Sunday, June 22, 2008

Smithsonian Does Good

(This is the reason why authentic Indian is so important at not only the Smithsonian but all institutions that claim to preserve Indian Art and Artifacts)

Research takes students on personal journeys

By BETSY COHEN of the Missoulian

Three weeks ago, five University of Montana students embarked on an academic reconnaissance mission to Washington, D.C.

Funded by the Smithsonian Institute, the young researchers were given a month to accomplish the following objectives: Explore the National Archives and locate all records, documents, recordings, photographs and artifacts pertaining to Montana's Indian tribes.

Make copies of significant findings and map the vast collections where the history is found so others can pick up the trail and find the material over the many summers it will take to copy and bring Montana's Indian history home.

For students Wilena Old Person, Helen Cryer, Miranda McCarvel, Eli Suzukovich III and Glen Still Smoking II, the colossal assignment is both an academic honor and a personal journey unlike any they have ever undertaken.

Entombed in the windowless caverns of the Smithonian's National Anthropological Archives, where the air is stale and the landscape is dominated by floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets, are the stories of their ancestors - the stories of an early Montana few people know.

Add to that prestigious repository all the material regarding Montana's tribes stored in the Library of Congress plus the National Archives, and the information-gathering possibilities quickly overwhelm even the most dogged archivist.

“It's overwhelming and exciting,” said Miranda McCarvel, whose grandparents homesteaded in eastern Montana. “There is so much to find and go through that we all have to remind ourselves to take a deep breath and that you can only do it a day at a time - and that it's worth doing.”

Just how massive is the project?

Eli Suzukovich put it this way: In just one Bureau of Indian Affairs file covering the time period 1881 to 1907, an estimated 2 million pages contain information about water rights irrigation, land sales, and correspondence between Indian agents and the Federal Indian Commission.

Given the mountains upon mountains of material, the hunt can easily become daunting, said Suzukovich, who is of Little Shell and Chippewa-Cree heritage. Luckily, just when the research starts becoming tedious, a thrilling nugget of history is overturned and that gets everyone re-energized.

Sometimes the discovery is an academic treasure, sometimes it is far more profound, like finding the late-1880s deportation orders of the Canadian “half-bloods” also called the “Red River half-bloods” of his Cree relatives.

Such academic work, Suzukovich said, quickly becomes a personal matter.

“It can be a little emotional,” he said. “You are looking at records of somebody you are related to and it's kind of cool to see those chapters of your family's history you didn't know about.”

Glen Still Smoking said words don't really explain how he felt when he unearthed an 1889 letter written by his great-great-great-great-grandfather Mountain Chief, a Blackfeet chief who wrote about a situation regarding his father, also named Mountain Chief.

The letter, addressed to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, states: “The Mountain Chief and Lame Bull - Two Piegan Chiefs made a treaty at the mouth of the Judith River Mont. With Gov. Stevens, about 1855. The Mountain Chief was my father. When he died I turned over his papers and medals to Agent Armitage, he gave me a copy of the treaty which I have since lost. ... I write to ask if you can get me a copy, as I would like very much to have it.”

According to their family story, all of Mountain Chief's belongings - including the treaty - burned when fire destroyed his home, Still Smoking said.

Two other letters from Mountain Chief were found, each asking for a response from the commissioner.

“At first, it took me by surprise that the federal agents didn't follow through,” he said, “but then I wasn't so surprised.”

Still Smoking said he's not sure if Mountain Chief ever got his wish, but he understands why his ancestor made multiple attempts for a response.

The 1885 treaty in question was the Blackfeet tribe's first with the United States, he said, and that time period was filled with great changes for the Blackfeet and all Montana tribes.

“Mountain Chief wrote this letter after the Blackfeet had subsequently sold the Sweetgrass Hills but before the agreement to sell the land that is now Glacier National Park and the Badger Two Medicine lands,” explained David Beck, a UM professor of Native American studies and adviser to the student researchers. “It would have been important for tribal leaders to have copies of the treaties when they were arguing for their rights, and among other things, the 1885 treaty had created a 99-year common hunting ground for many Plains tribes down in the area where Dillon is now.”

A few days later and in a different file, McCarvel came upon a disturbing 1892 letter written by Z.T. Daniel, an Army physician at the Blackfoot Agency, who tells of collecting Indian bodies from graves, which he sent to the Fort Assiniboine and eventually became part of the Smithsonian collection. (It beyond me, however, why anyone would want *bodies* as part of their collection much less taking them from their graves.)

“I have gotten the crania off at last. I shipped them today. ... There are fifteen of them,” Daniel wrote. “The burial place is in plain sight of many Indian houses and very near frequented roads. I had to visit the cemetery at night when not even the dogs were stirring. This was usually between 12 a.m. and daylight. After securing one (a head) I had to pass the Indian sentry at the stockade gate, which I never attempted with more than one for fear of detection.”

Daniel explained his hunting coat had large pockets and was good for carrying and hiding the stolen skulls. “Nearly every time I saw wolves who howled at me, they were always near the dead bodies,” he explained. “The greatest fear I had was that some Indian would miss the heads, see my tracks and ambush me, but they didn't.”

With just one week remaining in their inaugural mission, the students are uncovering more than Beck could ever have hoped.

“This is just an amazing crew of students,” he said. “They have been very enthusiastic and conscientious and really engaged in what they are finding.

“What they are doing is incredibly hard work. You don't find gems of information every single day, and what they have found so far is incredible.”

Everyone involved with the research had an inkling the project would take several years to complete.

Now that they've gotten a good sense of what the archives hold, the enormity of their quest has become exceedingly clear.

“It's obvious we are at the very beginning of a very long journey,” Beck said.

With continued funding from the Smithsonian's American Indian Program, which gives each student researcher a modest stipend and an airline ticket, and with additional funding yet to be determined, the project will likely take eight to 10 years to complete.

Copying and converting all the materials into digital format that can be accessed by computer will be costly. But whatever the price tag may ultimately be, the expense is worth the opportunity for full public access to a remarkable and critical part of Montana's history, Beck said.

As the materials are copied and brought back, they will be made available to Montana's tribes for their own records, and turned over to UM's library for public use.

UM's library will instantly gain world-class stature when the stories and knowledge come out of storage back East, Beck said.

Few people have the time or the resources to comb through the national archival repositories, and much of Montana's Indian history between 1881 and 1907 - which covers critical issues such as the establishment of boarding schools and the end of bison on the Great Plains - can only be found in microfilm and individual documents that are strictly controlled by the National Archives, which is difficult to navigate.

“Once these documents are up on the Internet for all to see, there's no way to know how it will change things,” Beck said. “So much of the material has a very real personal connection to people alive today, and we will never know all the impacts this project will have.”

From the sidelines, Jason Younker is cheering on the Montana researchers.

He led a crew of University of Oregon students on a similar journey in the 1990s, when the Smithsonian's JoAllyn Archambault, director of the National Museum of Natural History's American Indian Program, provided the same funding support.

“From my perspective, you know you are Indian but there's equity in paper truth,” said Younker, a member of Oregon's Coquille tribe who now teaches at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

“When you are actually reading these documents and seeing the name of your family, you become very much attached to those who not only recorded it, but proud someone took the time to memorialize your family.”

There's no way to know the ripple effect of his team's successes in finding and making public the once-buried history of his tribe.

But in recent years, dozens of master's and doctoral theses have sprung from the material, several books are in the making, and Indian history in Oregon is being re-written. He expects the same will unfold in Montana when the material becomes available at UM.

“You have all these memories floating around about tribal people and their history and what actually happened, and then you have the history books that don't necessarily portray the personal connection and the personal histories,” Younker said. “When you sit down and read these fantastic documents, you realize that history has stolen from you the truth and you get a new sense of what actually happened.

“There are a lot of Native people that felt incomplete because who are they to challenge history texts and historic interpretation - and now you have a brand new voice through old documents telling a slightly different story in a different time period.

“We can all learn from that.”

Emboldened by their research and excited for future discoveries, the UM students are making their own history by taking every advantage of their unique assignment.

Last week, they met with Montana Sen. Jon Tester, and this week they meet with the rest of Montana's congressional delegation, Sen. Max Baucus and Rep. Dennis Rehberg.

“We are telling them how important this project is and that is should get funded until the work is done,” said Wilena Old Person, granddaughter of Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person.

Old Person said she was inspired to help arrange the meetings with the delegation after finding in the archives letters her grandfather wrote to the nation's top political leaders.

“I was excited to see how he influenced not only Blackfeet tribal history but the tribal history of Montana,” she said. “And this project is going to take a good amount of years, but it's important to all of Montana.”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at