Saturday, April 28, 2018


Eloise Cobell

My credentials for talking about Eloise Cobell include teaching her husband Turk in English class in the Sixties, teaching with her sister Julene in Heart Butte ’89-91, walking with the family on Ernie Cobell’s memorial giveaway at North American Indian Days, sipping “red beer” with a group of powerful tribal women in someone’s kitchen on a Friday after school (I’m pretty sure Eloise was there), and taking the tour of Bob Scriver’s “Flatiron Ranch” before it became the Blackfeet Land Trust and then eventually Yellow Bird Woman Sanctuary.  It was named in Eloise’s honor and it was she who figured out how to arrange the legalities.

This video talks about a vid describing Eloise’s life, but it is actually a taping of a discussion after a showing of the movie.  Included were:

-Terry Tatsey, Blackfeet Nation Vice-Chairman
-Loren BirdRattler, ARMP Project Manager 
-Helen Augare-Carlson, Blackfeet Community College - Native Science Field Center Director
-Mark Magee, Blackfeet Land Department Director and Board Chairman for the Blackfeet Indian Land Trust

These people are a little too young for me to have known them personally, and maybe also too respectable and achieving, because when the Blackfeet became this eloquent and hip, I got out of the way.  (I knew the rebels and drunks from the Sixties a little better.)  In fact, I was gone after 1973 except for two episodes of a few years.  But I knew their families as highly respected, achieving, and thoughtful.  They were progressive participants, much respected.

In the last two posts I talked about the two cultures confronting each other across the Marias River, one distinctively dark, oral, and poor.  The other born white, from back east, infused with European values, and governmentally in charge.  In fact, each side had a core group that represented them.  In a key water document commissioned by the tribe, Michael F. Folly (a lawyer) identifies by name the white ring of rich and powerful white people who collaborated the same as the 1% does today.  (“An Historical Analysis of the Administration of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation by the United States, 1855 to 1950’s.  Indian Claims Commission, Docket Number 279-D  As far as I know, this report exists only as a fat xerox copy.)

Less often discussed is a group of older men often appearing in formal photos wearing their white buckskin suits (matched beading) and Sioux fan-style headdressses.  The relationships among them were casual, political, and had nothing to do with the formal tribal council.  But they glamorously represented the People and kept tight hold on the old days.

These two groups had little to do with each other in some ways, but were rolled into relationship when the Blackfeet began to realize what the “rule of law” was and why it was important.  They had always depended on discussion among themselves, talking until the point of consensus.  Few were literate, so they signed documents with the traditional X.  Many white entities didn’t bother to sign, since they were never challenged.

But the point of the rule of law is that it provides stability and that predictability makes progress possible as a value, because it is the tool of organizational design — the infrastructure of a society.  This panel in the vid consciously speaks of the groups and contexts, the actual “place” and institutions, that had to form in order for Blackfeet to “get it together.”  Until then, they had operated “as the driftwood lodges”, a traditional phrase meaning drifting at the mercy of larger forces.

What Eloise Cobell came to this through was the same principle as that of the original irrigators along the Nile River ten thousand years ago: that of bookkeeping.  Almost accidentally she became a numbers person, first as the Blackfeet Tribal Treasurer and then as the organizer of the first bank belonging to a tribe.  Once a dependable record has been kept, a lot of analysis is possible.  A cynic could say that why the US government entrusted with the assets of the Blackfeet was radically careless about recording and preserving — they didn’t WANT analysis, because it would reveal moral atrocities and illegalities in their betrayal of trust.  This is so enraging that part of Eloise’s genius was her ability to stay calm.

Corruption is in the news every day now, but now coming from Washington, D.C., where those in power feel free to ignore the rule of law for the whole nation just as they did for tribes.  It drains budgets, confuses procedure, and delays justice.  In Browning major amounts of money would arrive for a stipulated purpose and soon be whittled down to uselessness.  The brainstorm was to organize things like Siyeh, a wholly-owned but independent subsidiary of the tribe, that was designated to run business for profit.  It worked.  Sometimes an entity was organized that was so independent that it funded itself, like the Piegan Institute which kept a library of academic research and ran the Cuts Wood Blackfeet immersion school.

One of the other requirements for this infrastructure was establishing equivalences between “money” in the white man’s sense and the real but ignored value of the reservation with its resources, people, and living beings of the land.  That means more than figuring out how much a grizzly is worth in tourist money and biology grants — it means pulling in the emotional and identity values, the ultimate fate of the planet.

This was helped by the traditional tribal privileging the whole rather than the individual person or even a nuclear family.  When the infrastructure was developed in the tribal way, thought was given to how a given project sustained the whole.  This helps eliminate the often covert-hobbling among whites who think they must be the “last man standing.”  This is also a major drain in today’s national politics, the constant betrayal and deception.

Something similar was true of religion: if one was good, two were even better.  Ironically, the white forbidding of traditional ceremony and belief just ended up making it more valuable.  (I predict we will all be valuing Jesuit chaplains much more now that we search for a moral compass that has been thrown out.)

Eloise understood that in the modern world print literacy is not enough, so she pitched hard for financial literacy.  If the tribe is going to dissolve the robber-trustees of the USA, then the people will need to understand money — not just whether it’s going in or out, whether one needs it or not, but all the strategies of a venture capitalist society.  Most crucially of all, the relationship between “money” and land, the ultimate value.

When I walked in the tour of Bob Scriver’s ranch just becoming a Land Reserve, I realized how old I was.  I barely had enough wind and energy to make it back to the farmhouse, even though coming back was downhill.  My connection is tenuous, but it is real.

Here’s the trailer vid for the bio I had intended to watch:
trailer for 100 years

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