Monday, July 10, 2017


Browning, Montana with Encampment in the foreground

Two groups -- among the many formed and morphing on the Blackfeet Reservation -- are of special meaning and interest to me.  It’s not that I’m a member of them or an expert on them, but I have a bit of glancing experience with them that keeps me on the alert and reflecting.  One is the Niitsitapi of Moccasin Flats in the Sixties when I first came, who were still close to the past, and one is the BBC community which may be the newest on the rez and a key to the future.

Moccasin Flats is the nearly mocking but affectionate name for a strip of land just west of the schools.  I’ll quote myself:  “Moccasin Flats had begun in about 1900 as an emergency project of log cabins for old people who were living in tattered canvas tents, nothing like the felt-thick hides of oldtime lodges. Once the old folks moved in, their children could not be denied. By the time . . . I got there, the place was a tangle of abandoned cars, trash, crazy TV antennas, and all the other Dogpatch paraphenalia you could think of. Many people think this is hilarious and the true preference of Indians, but in fact it amounted to abandonment by the Indian agent who should have been seeing to the tilted privies, sagging electrical wire, missing garbage service and widely spaced water spigots on the street. On winter mornings the place rang with the buzzing of chainsaws because everyone heated and cooked with wood. The people there were living a 19th century rural life because they had no choice. Shortly after I came, JFK stepped in and things began to change.”

“The school had been assuming that Moccasin Flats was trust land, held for protection by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and therefore not taxable. The law allowed for the federal government to pay the equivalent of property taxes for all land in trust or owned by the US Government, like military bases or reservations, and they had been doing that for Moccasin Flats and for the new border patrol homes up along the highway where the officers put up a sign that said “Moccasin Heights.” Then one day we discovered that Moccasin Flats had belonged to some white absentee landlord all along. All that federal money would have to be paid back. I don’t remember how it was resolved.”

“The Dawes Act, which split up reservations into allotments the same way homesteading did, had another very dark side. When the first owner died, his allotment was divvied up among his descendents. When they died, the land was divided again. By this time, some city lots are owned by more than a hundred people, some of whom hadn’t been seen or heard from for decades. Some of the land was put back into trust by regular owners, so they wouldn’t have to pay state or county taxes, but land with so many owners could only be handled by keeping it in trust and any profits sent to the various owners. Only there weren’t any profits. And if there were liabilities, everyone ducked.”

“Part of the reason Browning can look pretty derelict is that no one can get enough of a legal ownership grip on the old buildings to do anything about them.”

By now the new housing funded by JFK, which included proper water and sewer and modern designs with multiple bedrooms, is more than fifty years old and hasn’t proven as solid as the old cabins.  Some of them were built of railroad ties which were volcanic when they caught fire because of being soaked with chemicals.  None had foundations.  But they couldn’t be torn up by wind nor deteriorated by sun.

I was always impressed when I went in to take a message or look for someone to work, that the houses were often immaculate and orderly, kept by old women who had been educated in missions to be cooks, laundresses, and housekeepers.  They didn’t have much to work with, but they knew what to do with it.  Regardless of the original structure, it is the people who “make” and keep houses.  Today there’s a mix of the old cabins and the newer government housing, plus lean-tos and pre-fab storage, even old cars that have become de facto bedrooms.  And in summer there will be lodges and tents.

This was where many of the old Bundle Keepers lived.  They were youngsters in 1900 when the cabins were built so it was what they had always known.  They stored materials up in the rafters or in trunks.  Once in a while at night one could see gaunt men walking the un-maintained dirt streets so that the women and children could sleep in the one or two beds.  The men would sleep in the daytime or if it were warm, somewhere out along Willow Creek where the brush made shelter.  Regardless of blood quantum, these were the people who said “full-blood” to the eye in the 19th century sense.
Math and Science Bldg  BCC

Today’s BCC -- twenty-five years along since the principal at Heart Butte mocked it as a mudhole, even though his wife was getting a degree there -- is housing math and science departments in state of the art buildings.  The campus is designed, maintained, and clean.  The library is hushed, equipped with computers, and packed with books, some of them donated by Robert Doerk.  
This career Air Force officer and then bank executive had accumulated a major history-focused collection.  He was always a fan and supporter, a dependable attendee of the Piegan Institute August history seminars.

BCC emerged as a modern institution out of several early efforts, such as the Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop which convened in the old commodity warehouse.  One of the interesting roots of BCC is in the AIM activists who once harrowed the whites of the town, including Bob Scriver.  BCC has still not perfected outreach to the world — if you’re trying to find out something you probably will have to go there and insist — but they have established niches for gifted teachers and family adults trying to learn a trade, from truck-driving to nursing.  It is still necessary to curl in on themselves protectively, just as the old Moccasin Flat people did.  But they don’t turn away whites, esp. if they have something to offer.

Salish Kootenai campus
There is a network of these tribal colleges — one of the most developed is Salish-Kootenai over near Missoula where the Jesuits came earliest.  

Red Crow College
Another is just across the border in Canada. with a campus in Lethbridge and a presence on the Kainai Reserve near Cardston.  These post-secondary institutions keep strong the ties among the people who were once one Nation, their own.

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