Tuesday, March 11, 2014


The Blackfeet Reservation is sort of square -- if you use your imagination.  The west side is up against the Rocky Mountains which is both an advantage and a disadvantage.  For instance, the east side of the Rockies (the Flathead Valley) is an easier place for transplants to live and keeps growing in population, so there is good shopping and medical centres.  It’s only an eighty mile sprint to get there, BUT esp. in winter the narrow Marias Pass tends to be closed by weather: deep snow and -- right now -- recurring avalanches.  In summer the pass is a tourist conduit wrapped around Glacier Park, so that it brings in business via travelers.  Three small towns along the foothills (East Glacier, St. Mary and Babb) exist because of the relationship with Glacier Park.

Nitsitapii is the Blackfoot Confederacy.

The north boundary of the rez is the Canadian border.  The advantage is the relatively short distance to Calgary, a world-class city, and contiguous cultural and family contact with the rest of the Blackfoot Confederacy on the scattered Alberta reservations.  It is both an advantage and a disadvantage to have to cross the legal border because of scrutiny and sometimes disrespect.  Materials have been abused and Indian materials in the hands of whites (not even artifacts: hides or sinew) are regarded with suspicion, sometimes impounded.  For locals the border is easily crossed undetected.  I won’t elaborate.

Map by Tony Bynum  (tonybynum.com)

The east boundary of the rez is all about oil.  If you look at a map that shows oil wells, it will be clear that they pile up just off-rez so as to avoid entanglements with the BIA and the Tribe. In fact, that boundary has been moved in the past.    It is now possible to drill horizontally.  The existence of Cut Bank is controlled by oil business.

The south boundary of the rez is Birch Creek and in the days of open range for livestock it was a pretty hard boundary to maintain even after a fence was built on the northern bank.  The fence was not to keep the people in but to keep trespassing cows out.  Streams change their flow and move. Right now this boundary is the most “hot” of all four because of the effort to define and legalize headwater entitlements everywhere in the West.  Though the Foley Report describes many supposed efforts to help the tribe capitalize on irrigation from that river, all projects fell through.  But on the south side of the river, a major complex -- powered by Cargill and its experience with grain exploitation all along the High Line of the railroad -- gave rise to the town of Valier.

Valier is the capital and center of the Pondera Canal Company.  Its basic component is run-off from the Rocky Mountains which is impounded first behind Swift Dam (built on the rez without formal legal procedure) and then in Lake Francis (created by an earthen dam just outside Valier.)  Two transportation systems had to be built:  the system of canals that carries the water to the stockholders in the Pondera Canal company and the twenty-mile railroad spur that carries the grain out.  Grain elevators store the product until it can be sold.  Water in via canal; grain out via railroad.  Holding water according to conditions in lakes, holding grain according to the market in the elevators.

The land itself had never been used by whites for anything but the Conrad brothers’ sheep and cattle grazing, so it was very productive once water was supplied and the sod was broken.  To do this work, a whole town was imported from Belgium and continues to work the land today.  However, now the farming is done with large machines, so far fewer actual people are needed and with modern pickups it is practical to live on the land rather than in town.  Large machines need a lot of oil and land that has been in use requires a lot of chemical intervention as fertilizer and herbicides, many of these supplies derived from oil.  The elevators are no longer state-of-the-art -- a mega speed-loader has been built in Conrad.

But the biggest threat to the system is the Blackfeet legal claim to half the head water which has not been claimed in the past.  Swift Dam was built in part with the participation of the Indian Agent of the time, “Major” Steele, who had a Blackfeet wife and a ranch that was first above the location of Swift Dam and then, after it was developed, below the dam.  (He’s the agent who was hooked on morphine.)  His wife’s herd was tended by BIA employees.  A handshake deal was made in a renegade saloon in Robare to develop the canals of the time.  Legal steps (like the Curry lawsuit) are underway to regularize all this.

This year the snowpack is above average.  If global weather change diminishes future snowpacks (as has been happening in recent years, much reducing the glaciers of Glacier Park) the water for irrigation will also be much less.  If a split of water rights means entitlement to much less water on the off-rez sites to the south, some Valier operations will go under because unirrigated crop size will be diminished below the point of profitability.  

Another factor is the massive wheeled “rainbird” systems that are expensive and use a lot of water.  There is enough money on the rez now to put these in place, which means being able raise field crops -- alfalfa for livestock as well as grain.  This means a sudden jump in the value of land that becomes irrigable.

Another variable, as always, is competing worldwide markets and climate success around the planet, all of it subject to both planetary climate change and politics, notably the Ukraine wheat fields and Argentina livestock.  (To a lesser degree the Pondera Canal Company supports livestock raising.)  There have been efforts to reduce the wheat monocropping that makes grain so potentially vulnerable to disease and consumer variables like the increasing allergic reactions to gluten.  Changing to pulse crops or oil crops means changing the machinery that sows and harvests, aside from learning new algorithms for growing such crops.  Tinkering with genetics has been strongly resisted by foreign markets.

Many of these dynamics have passed out of the hands of individuals who control their own land and is now subject to the powers of governmental regulations and huge international corporations.  Even the tribe, even fortified by the United States government (assuming it stays Indian friendly), does not have adequate resources to oppose such forces.  Voters are so distracted by ideology that they have not really looked at them.

This Cargill elevator is in Zichyujfalu, Hungary.

Both Valier and the rez want to grow and improve, but on the southern border between them, this will mean some cooperation and hard thinking, to say nothing of horse-trading.  The Valier citizens feel that if housing and roads were improved, people would move here as a refuge, a safe place where the 19th century has persisted.  Their idea is that if people move here, jobs will come.  (People moved to the prairie believing that if they plowed, rain would come.)

Locally, many people express a longing to return to the past, but only the past as they experienced it, not as analysis reveals interrelationships or as history is able to account for in a town that is shrinking as a white Belgium enclave but growing as a bedroom town for prosperous Blackfeet, who want a safe orderly place with good schools.  Indian rights as voters are based on enrollment, not place.  Valier voting rights are based on residency, but inside the town boundary the population tends to be older people and more dependent people, while many prosperous, energetic folks live outside the town limits.  They send their children to school in Valier, stop for coffee, use the bank, pick up bread and milk at the grocery, use the services of the mechanics, but they pay no town taxes and cannot vote.  Some buy potable city water for lack of wells or to mix with chemicals.  They contribute opinions.  The Valier Area Development Corporation includes these people.

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