Friday, March 21, 2014


What seems to be forming as a new “discipline” or defined method of study is “metagenomics", concepts that come from studying the genome codes of living entities.  Combining this with the idea of “cis” that comes from gender studies and means that the layers of possible male/female are consistent, I’m going to reflect here about what a “cis” Blackfeet might be, not in terms of gender but in terms of being Blackfeet.  This is an issue of practical consequences and considerable personal anguish as the people of the Blackfeet Reservation struggle to know how to define and plan.

First of all, the only truly “pure” Blackfeet possible is the pre-contact group of people who lived nomadically in this area as hunters of buffalo.  Organized organically (by either family relationships or friendship ties) into bands or clans of maybe a hundred people each, who came together annually in larger groups for ceremonial and relationship functions.  The boundaries of their territory were determined by where they needed to go for food, who pushed in on their lives from elsewhere, or whatever feuds and alliances were acting within or between the bands.  But no one is now completely "cis" or consistent with those people.  They are gone, though there are some folks pretty similar, esp. to the north.

The popular belief is that these people were genetically unique and that the present “blood quantum” definition of Blackfeet identity reflects an actual genome.  This is not true.  What is called “blood quantum” is actually “provenance,” meaning family descent based on who was originally recorded as belonging to the tribe by the US government as entitlement to commodities.  “Tribe” is an imposed concept, a definition based on boundaries when, in fact, the bands were defined from an organic center of creation and attraction.  

These bands were tighter and more local before the horse, but were profoundly altered by major reduction due to disease, expansion of territory and power due to the coming of the horse and guns, and then near-elimination because of the end of the buffalo.  Some feel this last was a diabolical and deliberate alteration of the ecology to eliminate the people dependent on it. (I asked Nicholas Vrooman for some input and he points out that the alternative explanations are that that the Texas cattle herds brought diseases (anthrax, hoof and mouth, etc.) up from the south, so that today’s pushback on the Yellowstone bison is ironically resistance to the brucellosis brought originally in cattle.  There are other explanations of the sudden collapse of the bison herds, one based on the idea of critical mass -- that once a threshold of shrinkage is reached, the whole system collapses.  (Think about the implication of that for the tribe.)  Others finger the railroads, the need for sturdy leather to make conveyor belts for the growing industries, and uncontrolled white hunters.  The metaphor is that the bison "went underground," implying they could return.

An accidental parallel was the Irish potato famine that drastically reduced the population of rural Irish poor and displaced them to America.  But there was no place to deport Blackfeet, so a line was drawn around them to keep them in place, European style.  The idea was that Blackfeet would stay inside and non-Blackfeet would be outside.

Then the problem became determining who was Blackfeet.  There were no papers issued before Euros came.  The main criteria was speaking the language: if a person spoke Blackfeet, they must be a Blackfeet.  But how well must they have spoken?  Only a few speak Blackfeet well now.  Should all non-speakers be asked to leave?

1.  Who makes the determination?  Does a person self-declare or does an authority look at them and say, “this person is a Blackfeet”?  Did parents who never thought about whether or not they were Blackfeet have to declare themselves, meaning that all their descendants would be included?  [Vrooman’s comment:  "The government relied on "Chiefs" to list who were their people. Those lists were then culled by the individual Indian Agent on site, depending on his review with local Anglos, such as religious leadership and county officials. From that was derived the "official" enrollment from which descendancy is charted. There was a period of "fluidity" within which local Indian Agents could and did add and subtract names, depending on paternalistic favors or vengeance."]

2.  The governments who had to deal with the remnant population of starving, impoverished people under the eye of a moral and indignant body of critics back east, were invested in reducing expenses any way they could, so they wanted to separate “Canadian” from “US” Blackfeet and then push as many people as possible to the other side.  Some figured this out and managed to get on the rolls of both countries and others didn’t, ending up with no assignment for enrollment purposes.  The mixed people (Metis) in Canada were in part criminalized because of the Red River Rebellion, so those among them who were originally Canadian needed to be on the American rolls.

But the real truth is that all the people of the prairie were mixed.  By the time the fur trade drew in French and Mohawk beaver trappers from the east coast and even Polynesians imported by the Hudson’s Bay company, the Amskapi Pikuni were “motley,” including other defined tribes, Euros of various sorts, and African-Americans.  By now one could add Asians and many Hispanics (South American indigenous “Indians”) but not many Middle Easterners.  Sending high- school-aged reservation kids to regional government schools where they fell in love with each other or sending whole families to cities on relocation mixed the population even more.

Today the problem is not an impoverished “saving remnant” but rather a thriving and growing but even more assorted population of "Blackfeet", motivated to keep the group small so as to share tribal corporation profits, but also determined to preserve the status of their children.  Let’s look at this in layers:

1.  Enrolled identity based on full descent from the original provenance list.  “Full blood.”

2.  “Organic” traditionalists who were raised in the old material culture and ceremonies as much as was possible in the times with connection to the oldest relatives.

3.  Nouveau traditionalists who have lived “Western” but now choose to return to the traditional ways as much as possible in a modern world.

4.  Emotional identity, often linked with low “quantum” “blood.”  Provenance may be acknowledged and legal, or may be a matter of family story or might not exist at all.

Webcam shot March 20, 2014, entering East Glacier

5.  Identity by location, either continuous since earliest days or maybe fairly recent but still in strong relationship with the land, regardless of provenance.

6.  Multi-provenance, thus technical or emotional connection to several tribes, including “tribes” of non-indigenous people.  Possibly full-blood indigenous but not enrolled anywhere.
Jonathon Brewer

7.  Political alliances, groups based on what they think should happen and the methods of achieving those goals. 

8.  The inevitable tension between individuals and the group: the degree to which an individual is willing to compromise for the good of the whole and the degree that the group is willing to protect or promote an individual.

Mountain sheep hunter

9.  Mysticism and dreams have always been powerful among the prairie people.  This is a dimension of claiming to be Blackfeet.

10.  Exo-religions (Catholic, Methodist, Pentecostal, Baptist) have arrived for the last two centuries, importing religious conflict about identity.

It was unexpected to meet Lewis and Clark in an erudite discussion of the exogenome, but the result was a very helpful three-part distinction: map, blueprint, territory.

L and C’s charge was to map unknown territory.  To see what was there.

When they returned, the result of that knowledge was a blueprint for relationships between nations and how to develop the land.  This is an intentional structure, a “made” pattern.

The third part remains the actual pre-existing and dynamically on-going territory itself, a circling back to the original.  It is a common saying that “the map is not the territory.”  A truly complete map would amount to a duplication of the territory.  Everything has changed since the original exploration, and also changed are our ways of looking at the territory -- everything from geology, impact of climate, uses of the land, urbanization, on and on and on.

The tribe and the reservation are quite different than they were at first contact, but most of the changes have not gotten into either the official, the local or the national consciousness.  Euro understanding of what explorers saw in the early times is an outdated map.  Treaties and laws that have developed since then are all blueprints, more based on desire for outcomes than realities.  Desire in the sense of nostalgia for original authenticity of identity is also a blueprint -- not a map.  The actuality of the terrain, the transportation systems, the resources, the education system, the larger national and international climate for commerce are not necessarily up-to-date or accurate.  They are the actual territory.

Consider this statement:  “Map-making is the basis of annexation, colonization, exploitation.  It is the grounds for the blueprint of control.”


Most unknowable of all is the diaspora of enrolled people who are not on the reservation, some of which monitor what happens pretty closely and others who are only mildly interested and welcome their oil lease checks.   They are all ages, all levels of sophistication, and according to the “corporation” blueprint of tribal management, they are entitled to vote.  Is there a list of them, aside from the BIA leasing management of distribution?

One of the most helpful ideas to come out of metagenomic thought is that our understanding of indigenous tribes (like our understanding of sports, poverty, disease, politics) has been based on metaphors of warfare.  "Them," "Us," control, boundaries, winning.  The suggested replacement is the metaphor of balance, which is okay, but not as dynamic as I would like.  I prefer the metaphor of music: a pattern of process that considers harmony.  

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