Blackfoot Tribunal

The Blackfoot tribunal on genocide--focusing on residential school abuses in Canada--was held at the home of Sikapii (White Horse) and his wife, Yellow Dust Woman, over July 2-4, 2001. They live a few miles from Brocket, Alberta, which is on a native reserve encompassing some of the most beautiful and resource-rich land in Canada, just as is the case for their US based brothers and sisters in Browning, Montana just across the border. Before the white capitalist conquest of the Blackfoot people, their territory included much of Alberta and Montana. As a fierce and proud bison-hunting people, they viewed their territory as sacrosanct. When Lewis and Clark tried to exchange trinkets with them, the two explorers were sent unceremoniously packing.

While the United States and Canada have no qualms about deploying their full military prowess on behalf of Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia attempting to unite with Albania proper, the thought of Blackfoot people trying to re-create their historic homeland across the Canadian and US border sends the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the FBI into a panic.

Sikapii, born George Yellow Horn, is the grandson of Red Crow who was forced to sign Treaty Seven in Canada in 1877 in much the same way that all such treaties were signed--at the point of a gun. When I spoke to the Blackfoot people assembled at Sikapii's home, you felt as if this treaty was signed last week since the pain was so palpable. They spoke uniformly about the cannons lined up near the fort where the treaty was signed, which fired off volleys each morning to remind them of who was boss.

In 1990, Alberta Indian "leaders" presented Queen Elizabeth with a petition complaining that the federal government was not living up to the intent of Treaty 7, signed in 1877 in the name of Queen Victoria. Meanwhile, only the Blackfoot refused to participate in the meeting because they said doing so would make them look like "Hollywood Indians or tokens," according to the June 30, 1990 Toronto Star.

Sikapii's life story encapsulates many of the themes common to the members of this First Nation. Born in 1938, he was sent to a residential school with the understanding that refusal would lead to the arrest of his father. In testimony to the tribunal, he described how native children were lined up day after day in military fashion by the priests. Individual children were then ordered to step forward to be beaten with a cane. He tried to escape from the school on five different occasions.

After leaving school, Sikapii took one back-breaking job after another, both on and off the reserve. In the 1950s he worked as a lumberjack for a white-owned company that was--like many others--systematically denuding the reserve of valuable timber, thus combining ecological with economic super-exploitation. Sikapii showed us cancelled checks from the period in which native wages ranged from $5 to $8 per week, while a typical white worker's wage was $45. He also had receipts from the local company store whose weekly totals equaled or surpassed Indian wages. This pattern of combined class and national oppression was virtually identical to that suffered by Chiapas lumberjacks before 1910 as dramatized in B. Traven's "Jungle" novels.

It was during this time that Sikapii spent six months in jail for drunkenness and disorderly conduct. He and a fellow Indian had stopped at a bar in nearby Fort McCloud to slake their thirst after a day cutting logs. After the hulking bartender treated them with disrespect, words were exchanged. Sikapii, who had been an amateur boxer, decked the bartender with one punch, breaking his nose.

This incident was fairly typical of the kind of hardscrabble existence he led for the next twenty five years or so. He picked fruit in California. He rode the rails looking for one job after another until coming back to the reserve. He was stabbed in the gut after another fight. He had also become an alcoholic.

Things began to change in the 1980s, when the patterns of economic and racial discrimination reached such a level of intensity that he was forced to come to grips with them. Like Malcolm X, he put his rowdy past behind him. An important factor in his development was the Wounded Knee occupation of the 1970s that he joined in an act of solidarity. As soon as he discovered that it was taking place, he and a group of other Blackfoot men jumped in their car and took off to Pine Ridge.

It was also in this period that Sikapii became a rancher, which is generally the occupation Blackfoot men gravitate to. He had a herd of 55 steers that had grown rapidly on account of loans that a local bank had pressured him to take out when cattle prices were rising. In 1996, when prices took a sharp nosedive, the bank demanded immediate payment of his debt. When he pleaded for an extension of the deadline, in hope that prices would rise, they sent out a convoy of cattle trucks guarded by the RCMP and seized his herd. Now he subsists on welfare.

Blackfoot men all have bitter tales to tell about how they are cheated by white businesses in league with the sell-out tribal council. Wallace Yellow Face told the tribunal about cattle being rustled by tribal council henchmen, and not being paid for logs he had chopped. The excuse was that he lacked the proper "permit" which is awarded arbitrarily by the tribal council to their lackeys. John Chief Moon, one of the most respected elders, had all his horses impounded because he supposedly was guilty of abusing them. If you spend one minute with this dignified and spiritually-endowed man, you could not take the accusation seriously. Horses were key to Blackfoot culture and economic survival. The notion that a Blackfoot traditionalist would neglect them defies logic.

One of the high points of my visit was listening to John Chief Moon and Yellow Dust Woman conversing in the Blackfoot language. This beautiful language, like all other native languages, is endangered. Despite all attempts by the residential schools to obliterate the language, many younger Blackfoot--including economics professor and activist James Michael Craven--are studying it now. A 3 part series on "endangered tongues" in the Los Angeles Times in January, 2000 described the challenge:

>>California once had the densest concentration of indigenous languages in North America. Today, almost every one of its 50 or so surviving native languages is on its deathbed. Indeed, the last fluent speaker of Chumash, a family of six languages once heard throughout Southern California and the West, is a professional linguist at UC Santa Barbara.

More people in California speak Mongolian at home than speak any of the state's most endangered indigenous languages.

"Not one of them is spoken by children at home," said UC Berkeley linguist Leanne Hinton.

None of this happened by accident.

All Native American languages, as well as Hawaiian, were for a century the target of government policies designed to eradicate them in public and in private, to ensure that they were not passed from parent to child.

Until 1987, it was illegal to teach Hawaiian in the islands' public schools except as a foreign language. The language that once claimed the highest literacy rate in the world was banned even from the islands' private schools.

Indeed, there may be no more powerful testimony to the visceral importance of language than the government's systematic efforts to destroy all the indigenous languages in the United States and replace them with English.

No language in memory, except Spanish, has sought so forcefully to colonize the mind. Of an estimated 300 languages spoken in the territorial United States when Columbus made landfall in 1492, only 175 are still spoken. Of those, only 20 are being passed on to children.

In 1868, a federal commission on Indian affairs concluded: "In the difference of language today lies two-thirds of our trouble. . . . Their barbarous dialect should be blotted out and the English language substituted." The commission reasoned that "through sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment, and thought. . . . In process of time the differences producing trouble would have been gradually obliterated."<<

The drive to wipe out a language goes hand in hand with the drive to wipe out a people, something that activists like John Chief Moon, Sikapii and Yellow Dust Woman are determined to resist.

These questions are not abstract to Sikapii. Seven close relations have committed suicide, including his son who hung himself in prison, as well as Andrew Small Legs, whose grave I happened across at the top of a hill across the road from Sikapii's home. In 1970 Andrew shot himself to death after reaching the same state of economic destitution suffered by many Blackfoot people. He left behind a suicide note calling attention to his own plight and that of his kinsmen. When I reached the top of the hill, I saw the grave which was only distinguished by a small metal marker.

A short walk beyond the grave I came across a dream-like scene. About 20 horses and their colts were grazing peacefully in a pasture. For that moment, all sounds seemed to stop including the chattering of the birds and the rustling of the leaves. The horses, a symbol of traditional Blackfoot culture and self-reliance, seemed completely at peace in their beautiful surroundings. I then walked downhill filled with the hope that the traditional ways of the Blackfoot people can be restored. If it takes destruction of the system that is destroying them, so be it.