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.”

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