Harry Barnes, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Chairman, is a good storyteller. In his January 28 message to the People he tells two pretty good ones. The first one jokes that there must be some pretty good sales genes in the Blackfeet, since it seems that over the years just about every leader has sold the tribal water rights -- at least according to the rumors. In truth selling water is a long and complex process and is only final when everyone in the tribe has made an individual vote. Not yet. Not yet.
But as with many sales, timing is important. Sell too soon and profit is not maximized. Sell too late and they’ll just take it. Read your history. BIA bats last.
His other tale was even funnier. He claims to have had a brainstorm after seeing the calendars featuring hunky guys with their shirts off -- a calendar featuring the tribal council. (I assume female members will be strategically holding great big bouquets of flowers.) He even claims he had 100,000 calendars printed up but has only sold one -- to himself. His wife made him hang it in the barn. Maybe the cows refuse to look at it.
Joe McKay’s message is not funny at all, except in the sense of “funny business”. This is where his law school education pays off, but the reader almost needs a degree of his own in order to read this complexity. There are two categories of complex matters, overlapping: one is the paperwork that corporations have long learned how to write so as to embroider loopholes and obscure facts, reducing contracts to little more than empty paper bags -- and you know who is intended to end up holding it. Nothing inside but a bill, a few beans, and a lot of debris on the landscape.
What oil producers want is complex time-staged percentages of profit shares depending on the yield of the well. This comes down to sleight-of-hand so that profits simply disappear into bookkeeping. In the meantime, the value of oil and gas are sinking rapidly. The day of high profit from oil may be gone, while the value of water goes up daily.
The other special knowledge is about the practice of drilling for oil, including the controversial fracking, which shatters deep rock, injects it with a great deal of contaminated water, and spills out the excess onto the land. A minimum of 600,000 water is needed. 480,000 gallons stays in the ground -- possibly in the well aquifers for drinking water -- and 120,000 just goes out on the dirt. It cannot be made safe for people, animals or even plants (saline) so the idea is to put it in lagoons to evaporate into powder as our native alkali does. Things move around: the wind, seepage, and now we hear more and more evidence about earthquakes triggered by fracking. Maybe you’re old enough to remember what improvements to the snowshed along the railroad did to the ranch well just over the hill.
It looks like the sweet spot created by fracking is turning sour. This is a quote from an article by Andrew Nikiforuk, a writer in Alberta: “Hydraulic fracturing, a technology used to crack open difficult oil and gas formations, appears to have set off a swarm of earthquakes near Fox Creek, Alberta, including a record-breaking tremor with a felt magnitude of 4.4 last week. That would likely make it the largest felt earthquake ever caused by fracking, a development that experts swore couldn't happen a few years ago.” Below is a link the article in case you want to read more. The geology of Alberta is similar to that in northern Montana. In fact, “Fox Creek” is probably at the northern limit of the old Blackfeet range.
On the first August night I stepped off the Great Northern and was driven down to Browning by Jimmy Fisher, engineer for School District #9, the first thing he did in my teeny apartment was to run a bathtub of water while he carried in my trunk and whisky boxes of books. This was because a new waterline to Browning had just been installed and it had a tendency to airlock, because instead of running in an engineer-measured slant from up by Parsons, the crew found it easier to just dig the ditch for the pipe five feet deep, uphill and down dale. We’ve come a long way since then.
We’ve come somewhat farther than the Army officer who picked out the location of Browning, styling Government Square after a cavalry parade ground. He was impressed by the beautiful flowers blooming everywhere the first time he visited. (Must’ve been June.) Ironically, the town is on a swale which is currently drained through a web of underground pipes. When they are overwhelmed or blocked, basements and even streets fill up with water. Yet, ironically, there is less potable water in the Willow Creek drainage than almost any other stream drainage on the rez.
In the Sixties, a time when most people were afraid to even mention the Baker Massacre 1869 (not everyone calls it that), or the Starvation Winter 1883, or the Dawes Act 1887, the national political scene was finally demanding to bring truth to light. It was a Centennial year for very bad things almost every year, with the 1964 flood as a real-time centerpiece. Now we’ve passed even the fifty year anniversary of that Flood. In 1864 Montana became a territory. In 1889 it became a state. The first governor fell overboard from a ship in Fort Benton and disappeared. Things have been a little rocky ever since.
In the Territorial Centennial year 1964 there was supposed to be a pageant in Depot Coulee, written by Talbot and Betsy Jennings, East Glacier screenwriters with Hollywood credits. There was supposed to be a dance in costume on the parking lot at Teeples, which was then the only Teeples (It's a chain now.) and a major advance from the smaller version a few blocks away. All that was cancelled. North American Indian Days was almost cancelled, but it was decided that coming together was the way to heal.
1885, the year of the formal establishment of the reservation, was also the year the Winters law setting Indian water rights took effect. There was no Centennial celebration in 1985 and consciousness about the existence of the law was nil. It was vague, saying that Blackfeet were entitled to all the water they needed to maintain their lives. Of course, no one thought that meant more than watering horses and trapping beaver. The 19th century assumption was that Indians were defined by their culture but that cultures did not evolve. They thought being born Indian meant being born craving buffalo meat. They had no mental picture of wheeled irrigation machinery watering acres of alfalfa.
Major Steele, Indian Agent
At least not until the Conrad brothers, working through Major Steele and everyone’s favorite Napi-figure, Joe Kipp, figured out how to build Swift Dam on Major Steele’s wife’s allotment. Then it was just a matter of collaborating with the Catholic church to bring in a village of Belgian farmers en masse. History is not all massacres, at least not the bloody kind. Some revolutions are quiet.