Wednesday, March 16, 2016


This is for Mistyne Hall, a grad student from Browning who is studying in Berkeley, CA.

I always start with geology, so to tell this story one begins with the “eruction” of the Rockies which are caused by the smashing together of tectonic plates of the crust of the earth, deep under the continents.  (This present set of mountains is the third to be pushed up and then worn down.)  Even the lands to the east, which had been an ancient sea bed, were raised up so that when the glaciers melted the water drained off into the break between plates that located the Mississippi River.  The dried sea bed became grasslands.  The river complex gave access to the heart of Blackfeet lands where buffalo lived on the grass and tribal people lived on the buffalo.  This enormous drainage, which reached into the Rockies where snow pack run-off formed a network of small waterbodies where beaver lived.

The indigenous people spared little attention or energy on beavers.  They were entirely enmeshed in buffalo and the natural plants: camas, berries of several kinds, other roots and tubers.  They occupied their terrain through their economic base and its seasons.  Not towns but harvest camps that developed according to what was ripe and according to places where buffalo could be run over cliffs. 

Then came the horse and that was a new relationship that affected where they camped, because horses must have a steady supply of grass and water.  Dogs live as people.  Narcisse Blood, before his tragic death, and Ryan HeavyHead, his very close friend, walked those old trails with a GPS device and found the camp locations, both dog-based and horse-based.  Now there is a parallel to the towns, but transient and adapted rather than built.  Bands were essentially movable towns, like the gypsy population of Europe.
Mistyne grew up a few blocks from here.

The European adventurers and exploiters, pursuing the beaver, came into the northern prairies and the east slope of the Rockies.  Mostly under the sponsorship of Hudson’s Bay Company, they spread out across the land and married into the indigenous population.  In the earliest days the western half of Canada was called Rupert’s Land and was really a merchandizing franchise granted to Hudson’s Bay by the King of England, according to their understanding of how things should run.  Trade and resource exploitation are the ground of empire. There were other nationalities who sent trappers and factors.  The combination of white and indigenous was the base of the Metis people.  Many of the people who live on the rez today are Metis, often with French names and allegiance to the Catholic church.

The site of the only killing Lewis and Clark did.

When Rupert’s Land became Canada, it was necessary to define a boundary between the US and Canada, so it was decided arbitrarily to draw the 49th parallel straight across the prairie, cutting the Blackfeet Nation in half.   Today this boundary is much hardened and policed by drones.  It was set by the headwaters of the Mississippi as determined by Lewis and Clark, camping on Cut Bank Creek near Cut Bank.  That was just before encountering a horse raiding party and killing at least one of them.  That was on the Marias River.  

Horses meant it was easier to kill buffalo and whites also killed buffalo.  The population of the herds collapsed.  This enabled the US, which had been clearing the prairie for white settlement by killing the indigenous people and the buffalo, much helped by contagious disease, now had control of the tribes through supplying food.  (Commodities were another source of corruption.)

Broadwater Merc, one of the earliest on the town square.

Town Square -- looks like the pond is a bit dried up.

The water tower has just been demolished.
Originally a bank, then the tribal jail.
Browning Merc is the building on the right end.

The water system, which was not equaled in Canada, made it possible to come by boat as far north as Fort Benton, where the first Indian Agency was located.  This history is very emotional and confused, including the death of Montana’s first governor, assumed to have fallen overboard drunk and thus drowned.  It was also the location of the hostilities that gradually exploded into the massacre we call “Baker’s”, another notorious drunk.

Then as the ranching communities expanded and wanted grasslands (it was open range times) they pushed back the agency to Choteau.  When the Civil War ended, it sent a wave of traumatized, impoverished, and calloused men to the grasslands, hoping to ranch.  This is the subject matter of all A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s novels from “The Big Sky” onwards.

Again the pressure increased and the agency was moved to Badger Creek (Old Agency).  That’s when the rez boundary was treated as a true confinement enforced by cavalry and Starvation Ridge, where the bodies were piled together because so many died because the last buffalo were off the rez.  There was “walking food”, but they couldn’t get to it.  The ranchers treated the eating of their cattle as criminal acts and the agent was forced to agree, but in the end he told the people to eat cattle they found on the rez.  (The ranchers preferred to use up rez grass.)

Maybe because of the tragedy associated with the place, the agency headquarters were moved again, this time to a place on highway 89 called “Nine Mile,” but it just wasn’t a good place, so they pulled back to where Browning is.  It was marshy ground with the “fort” part (which was a parade ground on the north higher side of Willow Creek) organized as a square of houses, though there was no palisade.  It was deliberately developed with surveying and designs on paper, but technically it was not rez land — rather it was federally owned land.  These kinds of distinctions have much to do with development on the rez, governmental lines drawn across natural geology.  When the Town of Browning drew up its plat, the center of their square was a small lake used to water horses.

The next important development was allotment, which instead of assuming the land to be owned communally by all members of the tribe (which is still the way it’s done in Canada), divided it up homestead-style into privately owned parcels.  It was assumed that people who lived by old ways and didn’t speak English would be brought into the system if they owned their land, but at first the allotments were all kept “In trust,” with the purpose of the agency being the financial management of that land.  Of course they were corrupt.  This is what Eloise Cobell took on, finally winning.


One kind of corruption was the ability of a tribesman to petition for equal status with whites (though not citizenship in the beginning), esp. the children of the Metis marriages whose white fathers understood the Euro system of ownership and profit.  They wanted control through their progeny.  But, alas, the system was used to move land ownership out of the hands of people who SHOULD have had protection.  Now their land could be sold, which some didn’t understand.  Land just “was.”

The town of Browning was established on fee patent allotments bought by merchants and other individuals.  The churches were on land donated by the Blackfeet who owned it, thus the real original location of the Methodist church was on Willow Creek, west of town, the “Methodist ranch.”  By now the town lots are owned in a scramble of legalities.  Mae Williamson, for instance, discovered that her house and lot could be put back into trust, thus avoiding any state taxes or regulations.  In fact, I’m told that there are several lots in Valier that are technically “in trust” and therefore part of the rez!  This loophole has resulted in satellite casinos near reservations.  
The official plat that defined Browning.

In those days the town boundaries were understood to create an “island of jurisdiction”, a part of state land that was a bubble inside the rez land, which was ambiguously owned by the tribe as a corporation and also federally owned land.  The Town of Browning was an incorporated governmental entity meant to manage the shared infrastructure of water, sewage, electricity, streets, and so on.  The actual dwellers were mostly white merchants like the Broadwater, Sherburne and Scriver families.  TE Scriver came in 1903 and the Sherburnes at about the same time, maybe a little earlier.  Their homes were built together on the street where the Cuts Wood Immersion School is now.  There was a major national Depression that scattered people from Eastern cities onto the prairie, and also pressure from locust plagues that destroyed ag families and increasing drought.  Plus contagious diseases that didn’t leave the cities untouched.  Immigration from starvation and war in Europe also pushed people onto Blackfeet lands.

Industrialization was expanding everywhere, partly through the technology learned in WWI.  The railroad across the top tier of the US states and Canada were competing with each other.  Blackfeet dominated the only pass viable for a railroad:  Marias Pass, now highway 2.  This affected their economy both positively and negatively.  The builders took land, grass and timber, paying for some of it.  Once built, the railroad was a major economic opportunity but it was never properly exploited by the tribe.  For some reason I’ve forgotten, the railroad deliberately bypassed Browning by a few miles, but East Glacier was built on the economy of tourism.  

Glacier National Park was separated from the rez in 1911.  It is a national park with corporations franchise awarded variously, none of them Blackfeet owned or run.  They have to be pressed to employ Blackfeet, which is opposed politically and also by educated tribal members who “own” the place by studying its geology, history, biology and so on.  When you love, know, and work in a place, it's yours.

The other impact of WWI was the importance of oil, the key to industrialization.  Huge deposits under the high east slope meant resource exploitation at its most intense.  White politics meant that all the benefits and management headquarters were located in Cut Bank, though most of the oil was under the rez.  The east boundary was simply moved.  

World War II, which included many local people as soldiers, was a new major force when those men came back.  Some were so traumatized, partly by combat and partly because their families had dispersed or changed while they were gone, that there was much alcoholism and the resulting violence, theft, bootlegging (on two levels, one to supply the tourists and one for the lowest addicts), and destruction of general order that the town formed its own police force and appointed its own judges. Bob Scriver was the City Magistrate at that point, probably in part because as a music teacher and band leader, he was strongly authoritarian and many people (including Earl Old Person) had been his students, therefore willing to accept that.  But now tribal members knew what was possible and that they could do it.


Jim Roberts said...

Very interesting. I’m related to the Bremners in Browning.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Being related to the Bremners is a very good thing!

Prairie Mary