Wednesday, September 17, 2008


You might know the game of jackstraws as “Pick-Up-Sticks,” which came in a cardboard tube and kept us kids busy for hours back in the days when there was no television. The idea was to open the end of the tube and spill out the slender colored sticks, slightly smaller than chopsticks, all in a tangle like a spring logjam. Then the players took turns gently removing one at a time without letting any other sticks move.

Using this as a model, I’d like to pick through the logjam of reservation politics to see what the individual sticks might be. I won’t elaborate too much, because the real problem is the tangle rather than the one-by-one sticks. But one stick can’t be removed easily without disturbing the whole pile, increasing the difficulties. Another thing to remember is that many of these sticks are present in the surrounding small towns as well, often as a result of the same dynamics since so much of the economy and culture is shared. (People don’t always see it that way! Which might be the label of one stick: the assumption that whites and Indians in rural Montana are essentially different.)

It’s possible to group some of these “sticks.” For instance, many of them are artifacts left over from the historical treatment of the indigenous people. Here’s the beginning of a list of possibles. (Before I start my own list, I will say that one of the main patterns that shows up in this pile o’sticks is that one person’s perceptions and judgments are not the same as the next person’s, so each statement might or might not be true in a verifiable and factual way.)

1. Reservations are a delineated area, which is a Euro-concept dating back to the marking of ag plots in Egypt, the origin of geometry. But in the historic west they are generally determined by riverways, meaning that the boundaries changed organically when the river found a new path, but also when geometric means were used to make new boundary. In Euro terms, boundaries must be “surveyed,” but doing this -- which is necessary for an unmovable edge -- leaves the boundary vulnerable to convenient changes since it’s all a matter of records on paper.

2. Vulnerability to changes is most egregiously demonstrated by the shrinkage of the reservation from the whole top half of Montana ever northward. Also, the eastern edge mysteriously drifted so that oil exploration is on the white side. Two ambiguous inclusions created when Glacier National Park was formed: the “ceded strip” just to the south of the Park and the surveyed boundary which was supposed to go from “peak to peak” (which is probably an impossible idea anyway unless using GPS.) The changes in the southern boundary were driven by cattle ranchers and meant repeated disruptions of settlement patterns and agency headquarters. So far no one has succeeded in moving the 49th parallel, though the river at that latitude has been moved.

3. Because the Blackfeet were assigned this land and because fences and boundary riders were employed (supposedly meant to keep rancher’s cows out -- they were in the habit of grazing on the rez for free), it is ambiguous whether the area is defensibly sovereign land like a “nation,” or whether it is a reserve, like a nature reserve or a wilderness area. Is it a prison or is it a refuge? Is it keeping people OUT or keeping people IN? (Aside from the cows.)

4. Within the area of the Blackfeet reservation (unlike the Canadians who never subdivided their reserves, thinking of them as reserves for the tribe as a whole) the land was divided up into assigned plots which the supposed owners chose to some degree. At least they expressed a preference. They were sometimes assigned two plots, one towards the mountains and one on the prairie, but the total acreage was the same, so the plots were even smaller. The plot sizes were based on homesteading, but homesteading on the prairie had already demonstrated that the plots were too small for crops there. Mountainous foothills were even less ag-friendly.

5. The land assigned to individual Indians was supposed to be “theirs” but it was actually supervised and governed by Bureau of Indian Affairs rules and principles. It was the BIA who controlled much of irrigation plus the allocation of equipment, seeds and cattle and horse stock.

6. The mechanism for changing the status of individual land-owning Indians (who were considered “incompetent” because they didn’t understand English, much less a government imposed from a foreign invader) was vulnerable to corruption. Unscrupulous whites were able to have truly incompetent people (low IQ, very aged, or simply uninformed) declared competent and were motivated to do so because once they were legally “competent,” they could sell their land to whites.

7. Once the issue of “competence” was on the table, and once Blackfeet individuals understood what the word often meant -- not legally but as a judgment on the abilities of a foolish and losing person, possibly stupid -- they were highly insulted and even today one cannot talk to an Indian without a ghost hanging over that person, accusing them of being stupid or at least “ignorant.” Ignorant on the reservation doesn’t mean being uninformed, not having the facts at one’s disposal, but rather “stupid.” Maybe “unthinking.” The school engineer, Jimmy Fisher, once said to me indignantly, “My grandmother had to prove in court she was not incompetent! I never knew anyone smarter or more competent than my grandmother! She sure shouldn’t have had to PROVE it to some white outsider who didn’t even know her!”

8. “Ignorance” is also a big issue in rural Montana and small towns. Phil Ward, superintendent of schools when I first came in 1961, used to say he welcomed television on the reservation because it would be a window on the world. People would become “hip,” “au courant,” up with the times. But the effect is often the opposite: few watch the Sunday morning talk shows that explain events. Instead a sense that sit coms and soap operas accurately show how Americans live has intimidated people trying to get by on the hard economic terms of the high prairie. Even quiz shows move fast through information that people here don’t have, the same as the questions on IQ tests are often based on information not available here. They are composed by people who live on the coasts in major cities. This makes local people vulnerable to emotional appeals, esp. the sort that seems to give THEM privileged information. (Dare I mention Scientology?)

9. Because the reservations were based on military action -- like the Baker Massacre -- they felt like confinement. When the US government (through the BIA) send OTHER tribes here, it was like overcrowding a jail. Though the Cree/Metis newcomers were eventually given their own reservation, the Blackfeet have never stopped bristling about outsiders. (One old lady was outraged that the nature reserve camp that the Scriver/Doane ranch became was used by kids from other Montana tribes.)

10. But there is an opposite force in that Blackfeet stayed in their own lands. Some have tried to weaken this by saying the tribe actually came from the far northeast by the Great Slave Lake in Canada in 1600 or so, but there is a strong assertion by most Blackfeet that THIS is where they always were and that it is a last stand, that there is no place else to go.

This is only the beginning of the jackstraw tangle I hope to compile into a book called “Blackfeet Controversies.” If you want to affect the content with your comments and conflicting evidence, now’s the time!

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