Friday, December 18, 2015

LOVE IT OR HATE IT, HARD TO LEAVE TOWN

When this was Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, 
I had a room in the gable nearest.

“Brown Town,” Browning, Montana, is the capital of the Blackfeet Reservation and roughly in the middle of the very large (50 miles on each side) reservation that is partly in the Rocky Mountain foothills (Glacier National Park was ripped out of the West side) and partly stretched out to the oil and grain plains where Cut Bank did a little pushback in order to dominate the only part of Glacier County that’s not rez, because they wanted to be the county seat.  There are three resort towns in the foothills (East Glacier, St. Mary’s, and Babb), one town in Pondera County (Heart Butte), one not-quite-town (Starr School), and a lot of “population centers” where the housing projects have created clusters.  

The town was the third of a series of Indian Agencies, beginning in Fort Benton and hopscotching north as local whites wanted the good grazing land and the tribe was reduced to maybe 500 people by then.  So Choteau was the agency, then “Old Agency,” which fell back to being a population cluster, and finally Browning.  Government Square was laid out to be a parade ground for cavalry horseback exercises because in those days all Indians were supervised by the Department of War and the agents were military.
  
"I bless you, my friend!"

Unfortunately, the military man who chose the location of Browning was inspired by the beauty of the wildflowers, which was created by Willow Creek feeding a swamp.  If there’s a lot of rainfall and runoff, the swamp comes back despite a webwork of drainage lines under the town.  It’s old broken tile and no one kept maps.  Luckily, the schools and the hospital are located on ridges at either edge of Browning.  If the location were a saddle, the school would be on the swell, and the hospital would be on the cantle.  By now the population has so expanded that there is a lot of housing outside the “saddle.”

The quality of the well water was so poor that it could only be used for the vital dialysis center after a lot of work to clean it up.  (Diabetes, which requires dialysis in the last stages, is rampant on the rez.)  Management of local water is a major problem in every small town along the top half of Montana.  Snow pack is low, there’s not enough water for the population, the infrastructure is worn out, the state and federal regulators keep imposing new requirements, and the population’s average income is sinking as the town businesses leave.  At the same time, frakking has introduced a new need for huge amounts of water which are then too contaminated and salty for re-cycling.  This is a long-standing and universal problem.
  
The tipi burner at the Industrial Park.  Now gone.

In the beginning Browning had a hard time figuring out how it fit into the big picture of the reservation as a reserved (set aside) part of the state.  Like Washington, D.C., and the Vatican, it was unclear whether it WAS the state or was NOT the state.  When I came in 1961, it was considered an “island of jurisdiction”.  The earlier chaos introduced by returning and traumatized veterans from WWII and the Korean War meant that the “white” people in town had organized their own law enforcement parallel to the Tribe, which was finally no longer part of the War Department but rather the Interior Department, like trees.

If you go to my other blog, awkwardly but accurately called “Early Browning News”, at  http://browningnewspapers.blogspot.com  you’ll find notes that I took from Browning newspapers between 1806 and 1968.  It’s my understanding that Blackfeet Community College has a complete set of the Glacier Reporter, but I found at the Montana Historical Society a few newspapers that were earlier.  I commend to you the years Milo Fields was owner/editor because he was quite frank.

Main Street looking at Glacier National Park

In those days the town was not just an island of jurisdiction, thought to belong to the state of Montana,  it was white.  When I say “white,” I must note that some of the “whites” were enrolled full-bloods who were mostly culturally “white.”  They were considered dependable, honorable, and stable, which meant good business traits.  Think Masonic.  The government people were white.  The agent was white.  For a little while the feds insisted that the agent be Methodist, but that turned out to be a source of mischief, given the strength of the Catholics.  The Indian people were “oligarchies,” meaning that elite self-protective families had power.  (This is always true in tribes.)

There was another phenomenon that is now true in Valier as well.  The people with the political power, connections in Washington,DC, and deep pockets suitable for capitalism, are not ON the reservation but surround the reservation and have other interests than the rez.  They are ranchers, oil and timber interests, and -- in the case of Cut Bank -- legal manipulators.  When the government reform of Indian preference swept all the government whites (mostly educated) out of their jobs, the division between rez and Cut Bank was driven deeper.  The small business people who were white and -- anyway  -- aging, with children who had emigrated, sold if they could but mostly just ran the inventory down as low as possible and left.  The BIA and Tribe rushed in to fill the vacuum, but competed more than they cooperated.

Along the way some responsibilities of the two aspects of social infrastructure became so burdensome that they were handed over to the state, in much the same way that the public schools, family law, and some other functions became delegated or sub-contracted.  "Serious crime" had always been handled by Feds.  This complicated many situations.  When the Post-Colonial wave of thought demanded sovereignty, these complexities were not considered.  They could not be financed by the tribe alone.  Anyway, the oligarchical families tried to swallow the Tribal Council.

Before the Catholic School was built, 
this was the view from my tiny first apartment.
The water tower was taken down only days ago.

Outside intervention has been too idealistic and inexperienced (or cynical) to be entirely helpful.  Some education efforts have been VERY successful (BCC, Piegan Institute, Siyeh)/ The world scene turned to the recovery of indigenous languages, the rising respect for tradition, and the rather darker influence of AIM.  The other dark thread has been drugs, which travel the same paths as early whiskey.

Now comes a new gunslinger, Derek Kline, a newly graduated and qualified white man from Vermont Law School, Vermontlaw.edu, which is a private law school specializing in Environmental Law and proud of its “warriors” for virtue in the Post-Colonial Bio-Ethics context.  Lawyer/gunslingers are a “type” on reservations and have been from the very earliest days when designing the governmental documents and framing-up organizational structure.  Sometime look up Felix S. Cohen.  http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100532980

In the Sixties I attended the meetings in which a governmental gunslinger (literally, since he was a cop) named Saurez closed down the town’s law and order system, replacing it with tribe and BIA.  Bob Scriver was the City Magistrate and one of the Justices of the Peace, so I had an inside view.  This government guy (FBI as there was no Homeland Security yet) assured us that this reform would be an end to the murders, abuse of women and children, and drunkenness.  Half a century has passed.  There are a lot of new buildings.  People have a lot of training.  Otherwise . . .

Indian Days

The whole world, now viewable via satellite, is struggling with these issues.  It’s not just here, not just us.  We’re looking for new guidelines, and pressing harder against the old ones.  Population growth means scarcity challenges, the gradual blurring-away of the blood quantum system, and hard questions about education that plague us.  The government would like to collapse reservations and tribes.  Attempts have failed.  Once it was suggested that the Blackfeet Reservation and Glacier County simply be conflated.  Something needs to change in the post-colonization world.  

Incidentally, Valier talks about stepping away from town status, since so much of the property has already been ceded to the county because of taxes.  There is said to be a few lots in Valier that are technically rez, since the tribal owner put them back into trust status.  How much of the property on the rez has been taken OUT of trust, but then lost to off-rez loans?  How much is now owned by Hutterite colonies?  Might they like to buy a town?  One with a royally screwed-up infrastructure snarl?

Approaching from East Glacier



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