The Blackfoot and the Barbarian

Part one:

Probably the most thorough explanation of the name and structure of the Blackfoot nation comes from Long Standing Bear Chief, a respected scholar, activist, artist and story-teller:

"Which term is the most correct when referring to our tribe? Blackfoot or Blackfeet?

"This is a question that many tribal members are asked all the time--by younger members of the tribe, as well as non-Indian people. The fact of the matter is that the proper term to use is BLACKFOOT.

"'If you were to ask someone in our language, 'what tribe do you belong to, Blackfoot or Blackfeet?' They would say Siksika which means Blackfoot. If you use the plural form of the word then you are talking about black feet, people's black feet. In the first instance the word Blackfoot refers to people, and the word black feet refers to the color of someone's feet.

"The word or term Blackfoot then has its origin in a story I have heard most often as to how this name came about The story is that all the people were together at one time. They called themselves Pikuni.

"Winter was coming and the people decided to divide up into three groups. One group would stay and the other two would move away so they could hunt and find food in different places and not have to depend on the food supply in one place. The people went their separate ways. The following summer they came back to the Pikuni camp.

"One group passed through a place where they had been picking and eating berries. The juice from the red berries covered their hands and mouths. It looked like blood. The other group had passed through a prairie fire. The souls of their moccasins were blackened by the soot.

"It was decided from that time on that the three groups would be known by their present day names. From that time on the group that stayed continued to use the name Pikuni. The other group which had passed through the prairie fire was given the name Blackfoot. The other group that had been eating the berries and had the appearance of blood on their hands and mouths were given the name Blood.

"Today in the United States and in Alberta, Canada we have the name Blackfoot being used as well as the term Pikuni. In Montana, we are called the Blackfoot when in fact we are truly Pikuni Indians. We are mistakenly called Blackfeet even by other tribes. The people that should properly be called Blackfoot are located in Alberta, Canada as are the Blood.

"Our relatives, the Blackfoot and Blood, when speaking our language, call us South Pikuni because they remember the time when we were all called Pikuni."

The Blackfoot people now live in reservations in Montana. They were once masters of a vast territory that ranged from the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains in the West, to what is now the Montana-Dakota border in the East. Canada bordered their territory to the North and the Yellowstone River was the southern border.

They were among the most powerful and aristocratic Indians who lived in the United States, 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."

This matter of the white man's "voracity" will be the subject of my next post. For the moment it would be useful to consider how the Blackfoot people lived before their tragic downfall.

It would be no exaggeration to say that their relation to the bison herds defined the material conditions of Blackfoot life. In a model for wise use of natural resources, the Blackfoot made use of just about every fiber of the great animal's flesh, bone and blood. Nothing went to waste.

John C. Ewers' "The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains" contains the most thorough examination of the role of the bison in Blackfoot society. Ewers was the first curator of the Museum of the Plains Indian on the Blackfoot reservation, which is in Browning. Later he served as Senior Ethnologist in the Smithsonian Institution.

Because the Blackfoot warriors held the upper hand until relatively late in the 19th century, the bison remained plentiful in their territory. In the first instance the animal provided excellent nutritional value. Practically every part was edible, including the brains, liver, kidneys, soft nose gristle and bone marrow. The meat itself was either roasted or boiled. Care was taken to prepare pemmican, a preserved dried meat, in advance of the long, harsh winter. Pemmican was made by taking layers of dried meat and separating them with back fat, wild peppermint and berries. The pemmican bags themselves were made of the skins of unborn bison calves and could themselves be eaten in lean times.

They also made their clothing from bison skins. Making use of steel knives obtained through the fur trade, the Blackfoot made beautiful, long-wearing, waterproof clothing. All of the horsegear was made from bison hides as well: including saddles, bridles and shoes for sore-footed horses. Arms were also made from rawhide, including the strong shields constructed from the bull's neck. Warclubs were held together by thongs made of rawhide.

In addition to providing food and clothing, the Blackfoot transformed bison skins into lodging and furniture as well. Soft-dressed bison skins without the hair were used for lodges (tipis). The bison-hide covering for a lodge weighed about one hundred pounds. Each day when a village moved to a new hunting ground, the lodge covering was packed up and stowed in a travois that was also made of rawhide, along with the rawhide bedding.

Long Standing Bear Chief elaborates on the importance of the bison:

"The buffalo is looked upon as being the animal given to the Indian people by the Creator. The correct name is bison. In Blackfoot we say Enee meaning bison.

"The bison was very important because it provided the people of long ago with everything they needed for food, clothing, shelter, tools and ceremony. Every part of the animal had a specific use.

"The shoulder blade of the animal became a hoe. The ribs, when tied together in a special way, made a sled for small children to play with during the winter. The tanned hide covered the people with warmth.

"The hide, when used ceremonially, was cut up and painted different colors and used as an offering in the Sun Dance. The dew claws, made into rattles, helped a dancer keep time and maintain rhythm. The bones were crushed and the marrow boiled out and added to dried meat and berries to make pemmican, a very nutritious food.

"The tongue was used ceremonially as an offering in the Honoring Lodge by the dancers. This ceremony is often referred to as the Sun Dance. Many bones were shaped into arrowheads, awls and other kinds of tools. The bladders became water carriers, and the tendons were stretched and used like thread. The bison was (and still is) looked upon as a sacred animal."

If capitalism made use of nature and wildlife in the same way that Blackfoot society did, there surely would be no ecological crisis. Nothing went to waste.

When the Blackfoot made use of European technology, they did so in such a way that their quality of life was not diminished. They used technology in an "appropriate" manner. When a utility company diverts a river into a hydroelectric project, thereby depriving an indigenous people of valuable fishing and fresh water drinking sources, they are subordinating them to the technology.

The Blackfoot use of the horse and the gun showed that they were happy to make use of more advanced transportation and weaponry when they became available. Since bison hunting required a horse for the pursuit of the prey and as a means to bring it back to camp, the horse became the most visible sign of wealth in the Blackfoot tribes. The more horses a man owned, the higher up on the social ladder he became. Horses were given as wedding presents. Blackfoot "warfare" mostly consisted of raiding other tribes and seizing their horses. Ewers observes that "the objective of the horse raid was neither to kill enemies nor to take scalps but to capture horses." "Like the WWII Commando raid, it was a stealthy operation in which the little attacking group tried to take the enemy by complete surprise, to strike quickly and quietly, in darkness or at dawn, achieve its limited objective, and be off before the enemy learned of its loss."

Although the rifle was used in these attacks, the preferred weapon was the bow and arrow. A flintlock was difficult to reload on a galloping horse. The loading process was formidable. You had to dismount from the horse, measure two fingers of gunpowder from a bison horn into the barrel, lift the barrel to your mouth where the bullets were stored for convenience, spit a bullet into the barrel, give the stock a couple of sharp blows to settle the charge, lift the gun and then fire. The other advantage of a bow and arrow was that it made no sounds and would not frighten game away. Finally, when a group hunted the bison, it was impossible to determine which animal had been shot by which hunter. An arrow could be marked distinctively however and help to identify whose kill it was.

The correct relationship between the European colonizers and the Blackfoot would have been to make such tools available and allow the Indians to decide for themselves whether it was useful or not. This would mean, for example, that if the 19th century Blackfoot decided to hunt with a repeating rifle, it was their freedom to do so. By the same token, the Innuit or Macah of today are entitled to use whatever weapons they feel appropriate for seal or whale-hunting. This should not be dictated to them.

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. The very best explanation of the ethos of the hunting societies is given by Marshall Sahlins in the first chapter of "Stone Age Economics," titled "The Original Affluent Society":

"The hunter, one is tempted to say, is 'uneconomic man.' At least as concerns nonsubsistence goods, he is the reverse of that standard caricature immortalized in any General Principles of Economics, page one. His wants are scarce and his means (in relation) plentiful. Consequently he is 'comparatively free of material pressures,' has 'no sense of possession,' shows 'an undeveloped sense of property,' is 'completely indifferent to any material pressures,' manifests a 'lack of interest' in developing his technological equipment.

"In this relation of hunters to worldly goods there is a neat and important point. From the internal perspective of the economy, it seems wrong to say that wants are 'restricted,' desires 'restrained,' or even that the notion of wealth is 'limited.' Such phrasings imply in advance an Economic Man and a struggle of the hunter against his own worse nature, which is finally then subdued by a cultural vow of poverty. The words imply the renunciation of an acquisitiveness that in reality was never developed, a suppression of desires that were never broached. Economic Man is a bourgeois construction-as Marcel Mauss said, 'not behind us, but before, like the moral man.' It is not that hunters and gatherers have curbed their materialistic 'impulses'; they simply never made an institution of them. 'Moreover if it is a great blessing to be free from a great evil, our [Montagnais] Savages are happy; for the two tyrants who provide hell and torture for many of our Europeans, do not reign in their great forests,--I mean ambition and avarice . . . as they are contented with a mere living, not one of them gives himself to the Devil to acquire wealth.'

"We are inclined to think of hunters and gatherers as poor because they don't have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free. 'Their extremely limited material possessions relieve them of all cares with regard to daily necessities and permit them to enjoy life.'"

Blackfoot religion, philosophy, literature and ethics were all combined in their stories, just as was the case in Greek civilization during the time of Homer. Like the bards of Homeric Greece, the Blackfoot story-tellers relied on their memory to transmit the tales from one generation to the next. We are fortunate that the ethnologist George Bird Grinnell recorded the Blackfoot lodge tales back in 1892. Grinnell, who created Glacier National Park, was an advocate of Indian rights and wrote that "the most shameful chapter of American history is that which is recorded the account of our dealings with the Indians."

One of the collected stories, titled "The Fast Runners," has the merit of being a succinct statement of the Blackfoot world-view. Here it is in its entirety:

"Once, long ago, the antelope and the deer met on the prairie. At this time bath of them had galls and both dew paws. They began to talk together, and each was telling other what he could do. Each one told how fast he had run, and before long they were disputing as to which run the faster. Neither would allow that the other had beat him, so they agreed that they would have a race decide which was the swifter, and they bet their galls on race. When they ran, the antelope proved the faster runner, and beat the deer and took his gall.

"Then the deer said: 'Yes, you have beaten me on the prairie, but that is not where I live. I only go out there sometimes to feed, or when I am travelling around. We have to have another race in the timber. That is my home, and there I can run faster than you can.' The antelope felt very big because he had beaten the deer in the race, and he thought wherever they might be, could run faster than the deer. So he agreed to race in timber, and on this race they bet their dew claws. They ran through the thick timber, among the brush and the fallen logs, and this time the antelope ran slowly, because he was not used to this kind of travelling, and the easily beat him, and took his dew claws.

"Since then the deer has had no gall, and the antelope no claws."

This story is what one might call a statement on the need to live within limits, for species--including human beings--to live in an environment that is suited to them. This sense of belonging to a suitable place was deeply rooted not only in the Blackfoot civilization, but in all Indian civilizations. The ecological sensitivity of the American Indian does not come from a scientific study of earth chemistry or biology, but from careful observations of one's immediate surroundings gathered over thousands of years. This wisdom is as valid in its own way as the wisdom of Newtonian physics. The reason for this is that it tied to an ethical understanding of the relationship between living creatures and the rest of the natural world. To respect nature means to understand one's place is within it, not above it.

Friedrich Engels said something similar in his article "On the Role of Labor in the Transition from Man to Ape":

"Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature -- but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly."

Modern capitalist society has no use for the advice of Engels or for the Blackfoot philosophy. It regards nature as simply something to be dominated. It builds cities in the desert and drills for oil in the rainforest. The dire consequences of these actions are now staring us in the face. Cities like Phoenix, Arizona and Los Angeles are ecological nightmares as water from the surrounding states is diverted from its proper use in agriculture. The cities might have pleasant looking shrubbery in air-conditioned shopping malls, but meanwhile the surrounding countryside is rapidly being turned into a desert. Development in the Amazon or Borneo rainforests will also have dire consequences as global warming accelerates. The deadly brush fires burning out of control last month in Florida are a harbinger of future disasters.

The notion that we have "advanced" past the Blackfoot is at bottom dubious. We work harder but can never seem to satisfy our wants. Television will always find some running shoe or automobile that requires working overtime to earn the money to purchase. If we do not have the commodity, we feel like failures. Clearly our sense of accomplishment must come from someplace else than Madison Avenue.

The Blackfoot civilization had that sense of accomplishment. The people were happy and free in their homeland. It took violence and fraud and bribery to push them back into a reservation. The colonizers were successful. By the end of the 19th century, the Blackfoot civilization had largely been overrun by American savagery. This savagery included military repression, the whiskey trade, residential schools and cattle ranching. The details of how this took place will be the subject of my next post.

SOURCES: Long Standing Bear Chief, "Ni-Kso-Ko-Wa: Blackfoot Spirituality, Traditions, Values and Beliefs" (This can be ordered from Spirit Talk Press in Browning, Montana (

George Catlin, "North American Indians," Penguin, 1989

John Ewers, "The Blackfeet: Raiders of the Northwestern Plains," University of Oklahoma, 1958

George Bird Grinnell, "Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of a Prairie People," University of Nebraska, 1962

Marshall Sahlins, "Stone Age Economics," Aldine de Gruyter Press, 1972

Part two:

Reporter (to Mahatma Gandhi): Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western Civilization?

Gandhi: I think it would be a good idea.


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 Pikuni (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 Pikuni men just for sport, Chief Bull's Head organized a large revenge party and the prospectors got their comeuppance.

In 1868, when a Pikuni 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 Pikuni 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 equipment.

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 Pikuni into signing another compromised treaty. The whole purpose of military repression was not to restore "law and order" but to push Pikuni 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 today.

The information that appears above is drawn from John C. Ewers's flawed but essential history, "The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains" (U. of Oklahoma, 1958). Its flaw is visible in its very title, which depicts the Blackfeet as "raiders." Ewers draws a picture of Blackfeet (the Blackfoot people prefer not to use this term since it refers to "feet" rather than people) as warriors who enjoyed stealing horses from Indians and white settlers alike. In the very chapter where he decries the massacre at Marias river, he refers to the problems involved in "the pacification and civilization of western Indian tribes." This is said without irony.

More recent scholarship steps back from the "warlike" image fostered by Ewers on the Blackfoot and other Indian tribes. Margaret A. Kennedy, in "The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains" (Peter Lang, 1997) roots the conflicts in the fur and whiskey trade:

"The whiskey trade was far more than the exchange of buffalo robes and other furs for whiskey and trade goods. This exchange was conducted within a diverse and often hostile social and ethnic context. The interactions between native and non-native were heightened by the existence of intense rivalries within each of these groups, band against band, Americans against British, trader against trader. The origin of some of the intense intergroup hostilities that characterized the whiskey trade can be traced back throughout the fur trade, but much of it was deeply accentuated in this late period by the pressures wrought through fear of loss of the buffalo, tribal territorial infringement, American and British competition and of course, the deleterious effect of liquor."

To put it more bluntly, the British and American fur traders lured the Indians into the cash trade by offering them whiskey, the one thing that was not available on the open range. They used whiskey in the same way that the British used opium in China. It was a way of breaking down the doors of a local economy that had little use for the lure of imported goods. One of the most notable things about opium and alcohol is that they are addictive. This is exactly what the East Indian Company or the Hudson Bay Company could use to best effect: a substance that hooked the unfortunate native into becoming unwilling accomplices to his own destruction. As the fur trade began to decrease the number of available buffalo, the various tribes fought with each other for control over the scarce resource. They stole horses from one another because the horse was necessary for the wholesale collection of hides. Pressures from fur and whiskey traders goes much further in explaining the Indian wars than any lack of "civilized" values. Who needed civilizing were the entrepreneurs who used such poisons to make the Indian dependent.

While in one sense, we have become inured to the idea of alcohol being a symptom of American Indian despair, it is important to understand how this substance entered their society. Today, there are all sorts of investigative journalists reporting on how the contras introduced crack cocaine into the United States in order to fund the war in Nicaragua. An investigation of the introduction of whiskey into the northwestern Plains states would also be a good idea. This is clearly the purpose of Margaret A. Kennedy's scholarly treatment.

She points out that prior to the 1830s buffalo robes had been a minor commodity in the fur trade. Beavers were the preferred good. When the avaricious trading companies caused the near-extinction of the beaver, the buffalo became a substitute. So whiskey lured the Indians to the trading post, where the highly desired bison robes were exchanged for toxic drug. Kennedy explains:

"The business was fairly simple. Fort Benton merchants were willing to commission individuals and supply them with an outfit. In return, the trader and clerks would remove to Indian Country and exchange goods as cheaply as possible for buffalo robes, wolf, antelope, elk and other animal pelts. The quiet inclusion of alcohol in the trader's outfit, seldom accurately recorded on the manifests, was the magnet guaranteed to draw native clientele. In 1867, the selling price of buffalo robes was $8.00, the highest amount it had yet reached. The trader's cost was only $3.00, thereby guaranteeing a healthy profit even after commissions, inventory and transportation costs were considered."

Just as British capitalism used rum, sugar and slaves to drive its commercial expansion into the Caribbeans and American south, so did the fur trading companies use a combination of whiskey, furs and alcohol-addicted Indian hunters to increase their wealth. Wealthy and jaded Europeans' taste had shifted from fur to buffalo, just as people today decide to use one cologne rather than another. Image back then was as important as it is today. It was of course no consequence that the very source of Blackfoot and other Indians' survival was being destroyed in the process. The buffalo was no longer a source of clothing, shelter and food. It was instead a luxury item to generate profits for the seller and alcohol addiction for the unfortunate hunters.

Unfortunately, not only could the Indian become addicted to alcohol, he could also suffer the consequences of "bad" drugs, just as occurs on the streets of New York City today when the occasional bag of heroin contains poisonous adulterants. Margaret Kennedy describes the horrors that took place frequently:

"The movement of American traders into the last stronghold of Blackfoot territory could only have been accomplished through the extensive availability of alcohol. The Blackfoot north of the border had fervently and successfully protected their hunting territory from intruders--native and non-native alike--until 1869. Now the destructive results of the whiskey trade began to make themselves evident, as the people traded anything they owned for alcohol, which left them destitute and defenceless against winter temperatures. This was not quality alcohol. The so-called whiskey given out by traders for buffalo robes and other furs was a lethal concoction of alcohol mixed with anything that would give it colour and substance--bluestone, burnt sugar, castile soap, Jamaica Ginger, Perry Davis Painkiller, tea, ink, and sometimes, horrifically, strychnine. George McDougall, the Methodist missionary who was so outspoken against the whiskey trade, reported the same traumatic death for the native drinker as was experienced by the wolf consuming strychnine: foaming at the mouth, followed by convulsions and the body turning black after death. If people managed to survive the concoction, their faces were later horribly disfigured by blotches. Untold numbers of native people, well into the hundreds, died from the drink itself, exposure to winter conditions during intoxication, or violently at the hands of traders or each other."

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:

"Writing about the 'Basic Concepts and Objectives' of Canada's Indian policy in 1945, an official of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs put his finger squarely on the motivation behind residential schools. Noting Ottawa's desire to promote self-sufficiency among the indigenous population, and rightly zeroing in on Canada's systematic attack on traditional Indian religion and cultural practices, the observer concluded that the dominion's purpose was assimilation. As important as the push for self-support and Christianization among the Indians was in its own right, it was 'also means to another end: full citizenship and absorption into the body politic.' Clearly, Canada chose to eliminate Indians by assimilating them, unlike the Americans, who had long sought to exterminate them physically. 'In other words, the extinction of the Indians as Indians is the ultimate end' of Canadian Indian policy, noted the American official. The peaceful elimination of Indians' sense of identity as Aboriginal people and their integration into the general citizenry would eventually end any need for Indian agents, farm instructors, financial assistance, residential schools, and other programs. By the cultural assimilation it would bring about, education residential schools would prove 'the means of wiping out the whole Indian establishment.'"

As bad as this sound, it does not do justice to the actual physical aspect of extermination that took place in the residential schools. Since most of the physical abuses took place in the classroom or in children's dormitories, it was not visible to the outside world. For over a hundred years Indian children were prevented from speaking their own language, sexually abused, and made ill from substandard housing and lack of adequate food. They were forced to do slave labor such as cleaning the buildings and grounds, picking crops and washing dishes. J.R. Miller details the sort of hell that Indian children faced:

"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."

While J.R. Miller's book is strong on such details, it is weak on the general political conclusions that flow from the details. For this we have to be grateful for "The Circle Game," co-authored by Roland Chrisjohn and Sherri L. Young. Substantial portions of the book are online at:

The thrust of "The Circle Game" is to situate the residential schools in the general context of genocide. There are mounting scholarly and activist campaigns to establish Canada's guilt in the cultural genocide of the native peoples. It is a genocide that is just as real as the one unleashed by the Turks against the Armenians. While the body-count might be less, the overall effects are just as damaging. They effectively erase a people from the face of the earth. When you destroy a people's language, spiritual and cultural identity, the consequential forced assimilation is tantamount to genocide. Chrisjohn and Young state:

". . . We are unwilling to treat 'cultural genocide' as a species of action divorced (or divorceable) from its universally recognised relatives. The machinations and intrigues that have surrounded the debate about the concept of cultural genocide have all the savoir faire of a schoolyard bully; powerful groups, in obvious double-faced violation of their own publicly stated human rights poses, have used their power to compel the rest of the world into going along with them. Consequently, we maintain, and will henceforth assume, that assimilation is genocide. Even the phrase 'cultural genocide' is an unnecessary ellipsis: cultural genocide is genocide. Finally, in any intellectually honest appraisal, Indian Residential Schools were genocide. If there are any serious arguments against this position, we are ready to hear them."

A tribunal under the auspices of the International Human Rights Association of American Minorities (IHRAAM), a United Nations-affiliated NGO, occurred in June of this year in order to hear testimony from Canadian Indians who had been victims of residential schooling. Although the tribunal did not have the ability to impose penalties on the Canadian government or the church, it could have been an effective moral force at the UN, where Canada often criticizes other countries over human rights. While the first tribunal suffered from poor organization and questionable selection of judges, it was an important first step.

One of the people who was to testify was Harriet Nahanee (Pacheedaht), who was abused at the Alberni school. She pushed for the hearings, while saying that the government is giving money for healing to everyone but the victims. "They are giving money to the band offices, to the treaty commissions, but not one cent has gone to the men who were sexually abused," she told the Toronto Globe and Mail. She told the reporter that said she remembered seeing a girl killed at the school more than 50 years ago and that the death was covered up. She intended to raise the allegation at the hearings.

The Canadian government is attempting to conclude a $326 million settlement with the Indian nations. Much of this money would be earmarked for psychotherapy, which would be a slap in the face to the victims. Not only is the sum paltry, the notion that the "talking cure" is appropriate for restoring the dignity of the Indian is absurd. The people who need sessions with the psychiatrists are the top officials of the Church and government who saw fit to brutalize Indian children. What would be appropriate is restoration of all the land claims that peoples such as the Blackfoot, Cree and Ojibway are pressing. This would do more for mental health than any 50 minute psychotherapy session.

Black Elk, a Lakota, said in 1930 that "Once we were happy in our own country and we were seldom hungry, for then the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives, and there was plenty for them and for us." He added that when the Wasichu, the white men, came, they "made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller, for around them surges the gnawing flood of the Wasichu; and it is dirty with lies and greed." What is critical to understand is that by creating such islands, the organic unity between man and nature breaks down. This is key to understanding the ecological crisis of the 20th century. In restoring human rights and economic justice to the American Indian, we will also begin the process of restoring ecological health to our nation. Without one, you cannot have the other.

One of the new breed of environmental historians who has made the link between ecology and the problems of the American Indian is Donald Worster, whose work I encourage everybody to read. Not only is he a tremendous scholar, he writes with passion. In his "An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West" (U. of New Mexico, 1994), there is a chapter titled "Other People, Other Lives" that details the transformation of Plains wildlife, with particular emphasis on the wanton slaughter of the bison.

In accounting for the terrible loss of the bison, Worster raises the possibility that the same sort of undercounting that goes into the loss of American Indian lives has affected the fauna as well. The goal of the undercounters is to minimize the depths of the slaughter. Ernest Seton, a pioneering naturalist, estimates the number of bison at 75 million when the barbarian fur trading companies and ranchers arrived By 1895, there were only 800 animals left, all within the Yellowstone National Park. Nature writer Barry Lopez has tried to estimate the total number of local fauna that were destroyed through the uncivilized recklessness of the invaders: "If you count the buffalo for hides and the antelope for backstraps and the passenger pigeons for target practice and the Indian ponies [killed] by whites to keep the Indian poor, it is conceivable that 500 million creatures died." Worster calls this a virtual holocaust.

As the bison were wiped out from Blackfoot territory, a new ungulate took its place: the cow. Most champions of progress assumed that the slaughter of the bison and the banishment of the Indian into reservations was a regrettable evil. If these cruel acts did not take place, then it would have never been possible to create the modern beef industry. This notion requires demythologizing.

One of the latest books to take a look at this myth as well as a number of others is Timothy Egan's "Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West." (Knopf, 1998) Egan is a third-generation Westerner and the Pacific Northwest correspondent for the New York Times. It bodes well for the "gray lady" that such a critical-minded reporter can find his way on the payroll of such an establishment paper. Comparing the bison to cow, Egan writes:

"With the bison gone, the government had to come up with some way to the people who had once relied on free buffalo herds. Thus were born first major government subsidies of cattle. Significant numbers of people began to kill one another over cows as well. Indians were starving to death on the barren, bisonless reservations they had been moved to, in Oklahoma and eastern Arizona. Wards of the state, they were promised rations of beef by federal Indian agents. By 1880, the government was purchasing fifty thousand animals a year to feed the tribes. Providing those rations, through huge contracts, was a source of graft and ultimately folklore--of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, for example.

"At first, the dominant cattle were hybrids from Texas. These longhorns were scrawny and ornery. And they had two other major problems: they carried a tick, which infected Herefords, the popular cattle brought to the West Britain, and their meat was tough and gristly. As one cowboy put it, a Longhorn was 'eight pounds of hamburger and 800 pounds of bone horn.' Longhorns were quarantined, banned from most rail-shipment towns. The smaller, more docile, white-faced dogies became the dominant animal of the latter half of the cowboy era. The contrast between Herefords and bison was the difference between a redwood and a potted plant. Conditioned to a wet climate, cows bunch up along rivers and streams and will kill their water source with poop and poison unless moved. Bison spend most of time on arid higher ground, going to a water source only for short periods. In the winter, bison use their shaggy heads to plow through snow for forage; cattle whimper and bawl for human help. Bison can survive droughts; cattle need the equivalent of forty-plus inches of rain a year."

"Moving beeves, as cattle were called, over open ground was said to be of the easiest routes to riches in the 1870s and 1880s. The grass cost nothing, or so the owners and the government agents initially thought. Cattle chewed up all that feed on the public domain over which buffalo used to roam and then were herded to rail depots for transport and slaughter. Establishing a tradition that, today, allows foreign-owned companies to extract billions of dollars in minerals from American public land without a dime in royalties, the United States opened the former bison lands to anyone with a head of beef. The point was to bring people west, for any reason, and to use the land, also for any reason. The Marquis of Tweeddale had 1.7 million acres. Large British investment houses bought enormous herds, and by the early 1880s more than 100 million pounds of frozen beef was being sent annually to England. The XIT Ranch in Montana, owned by a British conglomerate, counted fifteen thousand square miles of rangeland as its cattle domain---an area bigger than any of a half dozen states in the former British colonies. Inside wood-paneled clubs in Cheyenne and Denver, the owners read the Sunday Times from London, sipped gin-and-tonics and purchased local sheriffs. In Wyoming, the stockmen-owned legislature passed a law making it a felony to possess a cow that was not branded by the owners association. Basically, that meant any cow not owned by the monopoly was illegal. Rebellion by small homesteaders against this law prompted the Johnson County War, the biggest violent clash over red meat in the West. An army of hired guns owned by Wyoming stockmen started hanging, burning, and shooting people on a death list drawn up by the stockmen. A story of calculated violence and feudal power at a time when the homesteader was supposed to be king, the Johnson County War inspired one of the worst movies ever done on the West, Michael Cimino's bloated and interminable Heaven's Gate."

The "progress" of cattle-ranching in Montana and other Indian territories has actually represented retrogression as water sources are either exhausted to feed the animals or polluted from their waste. Native grasses that helped to preserve the fertility of the soil have been replaced by grains that serve only one purpose: cattle feed. Meanwhile, the collapse of the cattle industry has driven many ranchers to desperation, prompting then to hook up with the fascist-like militias. Wyoming and Montana have strong militia movements and unless a strong progressive movement takes shape in the United States, the militias can easily form the basis for a violent and racist mass movement.

I want to conclude this article with an examination of an obscure moment in American history that involves the Blackfoot and the environmentalist movement. It is, as far as I know, one of the first instances of eco-imperialism on record and evokes more recent clashes between outfits like Sea-Shepherd and the Makah, or Greenpeace and the Innuit. The facts on this appear in Mark David Spence's "Crown of the Continent, Backbone of the World: The American Wilderness Ideal and Blackfeet Exclusion from Glacier National Park," an article in the July, 1996 edition of "Environmental History."

The eastern half of Glacier National Park 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 invader--arrived.

The mountains within Glacier National Park contained powerful spirits such as Wind Maker, Cold Maker, thunder and Snow Shrinker. One of the most important figures in Blackfoot religion, a trickster named Napi or Old Man, disappeared into these mountains when he left the Blackfoot. The park is also the source of the Beaver Pipe bundle, one of the "most venerated and powerful spiritual possessions of the tribe." "Chief Mountain, standing at the border of the reservation and the national park, is by far the most distinct and spiritually charged land feature within the Blackfeet universe."

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.

What gives the banning of the Blackfoot from Glacier National Park a special poignancy and sadness was that its architect was none other than George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell was not only a park administrator, but a friend of the Blackfoot. He won the trust of Blackfoot story-tellers and this allowed him to put into print the "Blackfoot Lodge Tales." Although Grinnell said in the preface to the collection that "the most shameful chapter of American history is that in which is recorded the account of our dealings with the Indians," this did not prevent him from declaring Glacier National Park off-limits to a people he supposedly admired. Of course, without any self-consciousness he also states in this preface that "the Indian is a man, not very different from his white brother, except that he is undeveloped." Also, "the Indian has the mind and feelings of a child with the stature of a man." When you stop and consider that Grinnell was a leading supporter of American Indian rights, it is truly frightening to consider the depths of racism that must have existed during the late 1800s, when he was collecting his tales from the Blackfoot while banning them from the park.

Spence has an astute interpretation of Grinnell's contradictory attitudes. He says that for Grinnell the parks represented a living resource for American civilization. It would be a place for tourists to come and take photographs of the natural splendors. As for the Blackfoot, they were an important part of America's past. They would live on through the "Blackfoot Lodge Tales" and dioramas at places like the Museum of Natural History.

Spence concludes his article with a description of how the clash between park administrators never really went away:

"By 1935, relations between the Blackfeet and the National Park Service had reached an impasse that remains in place to this day. On one side, the park service, tourists, preservationists largely made Glacier into the uninhabited wilderness that continues to inform potent ideas about nature and national identity. Blackfeet use of park undermined this idealized notion of wilderness and the tribe's resistance to Glacier's eastward expansion limited its physical expression. Tension between Indians and the park service subsided over the next few decades, but the issue of Blackfeet in the eastern half of Glacier never disappeared.

"By the 1960s, few Blackfeet actually hunted near the park, and fewer still went to the mountains to gather traditional plant foods and medicines. But the continuing importance of the Backbone of the World never depended on how many people went to the mountains. Although the Glacier region provided the tribe with a large portion of its physical sustenance in the 1890s, the issue of Blackfeet rights in the area always reflected concerns about cultural persistence and tribal sovereignty. In conjunction with the 'Red Power' movement of the 1970s, these concerns arose again as Blackfeet leaders pushed for recognition of tribal rights in the park. Their efforts met strong opposition from both park officials and environmentalists, who resisted the Blackfeet 'threat' as fervently as they did plans to mine coal and explore for oil in the park. The state of near-war that once characterized relations between the Blackfeet and park officials resurfaced in the early 1980s; the two sides only narrowly armed conflict on several occasions. Ultimately, continued Indian protests, ongoing risk of violence, and Blackfeet proposals for joint management of the eastern half of Glacier forced the National Park Service to revisit issues its leaders had been buried in the 1930s."

A program for sweeping social and economic change in the United States has to put indigenous rights in the forefront. If the Indian is the canary in the mine, whose survival represents survival for everybody, then no other group deserves greater solidarity. Part of the enormous job in allying all the diverse sectors of the American population against an increasingly reactionary and violent government is explaining that the Indian comes first. This means that Sea-Shepherd and Greenpeace activists must understand that preservation of the "wilderness" makes no sense if the Indian is excluded.

The best way to restore the United States to ecological, economic and spiritual health is to reconsider ways in which the pre-capitalist past can be approximated in a modern setting. Just as it makes sense for the Makah to use whatever weapons they deem necessary in pursuit of the whale, it might make sense for the entire northwestern plains states to be returned to the bison under the stewardship of the Blackfoot Indian. They have a much better track record on taking care of resources than do the agribusiness corporations who despoil the land for profit. Timothy Egan thinks that this makes sense, as does Ernest Callenbach, the author of "Bring Back the Buffalo: A Sustainable Future for America's Great Plains." (Island Press, 1998) I will conclude with his suggestion for a new relationship between indigenous peoples and the land and animals that were once theirs:

"The basic Indian goal is the reestablishment on the reservations of the natural ecological balance or reciprocity among humans, plants, and animals that existed before Euro-American occupation. On the Plains, a restored population of bison would be a sign that things had been put back together again on a sustainable basis. As Fred DuBray puts it, 'We recognize that the bison is a symbol of our strength and unity and that as we bring our herds back to health, we will also bring our people back to health.' In Mark Heckert's view, this could be called sustainable agriculture 'because you can get what you need to survive without inordinately disrupting the system,' and the result would be self-governing tribes in which the bison are thriving again, the ceremonies have been revived, and the bond between Indian people and the bison has been reestablished. At Pine Ridge there is an ongoing program of teaching stewardship: grandparents go into the schools and explain to the children that all the parts of the natural order are necessary and interrelated; they pass on the store of traditional knowledge that has been kept in the memories of the elders of the community The comeback of the sacred bison--and, more specifically, the appearance of a one-in-a-million white bison--would 'mean a spiritual recharge for our people,' as Alex White Plume puts it. 'There's talk locally that the time is approaching, so people are beginning to get ready, learning the old songs and revitalizing the ritual that they need to go through. It might be within the next ten years. I hope it's during my time.'"