Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 24, 2019

The Blackfoot and the Barbarians

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:12 am

(Liberated from behind a JSTOR paywall.)

Bear Bull, a Blackfoot Indian

Organization & Environment; Mar 1999
The Blackfoot and the Barbarians
By Louis Proyect

Five books discussing the Blackfoot Indian people are reviewed.

  • Chrisjohn Roland and Sherri Lynn Young. The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residence School Experience in Canada. Penticon, British Columbia, Canada: Theytus, 1995, 327 pp.
  • Timothy Egan. Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West. New York: Knopf, 1998, 266 pp.
  • Margaret A. Kennedy. The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains. New York: Peter Lang, 1997, 181 pp.
  • R. Miller. Shingwauk’s Vision. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto, 1996, 582 pp.
  • Donald Worster. An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1994, 151 pp.

Reporter (to Mahatma Gandhi): “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?”

Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”

Beginning in the mid-1800s and coming to a climax in the post-Civil War period, rapacious gold prospectors, fur trading companies, and ranchers invaded Blackfoot territory. They came in the same fashion that profit-oriented barbarians have come to the Amazon rainforest in recent decades, with plunder in their hearts and a willingness to exterminate anybody who got in the way.

It should come as no surprise that the U.S. Army defended the invaders on the basis of protecting private property and “civilization.” In the summer of 1865, the Pikuni (Southern Blackfoot) signed a treaty in Fort Benton, Montana, that pushed their southern boundary north to the Teton River. They received annuities of $50,000 a year for a period of 20 years. If the United States did not have the benefit of a superior armed force, the Blackfoot never would have signed such a treaty because it amounted to theft. As Woodie Guthrie once said, some men will steal your valuables with a gun while some will do it with a fountain pen. The United States used both gun and fountain pen.

Clashes with gold prospectors continued because they refused to respect Blackfoot rights within the newly redefined territory. When some prospectors under the leadership of the racist thug John Morgan killed four Pikuni men just for sport, Chief Bull’s Head organized a large revenge party and the prospectors got their comeuppance.

In 1868, when a Pikuni elder and a small boy were in Fort Benton on an errand, White racists shot them down in the street. Alfred Sully, who had responsibility for upholding the law in the tense area, said that because of tensions between the two groups he could not convict the killers in any court. This gave other White settlers a license to continue killing. When the Pikuni resorted to self-defense, the authorities decided that some kind of state of emergency existed and called in outside help.

Having decided that the Indians rather than the rapacious invaders were at fault, the army ordered Colonel E. M. Baker to put down a rebellion led by Mountain Chief. “Strike them hard” were his instructions. He pulled together four companies of cavalry, augmented by 55 mounted infantrymen and a company of infantry, and marched on the Indians. On daybreak of January 23, 1870, the U.S. army under Baker’s command attacked a village on the Marias river. They killed 173 Indians, seized 300 horses, and took 140 women and children into custody. There was only one problem. This was not Mountain Chief’s village but one that was friendly to the United States. Many of the villagers were sickly victims of a recent smallpox epidemic. To add to their misery, the troops burned the lodges and camp equipment.

The eternally sanctimonious New York Times editorialized on February 24, 1870, “The question is whether a wholesale slaughter of women and children was needed for the vindication of our aims.” The editorial is cited in John C. Ewers’s (1958) flawed but essential history The Blackfeet: Raiders of the Northwestern Plains (p. 251). One wonders if The New York Times keeps a file of such sentiments recyclable for suitable occasions, such as the recent bombing of a medicine factory in Sudan.

The consequences of this mass murder were as would be expected. It panicked the Pikuni into signing another compromised treaty. The whole purpose of military repression was not to restore “law and order” but to push Pikuni into the marginal portions of the state of Montana. All of these treaties from the 1860s and 1870s lack legitimacy and should be reviewed, just as the annexation of Hawaii is being reviewed by the United Nations today.

Its flaw is visible in its very title, which depicts the Blackfoot as “raiders.” Ewers draws a picture of “Blackfeet” (the Blackfoot people prefer not to use this term because it refers to feet rather than people) as warriors who enjoyed stealing horses from Indians and White settlers alike. In the very chapter where he decries the massacre at Marias river, he refers to the problems involved in “the pacification and civilization of western Indian tribes” (p. 236). This is said without irony.

THE WHISKEY TRADE AND FUR TRADING

More recent scholarship steps back from the warlike image fostered by Ewers on the Blackfoot and other Indian tribes. Margaret A. Kennedy (1997), in The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains roots the conflicts in the fur and whiskey trade.

The whiskey trade was far more than the exchange of buffalo robes and other furs for whiskey and trade goods. This exchange was conducted within a diverse and often hostile social and ethnic context. The interactions between native and nonnative were heightened by the existence of intense rivalries within each of these groups, band against band, Americans against British, trader against trader. The origin of some of the intense intergroup hostilities that characterized the whiskey trade can be traced back throughout the fur trade, but much of it was deeply accentuated in this late period by the pressures wrought through fear of loss of the buffalo, tribal territorial infringement, American and British competition and of course, the deleterious effect of liquor. (p. 13)

To put it more bluntly, the British and American fur traders lured the Indians into the cash trade by offering them whiskey, the one thing that was not available on the open range. They used whiskey in the same way that the British used opium in China. It was a way of breaking down the doors of a local economy that had little use for the lure of imported goods. One of the most notable things about opium and alcohol is that they are addictive. This is exactly what the East Indian Company or the Hudson Bay Company could use to best effect: a substance that hooked the unfortunate native into becoming unwilling accomplices to his own destruction. As the fur trade began to decrease the number of available buffalo, the various tribes fought with each other for control over the scarce resource. They stole horses from one another because the horse was necessary for the wholesale collection of hides. Pressures from fur and whiskey traders go much further in explaining the Indian wars than any lack of “civilized” values. Who needed civilizing were the entrepreneurs who used such poisons to make the Indian dependent.

While in one sense we have become inured to the idea of alcohol being a symptom of American Indian despair, it is important to understand how this substance entered their society. Today, there are all sorts of investigative journalists reporting on how the contras introduced crack cocaine into the United States in order to fund the war in Nicaragua. An investigation of the introduction of whiskey into the northwestern Plains states would also be a good idea. This is clearly the purpose of Margaret A. Kennedy’s (1997) scholarly treatment.

She points out that prior to the 1830s, buffalo robes had been a minor commodity in the fur trade. Beavers were the preferred good. When the avaricious trading companies caused the near-extinction of the beaver, the buffalo became a substitute. So whiskey lured the Indians to the trading post, where they surrendered the highly desired bison robes for alcohol, the most toxic drug. Kennedy (1997) explains,

The business was fairly simple. Fort Benton merchants were willing to commission individuals and supply them with an outfit. In return, the trader and clerks would remove to Indian Country and exchange goods as cheaply as possible for buffalo robes, wolf, antelope, elk and other animal pelts. The quiet inclusion of alcohol in the trader’s outfit, seldom accurately recorded on the manifests, was the magnet guaranteed to draw native clientele. In 1867, the selling price of buffalo robes was $8.00, the highest amount it had yet reached. The trader′s cost was only $8.00, the highest amount it had yet reached. The trader′s cost was only 3.00, thereby guaranteeing a healthy profit even after commissions, inventory, and transportation costs were considered, (p. 22)

Just as British capitalism used rum, sugar, and slaves to drive its commercial expansion into the Caribbean and the American south, so did the fur trading companies use a combination of whiskey, furs, and alcohol-addicted Indian hunters to increase their wealth. Wealthy and jaded Europeans’ taste had shifted from fur to buffalo, just as people today decide to use one cologne rather than another. Image back then was as important as it is today. It was of course no consequence that the very source of Blackfoot and other Indians’ survival was being destroyed in the process. The buffalo was no longer a source of clothing, shelter, and food. It was instead a luxury item to generate profits for the seller and alcohol addiction for the unfortunate hunters.

Unfortunately, not only could the Indian become addicted to alcohol, he or she could also suffer the consequences of “bad” drugs, just as occurs on the streets of New York City today when the occasional bag of heroin contains poisonous adulterants. Margaret Kennedy (1997) describes the horrors that took place frequently,

The movement of American traders into the last stronghold of Blackfoot territory could only have been accomplished through the extensive availability of alcohol. The Blackfoot north of the border had fervently and successfully protected their hunting territory from intruders-native and non-native alike-until 1869. Now the destructive results of the whiskey trade began to make themselves evident, as the people traded anything they owned for alcohol, which left them destitute and defenceless against winter temperatures. This was not quality alcohol. The so-called whiskey given out by traders for buffalo robes and other furs was a lethal concoction of alcohol mixed with anything that would give it colour and substance-bluestone, burnt sugar, castile soap, Jamaica Ginger, Perry Davis Painkiller, tea, ink, and sometimes, horrifically, strychnine. George McDougall, the Methodist missionary who was so outspoken against the whiskey trade, reported the same traumatic death for the native drinker as was experienced by the wolf consuming strychnine: foaming at the mouth, followed by convulsions and the body turning black after death. If people managed to survive the concoction, their faces were later horribly disfigured by blotches. Untold numbers of native people, well into the hundreds, died from the drink itself, exposure to winter conditions during intoxication, or violently at the hands of traders or each other. (p. 31)

GENOCIDE AND RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS

While the Southern Blackfoot were suffering the combined effects of military repression and alcohol addiction, a more subtle form of genocide was being carried out against their Canadian brothers and sisters of the Bloods and the Northern Blackfoot tribes. They became the victims of a vast conspiracy by the Canadian government and the church to rob them of their cultural identity through residential schooling. Residential schooling, as J. R. Miller (1996) points out in Shingwauk’s Vision, was a tool used to rob the Indian of his birthright. The blackboard and the rod joined the fountain pen and gun as instruments of genocide.

Writing about the “Basic Concepts and Objectives” of Canada’s Indian policy in 1945, an official of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs put his finger squarely on the motivation behind residential schools. Noting Ottawa’s desire to promote self-sufficiency among the indigenous population, and rightly zeroing in on Canada’s systematic attack on traditional Indian religion and cultural practices, the observer concluded that the dominion’s purpose was assimilation. As important as the push for self-support and Christianization among the Indians was in its own right, it was “also means to another end: full citizenship and absorption into the body politic.” Clearly, Canada chose to eliminate Indians by assimilating them, unlike the Americans, who had long sought to exterminate them physically. “In other words, the extinction of the Indians as Indians is the ultimate end” of Canadian Indian policy, noted the American official. The peaceful elimination of Indians’ sense of identity as Aboriginal people and their integration into the general citizenry would eventually end any need for Indian agents, farm instructors, financial assistance, residential schools, and other programs. By the cultural assimilation it would bring about, education residential schools would prove “the means of wiping out the whole Indian establishment.” (pp. 184-185)

As bad as this sounds, it does not do justice to the actual physical aspect of extermination that took place in the residential schools. Because most of the physical abuses took place in the classroom or in children’s dormitories, it was not visible to the outside world. For more than 100 years, Indian children were prevented from speaking their own language, sexually abused, and made ill from substandard housing and lack of adequate food. They were forced to do slave labor, such as cleaning the buildings and grounds, picking crops, and washing dishes. J. R. Miller (1996) details the sort of hell that Indian children faced.

A Sister of Charity at Shubenacadie school ordered a boy who had accidentally spilled the salt from the shaker while seasoning his porridge to eat the ruined food. He declined, she struck him, and told him to eat it. When he downed a spoonful and then vomited into his bowl, the sister hit him on the head and said, I told you to eat it!” A second attempt produced the same result. On his third try, the student fainted. The sister then “picked him up by the neck and threw him out to the centre aisle” in the dining hall. On one occasion at St. Michael’s school at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, the boys’ supervisor ordered two boys who had broken rules to kneel in front of him and then he began “kicking the boys as they knelt in penance before him.” A Mohawk man remembered with bitterness a senseless incident that occurred at the Jesuit school at Spanish in the 1930s. The fifteen year old was taking some time to clean up after coming in from working in the shoe shop before proceeding to the study hall. The supervisor came to where he was washing and “without a word, he let me have the back of his hand, squarely in the front of my face.” Fifty-five years after the event the former student concluded that the supervisor had struck him because he knew he could get away with demonstrating his authority in this manner. (pp. 325-326)

While J. R. Miller’s (1996) book is strong on such details, it is weak on the general political conclusions that flow from these details. For this, we have to be grateful for The Circle Game, coauthored by Roland Chrisjohn and Sherri Lynn Young (1995). The thrust of The Circle Game is to situate the residential schools in the general context of genocide. There are mounting scholarly and activist campaigns to establish Canada’s guilt in the cultural genocide of the native peoples. It is a genocide that is just as real as the one unleashed by the Turks against the Armenians. Although the body count might be less, the overall effects are just as damaging. They effectively erase a people from the face of the earth. When you destroy a people’s language and spiritual and cultural identity, the consequential forced assimilation is tantamount to genocide. Chrisjohn and Young state,

We are unwilling to treat “cultural genocide” as a species of action divorced (or divorceable) from its universally recognised relatives. The machinations and intrigues that have surrounded the debate about the concept of cultural genocide have all the savoir faire of a schoolyard bully; powerful groups, in obvious double-faced violation of their own publicly stated human rights poses, have used their power to compel the rest of the world into going along with them. Consequently, we maintain, and will henceforth assume, that assimilation is genocide. Even the phrase “cultural genocide” is an unnecessary ellipsis: cultural genocide is genocide. Finally, in any intellectually honest appraisal, Indian Residential Schools were genocide. If there are any serious arguments against this position, we are ready to hear them. (p. 44)

A tribunal under the auspices of the International Human Rights Association of American Minorities (IHRAAM), a United Nations-affiliated nongovernmental organization, occurred in June 1998 to hear testimony from Canadian Indians who had been victims of residential schooling. Although the tribunal did not have the ability to impose penalties on the Canadian government or the church, it could have been an effective moral force at the United Nations, where Canada often criticizes other countries over human rights. Although the first tribunal suffered from poor organization and questionable selection of judges, it was an important first step.

One of the people who was to testify was Harriet Nahanee (Pacheedaht), who was abused at the Alberni school. She pushed for the hearings and said that the government was giving money for healing to everyone but the victims. “They are giving money to the band offices, to the treaty commissions, but not one cent has gone to the men who were sexually abused,” she told the Toronto Globe and Mail (June 9, 1998). She told the reporter that she remembered seeing a girl killed at the school more than 50 years ago and that the death was covered up. She intended to raise the allegation at the hearings.

The Canadian government is attempting to conclude a $326 million settlement with the Indian nations. Much of this money would be earmarked for psychotherapy, which would be a slap in the face to the victims. Not only is the sum paltry, the notion that the “talking cure” is appropriate for restoring the dignity of the Indian is absurd. The people who need sessions with the psychiatrists are the top officials of the Church and government who saw fit to brutalize Indian children. What would be appropriate is restoration of all the land claims that peoples such as the Blackfoot, Cree, and Ojibway are pressing. This would do more for mental health than any 50minute psychotherapy session.

THE BLACKFOOT RELATIONSHIP TO THE ENVIRONMENT

In Donald Worster’s (1994) An Unsettled Country, Black Elk, a Lakota, is quoted as saying in 1930 that “Once we were happy in our own country and we were seldom hungry, for then the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives, and there was plenty for them and for us” (p. 55). He added that when the Wasichu, the White men, came, they “made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller, for around them surges the gnawing flood of the Wasichu; and it is dirty with lies and greed” (p. 55). What is critical to understand is that by creating such islands, the organic unity between man and nature breaks down. This is key to understanding the ecological crisis of the 20th century. In restoring human rights and economic justice to the American Indian, we will also begin the process of restoring ecological health to our nation. Without one, you cannot have the other.

Black Elks’s remarks begin the chapter in Worster’s book titled “Other People, Other Lives:’ that details the transformation of Plains wildlife, with particular emphasis on the wanton slaughter of the bison.

In accounting for the terrible loss of the bison, Worster raises the possibility that the same sort of undercounting that goes into the loss of American Indian lives has affected the fauna as well. The goal of the undercounters is to minimize the depths of the slaughter. Ernest Seton, a pioneering naturalist, estimates the number of bison at 75 million when the barbarian fur trading companies and ranchers arrived. By 1895, there were only 800 animals left, all within the Yellowstone National Park. Nature writer Barry Lopez has tried to estimate the total number of local fauna that were destroyed through the uncivilized recklessness of the invaders: “If you count the buffalo for hides and the antelope for backstraps and the passenger pigeons for target practice and the Indian ponies [killed] by whites to keep the Indian poor, it is conceivable that 500 million creatures died” (Worster, 1994, pp. 69-70). Worster calls this a virtual holocaust.

As the bison were wiped out from Blackfoot territory, a new ungulate took its place: the cow. Most champions of progress assumed that the slaughter of the bison and the banishment of the Indian into reservations was a regrettable evil. If these cruel acts did not take place, then it would have never been possible to create the modern beef industry. This notion requires demythologizing.

One of the latest books to take a look at this myth, as well as a number of others, is Timothy Egan’s (1998) Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West. Egan is a third-generation Westerner and the Pacific Northwest correspondent for The New York Times. It bodes well for the “gray lady” that such a critical-minded reporter can find his way on the payroll of such an establishment paper. Comparing the bison to cow, Egan writes,

With the bison gone, the government had to come up with some way to the people who had once relied on free buffalo herds. Thus were born first major government subsidies of cattle. Significant numbers of people began to kill one another over cows as well. Indians were starving to death on the barren, bisonless reservations they had been moved to, in Oklahoma and eastern Arizona. Wards of the state, they were promised rations of beef by federal Indian agents. By 1880, the government was purchasing fifty thousand animals a year to feed the tribes. Providing those rations, through huge contracts, was a source of graft and ultimately folklore–of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, for example.

At first, the dominant cattle were hybrids from Texas. These longhorns were scrawny and ornery. And they had two other major problems: they carried a tick, which infected Herefords, the popular cattle brought to the West from Britain, and their meat was tough and gristly. As one cowboy put it, a Longhorn was “eight pounds of hamburger and 800 pounds of bone horn.” Longhorns were quarantined, banned from most rail-shipment towns. The smaller, more docile, white-faced dogies became the dominant animal of the latter half of the cowboy era. The contrast between Herefords and bison was the difference between a redwood and a potted plant. Conditioned to a wet climate, cows bunch up along rivers and streams and will kill their water source with poop and poison unless moved. Bison spend most of time on and higher ground, going to a water source only for short periods. In the winter, bison use their shaggy heads to plow through snow for forage; cattle whimper and bawl for human help. Bison can survive droughts; cattle need the equivalent of forty-plus inches of rain a year.

Moving beeves, as cattle were called, over open ground was said to be one of the easiest routes to riches in the 1870s and 1880s. The grass cost nothing, or so the owners and the government agents initially thought. Cattle chewed up all that feed on the public domain over which buffalo used to roam and then were herded to rail depots for transport and slaughter. Establishing a tradition that, today, allows foreign-owned companies to extract billions of dollars in minerals from American public land without a dime in royalties, the United States opened the former bison lands to anyone with a head of beef. The point was to bring people west, for any reason, and to use the land, also for any reason. The Marquis of Tweeddale had 1.7 million acres. Large British investment houses bought enormous herds, and by the early 1880s more than 100 million pounds of frozen beef was being sent annually to England. The XIT Ranch in Montana, owned by a British conglomerate, counted fifteen thousand square miles of rangeland as its cattle domain-an area bigger than any of a half dozen states in the former British colonies. Inside wood-paneled clubs in Cheyenne and Denver, the owners read the Sunday Times from London, sipped gin-and-tonics and purchased local sheriffs. In Wyoming, the stockmen-owned legislature passed a law making it a felony to possess a cow that was not branded by the owners association. Basically, that meant any cow not owned by the monopoly was illegal. Rebellion by small homesteaders against this law prompted the Johnson County War, the biggest violent clash over red meat in the West. An army of hired guns owned by Wyoming stockmen started hanging, burning, and shooting people on a death list drawn up by the stockmen. A story of calculated violence and feudal power at a time when the homesteader was supposed to be king, the Johnson County War inspired one of the worst movies ever done on the West, Michael Cimino’s bloated and interminable Heaven’s Gate. (pp. 139-140)

The “progress” of cattle-ranching in Montana and other Indian territories has actually represented retrogression because water sources are either exhausted to feed the animals or polluted from their waste. Native grasses that helped to preserve the fertility of the soil have been replaced by grains that serve only one purpose: cattle feed. Meanwhile, the collapse of the cattle industry has driven many ranchers to desperation, prompting then to hook up with the fascist-like militias. Wyoming and Montana have strong militia movements, and unless a strong progressive movement takes shape in the United States, the militias can easily form the basis for a violent and racist mass movement.

I want to conclude this review essay with an examination of an obscure moment in American history that involves the Blackfoot and the environmentalist movement. It is, as far as I know, one of the first instances of eco-imperialism on record and evokes more recent clashes between outfits like Sea-Shepherd and the Makah or Greenpeace and the Innuit. The facts on this appear in Mark David Spence’s (1996) “Crown of the Continent, Backbone of the World: The American Wilderness Ideal and Blackfeet Exclusion from Glacier National Park,” an article in the July 1996 issue of Environmental History.

The eastern half of Glacier National Park was once part of the Blackfoot reservation and the tribe insists that an 1895 treaty allowed them certain ownership privileges. These lands are of utmost importance to the Blackfoot because they contain certain plants, animals, and religious sites that are of key importance to the cultural identity. The federal government considered the land to be one of its “crown jewels” and thought that the Blackfoot would tarnish it through their intrusions. This separation between man and nature of course goes against Indian wisdom. The park founders’ idea of “wilderness” owed more to European romanticism than it did to the reality of American history. The indigenous peoples and the forests, rivers, and grasslands lived in coexistence and codetermined each other’s existence thousands of years before Columbus-the first invader-arrived.

The mountains within Glacier National Park contained powerful spirits such as Wind Maker, Cold Maker, thunder, and Snow Shrinker. One of the most important figures in Blackfoot religion, a trickster named Napi or Old Man, disappeared into these mountains when he left the Blackfoot. The park is also the source of the Beaver Pipe bundle, one of the most venerated and powerful spiritual possessions of the tribe. Chief Mountain, standing at the border of the reservation and the national park, is by far the most distinct and spiritually charged land feature within the Blackfoot universe.

While pre-reservation life was centered on the plains and bison hunting, the resources of the mountains and foothills contained within the park were also important to their livelihood. Women and youngsters dug for roots and other foodstuffs in the parklands at the beginning of the spring hunting cycle. At the conclusion of the bison hunting season, which was marked by the Sun Dance ceremony, the various bands would retreat to the mountains and hunt for elk, deer, big horn sheep, and mountain goats. They would also cut lodge poles from the forests and gather berries through the autumn months. All of these activities were as important to them spiritually as economically. By denying them this, the park administrators were cutting them off from something as sacred as the whale is to the Makah.

What gives the banning of the Blackfoot from Glacier National Park a special poignancy and sadness was that it was motivated by beliefs identical to those held by George Bird Grinnell, a park administrator and well-known friend of the Blackfoot. He won the trust of Blackfoot storytellers and this allowed him to put into print the Blackfoot Lodge Tales (Grinnell, 1962). Although Grinnell said in the preface to the collection that “the most shameful chapter of American history is that in which is recorded the account of our dealings with the Indians” (p. xi), he saw no particular reason to preserve Glacier National Park as Blackfoot territory. Of course, without any self-consciousness, he also states in this preface that “the Indian is a man, not very different from his white brother, except that he is undeveloped.” Also, “the Indian has the mind and feelings of a child with the stature of a man” (p. xiv). When you stop and consider that Grinnell was a leading supporter of American Indian rights, it is truly frightening to consider the depths of racism that must have existed during the late 1800s when he was collecting his tales from the Blackfoot while accepting their banishment from the park.

Spence (1996) has an astute interpretation of Grinnell’s contradictory attitudes. He says that for Grinnell, the parks represented a living resource for American civilization. It would be a place for tourists to come and take photographs of the natural splendors. As for the Blackfoot, they were an important part of America’s past. They would live on through the Blackfoot Lodge Tales and dioramas at places like the Museum of Natural History.

Spence (1996) concludes his article with a description of how the clash between park administrators and the Blackfoot never really went away.

By 1935, relations between the Blackfeet and the National Park Service had reached an impasse that remains in place to this day. On one side, the park service, tourists, preservationists largely made Glacier into the uninhabited wilderness that continues to inform potent ideas about nature and national identity. Blackfeet use of park undermined this idealized notion of wilderness and the tribe’s resistance to Glacier’s eastward expansion limited its physical expression. Tension between Indians and the park service subsided over the next few decades, but the issue of Blackfeet in the eastern half of Glacier never disappeared.

By the 1960s, few Blackfeet actually hunted near the park, and fewer still went to the mountains to gather traditional plant foods and medicines. But the continuing importance of the Backbone of the World never depended on how many people went to the mountains. Although the Glacier region provided the tribe with a large portion of its physical sustenance in the 1890s, the issue of Blackfeet rights in the area always reflected concerns about cultural persistence and tribal sovereignty. In conjunction with the “Red Power” movement of the 1970s, these concerns arose again as Blackfeet leaders pushed for recognition of tribal rights in the park. Their efforts met strong opposition from both park officials and environmentalists, who resisted the Blackfeet “threat” as fervently as they did plans to mine coal and explore for oil in the park. The state of near-war that once characterized relations between the Blackfeet and park officials resurfaced in the early 1980s; the two sides only narrowly armed conflict on several occasions. Ultimately, continued Indian protests, ongoing risk of violence, and Blackfeet proposals for joint management of the eastern half of Glacier forced the National Park Service to revisit issues its leaders had buried in the 1930s. (p. 41)

A program for sweeping social and economic change in the United States has to put indigenous rights in the forefront. If the Indian is the canary in the mine, whose survival represents survival for everybody, then no other group deserves greater solidarity. Part of the enormous job in allying all the diverse sectors of the American population against an increasingly reactionary and violent government is explaining that the Indian comes first. This means that Sea-Shepherd and Greenpeace activists must understand that preservation of the wilderness makes no sense if the Indian is excluded.

The best way to restore the United States to ecological, economic, and spiritual health is to reconsider ways in which the precapitalist past can be approximated in a modern setting. Just as it makes sense for the Makah to use whatever weapons they deem necessary in pursuit of the whale, it might make sense for the entire northwestern plains states to be returned to the bison under the stewardship of the Blackfoot Indian. They have a much better track record on taking care of resources than do the agribusiness corporations who despoil the land for profit. Timothy Egan thinks that this makes sense, as does Ernest Callenbach, the author of Bring Back the Buffalo: A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains. Callenbach (1996) writes,

The basic Indian goal … is the reestablishment on the reservations of the natural ecological balance or reciprocity among humans, plants, and animals that existed before Euro-American occupation. On the Plains, a restored population of bison would be a sign that things had been put back together again on a sustainable basis. (pp. 77-78)

References

REFERENCES

References

Callenbach, E. (1996). Bring back the buffalo: A sustainable future for America’s great plains. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Ewers, J. (1958). The Blackfeet: Raiders of the northwestern plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Grinnell, 0. (1962). Blackfoot lodge tales. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Spence, M. D. (1996, July). Crown of the continent, backbone of the world: The American wilderness ideal and Blackfeet exclusion from Glacier National Park. Environmental History, 1(3), 29-49.

AuthorAffiliation

LOUIS PROYECT

Columbia University

AuthorAffiliation

LOUIS PROYECT is a scholar-activist, employed by Columbia University, whose articles have appeared in Canadian Dimensions, Sozialismus, Review of Radical Political Economy, and New Politics. During the 1980s, he was the president of Tecnica, a volunteer program that placed skilled professionals and tradespeople in government agencies in Sandinista Nicaragua. The article is part of a work in progress that will attempt to synthesize Marxism and indigenism.

 

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