Blackfoot issues

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Jun 14 07:17:12 MDT 2001

In the latest installment of Michael Yates's Yellowstone journal, he deals
with the expulsion of indigenous peoples from the park:

"The entire history of the national parks is marked by systematic and, for
the most part, successful efforts to remove the Indians from those areas
designated national parks. In Yellowstone, for example, many Indians
traversed what is today the park to hunt, but a cornerstone rule in the
national parks is that there cannot be any hunting."

This also happened to the Blackfoot people, who have organized a tribunal
on Canadian soil happening on July 1-4.

The eastern half of Glacier National Park in Montana 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

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.

The Blackfoot people now live in impoverished reservations in Montana and
Canada, but they were among the most powerful and aristocratic Indians,
whom other tribes feared for their military prowess. Artist George Catlin,
author of the classic "North American Indians," described them this way:

"The Blackfeet...are more of the Herculean make--about middling stature,
with broad shoulders, and great expansion of chest; and the skins of which
their dresses; and the skins of which their dresses are made, are chiefly
dressed black, or of a dark brown color; from which circumstance, in all
probability, they having black leggings or moccasins, got the name Blackfeet."

Leaving aside the spurious speculation on the name of the tribe, the rest
of it rings true. What also rings true, sadly, is Catlin's speculation on
the fate of the mighty Blackfoot people:

"The Blackfeet are, perhaps, the most powerful tribe of Indians on the
Continent; and being sensible of their strength, have stubbornly resisted
the Traders in their country, who have been gradually forming an
acquaintance with them, and endeavouring to establish a permanent and
profitable system of trade. Their country abounds in beaver and bison, and
most of the fur-bearing animals of North America; and the American Fur
Company, with an unconquerable spirit of trade and enterprize, has pushed
its establishments into country; and the numerous parties of trappers are
tracking up streams and rivers, rapidly destroying the beavers which dwell
therein. The Blackfeet have repeatedly informed the Traders of the company,
that if their men persisted in trapping beavers in their country, they
should kill them whenever they met them. They have executed their threats
in many instances, and the Company lose some fifteen or twenty men
annually, who fall by the hands of these people, in defence of what they
deem their property and their rights. Trinkets and whiskey, however, will
soon spread their charms amongst as they have amongst other tribes; and
white man's voracity sweep the prairies and the streams of their wealth, to
the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean; leaving the Indians to inhabit,
and at last to starve upon, a dreary and solitary waste."

It would be a mistake to view Blackfoot society as idyllic. There were
terrible hardships when the weather was severe and hunting was poor.
Starvation could ensue. Woman's work was hard also and much of the day was
spent in finishing rawhide, a highly valued but tough job. When the
colonizers decided that the Blackfoot would be better off as farmers or
ranchers, they found that no amount of logic could persuade the Indian.
Instead it took violence to change the Indian's mind. What explains the
devotion to hunting?

The best explanation is that all the goods of life could be procured in a
successful hunt. After a bison was transformed into food, shelter and
clothing, there was very little else that had to be done. Time could be
spent at leisure. This, of course, is the approach to life that is strictly
forbidden under capitalism, where work-and-spend is the order of the day.

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 US Army defended the invaders on the
basis of protecting private property and "civilization." In the summer of
1865 the Blackfoot (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 twenty years. If the
United States did not have the benefit of a superior armed force, the
Blackfoot never would have signed such a treaty since 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, who refused to respect Blackfoot
rights within the newly redefined territory. When some prospectors under
the leadership of the racist thug John Morgan killed four Blackfoot men
just for sport, Chief Bull's Head organized a large revenge party and the
prospectors got their comeuppance.

In 1868, when a Blackfoot 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 Blackfoot 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 fifty-five mounted
infantrymen and a company of infantry, and marched on the Indians. On
daybreak of January 23, 1870, the US 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

This was a Blackfoot My Lai. 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." 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 Blackfoot into signing another compromised treaty. The whole purpose of
military repression was not to restore "law and order" but to push
Blackfoot into the marginal portions of the state of Montana. All of these
treaties from the 1860s and 70s lack legitimacy and should be reviewed,
just as the annexation of Hawaii is being reviewed by the United Nations

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 points out in "Shingwauk's Vision" (U. of Toronto, 1996), 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:

"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."

As Jim Craven, one of the chief organizers of the tribunal, has stated
here, Blackfoot people are overwhelmingly poor. He made an appeal to help
fund travel to this important event, which could help lay the groundwork
for a heightened resistance to a form of colonialism with USA-Canadian
borders. I appeal to list members to chip in. Here is the appeal that Jim
made, which I strongly endorse:

Dear Friends,

I know that we are all subject to all sorts of appeals for help, and we
certainly understand that many are stretched in many directions, but for
those so inclined, the Blackfoot Nation appeals to all for assistance to
conduct our Tribunal examining alleged genocidal policies and acts by the
governments of the United States and Canada and by certain named Churches
(Anglican, United, Catholic, Mormons, Presbyterians etc) against Blackfoot
People in the United States and Canada.

This Tribunal will be conducted by the four principal Bands of the
Blackfoot Nation (Siksika, Akainaa, Apatohsipiikani and Amskaapipiikani) on
July 1-4, 2001 at a traditional Blackfoot encampment at Brocket, Alberta.
Representatives of the UN will be observing. Because the unemployment rates
are close to 90% on all Blackfoot Reserves/Reservations, and because
Blackfoot in Canada live on around $280 (Canadian) per month, the necessary
costs of the Tribunal will be borne by al members but will also constitute
a real hardship for many who live on next to nothing.

For the above-mentioned reasons, the Blackfoot Nation sends this appeal for
anyone so moved to help with a donation to cover some of the costs of this
significant and unprecedented (for a Nation) Tribunal. Not one cent will be
wasted or used for any purpose other than the direct and necessary costs of
this Tribunal. For those who have been invited and cannot attend, a
donation might be as way to have your presence felt.

If anyone is moved to make a donation, and we do understand that many
cannot donate or are just subject to too many appeals for donations that
are hard to prioritize, the following information will help you as to where
to send any donations:

Blackfoot Nation Fund
Pincher Creek Credit Union Ltd.
750 Kettle Street Pincher Creek,
Alberta, Canada T0K 1W0
Blackfoot Nation Account Number: 6122345
for wiring donations:  Transit Number:  899 (Bank) 01529

Thank you all for reading this and please pass this appeal on to all of the
lists on which you participate even if unable to make a donation. All on
this list are invited to our Tribunal and please contact me for further
info. As is the Blackfoot way, we will feed and house all who attend.

Jim Craven
Blackfoot Nation

Louis Proyect
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