an expansion help spur economic development through additional members being eligible for SBA, FHA, HUD, etc, and other federal low interest loans?  What kind of impact would it have on education dollars, how much more would our public schools receive by having more Tribal members and additional funding for educating students that they are already teaching?  What would it mean for U.S. government and Tribal health programs?

Honor Guard entering at North American Indian Days

"It is up to our Blackfeet today to step to the plate and determine what it really means to be Blackfeet.  Traditionally and historically, we have always stepped to the plate to deal with similar issues throughout our history, today it is time for this generation of Blackfeet to define what it means to be Blackfeet.  The road has already been paved on the legal side, the Tribe merely needs to define it themselves.  Blood quantum was utilized as a means to limit financial liability and it is time that we define who we are ourselves." 

Loren BirdRattler,  President
BirdRattle Consulting - We make your planning needs easier!

Go for it!

1 comment:

Heather H said...

Very well stated Bird, again I not only read this blog but I feel your words as well. I have always been a Browning Indian and will always be, but due to these financial liabilities from the government and the blood quantum, I am not a member of the Blackfeet Tribe. To know that this could and very well should be changed, leaves me with hope that one day I will be part of this Tribe that I have my whole life claimed and represented very proudly. I AM A STRONG AND PROUD BLACKFEET WOMAN!! (Just not on paper :(.... ) The future is unknown but I believe that with open minds and knowledgeable information, our leaders will make these changes that will benefit and strengthen our people! I want nothing more than to just be able to say who I am, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe!!