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Off the Res Ellen Thompson
Off the Res
Montana's marginalized Chippewa Indians have preserved their sense of identity better than officially recognized tribe members.
HILL 57 IS NAMED FOR A BUNCH OF ROCKS arranged in the shape of the "57" that once promoted the Heinz Company's "57 varieties" of food. It's a shantytown on the outskirts of Great Falls, which has a population of around 57,000 people and is Montana's third largest city. Over the course of a century, the hill was sometimes home to as many as 200 landless Indians. It was abandoned about 15 years ago, with most of its residents leaving for public housing, but for generations Hill 57 served as a de facto reservation. A hundred miles and a sour history separate it from Rocky Boy Reservation, where many one-time Hill 57 residents believe that they and their families should have been welcomed.
In 1917, the United States government enrolled as members of the newly formed reservation 451 Chippewa and Cree Indians and gave them 56,000 acres of prairie, rolling hills, and diminutive mountains in north-central Montana. (The acreage has since grown to about 130,000.) The reservation was created by Congress for Chief Rocky Boy's band of Chippewa Indianswho were part of one of North America's largest tribes and had migrated to Montana from North Dakotaand whatever other landless Indians the U.S. secretary of the interior saw fit to include. Those other Indians turned out to be the state's landless Cree.
Reservation members and their several thousand descendants had an official identity as Indians and rights to housing, education, and health benefits that tribal members still enjoy. Ninety or so others in the Rocky Boy band weren't enrolled because Chief Rocky Boy died while establishing the reservation and the group left, either out of fear (rumors spread on the reservation that the chief was assassinated by a group of Indians who weren't Chippewa) or to avoid discrimination. Enrollment was overseen by Cree Chief Little Bear and the Cree made up the majority on the reservation's official roll.
Iron Claw Bear Woman, a niece of Chief Rocky Boy, was one of the 90. She preserved Chippewa culture by telling her people stories about the band's history. Her son, Robert Gopher, who made his living as an auto mechanic, became a cultural leader known throughout the region and into Canada. Forty years ago, he built a sweat lodge on Hill 57 so that landless Indians living there could continue their ceremonial practices, which were said to bring purification, healing, and renewal through prayer and physical depletion. Robert began a nonprofit organization called Loud Thunder to collect Chippewa knowledge.
One of its achievements was gathering pieces of the Chippewa Midewiwin, which had previously been lost in Montana. Midewiwin is a rite of passage involving intense prayer performed over several days four times in a person's life. The Gopher family also organized round dances, in which participants shuffle in unison in a clockwise pattern to singing and drumbeats of musicians. The dancing, along with memorial feasts, is a way to honor family members who have died in the past year. Hill 57 and Great Falls are now the only places in Montana where any Chippewa ceremonies are carried on, including at Rocky Boy Reservation.
Before the reservation was formed, Rocky Boy Chippewa and Little Bear Cree had been intermarrying for yearsso the merger of their bands seemed logical to the U.S. government administrator who made it happen. Members of Rocky Boy Reservation created a constitution in 1935 under the recent Indian Reorganization Act, and they took the name Chippewa Cree Tribe. To Chippewa descendants on and off the reservation, the name suggests more congeniality between the bands than the Chippewa have actually experienced.
Under the combined influence of the U.S. government's assimilation policies and the dominant Cree, Chippewa culture has all but disappeared from the reservation. The older generation speaks mostly Cree, the younger mostly English. Ojibway is the name of the Chippewa languageOjibwa being a synonym for Chippewa (they're alternate transliterations of the same Indian word)but it's rarely spoken. The word "Chippewa" is now used as a pejorative there and is frequently heard as a retort, as in, "Must have been a Chippewa." The Chippewa elder Duncan Standing Rock, a relative of Robert Gopher's who is enrolled at Rocky Boy Reservation, calls himself "the last Mohican" there, after the James Fenimore Cooper novel. (The Last of the Mohicans ends with the death of the final young tribal member, who leaves behind only his aging father.) Humor is a traditional Indian way of coping, so when Standing Rock says that if he wants to speak his native language, he talks to himself, he expects a laugh.
Melinda Gopher, Iron Claw Bear Woman's granddaughter and Robert Gopher's daughter, is a small, taut, and deliberate 40-year-old. She is worried because another band of landless Indians, some of whom also grew up on Hill 57, is trying to gain recognition as a tribe, and descendants of the Rocky Boy band have joined with that band. The other band, the Little Shell, consists mostly of descendants of Chippewa who intermarried with French traders. Originally from North Dakota like the Rocky Boy, the Little Shell are the only band of Chippewa from that area who haven't been recognized by the U.S. government and don't have their own reservation. A headline of a New York Times article about them recently stated: "Homeless for Over a Century, a Tribe Awaits U.S. Redemption." The Little Shell have a Creole culture distinct from that of the Rocky Boy Chippewa. If the Rocky Boy band joins as a minority, Gopher is convinced that Chippewa culture could be swallowed up again.
GOPHER HAS A QUIXOTIC DREAM that a federal court will order the U.S. Department of the Interior to look at the past lists, now almost 100 years old, that Chief Rocky Boy made of his band before the reservation was created and to reinstate those who were excluded and their descendants. She also wonders if there is a way to have the U.S. government deport the Cree Indians to Canada, something the government tried and failed to do and gave up on in the 1890s.
She is considering filing a motion as an intervening plaintiff in a case brought by the Chippewa Cree Tribe of Rocky Boy Reservation to seek an accounting from the U.S. secretary of the interior of trust accounts managed by the department. The idea is that this back-door maneuver could require the federal court with jurisdiction over the case to decide on her band's status, a decision traditionally left to sovereign tribes. In the meantime, she wants the Rocky Boy band to remain separate from the efforts of the Little Shell.
To win over others to her way of thinking, three years ago Gopher formed a traditional Chippewa clan council to lead the Rocky Boy band. One hundred and fifty people attended the clan's first meeting, and about 500 relatives and friends attended the most recent round dance held last fall in Great Falls. Gopher has reunited the people once led by her grandmother and father, who are both gone.
She grew up on Hill 57 in her father's home, a two-room shack that sheltered eight other people and had no indoor plumbing. Recently Gopher went back to look at her former neighborhood, which is nearly empty. The shack she lived in from her birth in 1965 until she was 20, when she left home to live on her own in Great Falls, is gone. Her uncle's house remains, along with one other. At the base of a tawny hill, the two wood-frame houses stand close together with trash gathered around them. Pop cans and Wal-Mart bags are the only reminders that this is Montana and not the moon.
Behind one house is a four-foot-tall domed hut, her father's sweat lodge, supported by bent branches and shrouded with multicolored carpet squares and blankets. Beside the lodge is a pile of wooden crates, dumped by a local shipper at the Rocky Boy band's request. The discarded wood is used to fire the rocks that release the smells of smoldering herbs and draw the sweat from the dozens of Rocky Boy Chippewa who visit weekly. Use of the lodge is organized by Gopher's 71-year-old mother, Dorothy. The Gophers and friends pray there for the health of the band.
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