First rough draft of a chapter. Edward Ordman 11/06/2009

Note - some of our Montana pictures are at

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            In the summer of 2000 we traveled to Montana, with the American Indian College Fund. The Fund raises money and provides other support for colleges operated by tribes of American Indians, usually on their reservations. There are at least 30 such colleges, and the ones that the Fund works with range from Wisconsin to Alaska and down to Arizona and New Mexico. Often the Fund (whose web site is organizes trips that visit several of the colleges. These trips may go to various regions of the country; ours was to Indian reservations in northern and Western Montana.

            As with many charitable organization trips, we did take some time for sightseeing. We drove through Glacier National Park, where the glaciers are rapidly shrinking: if you want to see a glcier within the traditional “48 states,” go promptly! East of the park, we spent one night in the town of Havre, Montana, where there was an overpass offering a remarkably good view of large and active railroad switching yard, where the Great Northern line branches to go up to Edmonton, Canada. Glaacier National Park is actually part of a binational park extending north into Canada, one of the few “national parks” that actually crosses an international boundary.

            We also saw a great deal of what is sometimes called “Lewis and Clark” country. The Lewis and Clark expedition, the great early exploring expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific, followed the Missouri River up into Montana, crossed the mountains, and eventually joined the Columbia River down to the Oregon coast. We visited an excellent medium-size Lewis and Clark Museum in Great Falls, Montana, and smaller museums such as The People’s Center of the Salish and Kootenai tribes in Pablo, Montana. But the main object was to visit the small colleges located on the reservations. ( Sqejlixr/Aqzsmaknidk is the nearest one can come to Salish and Kootenai in the Salish and Kootenai languages, but their alphabets are different enough from ours that these are not very good representations.)

            The Reservation Colleges

            The Indians, of course, are arguably the most discriminated against minority in the United States. They are so far down that in many contexts, the don’t even make the list. And one real problem has been the difficulty of getting an education. In many cases, when the Indians were confined to (and often moved long distances to) the reservations, the reservations were placed on inhospitable land a lon ditance away from anyone else. For many years the schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs were designed deliberately to separate Indian pupils from their traditional languages and cultures. Often the pupils were taken far from home, punished if they spoke their native languages, and rarely allowed to visit their families. Even in later years the schools were poorly funded and of low quality. Graduates were rarely qualified to go on to any higher education, or for any jobs that might be available to them. An effort was often made to suppress tribal history and culture.

            One effort to remedy this has been to establish colleges, most often “junior colleges” giving an associate degree, on the reservations. These colleges often take students who have a very weak prior education, start where the students are ready to start, and spend as much time as necessary to bring them to a second-year college level. Historically students who have been through these programs have a far greater success rate, when they transfer to a four-year college elsewhere, than students from the reservations who attempt to start at the four-year college as freshmen.

            We visited Fort Belknap College on the Fort Belknap Reservation, serving the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes, Stone Child College on the Rocky Boy Reservation (Chippewa and Cree), Blackfeet Community College on the Blackfeet Reservation, and Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Reservation. One thing that we immediately became aware of was that there were very real differences in tribal identities and traditions. As one tribal leader said to us, “Two different tribes are usually at least as different as the French and the Germans. Cooperating did not come naturally to us.”

            The colleges do make a definite effort to teach tribal history and traditions, and to teach the tribal language if enough speakers of it survive so that it can be taught. One problem in American Indian history is that the tribes generally did not have written languages before the Europeans arrived. There is a particularly interesting history from the eastern United States, from the Cherokee tribe. According to Tradition, the Cherokee Sequoyah could not speak or read English, but watched white people communicate through marks on paper. He didn’t quite get the full idea, as he though each mark stood for a syllable rather than a single sound, and had seen the English letters but didn’t know what they sounded like. So when he sat down to make an alphabet for the Cherokee language, he used “A” for the sound “go”, “J” for the sound “gu”, and “E” for the sound “gv”, as well as a lot of symbols not in our alphabet. He introduced this system of writing to the Cherokee in 1812 and it became popular with them very rapidly. It is interesting to compare this with Cyrillic, the alphabet which was invented in the ninth century by the monk St. Cyrill to write down Russian. Cyril knew Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and used letters from all three in Cyrillic. Anyway, the tribal languages today have a variety of different alphabets, which to some extent impedes teaching them. It is hard to get word processing programs, for example, or educational games for children, if the market for your alphabet is extremely small.

            Medicine Men, Students and Teachers

            At Fort Belknap College we were lucky enough to be able to attend the graduation ceremony. A few dozen students received degrees and certificates. The academic procession was led by a group of tribal dancers in traditional dance costumes, the sort of things with large numbers of feathers one sees in the movies. One dancer had a huge array of feathers sticking out behind him, like a tail. When we went to the dinner afterwards in the gym, we expected the dancers would change outfits, but they did not. The dancer with the tailfeathers turned a chair backwards to the table, straddled it, and was able to eat without damaging his feather arrangement.

            At the graduation, each graduate not only received the appropriate diploma, he or she was also awarded an eagle feather by the tribe’s medicine man. A very tall older man, he was treated with great deference by the students, who received their eagle feathers with great pride. The feathers are very much respected, and apparently having a feather confers real status in the ribe. In the old days, it was probably the warriors who got them; this is clearly a way of promoting education within the tribe.

             As we were not clear initially on the role of the man on the platform handing out feathers, we asked one of the students, “Is he sort of in the role of a priest?”

            “No,” said the student. “He’s more like the Pope”.

            One of the goals of the colleges is to get some of the students to acquire enough higher education that they can come back to the reservation as teachers, either in the college themselves or the primary and secondary schools. One reason for this is the need for role models, people who can show the young people of the tribe that education is a worthwhile goal and show them successful adults. Unemployment on the reservations may be as high as 85 percent in some years, by standard statistical measures, and alcoholism remains a problem.

            Usually, when the colleges were created, the tribal elders were convinced of the need for a college but were not educated themselves. In some cases, they saw the advantage of an education and, since the college was open to all tribal members without age limitation, took advantage of its availability. This led to our meeting a man at one of the colleges who was a respected tribal elder, on the college Board of Trustees, and also enrolled as a student in the college, where he was enrolled in Remedial Reading to get started.




            As a child in the days when “Cowboys and Indians” was a standard childhood game, I’d seen many pictures of teepees and the occasional imitation teepee set up as a roadside tourist attraction. They’d never seemed very practical. How could such a dwelling actually be kept warm, on the cold northern plains. It was on this trip that I first saw a real one, and realized how different it was. It was very large, with plenty of room for a group of people to move around inside, but that was not the real difference. The real difference was that it had two layers. There was the expected conical tower of poles, with a layer of fabric (skins or leather or nowadays canvas) wrapped around the outside of the poles and tied in place. There was also another full layer of fabric around the inside of the poles, tied to the poles in such a way as to create a layer of air perhaps six inches thick between the two layers. This provided far better insulation than a single covering, just as in a house which has an ouitside wall and an inside wall of plaster or sheetrock. The air layer between the two walls could be sealed almost shut, or could be open around the base and at the peak to let warm air and moisture to be drawn in at the bottom and expelled at the top hole, so the resident had some control over how heat and humidity were managed.




            The drunken Indian is such a figure of American movie and comic history that we wondered whether there was any truth to it. It turns out that there is, and for a reason we had not suspected. Now that we know a lot more about genetics than we did a generation or two ago, it has been explained. There are two forms, called two alleles, of a human gene which determines how quickly a person absorbs and processes alcohol. People with one form proess alcohol, get it out of their system, at a rate on the order of “one drink an hour,” to use the common guidance given for drinking at parties. Consume three drinks, and will probably be fairly normal again in about three hours. People with the other form of the gene take many hours to process the alcohol; two drinks may leave them drunk for many hours.

            Europe became relatively densely populated many centuries ago, and most of the rivers and streams became polluted. Travelers could not count on Being able to safely drink the water at streams they passed, and had to carry something to drink with them. What could they carry that wouldn’t carry germs or let germs multiply? Alcohol. Beer and wine were developed fairly early and widely used in Europe. Apparently, people with the liquor-processing form of the gene form got along better, and reproduced better, and so almost all people of European descent have the ability to process alcohol.

            By contrast, North America was much less densely populated, and had a much cleaner environment. In most parts of North America, before 1492, it was not at all difficult to find a stream or pond clean enough to drink from. There was no need to use alcohol as a way of fighting germs, so it was little used. Thus people with the allele that didn’t process alcohol were at no disadvantage, and a great many american Indians still carry the gene that allows one to stay drunk a long time on a cmparatively small intake of alcohol.


            Enrollment Problems


            Where do the Indian colleges get their money? Many community colleges and state colleges in the United States are funded by city or state governments, usually on a basis of so many dollars per student. Often the state provides funds only for “in-state” students, and the school must charge higher tuition for students whose residence is in other states. The reservation colleges do not get money from the state they are located in. Many of the Indian colleges get an allowance per student from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). However, there is still a problem. The BIA will only fund “local” students – students who are members of the local tribe as defined by BIA standards. This usually is based on the percent of “tribal” blood a student carries. That is not, however, the way most tribes define their membership. Thus there are many students who are recognized as tribal members by the tribe, but not paid for by the BIA. And if a college wants to admit a student from another tribe – because it has a particular academic specialty not available in his or her home college, or for the sake of being able to talk about other tribal traditions – government support will probably not be available for that student. To complicate the issue, when the United States herded Indians onto reservations, often it was done without too much regard to the way the Indians thought of themselves. The Blackfeet have their own large reservation, east of Glacier National Park; the Salish and Kootanai tribes, which did not even speak related languages, were placed together on the Flathead reservation south of the park. There are other interesting contrasts between the tribes.



                        The Blackfeet Reservation


            The Blackfeet have a large herd of buffalo on their land, reproducing so successfully that in many years they have more buffalo than their land will hold. We were able to stand on a hilltop and see large numbers of buffalo on the plain below, and to drive quite close to the buffalo. The tribe has two interesting solutions to buffalo overpopulation. One is to lend surpul buffalo to other tribes, so that they can start their own herds. Another is to kill some of the extra buffalo, but they have found a remarkable way to make money on that. Rather than just slaughtering some buffalo for meat, they auction off to sportsmen the right to go out on horseback to hunt a buffalo. Apparently hunters will pay thousands of dollars for such an opportunity, as well as provide work for tribal members as guides and suppliers.

            On the other hand, the Blackfeet reservation and its inhabitants are extremely poor. There are essentially no businesses on the reservation, and even simple needs like going tio a grocery store or a gasoline service station require a long trip to go to a non-Indian-owned business. Unemployment is extremely high. Much of the money that arrives on the reservation comes from welfare, and each dollar usually leaves the reservation the first time it is spend.

            “Why aren’t there businesses on the reservation?” we asked.

            “The tribal elders won’t allow a non-Indian owned business, and any Indian owned business goes broke immediately,” we were told.

            “Why does it go broke?”

            “In our tribal culture, we have to take care of our brothers, other members of our tribe. If I have a gas station and someone comes and tells me his mother is sick, he needs to go visit her, he has no money and he needs gasoline and a new tire, if I have the gasoline and a tire, I have to give them to him. So pretty soon I am out of business.”

            “What jobs can people get?”

            “We had a warrior tradition, and people here are very patriotic. A lot of our mn go into the United States Army. So there are some men who have retired and come back to the reservation, and they get a pension. And there are the firefighters. They have lots of jobs this year.” 

            In the summer of 2000, when we were in Montana, California had an unusually bad year for forest fires. And that was a windfall for the Blackfeet. We were told that unemployment was down remarkably. People were so excited about how low unemployment was that we were shocked when they gave us numbers: it had fallen from the “usual” 85 percent to “only” 70 percent. Blackfeet Community College has a certificate program in Fire Management, and trains people to fight forest fires so successfully that members of other tribes came to study in the program. Graduates of this program had two abilities: a knowledge of modern techniques for fighting forest fires, and an Indian’s knowledge of how to survive on the land. Teams of Indian firefighters could be placed out in the wilderness “behind” a fire, to stop it from spreading, in an environment where city-trained firefighters would be at a real disadvantage.


The Flathead Reservation


            After traveling through Glacier National Park, we turned slightkly south to the Flathead Reservation. Strangely, I know some of the history of the Flathead Reservation from two ditinct sources - what the Indians told us at Salish Kootenai College, and, independently, from Jesuit sources. The combination is of great interest. First, let’s talk about our visit to the reservation.

            The “Flathead” reservation is inhabited by two tribes, the Salish and the Kootenai. They were apparently pushed together by the invasion from the United States moving west - I’m going to have to call the settlers moving west “Americans” for lack of a better word, an uncomfortable as that word makes me in this context. The Americans, puching the tribes from their normal areas, forced them into proximity despite their different cultures and the fact that they spoke unrelated languages, from two entirely different language groups. The Kootenai, if I understand correctly, had more ties with the Plains indians to the east; the Salish were related to tribes in what is now Washington State, to the West. The tribes found they were forced together, and then found ways they could make it work to their advantage. They are in many ways more prosperous and more educated than the tribes we had visited farther east in the state, and some of the reasons for that fascinate me.

         Salish Kootenai College, named after both tribes, was the only four year college we visited on this trip. It is possible that that meant it had more of a history faculty, or at least faculty members better able to explain the history in a way understood by Americans. There were too aspects of the story that stuck in our minds.

         The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was, for many decades, viewed as “the enemy” by many of the tribes. Its mission was to confine the Indians, to destroy the nacient cultures, to “Americanize” the Indians. The Regional office that dealt with the Montana Indians, according to the Salish man explaining things to us, was particularly dreadful, and particularly harmful to the tribes. The Salish were a smaller group than the Kootenai when they were force together, but they had a small advantage: the Montana regional office of the BIA didn’t have any interpreter who spoke Salish, but the Western office over the mountains in what is now Washington State did have a Salish interpreter to deal with the “River Salish” tribes aliong the Columbia River, whiose language was similar to that of the “Mountain Salish” in Montana. So the tribes insisted on speaking Salish when dealing with the BIA. This meant that there were fewer visits from the BIA, as it was less convenient for the Western office to send someone, and also the Western office was far less harsh with the Indians.

             A second reason that the tribes did relatively well, remembering always that relatively well for Indians is still very much on the poor side for non-Indians, was due to the Jesuits. One of the tribal leaders, early on in the relationships with the American invaders, had a dream. A giant black crow appeared to him, and promised to come to the aid of the Indians. Somehow he came to realize that the giant black crow was actually a black-robed Catholic Missionary, and set out to find a way to make contacts with such people. While Indians we saw gave no dates for the events they cited, the present Flathead Reservation was established in 1855, Catholic records show that a delgation of four Flathead Indians visited St. Louis as early as 1831, asking the Catholoc Bishop to send missionaries to the Flatheads. The records are confusing to deal with, since the American classification of “Flatheads” was foreign to the Indians, but it turns out there are extensive Catholoc records of mission activity in this period, many of them housed at the library of Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In any case, in 1840 Father Peter DeSmet, SJ, arrived in Montana and, after several years in other locations, established a mission at what is no the village of St. Ignatius n the present Flathead Reservation.

            Why did the Indians want a mission? Well, the BIA was trying to “Americanize” the Indians in a rather harsh way. Children were effectively kidnaped and remove from the ir parents, taken to residential schools where they were closely confined, kept indoors, punished harshly if they spoke an Indian language, and not allowed to visit with their parents. The Jesuits wre willing to negotiate with the Indians. The Jesuits would establish a school in which the children would be taught English and taught Catholicism, but they would not be confined, would be able to visit their homes and parents, and would be allowed to speak their own languages. If the children were in a mission school, they would not be kidnaped by the BIA, which had responsibility to see that the children were in a school taught by non-Indians, but no desire to spend money if someone else was providing the teachers.

            There were a variety of consequences stemming from this choice by the Salish and Kootenai tribes. The Salish and Kootenai languages and history were better preserved and spoken by more people than the languages of some of the tribes further East where the BIA schools has been established. On the other hand, native religious practices such as the Sun Dance were better preserved by tribes such as the Blackfeet and many of the older religious tradition of the Salish and Kootenai were not as well remembered. The Blackfeet still have a large Sun Dance ceremony every July, done in a very traditional way. The Salish and Kootenai are among the many tribes that send representative and observers, thinking about whether or how they should celebrate the Sun Dance on their own reservations.


            Catholic Missionaries


            Over and over again in my travels I’ve become aware of the interesting bits of history in which Catholic missionaries appear. I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and was inevitably aware of the presence of Georgetown University, one of the great Jesuit Universities. One reason for the presence of large Jesuit universities in the United States is an odd one. In the course of an internal squabble within the Catholic Church, the Pope banned the Jesuits in 1773. The order had to formally dissolve, and one question was, in effect, where to hide the assets until a later Pope relented and allowed the order to be reestablished. The American colonies of England had already well established the precedent of independent colleges not fully under either church or government control, Harvard having been established in 1636. So many assets of the Society of Jesus were transferred to universities established by the Jesuits in what eventually became the United States, providing a strong collection of Jesuit-led educational institutions. In 1854 a large group of Jesuits came from the area around Turin, Italy, and did extensive educational work in the American Northwest, founding missions all across Montana; they continued to report to a superior in Italy until 1907 when the became part of the Jesuit Province of California. It is hard to understand the history of this part of the United States without learning something of the history of the Jesuits.

            People interested in Chinese art will encounter important paintings that appear Chinese and whose painters bear Chinese names, but are actually painted by Jesuit missionaries from Italy. The most famous is perhaps “One Hundred Horses”, painted by Lang Shih-ning, who other name is Giuseppe Castiglione, S.J. Those interested in more obscure parts of Jewish history may encounter the Jews of Kaifeng, China, who arrived in China over the silk road about 900 A.D. and were unkniown in the West until encountered by Catholic missionaries to China some seven or eight hundred years later.  


            Flathead Reservation Businesses


            To return to Montana, there are other reasons for the relative prosperity of the Flatheads. The Rocky Boy, Fort Belknap, and Blackfeet Reservations are on very inhospitable land, land so barren that the United States honored its treaties at least to the extent of leaving the land to the Indians. The Flathead Reservation, located near Flathead Lake in Western Montana, is not quite as barren. As a result, some American settlers found some of the land attractive enough to be of interest. The United States government violated the treaty and opened the land to settlers, leaving a scattering of American landholders mixed through the reservation. This substantially hurt efforts to maintain some parts of traditional tribal culture, but it also meant that, unlike on the Blackfeet reservation, there were businesses on the reservation, initially businesses owned by te non-Indian landowners. The Blackfeet had to drive many miles to get to a grocery store or a service station; for the Flatheads they were nearby. Extremely few Blackfeet worked off the reservation, except for firefighters, and there were no businesses on the reservation to provide jobs. The Flatheads cound find jobs in businesses adjacent to or surrounded by the reservation. So the Flatheads learned early how businesses operated and didn’t regard it as unnatural as the Blackfeet did. And they had features that would attract tourists, and now had the business knowhow to make these things profitable. We stayed in a very attractive tribally-owned resort hotel at the south end of Flathead Lake. We also went white-water rafting on the Flathead River where it emerges from the lake. During a calm stretch of the river between stretches of white water, the professional rowing and steering the raft asked if any of the passengers would like to try rowing. My wife, then age 75 but a very experienced rower, naturally had her hand up first and managed to row and control the raft very well. She commented that it seemed “more sluggish than a rowboat” and then noticed that it had nine passengers and was a much larger craft than the standard rowboat. When one of the younger people in the craft attempted to row it, they could not get it to move. I had the good sense not to try.