Sunday, April 13, 2014


This post is a suggested list of the various forces at work on the Blackfeet Tribe that have caused the present “perfect storm” and keep it going on despite the price being paid and the efforts to intervene.

All indigenous populations, by definition, are creatures of their environment.  The East Slope of the Rockies was never an easy place to live but in the day of the herds of buffalo, it was a balanced and sustaining human place to live.  There was plenty of food, there were “rules” for managing how to get it, how to store it, how to share it, and so on.  Times of hardship still happened, but the great bulk of the population went forward.

However, there were edges and interfaces with other populations: those of the far north, those of the woodlands to the east, those that were partly guarded by the Rockies, and there must have been an ambiguous relationship with peoples to the south, particularly after the Spanish began to arrive, bringing the horse.

There is some evidence that from a planetary point of view, esp. if you look at it from the north pole, there was penetration of the area by various means from people with roots in Asia (I’m not just talking about the Bering Straits, but also about dog-sledders and kayak paddlers) and people from the Norse areas, stepping from Greenland to Iceland to North America.  Climate change had a lot to do with this, since sometimes the Arctic Sea was open (as it is becoming now.) 

Also, there were clearly boat people who managed to cross the Pacific much earlier than anyone has thought.  There were circum-Pacific trade routes that are hinted at by artifacts.  Kon-Tiki showed how primitive those boats could be, functioning on ocean currents and prevailing winds.

For the Blackfeet, the early penetration of explorers came up the Mississippi and then the Missouri.  Lewis and Clark were not the first whites in the area.  But there were not many whites until late and then mostly from “Canada.”

The Blackfoot Confederation was bisected by the 49th parallel, which very much confused relationships and resources, and continues to do so.  The Hudson’s Bay Company injected a population of tough Brits and venture capital that demanded profit.  Then rival French and American companies also began to compete, which meant introducing trade goods of dangerous high value like gunpowder and guns, and esp. alcohol.  The Red River Metis/Cree Chippewa culture formed out of all this.  The occasional Mohawk or Polynesian passed through.

The Euro idea that “tribes” were “races” of people with clear edges who could be detached from their ecological location and treated as units was a distortion.  Various people came and went from small bands who had family relationships at their core, plus a ceremonial unity reinforced by summer rituals.  The intrusion of missionaries disrupted all this.  Then, after the buffalo were gone, the priests become a means of survival.  For the Red River Metis, the Catholic missionaries were easier to accept.

Washington, D.C. has always been a problem -- too far away, too beholden to other people.  Right now they are simply a national version of the same deadlock as the tribal council.  Money, virtue, precedent, status, and coping with international corporations are forces that deserve whole books of analysis.  The main point I want to make here is that MUCH is covert.  Even the legislators who take an interest and try to pass helpful laws have no grasp of how much underground action there is.  Two things to watch: water and the private ownership of rez land -- both limited commodities that will increase in value.  Sovereignty means moving ownership into private and sometimes inexperienced hands just as the Dawes Act was a trust buster.  Very mixed consequences.  And yet we know what happens when the government is the trustee.

Some of this is criminal (both from inside the tribe and from the larger society, including both Montana elements and international networks), but some is law enforcement that represents itself as being against criminal activity and justifies bad behavior that way (which always leads to goals that serve the persons involved, i.e. cops).  Murders, DUI accidents, violence and sexual abuse have gone unaddressed and unresolved.  This serves the interests of some people.  We know what the history of casinos is and who they attract.  Alcohol is only one drug.

Old grudges about jobs, family conflicts, various sorting and subsidies for education or investment, are not forgiven.  Again, the rez justice system is stymied because there is no ultimate "outside" superior court that everyone trusts.   But also there are illicit handshake deals about rez business: contracts, sweet agreements, definitions, stipulated and secret consequences, penalties, evasion of oversight and regulation.  Government desk-riders do NOT want to risk coming to the rez, esp. in winter.  Indians play cats-paw's for whites.

Outsiders depend on personalities more than systems.  In fact, many needed systems don’t exist.  Outsiders can’t figure out how to get statistics or names and addresses.  Addresses don’t mean much when people float around.  Often one needs to know family relationships to locate someone and the relationships will not be tagged by names.  Land line phones don’t work well (the bills run up too easily, the distances are too long) and cell phones have no directories.  Reporters call Earl Old Person because they saw his dancers at the Russell Auction and the media thinks of him as a “chief” as in the movies.  His great strength is personal history with many people over decades.

Schools are state creatures: they run on state law.  In the last decades they have become more hierarchical, more controlling, and more prescriptive. This is the context for Willie Sharp, as a former principal in a time when disobedient kids are sometimes arrested by police.  I’ve taught with two of the former teachers on one version or another of this council.  They have not changed.

The idea of Tribal Councils came out of the time decades ago when “corporations” were being formed in business.  I had always thought of them as democracies controlled by their shareholders, but these days they have become oligarchies everywhere -- mostly because of the greed of the shareholders.  They want profit and will fire any board members who don’t take whatever measures are necessary, regardless of social damage or consequences displaced to the future.  The timeline is today-tomorrow, and no later.  Anyway, half the share-holders are ON the rez, taking the consequences of immediate decisions, and half the share-holders are OFF the rez, without being much involved except to cash their check.  The latter are more likely to be “fractionated” and low “quantum.”  Many have no attachment to the place in an emotional sensory way -- only the entitlement to a check.

Outside but parallel to the “corporation” structure of the reservation there remains a cultural system, partly the remnants of pre-existing ways and partly the product of literature, other media, anthropology, political bodies like AIM, Christian churches with strong pentecostal elements, charter schools based on culture, and university work, including both Montana state schools and elite places that give priority to Indians, like Harvard.  This “virtual” structure doesn’t always match reality.

Another competing but quiet network is that of the Cree Chippewa greater community, which is woven into the Blackfeet rez by history, marriage, and provenance.  Outsiders don’t grasp that a person can be fully indigenous without being enrolled in the Blackfeet tribe. Indeed, they might be without enough provenance quantum big enough for them to belong to any tribe at all, as fractionated as the land. This is because of government schools for people of courting age, the government’s bright idea of pushing the Cree Chippewa onto the Blackfeet rez, and the relocation movement that tried to disperse rez people into the cities but only created Indian ghettoes.  Maybe military service creates another network.


In the opposite direction, both the change to Indian preference in government and tribal jobs and the coinciding “aging to failure” of white-owned small businesses and ranches that were established after WWII has removed a social element that was politically untenable but also stabilizing.  Their children have a sense of entitlement that is more family than tribe-based.  Some are easily able to “pass” and have good off-rez connections that allow them to leave, which is a loss of brains and energy.

In the end all these forces combine to create a “nation” of dissenters, who are invested in maintaining their identity and the status quo by BEING dissenters.  The point of difference simply moves from one resolution to the next problem without acknowledging that anything got done.  There’s a sense of righteousness, separation from the possibility of failure and denial of all experiments or advances.  It’s common in survivors, a reaction to trauma.

Some essential people have died.  We miss them deeply.  They were from a generation of idealists and doers.  Think what they would say.


In addition to posting some things on this blog, I have a small email list to whom I forward selected posts.  I was startled to get this reaction from Sidner Larson.  If you don't know him, he's Jim Welch's cousin, grew up on the High Line where he acquired and managed a successful bar, then became a lawyer, and finally now is a professor of Native American literature.  He is the author of a fine memoir called "Catch Colt," which was published by U of Nebraska Press before they caught the French philosophy fever, and "Captured in the Middle: Tradition and Experience in Contemporary Native American Writing" from the University of Washington Press.  For the past decade he has noted that the boom-time Indian Studies programs of the '70's and 80's have been eroding by underfunding.

Hi Mary, thanks for this, which, in my view, is very significant.

There is much talk and some effort to open discussion of cultural and environmental sustainablility in some areas of Contemporary American Indian Studies, but it often fails to get beyond perpetuation of  old stereotypes of the Noble Savage rather than address actual issues of living communities.

The what-goes-without saying, which is most everything, again in my view, is driven by late-stage capitalism, which cares for nothing except immediate profits.

The profit motive is also systematically eliminating and neutralizing those capable of understanding and articulating essential cultural and environmental issues, such as some scholars formerly protected by academic freedom.

Your post has enormous potential; I hope you develop it fully and that others see the possibility of incorporating it into their own work.

Meanwhile, the weather is just plain weird around here, and, quite excruciating again this morning.

With Best Regards,


1 comment:

northern nick said...

. . . is there any one common denominator among and throughout the many fractionated though composite whole? Is there any, "of the many, one?" Perhaps, could it be the, "we are all related" reverse side of the same coin that is the Amskapi Pikani.