Graffitied Monument: near Camp Disappointment, Browning MT

Situated along the return route of the  Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, this site is very near another, more historically significant, site that marks the northernmost point on their trip on the same Marias river known as Camp Disappointment (reason explained at this other blog I wrote)…. an event that happened there explains why this monument is so heavily graffitied.

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I passed this ‘monument on a hill’ as I was driving at 80mph (the speed limit) towards Glacier National Park. I stopped, backed up the car (happily there wasn’t much traffic on that road), and took the barely marked, pot holed, uncared for gravel path up to it — worrying about possibly needing to get my tires re-aligned after, or worse getting a flat. Once I got up there, and not yet knowing the context behind its defacement, let’s just say I wasn’t happy about what I saw. But here’s what the whole thing is about.

Back at the National Park’s Lewis and Clark Center, in Great Falls, MT., I had learned how, on their way back to see President Jefferson, after trying to find a tributary of the Missouri river that would travel across the 50th parrallel Captain Lewis’s portion of the expedition met up with a group of eight young Pikuni Blackfeet” warriors on July 26 on his way back from Camp Disappointment to meet up with Clark’s half of the group. After Lewis’s group met this group of Blackfeet, they had sat down to a friendly dinner, that apparently had a included a foot race and some friendly gambling. This is where the agreement among whites and Blackfeet diverges with regards to what happened next.

The next morning the “braves” (whom Native Americans argue were just young boys), are said to have tried to steal the expedition group’s rifles (at least according to Lewis’s men). A fight broke out and two of the Pikuni were killed in the only violent encounter with any native Americans during the whole expedition, part of whose goal was to open up trade and good relations with any tribes they might meet. This incident, however, had the opposite result, with the Blackfeet closing off their territory to whites for the next 80 years — till it was opened again by force. And then, to add insult to injury, from their perspective, Blackfeet became one of the ‘go-to’ tribes (along with others, like the Pawnee) for “bad/violent tribes” in American myth and movies.

As such, what happened to the monument was not just wanton destruction (although it is) but rather is evidence of the repercussions of an historic event (albeit one not described on the monument) that to most of the Anglo population of America is just a footnote in history, but to the Blackfeet is a source of constant grievance regarding how they are displayed in the historical narrative of America.

I think it is highly relevant that I learned all of this NOT at the visitors center, but rather later, after mentioning to a professor I met near Glacier National Park about what had been done to this monument. He was the one that told me that the Blackfeet tribal members are STILL seriously pissed off about this incident and blame it completely on the “invaders”.

That said, I will note that on the American side there is a single interpretation of what happened, while on the Blackfeet side there are multiple and conflicting ones, with one story saying that during it was there had been gambling and racing and that the warriors were in fact boys who were as young as 13, who had been led to believe they had ‘won’ the rifles, and were just taking what they’d believed was theirs… While another story says that Lewis’ men had said they would be distributing rifles (as trade goods) to other tribes that unbeknownst to the Anglos were in fact enemies of the Blackfeet (and the braves in this story are not described as young, as they are in the other account), and that the braves decided they needed to keep that from happening, by stealing said weapons., etc.

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That said, when you consider an ‘ancient history’ like this, with more recent events, graffiti like this becomes a bit more understandable, if no more acceptable.

However, the issues come close to home than that. While most Americans know nothing of this, in the not too distant past, the late 1990’s, a now deceased Blackfeet tribal member by the name of Elouise Cobell brought a case titled, Cobell v. Babbitt against the United states Department of Interior based on her own investigation of their practices that she said “revealed mismanagement, ineptness, dishonesty, and delay of federal officials”of indian trust assets (money owned by the government but held in trust for Native Americans… to the tune of $176 billion — with a B. Not that long ago, 2010 a government approved settlement was finally reached of $3.4 billion, making this the largest class action settlement against the government to date; of course some of this money will go to compensate individuals, such as the lawyers who worked on the case, as well as tribal members who paid out of pocket to bring it forward, however, the rest will be used to buy back tribal lands Native Americans have been forced to sell away to pay off debts (placed on them because of the remunerations they were not receiving), and to set up a $60 million scholarship fund.

 

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