Tag Archives: Native America

Brief Thoughts On Sherman Alexie’s 2007 Novel

Earlier this morning I just finished Sherman Alexie’s novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown & Company, 2007). It is excellent, and it pushed my mind in a variety of directions. This is what a novel is supposed to do, of course: an exploration of ideas through fictional narrative. The phrase “That’s a novel idea” smacks of this definition. Novels are real handy, too, since they operate under a kind of “fictional” rubric, giving the author lee-way to subjectively discuss real life issues and ideas. Because it’s fiction, though, it isn’t true — but it is. This is why the fiction section is arguably more truthful than the non-fiction section (which too is truthful, but with more distance).

So I thought about that while reading the work. I also thought about how this novel was originally passed along from Karis Thompson to Molly, my girlfriend, and then to me. The novel, on the local scene, is slowly crawling northward through downtown Fargo, North Dakota. It is leaving a trail of ideas in its wake. A bunch of us will have to get together to chat about what this novel means to all of us.

Alexie WhiteWhile reading this novel, I also-also thought about sustained broken treaties, the creation of the reservation system, about how the main character in this novel deals with historical trauma, and how the Dawes Act was and is seriously problematic. Then while reading this I thought about a segment of Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge University Press, 1991). In the introduction, one of the parts I have underlined, with the words “This is good” scribbled in the margins, is this:

…the middle ground. The middle ground is the place in between: in between cultures, peoples, and in between empires and the nonstate world of villages. It is a place where many of the North American subjects and allies of empires lived… On the middle ground diverse peoples adjust their differences through what amounts to a process of creative, and often expedient, misunderstandings. People try to persuade others who are different from themselves by appealing to what they perceive to be the values and practices of those others… (White, 1991: xxvi)

This brings up the point that there is no such thing as purity in culture. The question or thought is a fallacy from the beginning. And this also means that since there is no such thing as cultural purity, then there is no such thing as cultural death, or a culture that is dead. Alexie demonstrates this through his novel, about a Spokane reservation kid perceiving of himself as living in two worlds: the Native reservation world, and the non-Native reservation world.

It also gives rise to the idea about how much emphasis we humans put on geopolitical boundaries. When we cross the boundary, say, between northeast Italy and southern Austria, we’ll note that people don’t suddenly stop speaking Italian after we cross south-to-north into Austria. What we do note is that while the line is distinct on a map, it isn’t so clear on the ground and in reality.

So those are my short thoughts on Alexie’s novel today. And I wanted to share that and get it down on this here blog. Back to technical writing and revising.

Industrial Indigenous Art at the University of Montana

"Charging Forward" (2001) by Jay Laber. Photo taken in July 2013.

“Charging Forward” (2001) by Jay Laber. Photo taken in July 2013.

This last July, Molly and I took a solid but much-too-short tour of the northern inter-mountain American West. This was in part vacation, part research (ever since reading John Barnes 2008 article in The Public Historian on the Bear River Massacre, I had been determined to visit the site myself), and part visiting and catching up with our family and friends. We dropped in on Livingston and Missoula, Montana; Salmon, Idaho; Salt Lake City, Utah; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Spearfish, South Dakota; and Bismarck, North Dakota.

Another part that comes along with a research-vacation-visitation such as this is that one invariably stumbles into the unanticipated, and that’s exactly what happened while on the University of Montana campus.

The sculpture pictured here is by Jay Laber (Blackfeet), “Charging Forward” (2001). When we came across this work of industrial indigenous art, it reminded me a bit of how two worlds were blending: the pre-Industrial world of the plains indigenes portrayed through the industrial and post-industrial medium of welding and scrap metal (those found objects). In my own memory bank, it caused me to think about Mad Max films and a scrap yard that used to be on the east edge of Main in Bismarck (just behind the Big Boy). Art is fun that way, whether poetry or sculpture or you name it. The randomness triggers the unanticipated, those memories we forgot about or didn’t know existed. Laber has inspired me. 

Traditional Native Food Systems

Sahnish AgricultureIt has been a couple years now that I have served on the board of the North Dakota Humanities Council. It is incredible in the sense that a board member is brought within range of all that this NEH-funded council does. While great ideas abound, sometimes we are only logistically able to make it to a sampling of the events around the state. If it was somehow possible for the council to be funded where board members could quit their day-jobs, we indeed would be present at each and every event. But unfortunately my landlord, cell phone provider, and the bill issuers in general refuse to accept my historical articles, papers and daily blogs as payment for their services. Thus, I have to keep at my day job to keep the lights on around here which in turn keeps me from some of the great NDHC programs.

A couple days ago, I received a thank you from Dr. Wanda Agnew of United Tribes Technical College (an institution that has one of the most renowned global pow-wows every year). Dr. Agnew said the “funds provided by the North Dakota Humanities Council gave us the opportunity to make the Key Ingredient American By Food Exhibit and Special event OUTSTANDING!” The goal of this event was to connect the UTTC campus populace, Tribal Sovereign Nations, and folks in the Bismarck-Mandan area with ideas about traditional Native food systems, deepening the understanding of how pre-Industrial agriculture, farming and gardening worked. It has only been in the last 125 years or so (out of at least 6,000) that homo sapiens have increasingly industrialized what we shovel into our mouths. I have thought about and acted on this in recent years.

Lakota AgricultureIn any case, within this blog are the three hand-bill diagrams Dr. Agnew sent along with the thank-you that point to how food, culture and humanity intersect with three different tribal systems (oyate) on the northern Great Plains. They are the Anishinaabe, Lakota, and Sahnish. We are leaving September and heading into October, so note how the traditional calendars describe the seasons: for the Lakota, September-October is the time when trading with other tribes occurs, when buffalo berries are gathered, and when the earth experienced its hard frost and went into hibernation. For the Anishinaabe, chokecherries and wild potatoes and cranberries would be gathered, and deer would be hunted (which also coincides with our modern deer hunting season). For the Sahnish, this time of year marked the corn and harvest ceremonies. Okay, off to start the charcoal grill. Happy weekend to you.

Anishinaabe Agriculture

Prairie Turnips

A prairie turnip.

A cluster of prairie turnips.

Where some see a prairie-scape of oblivion, others see a culinary buffet. Just last night I was cruising around in some old digital photos on the desktop, and I came across a couple shots of prairie turnips. I photographed them a couple years ago in the kitchen of a downtown Bismarck apartment I used to live in (the historic Mason Building), I think around 2008 or 2009.

During those summers, Tim Mentz, Jr., of Standing Rock, showed me on the northern Great Plains how to identify the prairie turnip. You can read the landscape for prairie turnips in July. This is when the vegetation sprouts above ground, making them visible. They also grow in certain areas on a hill (it may or may not have something to do with the ph levels of the soil — I’m in the humanities, folks). This, of course, leads to the idea that if you have two different people look at the same landscape, they will see it in a variety of different ways. I like listening to what others have to say about the landscape. Tim Mentz, Jr. always had my ear. We would often joke, too — when a bull was once staring at us and uprooting the topsoil with his front hoof, I asked Tim, “What does that mean?” Tim responded with, “That means we give him distance.”

It is customary to braid the turnips by the root ends, and then hang them to dry. Just like mushrooms (and other dried goods), they will reconstitute in liquid or water. I made turnip soup out of this batch.

With the husk pulled back, this is what the edible flesh of a prairie turnip looks like.

With the husk pulled back, this is what the edible flesh of a prairie turnip looks like.

The Longue Durée of Native American Sovereignty: Review of Frank and Goldberg, “Defying the Odds: The Tule River Tribe’s Struggle for Sovereignty in Three Centuries” (Yale University Press, 2010)

Tule River CoverWhen considering Native and non-Native relations in the United States, it is first necessary to remember that the history rests on the foundational principal of sovereignty, or the ability of Native America to exercise autonomy within a defined geopolitical border. To varying degrees and throughout time, Federal and State governments have contested the sovereignty of Native America, and this is a topic anthropologist Gelya Frank and legal scholar Carole Goldberg cover in Defying the Odds: The Tule River Tribe’s Struggle for Sovereignty in Three Centuries (Yale University Press, 2010). Near the beginning of chapter 3, Frank and Goldberg give a concise paragraph description of the Tule River Tribe in the mid-nineteenth century:

After a brief but devastating war started by settlers in 1856, the Tribe was settled on the first Tule River Reservation located on the site of the traditional Koyeti tribe village. The federal government failed to secure this land and twenty years later forcibly removed the Tule River Tribe to its present reservation in the mountains. In 1886, a tribal council ordered the execution of an Indian on the reservation to reassert order and authority after the death of the Tribe’s recognized leader. The United States government, which indicted the executioners for murder, could have chosen to respect this act of community protection and social control. Judge Erskine M. Ross had an available legal theory that could have allowed him to dismiss the charges and let the four Tule River defendants go free. Under a theory of the Tribe’s “concurrent jurisdiction,” Judge Ross could have found that the execution was not a criminal act, even though Congress had passed the Major Crimes Act. (Frank & Goldberg, 2010: 67)

Judge Ross could have, but he did not. Before embarking on the specifics of this three hundred year struggle that the Tule River Tribe — a First Nation of America and the Western Hemisphere — has had with European and Euro-American nation-states, it is worthwhile to lay out two elements of political philosophy. The first is what is traditionally meant by sovereignty, and the second is the specifics to the 2007 United Nations General Assembly’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Tule River Tribe's ancestors and map illustration. (Frank & Goldberg, 2010: 23)

The Tule River Tribe’s ancestors and map illustration. (Frank & Goldberg, 2010: 23)

In political philosophy, a broader definition of sovereignty ensures that the sovereign nation is not only defined, but that it is recognized by other sovereign nations. Within each individual nation, sovereign people are able to define and govern themselves, speak a desired language, rejuvenate the culture with its own forms of religion or spirituality, develop its own economic resources, and defend themselves from harmful outsiders and nonmembers. In the case of the Tule River Tribe, they have always had this internal sovereignty, but the Euro-American nation and state has not always recognized it. This is why the focus of Defying the Odds resides on uncovering the internal sovereignty of the Tule River Tribe, or agency, and focusing on how the tribe has, in the words of the authors, “relied on its inherent cultural sovereignty when its externally recognized political sovereignty has been weakened or compromised by the dominant federal and state governments.” (Frank & Goldberg, 2010: 5-6)

For those who are not a-historical, it is easy to understand that unrecognized or challenged sovereignty throughout history has resulted in war, genocide, ethnocide, and the dislocation of indigenous — and non-indigenous — groups throughout the world. This is why the United Nations in 2007 issued a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that made it illegal for indigenes to be subject to forced “action aimed at or affecting their integrity as distinct peoples, their cultural values and identities, including the dispossession of land, forced relocation, assimilation or integration, [and] the imposition of foreign lifestyles and propaganda.” This declaration does more to recognize the collective rather than individual human rights, but it does this so that the defined and defended collective can internally navigate the individual rights of the domestic populace. (Frank & Goldberg, 2010: 6-7)

Frank and Goldberg define sovereignty in a national and international context. In the history of the United States, the Federal and state governments have persistently asked Native America to not only articulate its sovereignty through a legal framework (through treaties and legalese), but also with a romanticized ideal of expected aesthetics. This simply means that non-Natives often want Natives to “look” Native, and if they do not achieve the expected aesthetic, they are somehow no longer authentically Native. Speaking to this, the Lakota scholar Philip S. Deloria noted how the United States holds Native America’s inherent sovereignty to a much different standard than non-Native America. Deloria says the United States does not audit “the demographic status of all the little countries in Europe that are frequently compared in size and population with Indian tribes,” and that “No one asks whether Monaco and Liechtenstein are sufficiently culturally distinct from neighboring countries to justify their continued existence.” The ethical and philosophical point of this remark is impossible to ignore. If representatives of the Monaco or Liechtenstein governments did not show up “looking” like they were from Monaco or Liechtenstein, the United States government would not use this to undermine the sovereignty of Monaco or Liechtenstein. This has not been the historical case throughout Native America and, particular to this study, the Tule River Tribe. (Frank & Goldberg, 2010: 13)

The history of the Tule River Tribe is divided into two segments, particularly what happened before and after the 1888 court case, United States v. Whaley. In the case, United States Judge E.M. Ross favored the U.S. Major Crimes Act of 1885 rather than established tribal sovereignty. In the events that lead up to the 1888 case, Tule River tribal members Salt Lake Pete, Bill Whaley, Pancho Francisco, and Juan Chino ordered the internal execution or capitol punishment of their shaman who was accused of killing the tribe’s Yaudanchi tiya, or chief, and 12 to 20 other tribal members. During the court hearing, though, U.S. Judge Ross favored the Major Crimes Act, a Federal law that prohibited one Native from killing another on a reservation — again, a Federal Act that attacked tribal sovereignty by undermining the sovereign tribe’s ability to take care of its own domestic issues. In essence, the Major Crimes Act criminalized tribal authority and sovereignty. Frank and Goldberg chart how the Tule River Tribe has remained culturally distinct from 1885 to the present, no easy task considering later policies aimed at forced assimilation and relocation.

The Tule River Tribe location in California.

The Tule River Tribe location in California.

This work of scholarship is important to Historians, Public Historians, World Historians and Legal Scholars for several reasons. The first is why it is necessary for scholars to understand the historical origins of political philosophy, specifically the notion or notions of sovereignty, and how the definition changed in a variety of ways within distinct cultures. In the Western world, absolutist monarchs developed some of the first notions of sovereignty. In subsequent centuries secular and Enlightenment colonists altered the definition but retained the word. By the late-nineteenth century, though, Euro-Americans, and particularly Anglo-Americans, developed increasingly strong notions of Social Darwinian or racist thoughts, and they obsessed over domestic and foreign nation-making. This nation-making favored a strong, sovereign arm of the Federal government that rallied around an imagined and common “race.”

This brings up a secondary interest in Frank and Goldberg that speaks to nineteenth century international law, specifically extraterritoriality, which exempted individuals from the jurisdiction of local law. Much in the same way that the Great Powers of the West — Great Britain, France, Germany, the United States — planted their own overlapping versions of jurisprudence in areas they colonized — throughout the Ottoman Empire in North Africa and the Levant, and in places such as Hong Kong, China — so too was the United States engaged in planting the strong arm of Federal jurisprudence in Native America. World Historians, Historians and Legal Scholars (I am capitalizing these professions for some reason) would benefit in understanding these 19th-century processes. In the case of the Tule River Tribe, Public Historians can increasingly consider how a cultural landscape, the Tule River, is linked to an ethnicity much in the same way that a Euro-American with, say, the surname Bergstrom, was at one point in time connected with a mountain stream (“Bergstrom” in many northern European languages is directly translated as Mountain Stream).

Where these considerations will lead is unknown, but the world’s population in the 21st century still carries cultural baggage that originated in and before the 19th century. As well, when a-historical politicians in the 21st century bemoan the “problems” on reservations, the onus is on the historians, anthropologists and legal scholars to point out how the Euro-American colonization of America waged genocide and ethnocide on Native America and disrupted indigenous sovereignty, the political and humanist philosophy that allows a people and culture the spirit and self-determination to breath and live.

Some Notes On Chico Hot Springs, Montana

Steam rises out of the outdoor pool at Chico Hot Springs, Montana.

Steam rises out of the outdoor pool at Chico Hot Springs, Montana.

This last weekend I had the opportunity to be absorbed by a delegation from North Dakota and gladly pulled into the gravity of Chico Hot Springs, Montana. Once there, and while sauntering around the complex, I finally paid attention to a shiny placard (just next to the entrance I had been through multiple times) that noted Chico’s National Register of Historic Places status. So that compelled me to track down the registration nomination, and this is what we have.

The hot springs at Chico exist because of geology.  Water is heated sub-terra, and this eventually makes its way to the surface, flowing into places within and beyond the borders of Yellowstone National Park. At Chico, it arrives to the surface at around 112 °F. Water was first tapped and channeled at these springs as early as 1866 (10 years before Custer was shown mortality at the Battle of Greasy Grass — aka, the Battle of Little Big Horn). In 1900, a complex was built at Chico.

The historic buildings at Chico include the main hotel (1900) in the Georgian Revival style, an auto garage (1916), a smoke house (1915), a boiler house (1910) and horse barn (1916), pools, shower house and pool building (1917). Teddy Roosevelt visited the hotel in 1902 (he seems to be everywhere throughout the American West).

A 2013 photo of the historic 1900 Chico hotel, and mountain backdrop.

A 2013 photo of the historic 1900 Chico hotel, and mountain backdrop.

By 1969 a concrete-lined channel was added to divert hot spring overflow and regulate water temperature. Between 1900 and 2013, the owners of Chico added several structures to accommodate demand and growth. Before the Euro-American arrival on the scene, though, hot springs had been utilized extensively by Native America. The following is the description of how local Native America used the hot springs in and around Chico, this description from the National Register nomination for Chico:

…Springs, and in particular hot springs, were revered and often visited as places of spiritual cleansing and renewal. Water as a basis of life was important to Indian spirituality, as the Crow sang: bire daxua kok (water is your life).

Considering the experience had at Chico Hot Springs in 2013, it’s appropriate to say that this cleansing and renewal continues. The public placard next to the hotel lobby entrance at Chico reads as follows:

Generous verandas, period furnishings and healing waters invite the visitor to experience turn-of-the-century hospitality under the shadow of Emigrant Peak. The hot springs, long appreciated by native peoples, got their commercial start during the territorial period when miners stopped by to bathe and “wash their duds.” In 1876, an inventive settler tapped into the 112 degree water, piping it under his greenhouse to grow vegetables for local residents. A hotel was planned in the 1880s, but in 1892, there were still no facilities and families camped nearby to enjoy the springs. Percie and Bill Knowles inherited the property in 1894. They ran a boardinghouse for miners and in 1900, built the long-awaited hot springs hotel. Under Knowles’ active promotion, uniformed drivers ferried such guests as Teddy Roosevelt and artist Charlie Russell from the Emigrant depot to the springs. When Bill Chico NRHPKnowles died in 1910, Percie and her son Radbourne transformed the luxurious hotel into a respected medical facility. Dr. George A. Townshend joined the staff in 1912 and under his direction, the hospital and healing waters gained renown throughout the northwest. After the 1940s, new owners and new directions included gambling and dude ranching. In 1976, Mike and Eve Art began recapturing the once-famous hotel’s turn-of-the-century ambiance. Chico Hot SPrings, with its Georgian-inspired architecture and warm Craftsman style interiors, is one of Montana’s best preserved examples of an early twentieth century hot springs hotel and health resort.

I can only add that one ought to go to a hot spring within the continental interior of North America. It is worth your while.