Tag Archives: BIllings

Montana Story, Part I: Erasure

During a cross-country drive last month, we stopped in Billings, Montana, where I lived in the mid-1990s. It was at Montana State University-Billings where I began my career as a professor in the fall of 1994. We drove around the town, looked at the houses where we used to live. It was clear that the city had changed a lot in the more than twenty years since I last had been there.

            I was eager to see the campus. I left my family at the hotel—they all wanted to hang out by the pool—and I drove up 27th Street North to the campus. I struggled to find my bearings. It had been a long time. An addition to the science building had taken over what formerly had been a faculty parking lot. I headed toward the Liberal Arts Building.  My office had been on the eighth floor, I believe, and all the classes I taught were held in that imposing edifice. I spent some time walking around the campus on a quiet Sunday evening.  All the buildings were locked, so I could not go see my old office or the classrooms where I taught.

File:MSUB LA Building.JPG - Wikimedia Commons
More Daunting than Mordor

            Much had changed, so much that I felt a bit lost. Buildings had grown. It seemed like a very different place, and I noticed things I had forgotten over the years, especially the small garden that stands in the shadow of the Liberal Arts Building.  The garden was named after an English professor named Bruce Myers, who had died young—younger than I am now—two years before I arrived in Billings. A centerpiece in the garden was a poem Myers wrote shortly before his death:

“Last Class”

Seeds are floating from the cottonwoods

And the wind is up. All around us

Poets gather on grass the air carries

White puffs. We read each other’s words

Wondering if this as close as we’ll come

To the flight of clouds? Or is this

What flying means—sitting in Spring

Our bodies, full of birds and grass and words,

Wondering as cottonwoods whisper at our ears?

I do not know the word for this vision

This congregation of poet bodies, poet words

Beneath this tree. But last this once

This single sunlit singing afternoon

Love will do.

What a perfect statement of the depth of the joy that teaching can bring.

Where is Cookie?: Remembering: Poet's Garden honors legacy of a fine teacher

            I learned a lot from teaching in Montana. It was the first time in my career where I had significant numbers of Native American students in my classes. They drove in from Crow and from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. I learned from these students things that put my academic and scholarly concerns in perspective. Many of the debates that dominate the field of Native American Studies and Native American History on college campuses simply do not carry much register in Native American communities on the Northern Plains.

            I learned a lot, but I spent much of my time at Billings trying to find a job someplace else. I was in a deeply dysfunctional department on a struggling campus, where more people left than went up for tenure.  The Dean of the College of Liberal Arts had no respect for what I did and said that whatever research I produced should be “relevant” and “applied.”  I asked her what she thought that meant, and I never really got a good answer, but it was clear that unless she thought it was important and relevant, today, to her, that it would not count for much.  Bruce Myers’ words meant nothing to her.

            I would like to think that things are better in the field of Native American history than they were in the 1990s, and that the field is booming.  A tremendous amount of scholarship is produced each year. Native American history no longer exists on the margins of the field. But the same day I arrived in Billings last month, I read on Twitter of a bill introduced into the Texas legislature by one of the Lone Star Republic’s many East Texas lunatics. He sought, in his effort to combat what he saw as the mortal threat posed by “Critical Race Theory,” to remove from the state’s social studies standards a requirement that students learn about “the history of Native Americans.”  If we do not talk about the bad things, they never happened.

            Erasure.

            When it appears this baldly, it puts our academic and interpretive debates in perspective. We argue about interpretations, evidence, and approaches, and then there are those who could not care less about any of this.  “Cast all this aside,” they seem to say. History must be a celebration of White Christian America’s greatness.  Nothing else matters.

            I began teaching in Montana in 1994. That same semester conservatives worried about the spectre of political correctness.  Lynne Cheney had recently gone on a crusade against the National History Standards.  Liberal professors, she argued, were out to indoctrinate American students, to teach them that America’s story was one of racism, oppression, and greed.  They were teaching “multiculturalism” and emphasizing the bad parts of American history.  It is an old, old, argument, a tried-and-true Conservative tactic to avoid talking about historical moments that challenge their cherished and largely fictional narrative of the American past. Some of my colleagues in the department, too, shared Cheney’s concerns. They attempted, and to my embarrassment succeeded, in making my life miserable because I was newly hired on a tenure-track gig. I made the mistake of caring what these old racists thought. I hold no malice towards them now: they are retired, dead, or out of the academy, and I have spoken to none of them since the Clinton years. But they did not see Native American history as central to the American story.

            I have been at this for thirty years and there always have been people who claim to know something about my line of work that do not want to hear anything that is not a celebration of American greatness. I have friends who find it exhausting, the feeling of always having to justify their work. I am sympathetic. I felt that way during my four years in Montana, before I got out. As I walked around the quiet and empty campus, I realized how much I have changed. I have great faith in the power of teaching still, like Professor Myers, and I can view encounters with those who reject what I do as teachable moments, as opportunities for dialogue and engagement.  I feel like I must.  Of course, there are those who do not want this, and recoil from dialogue, who retreat from any situation in which their cherished notions of the past are called into question.  I have no control over that. So I work to keep my mind open, to exclude no one, to keep working with Indigenous communities, as I have done for the past 23 years, and to keep trying to produce scholarship as well. Doing good work in this field means trying to get it in front of as many eyes and into as many ears as possible.

            I learned from my time in Billings that in academia, as in so many other things, one must learn to accept that there are things beyond our control.  Accepting that brutal fact will help you sleep at night. The job market in higher education is, well, not much of a market at all.  Administrators can be cruel or obtuse, colleagues selfish and petty, and students, sometimes, just are not able to care.  There are those out there who reject everything we do without reading a word of what we write or listening to a word of what we say. Some of them are open to reason. You can engage with them.  But others will not listen no matter what you say.  Why let those people get to you?

            I do my work. I teach classes. I do service, on campus and off. I am fortunate to be able to work with, for, and in Indigenous communities. I write books and articles, knowing full well that more people will read this post on my obscure little blog than anything that appears in a scholarly journal.

            The first time an English-speaking writer put pen to paper to try to understand the Native American past and the Native American present on its own terms, there were English-speaking readers who not only rejected this work, but actively tried to discredit the author. Some tried to keep others from reading that author’s work.  The textbook policing of those little men who crusade against CRT—they are nothing new. Their assault on higher education, against free inquiry of any kind—may seem like a pernicious and unprecedented threat. It is not unprecedented at all. Remember what the anti-racists say. The rot is deep, and it goes to the core. It is fundamental. There have always been white loudmouths crying “Patriotism” and “Love of Country” and “MAGA!” as wittingly or unwittingly they seek to exclude, marginalize, and erase.

            Don’t laugh at these people. Don’t ignore them. Have the courage to engage them when the opportunity presents itself (and you absolutely should seek out those opportunities). Ask them questions. Hold their feet to the fire. Accept that this may be frustrating. They may be too fragile to engage you in dialogue. And that is the way it always has been. Take care of yourself, but do not give up and do not retreat. Peace.

Indigenous Lives Matter: Some Thoughts on the Death of Reynold High Pine, 1972.

The authorities in Yellowstone County quickly determined Reynold High Pine’s case of death. They found his body in the Burlington Northern Freight Yard on Billings’ south side early in the morning on May 14, 1972. County Coroner Leonard A. Larson concluded that the sixty-year-old man from Pine Ridge had stumbled into the path of a coming train around 6:30pm the evening before. Larson chose that time because it was then that the last train passed through the yard on those tracks before workers spotted the body at 4:30am. So certain was he that Larson felt no need for either an autopsy or an inquest. He did not even bother to draw a blood sample.

Native Americans in Billings did not think that Larson had things right. They suspected a cover-up, and they had good reason. Larson’s conclusions about High Pine’s time of death could not have been correct. Several witnesses saw High Pine at the Standard Bar on Minnesota Avenue, hours after the coroner said he died. These witnesses saw High Pine around midnight, in an altercation with Orville “Buzz” Jones, a 23-year old police officer who had just finished his shift at 11:00pm and was working, in uniform, as a bouncer at the bar. It just did not add up. High Pine was 5’3″, and 130 pounds. Jones had a full foot on him, seventy pounds, and a night stick which witnesses said he used.

T.R. Glenn, a Crow and the chairman of the Montana chapter of American Indian Movement (AIM) based at Eastern Montana College, said that “There is a conflict between the police version of what happened and the stories of the southside people who were witnesses.” Glenn and his associates–Ray Spang, a Northern Cheyenne, and a Winnebago named Frank LeMere–decided to visit Billings police chief Gerald T. Dunbar.

Frank LeMere in 2017.

Glenn, Spang, and LeMere were upset. AIM as an organization was founded in the Twin Cities of Minnesota to monitor police brutality against the cities’ Native American population. HIgh Pine’s case looked and smelled like police brutality at a minimum, and the cover up of a murder at worst, especially because Dunbar denied that there had been any incident involving one of his officers.

They didn’t get far. Dunbar said that he would meet with “any group to hear a complaint if they acted rationally and didn’t shout.” The AIM activists did not meet Dunbar’s standard. He refused to meet with the “Long-Haired–until they acted decently and didn’t have a chip on their shoulder.” LeMere, who was in no mood to be told what sort of protest was proper and suitable for the chief of police, afterward said that “we simply exercised our right to protest inadequacies in police dealing regarding Indians. An Indian dies in Billings and everyone forgets–not even an autopsy was performed and this has got to change.” LeMere wondered how many more Indians would die.

Other Native Americans in Billings, not involved with AIM, were watching the conduct of the police. The 92 members of the moderate Billings American Indian Council joined the AIM activist in raising questions about High Pine’s death. Protests were scheduled and organized, with word of a march bringing in indigenous peoples from throughout North America.

This pressure forced Yellowstone County Attorney Harold Hanser to organize an inquest. He said his decision “was not prompted by Indian protest.” One of the jurors on the panel was a Crow, but the other four were white men, all familiar to the coroner. They concluded that the “probable cause” of High Pine’s death was being struck by a train, but they clearly had their doubts. They underlined the word “probable” in their report. None of the protesters were satisfied.

I do not know how Reynold High Pine died. But I question the coroner’s conclusions, and I bet you do, too. It is folly to pretend that historians do not live in the world of events. Though our craft emphasizes the importance of objectivity, it is never quite that simple. We read the work of scholars who preceded us. We work our way through the primary sources. We must do so honestly and fairly. We should not allow our biases and prejudices to color our interpretation of the sources we read. Few historians would disagree with these simple propositions.

Think about this story. I learned of Reynold High Pine because I saw an article in the important Native American newspaper Akwesasne Notes, which I had been reading because of its relevance to my research on the history of the Onondaga Nation. It was something that I stumbled across. Something about this story caught my eye. The reasons for this are not hard to imagine. I lived in Billings for four years, and I taught at Montana State University at Billings, formerly Eastern Montana College. I heard from more than a few Crow and Northern Cheyenne students I came to know about the rough treatment they received from the police and the county sheriff in Billings. But there is more to it than that. I read that story about High Pine in Akwesasne Notes the same day that the district attorney in Louisville, Kentucky, announced that the grand jury would indict none of the officers who gunned own Breonna Taylor in her own apartment. I read the article amidst the grief and frustration in Rochester, where I live now, that has surfaced since police videos became public showing officers strangling a troubled and naked African-American man on a winter night back in March. I attended some of the protests in downtown Rochester, just a couple of miles from where I live.

The point is that we historians, at the end of the day, seek answers to questions, and we set out to answer these questions in a systematic, thorough, and disciplined manner. These questions can come from many sources. It might be our sense that something is wrong in the prevailing interpretation of a historical event, and we want to know what really happened and why. But sometimes the events happening around us cause us to see something new in the sources–a connection, a parallel, or a line of inquiry–we might never have dreamed of otherwise.

Black Lives Matter. We’ve been saying this since Ferguson, Missouri. Indigenous peoples, too, are killed in disproportionate numbers by law enforcement. This reality has bothered me for years, and I have written about it in a number of posts that have appeared on this blog. Reynold High Pine’s story shows us that the lives of Native peoples don’t mean much in cities and towns where they live on the margins, struggling to get by, coming and going, fucking up, falling apart, and too often getting beaten down. What is, always has been. White people have taken Native peoples’ lands and they’ve taken Native peoples’ lives. And in this country, historians will provide the only accounting of a problem that is as old as the encounter between natives and newcomers on these shores. and that may not be much of an accounting at all when so many Americans are so determined to hear nothing bad about their nation at all.