Changing geographies of possibility


Bison at the National Bison Range on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Sense of place as an aspect of mind–paying attention to old stories heightens our sense of place, emphasizing at once cultural continuity and cultural change. I’ve been reading the Challenge to Survive series of beautiful books produced by Salish Kootenai College Press about the Salish Tribes of the Flathead Reservation.

When the old Salish got horses, their sense of place changed. Their minds were re-shaped by a larger geography of possibility.

For centuries the Salish who lived where I live now had organized their lives as traditional mountain folk do, moving through a landscape mosaic constantly shifting in time. In late winter, grizzly bears came out of caves in the high country, ravenous and searching the lower slopes for winter-killed carrion. In early spring, camas ripened in valley bottoms and sunflowers bloomed on south slopes. In mid summer, huckleberries ripened on foothills in the mottled light of ponderosa stands. And as summer days lengthened, antelope gathered into large herds, posting sentries and grazing on the golden grass. As the air became colder, bull elk became belligerent and reckless, descending from high ridges, bellowing challenges.

These rhythms and movements were aspects of mind for the old Salish.

When they got their first horses around 1730, their sense of place was transformed. They began to leave the mountain valleys to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains around the headwaters of the Missouri. They reorganized their lives around a spring hunt and a fall hunt. They adopted the portable teepees of the nomadic tribes. They became skilled warriors, able to hold their own on the contested plains. They became horsemen and breeders of horses sought by other tribes.

They lived in a new place, with new opportunities and dangers. They told their children new stories that included insights into horses, buffalo and the enemy Blackfeet. Their minds were shaped by a larger geography of possibility.

In changing the way they related to place, they changed their minds.

Contextualizing Tribal Sovereignty

Flathead Nation police patch

A nation within a nation creates endless opportunities for conflict or for negotiation.

I think the materials presented in class about tribal sovereignty are good and useful–they present the tribal perspective, and they present a good starting place, particularly for students who are unfamiliar with the history and the arguments behind tribal sovereignty.

I would contextualize these materials in my class by focusing on what Decker called “collisions” between tribal sovereignty and other constitutional considerations. One major area that invites further thought has to do with the rights of nonmembers who find themselves under the jurisdiction of tribal governments due to tribal sovereignty. One context for tribal sovereignty is the Constitution itself.

The New York Times picked such a situation for an online discussion. Because the case they selected focuses on the treatment of black citizens by a Native American tribe, it has the advantage avoiding the racial stereotyping that such discussions tend to invite. My hope would be to balance a discussion of history with a discussion of principles, ignoring racial distinctions and discussing group A and group B–the situations in the abstract.

I will also locate or create a simple document spelling out what “rule of law” has meant to a few major thinkers historically–including Aristotle and Hayek but also a few others.

Heritage and history: What are we doing?

Simms HS students at Marias River Massacre site

Marvin Weatherwax and Jerry Buckley from Browning tell the story of what happened for students from Simms High School visiting the Marias River Massacre site.

A distinction I find useful is that between heritage and history. Both use the past, but they use it differently and for different purposes. The contrast was described by Lowenthal in his influential 1999 book Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Ray Brown in the Journal of American Culture summarizes Lowenthal’s distinction, by way of warning us that we are moving into a world where increasingly heritage replaces history:

Lowenthal points out that history–even with our individual and collective interpretations of it–is more real than heritage. Heritage is our naming of selective movements and elements of the past which we collect in order to identify ourselves or justify our actions–sometimes our very existence. Of the two, heritage is more manipulable and commidifiable, less bound by consistency and actuality.

History, Lowenthal hints but does not forthrightly say, tries to explain the present through examination of the past, and is a community exploration and benefit; generally such examinations are without personal and financial gain. Heritage, on the contrary, is an obsession for profit–personal, career, financial gain–and all tied in with an effort to establish and maintain security. But then to be rich in heritage is to be secure. Lowenthal does not point out that history is likely to become more and more heritage as individuals seek personal more than community or national gain, when it is more important to establish real or fake roots than to be a selfless individual part of a growing nation. He also does not suggest that much of this wrong-headed drive comes from our wrong-headed education. Now we in education are far more interested in developing memory than imagination and thinking. Memory is safe, thinking is precarious. (Brown, R. Possessed by the Past. Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA). Volume: 19. Issue: 4. Winter 1996. Page number: 122+)

It seems to me that Indian Education for All (IEFA) is designed to promote heritage rather than history. The content that is to be taught is not specified, but who is authorized to specify it, tribal members, is. For many tribal members and educators, it’s where the money and the opportunity lie, at the moment. I’m not actually opposed to heritage. In fact, I’m an advocate for it. I think all cultures that survive focus on their heritage–teaching the past as much to reinforce and perpetuate cultural ideals as to present the past in all its incoherent and tawdry detail. But I do think what’s happening now in Montana education presents us with situations that we must think through carefully.

As part of a discussion of historical materials dealing with early Flathead Reservation history that might be used in the classroom, I and other students taking an online class focusing on IEFA, watched a lecture on tribal sovereignty by lawyer Dan Decker. His presentation was well-crafted and I found it accurate, though I hasten to add that I’m not a lawyer and certainly no expert on Indian law. I thought it was effective rhetoric given its purpose, which I understood to be making a case for the preservation and perhaps extension of tribal political power.

A person who approaches the vast and complex history of interactions between the federal government and Indian tribes with other purposes might pay more attention to details that Decker elides. For example, Decker quotes Chief Justice Marshall’s argument in Worcester 1832, that the Indian treaty, “in its language, and in its provisions, is formed, as near as may be, on the model of treaties between the crowned heads of Europe.” He does not quote Marshall’s suggestion a year earlier in the Cherokee Nation case that “[t]he condition of the Indians in relation to the United States is perhaps unlike that of any other two people in existence.”

How are these statements to be reconciled? Such questions lie at the heart of historical inquiry. What precisely did happen, what were they thinking, and what are we to make of it? We pick and choose and come to our judgments based, in part, upon what we want and what we anticipate of the future. Arguments about the past are usually also arguments about the future. What is the proper relationship between the federal government and tribes? Answers will vary.

One education goal that has long seemed important to me is taking students to primary sources and giving them questions to try to answer that do not have clear or simple answers. It’s the best way I know of for them to learn how many judgments and interpretations it takes to construct that authoritative voice such as Decker uses, and such as history texts use. What happened in the past comes to seem inevitable, susceptible to one interpretation. I call it “the God voice.” One learns to read history more carefully, I think, by trying to write history from primary documents.

Much is made of the assertion that the relations between the federal government and the tribes were “government to government” and that they can best be understood by using the treaties between the federal government and the European states as the model.

Perhaps. But that is not the impression one is likely to get from reading the arguments that went on among participants in the federal government at the time of the Constitutional Convention in which the Constitution was drafted or in the situations that soon arose under the new government.

One issue that seemed at the center of their thinking was the relationship between the federal government and the state governments. The colonies had been making agreements with Indian tribes from the arrival of the Pilgrims in the early 17th Century, and a host of theories and principles were in play. Should the tribes be dealt with via martial force? Should they be negotiated with via commercial interests? What came to be understood as “the Indian problem” had been on people’s minds from the beginning.

In the late 18th century, one urgent concern among advocates for a strong central government was to deny states any treaty-making power. Putting an end to states dealing directly with tribes was perhaps the paramount concern to the extent Indian tribes entered their thoughts. James Madison was influential in those discussions. Madison thought “the negative on the laws of the States as essential to the efficacy & security of the Genl. Govt,” because the “necessity of a general Govt. proceeds from the propensity of the States to pursue their particular interests in opposition to the general interest.” The Founders feared that if powerful states such as New York were allowed to treat with Indians directly, they would continue expanding their territory and wealth to the detriment of the union overall. Asserting federal supremacy over states when it came to tribes, then, was a more lively concern than was treating tribes the same as European states were treated. This was a critical reason treaties were adopted as the means of dealing with tribes.

Francis Paul Prucha in American Indian Treaties has discussed the extent to which arguments about how to negotiate with tribes grew out of arguments about how the new government itself was to function:

Was treaty making an executive function, a legislative function, or a joint function? The Convention opted for the third choice, and the Constitution in Article II provided: “He [the president] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.”‘ But how this was to be carried out in practice was not clear from the Constitution itself. Two questions arose: How precisely did the Senate advise and consent in regard to treaties, and were agreements with Indian tribes to follow regular treaty procedures?

After the Constitution was enacted, the differences between tribes and European powers did become a subject of discussion. Specifically, there was concern about the idea of ratification of treaties. Since on the tribal side, those who signed treaties often had access to no formal systems of ratification in a manner similar to what happened in European states, this led to some on the U.S. side to wonder whether ratification was in fact appropriate for these documents.

This was linked to debates about the roles of the executive and the Senate. It was not clear in the Constitution what role each should play in the creation of treaties. Could the executive unilaterally draft and sign treaties, or did the Senate need to be involved in the negotiations? Once the treaties were signed, did the senate need to formally ratify them or were oral communications between the executive and senate committee members sufficient?

I am not suggesting at all that Decker’s conclusions about what, after all the intricate historical currents, tribal sovereignty came to mean are mistaken. On the contrary, I think he is correct. I am merely saying that the more historical detail one has the more complicated the situation becomes. I think the reality is very complicated, and if we hope to be wise I think we need to confront and think about those complexities. At least, that would be my educational goal.

So rather than disagreeing with Decker’s lecture, I am suggesting that his purposes might be different than those of a classroom teacher in a public school, and that such difference might affect how a teacher approaches and uses this document.

One teaching purpose that I endorse is that students should be assisted in thinking about these complex issues at the level of the principles that are involved. This might entail bringing to the fore the very issues that Decker tends to gloss over: What should be done about such consequences of tribal sovereignty as occurred over fishing rights, where one group (non tribal members) became subservient to a government in which they had no rights of representation? When, if ever, should Congress abrogate treaty rights that conflict with other Constitutional principles?

The more such conversations are grounded in historical facts and the best that has been thought and said in the past on the topics of rule of law and constitutional government, the more educative they are likely to be. If such discussions consist merely of putting students in small groups to express their feelings, one would expect little more than aggressive defenses of one’s interests, which is all we are left with if we do not stay committed to learning how to be governed by principles.

What we choose to spend time thinking about

book cover: Scottish Highlanders; Indian Peoples

The story of the McDonald family is a wonderful way to explore the complexities of history in this place. It includes all the big events, but in the context of actual, specific people. Many of the students’ own families can serve a similar purpose. The white/Indian polarity is of very limited usefulness in making sense out of what has happened here. Community and family are richer metaphors than war.

To the question of how I would handle allotment differently to avoid polemics and imbalance, I would suggest that I probably wouldn’t choose it as a major topic. If your interest is in making an argument to increase the power of tribal government, then it’s a good choice. My interest is more in finding a way people from various groups might live together in some version of unity and harmony, so I would look for other topics as my main focus. I think in the end all our lives amount to are what we chose to spend our time thinking about. Remaining angry about injustices that occurred in the distant past is crucial to heritage crusades, but I’m not on a heritage crusade.

Another version of the story of what happened here would focus on families and on marriages, and the way in which marriage between members of the various cultures here was common–I think it’s a much more revealing metaphor to understand the way the two cultures tended to interact than the metaphor of war. The historian Elliot West has pointed out in several contexts that family is the connective tissue of American history. I asked him to give a speech on that topic once, to a group of teachers, and he did.

In general, I think the big story on the Flathead Reservation has to do with the way that people came from all over and encountered people who were already here, and began mingling and marrying, working things out. Marriage and family, I would argue, has been the primary mode of cultural transmission and cultural survival. The big story is not the six people who were killed, that Sam Resurrection talks about. Neither, I think, is it that some people with power took advantage of people with less power and there was suffering. Those stories have some truth and remembering them does serve some purposes.

I am more intrigued by the reality that I am not native but my grandchildren are. Should I feel guilty because my people harmed their people? That’s a little nuts, I think. Many hopeful realities that are clear in this place after more than a century of interactions here are sort of missed by a focus on political grudges.

This appeals to me because I think putting kids out in the community, finding primary documents and interviewing elders is an important teaching strategy. I think all children need to grow up in moral communities to thrive, so for me the highest and best way to meet the goals of IEFA would be to get students in personal contact with people in their home communities who can pass on cultural understandings in a more or less traditional way–by direct contact.

We even have a wonderful resource for the Flathead Reservation, though it has unfortunately gone out of print. James Hunter’s Scottish Highlanders, Indian Peoples: Thirty Generations of a Montana Family traces the history of the McDonald family through its sources in both the culture of Scottish Highlanders and in the Nez Perce peoples of Montana and Idaho.

I was going to do more, focusing on what we see of Allotment by focusing on one member of the McDonald family. Alas, I’m out of time for now. I picked Duncan partly because I read somewhere (I haven’t been able to relocate it yet) that he favored Allotment because he saw it in terms of business opportunity, and that he took atn allotment at the Northern Pacific Depot in Ravalli. He then formed a freight company, hauling goods from the railroad to Flathead Lake and back. I have no source for that right now, and I’m not sure it’s accurate. I’m relying on memory. In any case, my point would be to complicate the story of Alottment by including examples of mixed bloods who did not oppose it. Here are some traces of Duncan McDonald I was able to find in a couple hours online.

Here’s the story of a homesteader to the Flathead that includes quite a lot of that perspective on Allotment (as well as earier and later events). It’s a document I located when I was doing similar work with students some years ago. Here’s a miscellany of historical facts I put together to introduce students to the topic–I called it “The Expedition to 1910.”

Context: trying to tell the larger story

Hellgate Treaty of 1855

S.E. Paxson’s (1852–1919) rendition of 1855 negotiations between Isaac Stevens and chiefs of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille tribes at Council Grove.

What was important about America was the experiment with rule of law linked to democratic processes. I’m ambivalent about using the past tense, but rule of law as a reality seems to me to be waning in America. It has powerful opponents, though they work not by attacking the phrase but by subverting how the words are understood.

Rule of law is, in essence, rule by principle. To make a law that will be applied equally to all members of a society, it’s necessary for them to abstract from the rather messy circumstances we always face to some more universal principle that most will consent to be governed by. When we encounter outcomes we don’t like, the work is to think more deeply and more clearly–to get beyond thinking merely “I don’t like this” to articulate a principle that would rectify the trouble while serving as a barrier to similar troubles in the future. That’s asking an awful lot of people, both intellectually and ethically.

Allotment on the Flathead Reservation and the consequent opening of the reservation to settlers who were not tribal members was, I think, an abusive use of law, orchestrated by powerful men for their own gain. Law is always susceptible to such abuse and it’s never hard to find examples of it.

I think it’s necessary to study and understand such abuses. We need to know what we are up against if we are committed to continuing the experiment. For me, the essential question is whether it is possible to subordinate power to principle. Can we encode our best understandings of justice into laws, and can we then use those laws to constrain the powerful and the greedy, who are always with us? Can we continue moving toward a world in which, ultimately, philosophy and ethics trump money and force?

I think the answer we get from the history of the nation’s dealings with natives is mixed.

We can find enough examples of low behavior and bad faith stratagems to satisfy a hundred Howard Zinns, who want to see the American experiment become something quite different. Such tawdry dealings are, to a great extent, the same old same old of human history. People with the power to do so gratifying their own appetites and lusts at the expense of weaker people is not uniquely American. It’s nothing new. It’s nothing we need to study American history to learn or understand. It was ancient before Columbus ever raised a sail.

What was somewhat new and somewhat different was that in America, middle ranking bureaucrats were dispatched to the wilderness to negotiate terms with small bands of hunter-gatherers, and that a hundred and fifty years later those sometimes vague and sketchy agreements are still taken seriously by the highest courts in the land, and that sometimes millions of dollars change hands based on some judge’s ruling about what those old words must mean.

There’s something noble in that, something hopeful. I think it would be a shame–and bad history–to teach what Joseph Dixon did without also attempting to make clear that he wasn’t the whole story.

Part of my teaching commitment is to increase young people’s ability to think at the level of principle. It’s something–but not enough–to feel bad when we see bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it. That’s something–where we start. It’s not, I hope, where we stop.

Remembering the songs

“Yai Ya!” my grandson called, as he opened the kitchen door and walked in. This happened nearly daily or several times a day once he was old enough to walk the few blocks from his parents’ house to ours. He didn’t knock, of course. And he was partly calling his grandmother and partly just announcing he had arrived. It was partly greeting and partly invitation. He was here! Where we were! It was good.

How many generations of young Salish boys showed up at their grandparents’ homes with just those words? How long had those syllables been echoing, more or less unchanged, through the abodes of people living in this valley? This place?

Place is a tricky concept to nail down, but I tend to enjoy all the various ways people have tried. They end up talking about the central realities of human life–story, memory, kin, tradition, culture and land. My grandson traces his heritage in this place we share back, on his father’s side, into the “time immemorial” that the Salish like to talk about. I trace my own heritage back to Kansas, and then to Maryland and then to the Irish highlands on one side, and back to Utah, and then Ohio, then Massachusetts and then to the London slums on the other. Those connections, of course, are also part of my grandson’s history.

In Remembering the Songs, I found the segment on Jerome Vanderburg, a Salish man who made his home a place of music, held my attention in the most interesting ways. I knew Jerome’s name and had seen him, but I didn’t know him personally and I knew little about him. My own children grew up alongside a girl, our next door neighbor, who was a relative of his–probably either a granddaughter or a niece. So watching the film was a little like eavesdropping a bit on a neighbor here–filling in the human world around me with a bit more detail, a bit more story, making the place I live a little deeper and richer.

But how to use it in the classroom?

I would start with how recognizable as a person Jerome is to me. My own family–both my mother’s and father’s lines, are full of people who found the meaning of life in family and noncareerist passions and enjoyments, such as music. My grandfather lost his farm during the Great Depression–and I heard somewhat vague expressions of disgust at the ways of bankers and government functionaries, who, I was given to understand, cared a great deal about money but about “the little guy” not at all. But such were not the main story in life. My people didn’t dwell on it. They found another farm–not as good and without reliable water–the dry farm, they called it–and survived, finding life’s satisfactions in family events and in nature.

I don’t think the story of being displaced by the big moneyed interests of modernity is a rare story, and I don’t thing it is overly entangled in race. I think it’s a story that speaks to many of us. I also think the question of how to live in a world of large powers that displace us and to a great extend surround us invites the attention of a great many people, including young people.

This suggests the direction of my explorations, at the moment.