Friday, September 19, 2008


In the Sixties if I had some reason to go to the Glacier County Court House in Cut Bank, I’d park and when I got out I’d hear yelling from the upper floors where the jail was: “Hey, Miss Strachan! It’s ME! Look up here!” My students. We laughed and waved at each other.

Because Bob was the justice of the peace and the city magistrate, our lives tracked closely alongside the local drunks, mess-ups, and petty operators of the rez. Few were really bad. Some worked for us -- which means WITH us, since we were at tables side-by-side doing the same work -- and we went by their homes (those who had them) to take them messages. Once in a while there would be a true tragedy, violence that went too far or some misadventure like walking on the train tracks. There’s no doubt little kids suffered. So did women, who continued their ancient role of care-takers. Though we mostly dealt with men, the women would come to ask for money because their babies needed milk. In those days few women drank.

Those days are pretty much gone. Maybe even the days of the semi-legal swindles are dying, the tilted playing fields that leave most Indians always scrambling. Let’s pick up some sticks.

1. From the beginning law and order was military and the military could use deadly force. Cavalrymen were survivors of the Civil War, barely under control themselves, and no respecters of civil rights. The prairie clearances had left them with the conviction that Indians were fair game. I won’t repeat the epithets that still burn in the minds of today’s youth. A moral gradient was created that is still echoed at athletic events: winner takes all, losers can be trampled with impunity. The concept of the protection of the minority is gone. (Actually, it’s very weak across the US these days.)

2. Even when the agents began to get more of a grip and used Indian men themselves as officers (the government finally realizing that there was a warrior class that specialized in keeping order, sometimes acting as a kind of SWAT team when individuals were totally out of control) government rules tended to be arbitrary and inexplicable to law-abiding Indians. For instance, the phobia about “Ghost Dancing,” a ceremony of hope based on Christianity. At one point an agent forbade beading on grounds that it encouraged people to sit together and talk, probably plotting revolution. The first Carlisle students were forbidden to form a “Literary Society” on the same grounds. That this paranoia of white authorities was caused by their own feelings of guilt was never pointed out. There never was much reason to respect policemen.

3. Again after WWII, when the soldiers came back to the rez, they were confronted with restrictions that they now knew would not apply to whites because they had seen it for themselves. For instance, the rez was supposed to be encouraging capitalism rather than socialism but there WAS no capital for Indians. They had no power to borrow money in the adjoining communities. Sometimes they could manage to work through a white front-man, but then they were beholden to and controlled by that man. Many times a white man used an Indian front man for his own purposes, either to slip some funds out of the tribal pockets or maybe to acquire valuable land or even artifacts.

4. White soldiers after WWII came to the rez looking for opportunities and found attractive tribal women enhanced by their entitlement to tribal land. It was a great start for a ranch and soon generated a category (not quite a class, but almost) of kids with assets. These white ranchers COULD borrow, which is a basic necessity for ag business, and they did well. Their wives were used to hard work and they were excellent mothers. They bought into the stigma of being a “blanket ass Indian,” since they had left the category.

5. After the Vietnam War, white veterans also came to the rez but they were often traumatized and used to drugs. Their relationships tended to be outside the law and tumultuous. They were attracted to the romance of outsider life.

6. The most recent influx of outsiders has been Hispanics and the influence has been double. The majority are family people, often good Catholics, but also a reservation is a good place for a South American criminal to hide out. They don’t look different. And some of them are deep into the drug culture, esp. meth. It helps that the rez is up against the US border.

7. For many years there has been more money for outsiders if the disorder, criminal behavior, and personal damage continue. This has continued since the Conrad Brothers left their teenaged careers as Confederate raiders and took up the lucrative businesses of whiskey traders and commodity dealers supplying the reservations with substandard goods. Ordinary business is damaged by the double-dealing and secret webwork that sustains crimiinals. They are mutually exclusive. I believe that it is the steady growth of legitimate business that is now triggering investigation and reform. But these webworks are state wide, white-based.

On this reservation people went through a population winnowing so severe that at one point the tribe was down to 500 members, half of them children. What this does to a people is to teach them to save their family first. The tribe comes second. The county, state, nation are unreal. Other families are competitors. This is also true of the white homesteaders across Montana who barely squeaked by, witnessing many deaths of their beloveds. It hardens the conscience and justifies bad ethics.

Similar dynamics have created a pecking order: powerful (wealthy) first, which often means low blood quantum in the tribe; high status second, maybe due to religious leadership; then ordinary working men; grandmothers; working women; children; and -- at the bottom -- drunks or prostitutes of no consequence except to their families. (Dogs are a separate tribe who live enmeshed but often take the brunt of violence and starvation.) It is considered legitimate in communities across America (and Canada) to prey on and abuse bottom people to the point of death. The attitude is that they deserve what they get.

10. I left the rez at about the point when AIM picked up righteousness and added terrorism, making semi-criminals into Robin Hood. Even the gentlest theorists (and there WERE some) were filled with rage and ready to justify resistance to the US Government. I don’t think it was possible to empower American Indians without this movement, and they HAD to be empowered, but the side effects have been a self-righteousness linked with intimidating rage that has sometimes stifled achievement and encouraged vendettas. Many nice whites are afraid of Indians now -- not because of the Indian “wars” but because of the rage, and yet they don't feel they can defend themselves, so they avoid. This trend, which began in city ghettos where Blacks showed the way, keyed into the post-colonial Marxist theories popular on campuses just as some Indians managed to get there. Many white academics are more bellicose than tribal members on the rez, since it’s all theory to professors.

There are more sticks in this set of jackstraws than will fit in one post. More later.

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