Twenty-first century Americans often forget just how shallow, historically speaking, our tenure in these plains, river valleys, and mountains is. We speak of our land, our home, our way of life, forgetting that this land was home to people long before our grandfathers came looking for furs and gold. We forget that these people had ways of living they too found precious, ways of living that were disrupted and eventually mostly forgotten. There are records of some of these people and their ways; but these are mostly written by strangers, some of whom were often less than sympathetic to the lives of the people they wrote about.
In Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho we have the Journal of a Trapper by Osborne Russell which deals with the early fur trappers’ interaction with the Crow, Blackfeet, Shoshone and other Native Americans. But Russell speaks from the view of men who saw the Indians as rivals and often as opponents in a deadly killing game. What clues we gain from his Journal about the way the Blackfeet or Shoshone lived is happenstance and usually related to warfare and fighting, since war is how Russell and his pals most often met the People.
There are also countless other diaries and journals by colonizers and missionaries. One of them is the writing of Narccissa Whitman. Her journals and letters, like many written by missionaries coming into a strange country, were at best disparaging, but usually downright condemning of the ways of the Cayuse and Nez Perce she lived among. Though she went among the Indians with her husband to make Christian friends of them, by the time of her killing, her mission had made them enemies. Again the clues she provides to the way of life of the Cayuse and Nezperce she lived among is colored by her belief that her ways and the ways of her people were defined by God; hence the ways of the Cayuse were evil.
We do have oral traditions passed to us through the few people who survived the depredations of the colonist culture. And we have the writings of many Native Americans over the last century, including my favorite, James Welch. There is also William Least Heat Moon and Louise Erdrich–among many others. Most of these observe and report the current cultural milieu, because it is what they know, though their touchstone is what they can find of the past. There are a few who wrote earlier, and some of these describe pockets of culture as they saw it; but even they are usually a generation removed from the pre-colonization way of life and limited by their distance in time from when their grandfathers actually lived that life. Because these story tellers exist within the colonizing culture, their stories are often somewhat colored it.
About a mile from my home, I know of a lodge foundation (commonly called a tepee circle). It may be gone now since there is a house sitting about where I remember it was when I was a boy. Whether gone or there, like so much about those people, it is about all we have to remember them. Their stories are gone; the way they cooked their foods is mostly in the smoke now; the rules for the games they played are forgotten. How and what they taught their children is a smattering of legend. We have little but a circle of stones; and all it tells us is that at one time in the past people camped near this stream.
This summer a history club I belong to is planning a field trip to the Wall Creek Game Preserve at the upper end of the Madison Valley. The Wall Creek Game Preserve is land, once home to four or five ranches, that has been bought by the state of Montana and set aside for wildlife. Before the ranches it was a camping ground for Native Americans. In fact, the Game Preserve includes a site where Osborne Russell and about thirty-five other trappers ambushed a Blackfeet encampment. There is also a stone effigy, somewhat larger-than-life size (complete with definitely larger-than-life phallus), laid out on the slope of a nearby hill.
This field trip would be a good time to contemplate the ironies of walking land where two cultures—the Native American way of life and the late 19th Century ranch ways—have been disrupted by a different culture with new ways of thinking about land use and wildlife. It would also be useful to contemplate that none of these ways were/are any better than any other; but that each reflects how mankind tries to solve problems he/she finds when he/she arrives to live on this planet. Finally, it might also be a good time to think how the study of and recording of history helps us to carry culture across time to enrich lives of generations to come, and how we might avoid the failure of so many encroaching cultures to document and remember the people we replace.
This article, modified somewhat, will appear in the April 2018 Wagon Tongue, newsletter for the Madison Valley History Association.
Howsomever, “disrupted” does appear in the original. I aint cheatin’ on that score.