Friday, April 27, 2018


At the end of the 19th century on the east slope of the Rockies just south of the Canadian border, two great cultures — strategies for survival — clashed and meshed, destroyed and created, murdered and intermarried.  One was already there, the bison-based nomadic people rising out of the land over millennia.  The other came from another continent, or more immediately as spin-off from the War Between the States, a blend of refugees from destruction (including former slaves) and what we might now call “the alt-right,” determined to impose their way of life everywhere, but particularly here.  A few were more progressive, but they were peripheral to these decades in this place.

This post will oversimplify by using the generations of two families, one of which is the Conrads.  Quoting my April 28, 2005, post:  “In the beginning were three brothers: William, Charles and John. In 1868, William (16) and (14) were sent to Montana by their father, Colonel James Conrad, an officer in Mosby’s Raiders and once a plantation owner. He kept John two more years until he turned 14. The first two soon found work with Isaac G. Baker, merchant, river master and whiskey trader. They supervised ox teams, built trading stockades, and John, as soon as he came, handled the gold dust and acted as a courier and road escort. (He was six foot three.) By 1873 he brothers had a controlling interest in the Baker Company and were operating eight trading posts spread out clear to the the Arctic Circle.”  

“William became deeply involved in cattle ranching, though all the Conrads were ranchers for a while. The village of Valier was once part of the Conrad Circle Cattle Company, specifically the Block Hanging Seven. Founder of Conrad, William helped develop irrigation along the southern edge of the reservation. Lake Frances, next to Valier, is the man-made impoundment lake for that system which starts at Swift Dam in the mountains. He cooperated with Jesuits to bring in Belgian grain farmers and occasionally worked behind the scenes (unsuccessfully) to move the reservation boundary farther north so that the work done there at Blackft expense would be part of his system. 

“There was a Fort Conrad at one point.  (The remnants were eaten by the flooding of nearby Marias River) Charles Sr. ran it, as one among a string along the Whoop-Up Trail, now commemorated by markers. The whole complex was based on running what passed for whiskey. . . . Mounties were specifically sent to close the whiskey trade and in 1874 they had about succeeded. Joe Kipp, Schultz, Hiram Upham, and Charles ran the fort for a few years, then sold it to a rancher in 1885. The buffalo had been used up in 1883-84, so there was nothing for Indians to trade. 

“But the prairie was emptied for the great open-range cattle operations. In 1878 the three Conrads put half a million dollars into cattle. William ran these operations and was not sentimental about feeding Indians. For a good price the Conrads supplied over five million pounds of beef for Mounties and reservation Indians in 1880. By then they were thinking about railroads and coal.”

Once the Industrial Revolution arrived, the indigenous culture went underground, but it persisted.  Adolf Hungry Wolf’s fabulous 4-book record of “Blackfoot Papers” carefully documents the People in these years, partly through the petit machines called “cameras.”  But the second family I want to note as generational indigenous power originated in James Kipp.  It is split between a genetic branch and a “named” branch produced by adoption, which was a very tribal thing to do.

It was his son, Joseph, I’m thinking of.  Born in 1849 in Fort Union to Jim’s fourth wife, Earth Woman, he died in 1913, the year before Bob Scriver was born.  He’s buried in the Old Browning Cemetary.  His “Indian Name” was Raven Quiver; he was the 7th “Joe Kipp.”  I’m cheating to choose this family because he was as much Arikara and Mandan as white.  His white family was from Montreal, like the Scrivers.  Joe Kipp was at the bottom of nearly every local scheme for profit, and left plenty of descendents who became more full-blood as time went on.  Some of them were adopted.  Several became writers.

One of the secrets of his success was an alliance with a man named Steele who was occasionally the agent for the Blackfeet Reservation, married to a Siksika woman whose Baker Allotment was the location of Swift Dam, which is how he became part of the irrigation story.  He also has a mountain named for him:  “Major Steele’s Back” which has a sway in it.  He was said to be a morphine addict.

This quote is from this blog on May11, 2016.  “Most interesting has been a lawsuit by the Curry family intended to protect their access to irrigation waters.  It included the history of the building of the original Swift Dam through the collusion of the Blackfeet Agent, commemorated in a mountain near Heart Butte called “Major Steele’s Backbone.”  It has quite a sag in it.  Steele, a morphine addict, was married to a Blackfeet woman and it was her allotment that was at the mouth of the cleft where Swift Dam was built.  At the time the government was trying to boost land occupancy and success and there was money if a dam were used for an irrigation system.  Steele and his compatriots, including the original Kipp, got the dam built on the reservation without paperwork.  Oral declaration that they had grown crops was enough to get the money and a certain amount of grandfathering went on.  This continues to be a hot topic.”

See the post on June 25, 2005, for a bio of Steele.

Built by white men, which created the boom town of Valier, the dam itself was on Tribal land.  it’s creation and management is by a company, now called the Pondera Canal Company and all the canals are on the “white” side.  When the dam was finished, the boom culture collapsed.  (Ivan Doig used some of this in his novels.)  Then the surrounding farms and ranches made possible by irrigation continued to support the town on a much smaller scale.  At one time it is said that you could walk down the streets of Valier and never step off the litter of beer cans.  Today there is no bar in the town.

The people killed when that first earthen dam collapsed were mostly tribal.  Today at the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Woody Kipp is on the faculty.  At the Piegan Institute and Cuts Wood Immersion School, founded by Darrell Robes Kipp, the leader is his son, Darren Kipp.  Kipps are everywhere.  None of the Conrads are here.  Their mansion is across the Rockies in Kalispell.

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