Saturday, December 03, 2016


Parade Matriarchs

Their daughters

The essay linked below is published by Aeon, an online emagazine, which is British based, but was written by Claudio Saunt, who lives and teaches in Athens, Georgia.  Coyly or strategically, his bio information does not reveal whether or not he’s tribally enrolled or has Native American genetic ties.  The illustration in Aeon is a fanned set of Edward Curtis photos, held up in front of Mount Rushmore heads, not just white people but idealized iconic leaders.  Most people will recognize that, but will not realize that the Curtis photos are all from the middle 19th century when photography was invented and the particular versions shown are mostly Plains Indians.  Edward S. Curtis (1868 - 1952)  had a trunk of artifact “dress-ups” that one can spot over and over.

I live next to the Blackfeet Rez in Montana.  Curtis’ early work was sponsored by Grinnell, a local figure, and depicted the Blackfoot Confederacy (which is on both sides of the Canadian/US border) in 1900.  My father-in-law came here in 1903.  Browning, MT, was a white town of traders and agents.  It was already industrialized by the railroad and resource extraction, which are key to understanding the US relationship to Native peoples.  By this time, esp. on the Canadian side, the Blackfeet and Cree were liberally mixed (Metis) with the European traders who had come for fur to make the fashionable hats of Europe.

The point is that populations are dynamic everywhere, but we tend to try to “freeze” them at some point in time when they were colorful.  The development of “reservations” — and variations on that theme — morphs according to the contemporary thought of the governments: at one point (esp. in Canada) the land left for indigenous people was meant to protect them from mixing, the way we think about bison now.  At a far more recent point the idea was to create a tribal corporation with the people as the shareholders.  

Right now there is a strong movement to consider the rez a “nation” with boundaries, whatever that means.  There is no consciousness that modern “nations” in Europe formed about the time photography was invented.  For a notion of what a “nation” was before that, consult “Game of Thrones.”  One could make a case that nations existed to make war.

If that is so, then the native Americans are true Americans because they fought the War of Independence and the War of 1812 right alongside the people who had been British or French only a short time before.  But they are a class of citizens (they achieved legal citizenship earlier than women did) who are constantly supervised by people who have never been here, for the benefit of people who are mostly unrelated genetically.  

The tribal corporation is not just regulated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but must abide by the treaties made by people decades ago who were conforming to the ideas of those times.  Some treaties were never completed, and then they stopped calling them treaties, which supersede national law. No two reservations are on the same original terms, but the MAIN and dominant goal was genocidal by attrition.  The idea was that as they assimilated, they would fade and disappear.

But they didn’t.  They just created a penumbra of low-quantum people and a mosaic of full-bloods from many tribes.

Nevertheless, nationalization is the next main preoccupation.  When I came to Browning to teach in 1961, the oldest people (in their eighties) were born in the 1880’s.  They were the folks who had gone to Washington DC on the new trains to argue for their people.  Some didn’t speak English.  They were born in cabins and lodges.  Quietly, they continued their religious ceremonies in spite of being forbidden.  Even beading was outlawed.  It was not their DNA that distinguished them — it was their memes.  That was here.  

Back east Benjamin Franklin was employing assimilated native Americans in his print shop.  NA people were attending Harvard.  The biggest problem was that they still died too young from white man’s diseases (some of which were African).  The NA Asian-based genome wasn’t adapted yet.  I know of no studies of the interaction of the immigrated modern Chinese mixing with the American indigenous people.  (The modern Treaty 7 people included a Japanese trader in their affairs on grounds that he “sure looks like us.”)

The point I’m making is that the North and South Americans were mixtures of “races” (Some South American indigenous people carry Denisovian genes, but not Neanderthal, which Europeans have in small traces) and — because each local group was adapted to its ecology at a very deep level — their unique world-views, customs, foods, clothing and shelters, fitted to the very forces that killed the white people who came: yellow fever, for instance.  Inability to live in very high altitudes.

So before there was globalization, there was continentalization.  In 1804 Lewis and Clark set out east/west across the continent, but since the way this continental land mass formed means that all the rivers and cordilleras run N/S, it was rough going, impossible without help from locals.  All the men but Clark died years later from STD’s.  (Not HIV.)  They had carefully abstained until they got past the Rockies, but then thought they were safe because there had been so little previous contact from whites, the carriers.  But they hadn’t thought about ships on the Pacific.

Over and over the governmental strategies have blundered.  The reservations were assigned to “empty” lands which turned out to be the location of major resources, not even counting the great value of the space itself, its wind, water and sun.  “The Indians” were treated as a unified similar group twice: once by gathering the young into government schools and once by trying to shift the populations into cities.  Both of these forces helped to create the political unification of all tribes across the US, particularly through marriages.  The families dumped into cities without enough support soon made common cause with the ghetto and slum people.  

This carried over into national organizations which at last began to realize that making common cause, despite ancient animosities and struggle for territories that no longer existed, was their surest route to power.  Today the unification is a kind of indigenous version of United Nations, hands across the sea.  (

I’m pleased to see the moving map that is part of this article in Aeon.  In fact, I’m pleased to see all the moving maps of the world that are possible now with satellites and computer computations.  Life is a dynamic process and to keep the native peoples of pre-contact North America or contemporary life trapped in the triumphalist, crushing, 19th century Prairie Clearances is a misleading and oppressive way of thinking.  In the more than half-century since I first came here, things have changed a lot.  Will some bright BCC computer genius (I know they are there) please making a moving map of the Blackfeet Rez?
     .  .  .  .  

Eloise Cobell's settlement payout is beginning soon.  It is accompanied by workshops and panels about how not to be ripped off and how to invest wisely.  The amounts are big enough to be worth the time and effort.

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