Thursday, June 13, 2019


"Rez" has become a trope, partly because of books written about it, movies depicting it, and the people themselves trying to build an image.  The trouble is that the parts of reservation, including the parts that don't live there anymore (half the tribe is off the rez) and the parts that were always fictional anyway.  The truth is that the extent of the area, even after historical forces pushed the boundaries in, is so vast that it contains many styles and fates. 

For lack of better identification, the rez towns and other "population concentrations", act as markers for places but also for different characteristics of rez life.  The main image, a Shangri La disguised as Dogpatch, is the result of marketing for scenery, dude ranches, US-as-Europe, and tourist amenities plus those opposed to poverty ghettos who raise money by misery.  Both supply ambiguous messages of "come hither" and "get out."

I only know one rez but by chance I've lived in various corners of it.  In '61 I came to teach and through involvement with Bob Scriver, who was born there, acquired stories back to 1903 plus many tales of exploits in the Thirties.  WWII featured big in people's lives.  Living in town, which is bisected by Willow Creek between Government Square and the mercantile center, and augmented by Moccasin Flats behind the schoolhouse ridge, I saw and heard a lot.  The biggest change was "Indian preference" for the government jobs, closely followed by the aging out of the white businesses.  Partly due to race and partly due to people shopping in Great Falls, the small businesses didn't pass themselves to heirs, but simply locked the door.  White heirs were leaving. Browning was more and more an "Indian" town and then it wasn't a town at all, legally.

When Bob divorced me, I moved to one of the riverside communities, long strings of ranches established, sometimes as allotments, along Badger, Marias, Milk, Two Medicine, and even some smaller streams.  Because the people shuttled back and forth to school, work and supplies, esp. after the tribe paved the roads, the people knew each other and sometimes collaborated on some issue or activity like rodeo or snow plowing.  For winter 1970 I lived on Two Med between Cadotte, Augare, and Wellman.  They didn't stop for coffee but they watched. 

When I was teaching again, I moved to East Glacier for two years where I lived in a two-story house that had been abandoned for years.  More about it later.  Then I was off the rez again to start work on another degree. 

When I came back in 1982 -- having earned an MA -- and began circuit-riding as clergy in Montana, I had no money, was earning almost none, and so spent a couple of summers living in my van on the street by friends' home business.  In 1988 I left the UU ministry and lived back in Browning in the Methodist minister's parsonage as part of a preaching arrangement.  In the summer of 1989 I was one of the campground clerks for Johnson's in St. Mary, not far from the Scriver complex of summer cabins where we only stayed occasionally when I was with Bob.

Then I taught in Heart Butte for the first two years of the high school there.    That was the last of my rez residences.  I was in Portland until retirement in 1999 when I moved to Valier, just off the southern boundary of the rez.  Valier is 30% "Indian".  East Glacier is 52% white.

Since there has been controversy in the last couple of days over East Glacier, reacting to my quip that it is NOT reservation and tribal members educated in Missoula counter-asserting that I'm trying to diminish the land ownership of the tribe, it's worth looking at that town more closely.  (I once heard that 50% of the rez is owned by financial entities who foreclosed on loans.) First, I want to say that Missoula, Queen of Tropes, feeds a lot of undigested French political theory into students.  This is partly a function of distance and partly because of lingering Aquarian convictions.  There is a drug connection.  

There is a Queer connection since East Glacier had a frank gay man as postmaster for a long time, which meant that it was the most gay-friendly town.  (Heart Butte had some hardcore prison-taught MSM.)  Before the gays came quietly, as they became more and more fond of seasonal resort work, the postmaster had been Betsy Jennings, an aristocratic screenwriter married to an even more famous screenwriter named Talbot.  It's worth googling for the details.  They had inherited a dude ranch, guarded by "Whispering Jack", an old man in the habit of shouting.  In those years movie stars showed up, most notably Clark Gable.

Browning public school teachers (mostly white  at the time) liked to live in East Glacier though the school board ("Indian") tried to make them stay in Browning.  They rented the summer second-houses of wealthy city people and went back "home" east or to the coast for the summer.  (BCC didn't begin until I was living in Heart Butte later.)  Most businesses in EG were either living off the traffic through Marias Pass or a bit of night business as taverns and grocery stores for those commuting to Browning.  

East Glacier was not built on the traffic of a river, but rather on the traffic of the railroad, until the highway was built.  I learned the history of the legal jurisdiction of the town back in the years when there was a struggle to stabilize the water supply, which begins in Glacier National Park, and was originally "piped" through hollow logs.  For years the tourist businesses had to supply bottled water.  I've never seen a land title for East Glacier, and my memory is faulty, but it was clearly a three-way tug o' war among the rez, the state focus on the highway, and the commercial forces  behind the Big Hotel.  (East Glacier is the entry point for Marias Pass which the Blackfeet never exploited with a toll gate any more than they realized they could charge passage for high tension electrical lines and so on.)

The Big Hotel in East Glacier is the only one of the several railroad-built massive destination hotels that's on the reservation.  (The establishment in St. Marys belonged to a family.) The land beneath the Big Hotel was allotted to the Clarke Family, sons and daughters of Malcolm Clarke whose murder near Helena impelled the "Baker Massacre," an attack before dawn on an innocent camp which has become a scandal.  (It stands in for an actual battle, because there were none with the US cavalry.)  Helen Clarke was in charge of allotting the land to individual families on the Blackfeet rez.  She probably made the deal with the railroad and kept a strip of land for a ranch behind the hotel.

Very much in the hornswoggling strategy of placing Swift Dam on the reservation, technically on the allotment of the Indian Agent's wife and the unkept promise of an irrigation system, the confusion over who was actually in charge and therefore liable for maintenance led to the failure of the dam and the flood of '65, the other still-memorialized tragedy on the Rez and part of the Rez trope.  (Looking Glass Pass is another of those confused situations.  The little highway settlement called "Kiowa Kamp" promises but never delivers.  Tragedies there are quietly personal, but it is a white settlement, pretty chancy.)

As I recall from the water struggle, it was one of a series over time and will probably recur again in the future as the Big Hotel becomes less and less a source of money and more in need of maintenance.  The times are turning to young people, often from other countries, who prefer to rough it in youth hostels like "Brownies" (belonging to the Chase family.)  But they will age.  More and more second-home owners may want to sell and demand normalizing of their deeds by nailing down jurisdiction.  This is the sort of thing that Blackfeet scholars ought to get a lock on.

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