Category Archives: Crow Tribe

On Montana, Foster Care, and Reservation Basketball

A couple of news stories centered on Montana caught my attention this past week.  The Missoulian ran a series of well-reported stories on the state’s foster care system, Addicted and Expecting: How Montana’s Lack of Resources Impacts Mothers and their Children.  Montana, a state that is struggling like many others with the opioid crisis, has become the “child removal capital of the United States.” This at a time when research on best practices suggests that adequately funded and accessible drug treatment programs for troubled parents produces better outcomes than placing their children in a foster care system characterized by neglect, abuse, and poor conditions.

The history of state foster care systems and Native American children is a distressing one, and the problems continue, most notoriously in South Dakota. Steven Pevar, whose ACLU handbook I use in my American Indian Law course, has written extensively about the problem. In Native America, I write about this history, and the events that led to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978. It is a subject that catches the attention of my students, and I have written on this blog about continued assaults from the political right on the ICWA. Image result for montana indian reservations

The Missoulian devoted one article in the series to conditions on reservations where drug treatment programs are in especially short supply. The figures presented by Lucy Tompkins, who reported this piece for the paper, are staggering.  In Browning, way up in the northwestern corner of the state on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, “44 percent of pregnant women tested positive for opioid use, according to a 2017 health assessment by the Blackfeet Tribal Health Department and Boston Medical Center.” (The full report is available here).

Furthermore, in Montana’s Lake County, which includes part of the Flathead Indian Reservation, almost half of the infants born “were at risk for neonatal abstinence syndrome, the medical term for a dangerous set of withdrawal symptoms in drug-dependent infants including tremors, convulsions, and high-pitched crying.” Add to this that far fewer Native American women receive pre-natal care during the first trimester of their pregnancies than non-native women, and you have the ingredients for significant crisis in Montana’s native communities.

It is easy to provide students with facts and figures illustrating economic, social, and health disparities in native and non-native communities. One must be careful about doing this in order to avoid the sort of “sympathy porn” produced by “journalists” like Dianne Sawyer a couple of years back. (The reservation students’ response to Sawyer’s piece is fantastically effective: If you have not seen it, you can watch it here).  It is always worth mentioning to our students what native nations and native peoples are doing on their own to construct solutions to the challenges they face and, indeed, that the problems reservations face may be different in degree but not necessarily in kind from those facing many small towns and rural areas in the United States.

The Washington Post ran a story that offers a moving depiction of reservation life that avoids the cliches and stereotypes and pitfalls into which Dianne Sawyer blissfully stumbled. It’s a profile of Mya Fourstar, a talented fifteen-year-old basketball player at Frazer on the Fort Peck Reservation in the northeastern part of the state. Fourstar wants to play college basketball, either Division I at Gonzaga or somewhere else, but it’s tough both on and off the court.  It is a story students will appreciate, I believe, as they confront their own challenges.

Reservation basketball in Montana is huge. I learned that during the four years I lived in Billings. It was covered on the local television news, and in the pages of the Billings Gazette.  It was an exciting, run-and-gun style of basketball, with some incredibly talented players. But it was difficult to recruit these kids to play in college. “They won’t leave home,” I remember a guy in the athletics department at the college where I taught saying.  Given the treatment native students faced on my campus, I did not find this surprising at all, though I was then only beginning to grasp the complexity of the challenges these young people faced.

Reservation basketball offers a revealing and, for students, an interesting way to teach about conditions on reservations in the United States, a way to humanize a story that too often is phrased in generalities and statistics that provide by their nature a limited perspective. There is a wealth of material out there for students to read, watch, and think about. There is this CNN story about basketball on the Fort Belknap Reservation, for instance, and you will find many more if you look; news stories like this and this and this and this and this and this, from the now defunct Indian Country Today Media Network, that capture something of the strong feelings reservation basketball can generate; blog posts like this that describe the importance of reservation basketball and others that provide fascinating historical background.  And, of course, there is Larry Colton’s book on Crow basketball.

There are, I suppose, as many ways to teach non-Indian students about life in Indian country as there are college professors teaching the subject.  What we have to do as instructors, in addition to imparting knowledge and information, is break down and dismantle the stereotypes and uncritical assumptions that serve as the lenses our students look through as they read and write and learn about Indians.  There is plenty of bad news out there, and so many of the images to which students are exposed highlight themes of suffering, tragedy, and inevitability.   It is worth talking about how limited most discussion of Native American issues actually is.  Reservation basketball, like lacrosse in Haudenosaunee communities in New York and Canada, allows a window into a world that is not nearly as remote as our students are led to believe.

The Trump Presidency and Indian Affairs: Let’s Read Critically, People

I recently was invited to speak at a Teach-In on my campus.  The purpose of the gathering is to support student-activists interested in countering the policies of the Trump administration.  At the time that invitation was extended, some weeks ago, the Dakota Access Pipeline and the #NoDAPL movement were still very much in the news.   Since then, the Trump administration has fulfilled its promises to the oil men and the businessmen and fossil fuel addicts among us, and the pipeline is sadly looking like a done deal.  I have written about the process here and here and elsewhere on this blog.

But there are still plenty of other issues to talk about.

This piece, for instance, has been circulating quite widely. It is produced by Alaska Indigenous, in order to provide “critical commentary on the pertinent social, economic, and political affairs of Indigenous peoples in Alaska.” The Trump Administration, and its policies, has awakened quite a bit of passionate writing, and those who feel that they stand to lose something from Our Bronze Creon’s policies, or who have the humanity to sympathize with those who might, are on high alert.  That is a good thing, in my view.  This particular post has shown up in my various newsfeeds a couple of times. And, earnest as it is, it did not sit well with me.

Yes, Donald Trump has shown that he is no friend to native peoples. His administration is staffed by men with little awareness or understanding of the problems faced by Native Americans and other peoples of color in the United States (or worldwide, for that matter, but I can only cover so much).  His visit to the grave of Andrew Jackson makes that clear enough.  In my view, we must remain vigilant with regards to the actions of this administration.  We must stay informed. We must be critical. We must continue to demand to see the evidence, and to continue to ask tough questions, even when it seems we are being ignored. That is what intellectually courageous students do.   But let’s not fly off the handle.

The author of this piece worries that the Trump presidency could result in a return to the failed and discredited federal policy of termination, a multi-faceted program driven by Congress aimed at eliminating any relations between the United States and native peoples as parts of sovereign political communities.

Termination was catastrophic for those native communities that fell victim to it.  But only a tiny percentage of the nation’s native population went through termination: indigenous activism and protest slowed and ultimately stalled the policy, and led to its replacement with a federal commitment to “self-determination,” a phrase used both by presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1968 and Richard M. Nixon in 1970.  That is an important part of the story that is too often ignored: native peoples defeated the policy of termination.Their actions led the government to this historic shift in policy.

And termination is not coming back.  Take a look at the Republican and Democratic party platforms from the last election season.  They differ more in style than in substance, with the Democrats celebrating with good cause the achievements of Barack Obama’s consequential presidency. But both claim to support self-determination and tribal sovereignty. Trump’s administration might be bad for Native Americans, but it is hard to tell: we have as yet no Under-Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs.  But as I have pointed out elsewhere, Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has shown his commitment to learning about Native American issues in his home state of Montana.  One could argue, moreover, that Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, has a better record on Indian rights cases than the Notorious RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has a good record for working together in a bipartisan manner, and there are significant challenges ahead in Indian Country where Republicans and Democrats might come together. Sure, Trump’s supporters say some crazy things, but we should read these statements critically and carefully.

The author of the blog post concentrates much of his or her ire on Oklahoma Republican congressman Markwayne Mullin.  Mullin is, the author contends, a “pretendian” who favors the privatization of Indian lands.  Statements to this effect were attributed to Mullin during the transition, but his actual position was a bit more complicated.  As an outsider, I do not engage in questioning claims to Native American identity. Mullin is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation (and for the complexities tied into this, see Circe Sturm’s brilliant Becoming Indian, a book which might work well in your courses).  And Mullin’s charge–that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the federal bureaucracy in general stifle enterprise and economic development in Indian country–is nothing new.  “Red Progressives,” like Charles Eastman, Carlos Montezuma, and Arthur Parker, made similar arguments frequently during the early twentieth century.  (For this subject, I use in my courses Frederick Hoxie’s Talking Back to Civilization, but you might like as well David Martinez’s The American Indian Intellectual Tradition, a more voluminous edited collection of writings).  There is nothing at all progressive in any of the policies Representative Mullin supports, but his complaint has been around for quite some time.

And economic development in Indian country and energy policy are complicated things. Coal, for instance.  Donald Trump has made a lot of noise about bringing coal mining jobs back to the United States.  The experts who I have listened to see this as a forlorn hope: coal is a dirty fuel with falling prices and a finite future.  Coal increasingly looks like it is part of the past, whatever the claims of the Trump administration.

Zinke came from Montana. He favors increasing coal production in Montana, and he would like Indian lands to be a part of that effort.  He said this as a congressman and he is saying it now as Secretary of the Interior. Environmentalists have legitimate reasons to be concerned about this. But here’s the thing.   The Crows, whose story I tell in Native America, are of course well aware that some of the richest coal seams in the American west are located on Indian land.  The Crows’ tribal leadership has looked to develop its own energy resources on their own land.  Sovereignty and self-determination, right?  Even though in recent years coal prices have fallen and opposition to coal as a “dirty” fuel has increased, the Crows see coal development as a means to combat poverty. Coal revenue could pay for schools and for roads. Noting that his people have survived warfare, epidemic diseases, and attempts to assimilate them and eradicate their culture, Crow tribal chairman Darren Old Coyote told an industry journalist late in 2015 that “we’re going to continue moving forward to survive, and the only way I know how now is to develop our coal.” The Crows, he said, “have the manpower,” and “we have the capability of being self-sufficient. There is no reason why we should be this poor.”   The Crows’ efforts to develop their resources, to exercise their economic self-determination, was affected negatively by the policies of the Obama administration directed toward reducing America’s reliance on coal.  We might not like coal mining as an economic activity, but it is worth debating how far we are willing to go when we speak of self-determination.  The third article to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, after all, guarantees to native peoples the right to self-determination, and with that the right to “freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.”  Does that include coal-mining on indigenous lands, when that nation’s leadership favors coal mining?

I have made it very clear on this site how I feel about the actions thus far of the Trump Presidency in the realm of education and Indian Affairs.  But we must couch our opposition in the evidence, especially when we are contending against the policies of an administration that plays so fast and loose with the truth.  We should take nothing on faith, and always read and listen critically.  Ask tough questions.  Look alive.  Stay informed and stay on your toes. Hell, study history.  That is sometimes easier to do if we keep ourselves firmly grounded in the evidence, and with an openness to the complexities of the issues that concern us.

Letter to that Lame Provost in Montana–Some thoughts on History and the Liberal Arts

Dear Provost,

I’ve been thinking a lot about a piece Timothy Egan wrote that appeared in the New York Times back in August. Egan lamented “our Dumbed-Down Democracy,” and saw in the rise of Donald Trump evidence of a failure in, among other things, American civic education.  If Americans knew their constitutionalism, Egan argued, they would be less likely to support a candidate who showed no concern for the American constitutional tradition.  “The current presidential election,” Egan wrote, “may prove that an even bigger part of the American citizenry [Bigger than the thirty million adults who, Egan asserted, cannot read] is politically illiterate—and functional.  Which is to say, they will vote despite being unable to accept basic facts needed to process this American life.”

There has been no shortage of opinion pieces and analyses like Egan’s in recent months.  As a college professor, as a teacher of history and the humanities at a school where, fortunately, these subjects are still valued, I wonder about whether any of the current state of affairs can be laid out our steps.  Are we doing enough to produce critical and informed citizens? Should we do more?

A long time ago when I taught at your college in Billings, Montana, you emphasized that we should be doing “applied research.”  We should strive to be relevant.  I was untenured, and in a deeply dysfunctional department.  You were no help on that front, either. I understood that to survive as a professor I needed to toe the company line. But what on earth did “applied research” mean? I was a historian with training in early American and Native American history.  How, I asked, would I cast these interests in a project that you would consider “applied” and relevant?

You did not expect the question, and I never got a meaningful answer, but I could see plenty of problems on campus. As you might remember, Native American students were the largest minority on campus, and many of them traveled a long way from the Crow Reservation to attend their classes.  There were those on campus who did much to make the college a welcoming environment—staff and faculty.  They did good work.  Students could use Crow to fulfill the college’s foreign language requirement, for instance, and the Intertribal Indian Club was a valuable and effective resource.  Its annual powwow, a beautiful and inspiring event held off campus, was the college’s largest student-sponsored event.  I do not think you knew that.  In the four years I was in Billings, neither you nor the President ever attended because, in the President’s words, it was a thing “for Indians.”

There were a lot of problems on campus. Financial aid was limited.  Some faculty embraced stereotypical and, in places, racist views of Native Americans that could create an incredibly hostile environment on campus.  Many faculty, acting on an assumption that Native American students would not speak up in class, never bothered to reach out.  I heard faculty say, about a student who did well in a class, that “she did really well for an Indian.” I told you about this.  You said something along the lines of, “Yeah, sometimes the Crows will really surprise you when they do well.”  Again, untenured.  I did not tell you how screwed up I thought that was.

But I watched this environment.  Coming from southern California, this was all new to me.  There was an event that caught my attention. I thought it would fit your description of an “applied research” project.  Down in Hardin, a town that borders the Crow Reservation, a series of ugly racial incidents took place.  I do not remember all the details, and I am sure you don’t either. There had been some sort of cultural awareness day at the high school. A significant number of white kids, with their parents’ support, stayed home.  Took a walk.   The Crow kids made some noise about this and, the next morning, distributed on driveways in Hardin was some racist, Christian Identity literature, and texts like “The White Man’s Bible”—really vile stuff.

That’s what I heard.  I heard a lot of stuff. I went down to Hardin.  Tried to talk to some locals.  I couldn’t blend, really. A friend of a friend put me in touch with a local minister, and I talked to her for a while.  She confirmed that there was some ugly and really open racism in Hardin, but also that there were good people trying to make things better. To investigate this problem, would require getting into the community, spending a lot of time, watching and listening and talking.  Producing a piece of “applied” research, then, would be difficult.  I lived sixty miles from Hardin.  I was a single parent, at the time, and I taught seven courses a year.  Time was short.  I could not get into the community enough to understand what these white people were thinking.

I could talk to my Crow students who had attended Hardin High, however. I persuaded a number of them to allow me to record interviews with them. I still have the microcassettes in my desk at Geneseo, even though I no longer have anything upon which to play them.  They spoke of the white ranchers’ kids who drove to school in their big, new trucks, paid for from the proceeds of ranching operations on land that had once belonged to the Crows. They spoke of intimidation.  Of gym teachers who told kids to take a leak before they went out for PE, “because they need something to drink down at Crow.”

When I was a student at Cal State Long Beach, one of my professors in American Indian Studies told me that interest in Native American studies among white people decreases in direct proportion as you get closer to Indian country.  And that seemed to be the case in Billings.  A lot of the people in my classes did not want to hear about racism at Crow, and the statistics that testified to the continuing impacts of colonialism and discrimination.  You and the President proved the truth of that statement, too.

I never did anything with those tapes.  Never did an “applied research” project that accorded with your hazy standards.  But I did keep plugging away at my own research in Early America, and Native America, and I continued to try to improve myself as a classroom teacher.   And I left Billings, and found a job at a wonderful college in the Finger Lakes region of western New York.

I do not like to enter into the debate over what a degree in history is worth in monetary terms, because it brings us value in other ways.  I have drawn upon the advice of so many people, and that advice informs how I teach.  I tell my students that we are the ones who question everything.  I tell them that  I love the questions—the search for answers, the complexity and the absolute lack of definitive answers sometimes, and the stories—the stories are at the heart of all that we historians do as teachers and writers.

In history, these stories can be tough to handle sometimes.  Particularly in my field, I read about horrifying acts of violence, greed, viciousness, and hatred, all the ways in which war is a violent teacher.  It can get you down sometimes, and history can be a brutal business.  But, once in a while, there are these amazing stories: of selflessness, of grace–and of courage.  And I tell them, that to the utmost of their ability, they should try to be intellectually fearless, and to have the courage to not shy away from those things that seem extremely difficult.  To be honest, curious, inquisitive, and relentless to be sure, but most of all, in terms of the questions they ask, the evidence they consider, the ideas they engage with, and the theses they advance, to be as fearless as they can be.  Now, on this campus, in this country, in this global community, more than ever.  This is History, Applied.

My students now live in a world where too many people confuse their feelings and their fears for facts, where being smart and engaged and critical and willing to ask questions can make one an object of scorn.  They live in a world as well where complexity is so often dismissed, where big and difficult answers to the big questions are avoided, that asking these sorts of questions can take a certain amount of courage.  They live in a world where, when we stand up in the face of these problems and ask, “Why?” and when we insist on a reasoned and relevant response to that simple question—it is like an act of subversion, and subversive acts, even small ones, require a degree of courage and fearlessness.

I tell my students this, and that their studies can help them makes sense of this world.   Looking at the spectacle of public life that my generation is in the process of bequeathing to their generation, I tell them, it might be easy to slide into a deep cynicism, but cynicism is an intellectually lazy position, a sort of cop out.  It can take courage to trust and to respect and to appreciate, as well as to care and to love, and to accept the validity of ideas presented by those with whom we would be predisposed to think we might disagree.  To never underestimate others, to take people seriously, whoever that person happens to be, to accept the possibility that those with whom we disagree might have a point and, indeed, to admit that we might be wrong.  To appear vulnerable in the face of those who despise us.  That is not an easy thing to do. That takes courage, and a willingness—a commitment—to approaching everything and everyone with a readiness to see goodness and to be surprised.

It is easy to feel like the challenges we face are too big and it is possible, I think, that we all feel at times like we are not enough to make a difference—that we need to be wealthier or have more expertise or access or whatever.  But what if we used our skills and our thoughts and our reason and acted as if we were exactly what was needed? How would we live or have lived if we were exactly what is needed to solve those things we see as problems? If we knew we could close the gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be, even a little bit, would we have the courage to act?

I am not sure what you would say to these questions.  I do not know that you would agree that the power of history, whatever the subfield, is that it allows us to share in the experiences of people far removed from us in space and time, to take part in our broader, shared, humanity.  That was never something you valued.  You wanted the standards low, the seats full.   I know that.  So I thought of you when I read Egan’s piece. You never realized the merits of the liberal arts, the power of ideas, the feeling of connection one can achieve when they study the past.   You left Billings, and became the president of a small college in a similarly red state, I think, but I did not pay any attention.  But I do know this: history and the liberal arts empower our students to be curious, kind, and fearless in an informed way that makes our world a better place.  That is something that transcends price and simplistic ways to measure learning outcomes.

Voting Rights in Indian Country

There has been no discussion of the many issues of concern to native communities across the country in this election cycle, but on Tuesday, NPR’s All Things Considered  aired a story focusing upon Native American voting rights.  Issues of gerrymandering and voter intimidation have long been discussed as problems faced by Native American voters.  See, for example, the 2009 ACLU Report on Native American voting rights, and this story about chronic discrimination against Crow and Northern Cheyenne people in and around Billings, Montana. The NPR story looked at issues posed by English-only ballots and inaccessible polling places, which are also significant factors affecting Native American voting patterns.