Tuesday, July 20, 2010

100 Years of White Settlement on Flathead Reservation Marks Uneasy Milestone

By Carly Flandro

On one side of the Ninepipes Museum in Charlo, at the heart of the Flathead Reservation in Northwest Montana, the display is dominated by Indian jewelry, blankets and traditional beaded moccasins. On the other side, it’s a collection of cowboy hats and paintings of white men on horses.

Indians and settlers have lived side by side on this reservation for 100 years, but at the museum – and in the community – the division between them is still evident.

This year is the centennial anniversary of the Flathead Indian Reservation being opened to settlers. In 1910, under the Homestead Act, settlers were allowed to claim land that had been set aside for the Kootenai, Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribes. Though the natives and non-natives didn’t share cultures, beliefs or lifestyles, they now share this history – which both groups are striving to preserve and re-tell.

Bud Cheff is in his mid-70’s, but when he gives a tour of the Ninepipes Museum – which he constructed and financed – he’s like a young boy, starting a new story before the last is finished.

Cheff, who has spent his life collecting the artifacts, pictures and paintings that fill the museum, walks to a glass case and looks at a shotgun inside. He squints, pointing out notches that have been carved into the gun’s leather handle. Each represents a buffalo killed, he says. Many of the notches have worn away by now, but there used to be more than 30.

That was in a different time, when wild buffalo roamed Montana from Pablo to Ravalli County, the last free-roaming herd in the country. Those buffalo were eventually captured and sold to Canada to make room for homesteaders, Cheff says.

“It took ‘em about seven years to catch them all, though,” he says, a small smile growing from the corners of his lips.

Cheff, who wears cowboy boots and a hat, is white, but grew up learning Indian traditions. His father used to go out with the natives to dig roots, gather herbs and hunt for pine nuts. That background has made Cheff integrate well with natives in the area.

“I don’t think there are any prejudices here,” he says.

Ruth Swaney, who’s affiliated with the Salish tribe, doesn’t agree.

She grew up on the reservation, attending school with white children during the 1970s. One day, in particular, she says she’ll never forget. Her little brother had been growing his hair out so he could braid it. Several boys started harassing him and a teacher came over to see what was happening. When she found out, she violently grabbed Swaney’s brother by the hair.

“That’s all your long hair is good for,” the teacher said before releasing him.

Swaney’s also seen prejudiced natives – including her father, a formal tribal chairman.

“Do you know what the Indian problem is?” he would ask when speaking at different events. “It’s 210 million white people.”

The crowd would gasp or cheer, depending on who was in it.

But the disconnect between the reservation’s co-existing races isn’t always so obvious, she says. There are subtle separations, including the physical location of homes. Indians tend to live in government housing, while white people live together in more expensive neighborhoods. The two groups also attend different social events that identify with their cultures. For example, Swaney attends pow-wows, where she doesn’t see many white people.

These daily divisions and tensions are the aftermath of profound changes; for the native people, 1910 was the year they began to lose their culture, language and land.

“Changes to our lifestyle occurred so rapidly that the adjustment is still going on today,” she says.

For her two daughters, it seems the reality of those adjustments was most harsh in their teen years. Both attended Ronan High School, where interaction with white teens was unavoidable.

Catherine Addison, 22, remembers feeling intimidated and outnumbered by the white students. So, whenever she could, she would hang out with other natives. Though she was a student athlete with a 4.0 GPA, Addison says she was accused of being a “gang member” and restricted from hanging out with more than two or three people at a time.

Nearby, her 2-year-old daughter plays with some toys. Addison looks at her and says she’s already worried about how she will be treated in high school. She knows her daughter will be smart, outspoken, tall and dark-skinned. It’s sad, Addison says, but those traits make her worry. Her daughter will stand out and be a target for harassment.

Addison and her sister, Marianne Addison, 25, have learned the painful history of their people from their own reading and from their mother, but it’s not a history they are bitter about.

“We can look back and be hateful,” Marianne says. “Or we can acknowledge it and be aware of it, and then get better.”

She and her sister are both mothers, and they too will pass their people’s history to the next generation.

Many other young people who live in Montana may not have had the opportunity to learn the history of the Flathead Reservation. Julie Cajune, a former educator and tribal member, is trying to make sure they do.

Cajune recently received a $1.4-million grant to write books and create a film about the history of the Salish and Kootenai tribes, making the information more accessible for Montana teachers and students in particular.

Natives and non-natives have both been trying, through museums, books, or otherwise, to tell their stories. Usually, they do so separately. This year, however, in acknowledgment of the 100-year anniversary of the homesteading act, the two groups agreed to tell their history together with commemoration events.

Lois Hart, the president of the Polson Flathead Historical Museum, began planning for the events two years ago, and asked the tribes for their support. They agreed at first, then decided they wanted no part in the commencement.

“We wanted the unblemished history to be told unfettered once and for all,” says Rob McDonald, the spokesman for the Salish-Kootenai tribes. “But it was not coming together that way, and people were on the verge of being very upset. They were afraid it would turn into the whitewashing of history and become a celebration of the beginning of the tribal holocaust story.”

Hart has since decided to scale down the event, which she is calling a “Polson Centennial,” acknowledging the creation of the town with the Homestead Act. The centennial will take place through August and was kicked off with a July Fourth parade and ice-cream social.

“I admit the tone is different than when it was going to be a commemoration,” Hart says. “But I won’t use the word celebration. The lives of the homesteaders were not easy, and a lot of our (historical) programs will be sobering.”

To McDonald, trying to plan the event together was like filling a room with gunpowder and looking for a way not to start a spark.

On the Flathead Reservation, it seems history can be volatile.

Maybe Cheff understood that when setting up the displays in his museum lobby, and knew that – while this hundred-year history is best told under one roof – it still needs to be told from opposite sides of the room.

Monday, June 28, 2010

States, Communities Struggling With Medical Marijuana Regulations

Whether it's the LAPD attempting to close 400 of the city's marijuana dispensaries or Montana adding nearly 20 percent more card-carrying medical marijuana users just last month, states and municipalities are struggling this summer with legislating about medical pot.

Some 15 states have passed laws that legalize medical marijuana in some form. For most of them, dispensing the drug remained a small and tentative program until October of last year. That was when the Obama administration decided to take a hands-off approach to state operations.

"It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana," Attorney General Eric Holder said then, adding all bets were off with trafficking across state "behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal."

The stance assumed the various state laws were ready to actually regulate the industry. But attitudes and rules vary greatly state-by-state and county-by-county in Patchwork Nation. What has ensued is a flood of new patients and dispensaries, the corresponding complaints against them, a few hurry-up efforts to modify the laws and, in a few isolated cases, violence against marijuana stores.

Read more at the PBS NewsHour...

Monday, June 14, 2010

In Montana, GOP Looks to Regroup After Primary Infighting

As we get further from last week's primaries and the rush of analysis on races in Nevada, Arkansas and California, there's more to say about what's happening politically at the state level. In Montana, there was only one statewide race for a sole U.S. House seat. The lion's share of candidates ran for state House and Senate seats, sheriff and judgeships.

In this year of anti-incumbent fervor, more minor races wound up contested, especially on the Republican side of the ticket. Many political commentators in the state chalked these new candidates up to the tea party movement, and some of the more contentious contests did pit more moderate Republican incumbents against harder conservatives.

In the end, though, it seems Tuesday's primary confirmed a basic truth of politics: People dislike all incumbents except their own. In Montana, only one incumbent lost a seat in the state Legislature, and that first-termer lost to a term-limited state senator who decided to switch houses in Helena. So, where, to paraphrase Bob Dole, is all the voter outrage?

For a while, it looked like it was out there and centered right in the middle of the Republican Party.

Read more at the PBS NewsHour...

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Federal Money Works the Beat in Ronan

-- By Carly Flandro; Photos by Rollo Scott

When Troy Rexin got the news, he almost pulled his car over so he could get out and dance along the freeway.

After being unemployed for a year, the former auto mechanic had finally gotten a job. He would be a police officer – a job he’d always wanted – in Ronan, Mont.

Now, several months later, Rexin sits in the Ronan police department and scrubs hard at the toe of his black boot, rubbing in the polish with a cloth. It’s a brand new pair of boots, but for the new police officer they’re not shiny enough.

Rexin paid for the boots, as well as the black uniform, gun and badge that he’s wearing. Together, they cost him almost $2000. The police department didn’t have the money to pay for his new attire, so Rexin was required to buy it for himself. In fact, the department doesn’t have the budget to pay for Rexin – so it’s relying on a grant from the federal stimulus program to provide his salary.

Now, the department has six employees to safeguard nearly 2,000 local people.

“Ronan is getting bigger so the crime rate is increasing,” says James Seymour, the patrolman training Rexin. “It’s a big, big help for us to have an extra person that we don’t have to pay for.”

The Tractor Country community applied for a grant with the U.S. Department of Justice as part of President Obama’s massive economic stimulus programs. The grant will pay Rexin’s salary for three years, and the police department will pay his salary during the fourth year. After that, Rexin’s job security will depend on the department’s budget.

In the meantime, Rexin is just happy to have a job – an opportunity provided by federal efforts to kick-start an economy that stripped him of his former position at a car garage.

“I’ve heard stories of how the stimulus isn’t helping, but it’s helped me out a lot,” Rexin says. “This is the first job I’ve ever had where I wake up and want to go to work.”

On this Friday evening, Rexin and Seymour are working a ten-hour shift from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.  For Seymour, who came two hours early, it will be a 12-hour shift. He came early to finish paperwork, and he did it for free because it needed to be done.

Ronan policemen are used to volunteering their time. Just a few blocks away, Seymour says, the police chief is spending his weekend night fixing his patrol vehicle.

“I don’t think of this as a job because that would be something you do every day for a paycheck,” Seymour says. “The people who work here do it because they are dedicated and loyal, and they don’t complain about doing stuff in their off-time.”

Rexin, who has been hunched over his boot while he scrubs it, straightens his back and holds the boot in front of him. He can see his reflection, so he knows it’s shiny enough.

He puts it on, and the two officers get ready to patrol the town. They step into their SUV and close the doors. It, like the majority of their vehicles, has more than 100,000 miles on it.

They drive to a parking lot adjacent to Highway 93, which runs through Ronan, and watch for cars that are speeding or violating the law. It’s twenty minutes before a blue van drives by going ten miles over the speed limit.

“There’s one,” says Seymour, stepping on the gas as they pull out of the parking lot.

This is the only crime they’ve seen in the last four hours of their shift. It’s been a slow night so far, but it could get busy at any minute.

Either way, with an extra police officer on hand, they’ll be prepared.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"Tea Party" Revolution, Ronan Style

-- By Lee Banville

The goals of the “tea party” movement are much discussed among the punditry – reform the Republican Party, take on President Obama’s healthcare plan, elect Ron Paul president. But for some tea partyers on the Western front of the movement, the mission is clear: Restore the Constitution.

Here in the “Tractor Country” community of Ronan, Mont., a group known as Calling All Conservatives is ramping up. A monthly meeting on Tuesday brought out more than 300 people.

Inside the Ronan Community Center, a couple of things are clear – mainly, it’s packed. People mill about tables stacked with books to help you plan for a failure of the electrical grid. There’s a sign-up sheet for the “10th Amendment Working Group” (named for the amendment reserving to the states all rights not explicitly outlined in the Constitution).

Along the far wall, folding tables crowded with dozens of potluck dishes abut a display selling the book “The Gun Laws of Montana.” The people who’ve come out range from their late 70s to their teens and, although they chat as musicians play acoustic guitar and mandolin, they’re not here just to socialize. They want to talk serious politics and debate constitutional theory.

Read more at the Patchwork Nation site at the Christian Science Monitor.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Former Plum Creek Employee Seeks New Beginning

-- By Rollo Scott

Late last year, we reported on how the closure of the Plum Creek mill in Ronan continued to impact the local economy and the mill's former workers. Rollo Scott sat down with one of the workers laid off by the mill closure and what he is doing to support his family and change his career.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Ronan Vets Skeptical of Obama's Commitment in Afghanistan

-- By Carly Flandro

At the VFW in Ronan, Mont., old veterans sit at tables and sip their coffee. An American flag leans against the wall behind them, a symbol of what they've dedicated their lives to. They are talking and visiting, like they do almost every morning.

This morning, though, they are talking about Obama.

The president recently announced he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, a plan that has not been strongly supported throughout the country. Ronan, however, sits in one of two community types that Patchwork Nation found were split over the troop increase.

Although "Tractor Country" polls show that as many people support an increase in troops as a decrease, here among Ronan's military members and veterans the overwhelming majority of voices are strongly opposed to Obama's decision.

But unlike some opposition based on increased troop levels, these vets say it is his intention to withdraw troops by July 2011 that prompts their disapproval. To them, the so-called "exit strategy" indicates that the president is not dedicated to winning the war.

"If you're going to commit people, to expose themselves to die, you ought to try to win and go home," says Ken Wersland, who was in the military for 26 years.

As an Air Force bombardier, Wersland spent time in Japan, Vietnam, Germany, Turkey and Spain. Those years, Wersland says, changed his perspective about his country.

After being in the military, he's become more politically conservative. Wersland is skeptical of Obama, but says his plan could be worthwhile if it helps Afghanistan to form a stronger infrastructure and provide better education for its citizens. Regardless of what happens, Wersland says it's a soldier's job to obey, not question decisions.

"No matter your rank, you have the last two words in every decision: yes sir or yes ma'am. And that's the way it is," he says. "If anybody thinks other than that, they cannot be successful in the military."

Dan Hall, another Vietnam veteran, pulls up a chair next to Wersland. Hall fought on the ground, which Wersland says is very different from fighting in the air.

"Air war is quiet and impersonal," Wersland says. "You can inflict damage (with a bomb) but you can't hear it go boom or smell it. You're not down there worrying about leeches on your legs or mines in the ground."

Those mines have lingered in Hall's memory, especially the one that detonated when a fellow soldier stepped on it. The explosion propelled Hall up and backwards into the air, leaving him with two to three feet of scars and permanent hearing loss.

Hall has experienced the gravity of war, and he says that the 30,000 new troops being sent to Afghanistan should go with the intention of winning -- that way, the traumas they'll endure will have had a purpose.

"If they go over there, get involved and pull out, it'll be a lot of deaths for nothing," he says.

The physical tolls of war are often tragic, but so are the mental tolls, says Bert Todd, a Korean veteran. The suicide rate among service personnel is the highest it's ever been, he says. People are being deployed multiple times, and some have been sent to war five different times.

Todd's son, Kyle, is in Iraq on his second deployment.

"His mother has nightmares," Todd says.

Todd, too, thinks about what could happen to his son. He could come back with serious physical or mental problems, or worse -- he could not come back at all.

"But," Todd says, "there's nothing I can do about it."

The conversation lightens quickly as Hall talks about drinking dirty water from streams when he was in Vietnam, and Todd takes the excuse to laugh, to think about something else.

At her house, Charleen Crenshaw thumbs through a photo album, looking at pictures of her son. He's in the military, and there are pictures of him in uniform, and others of his wife and children.

Crenshaw, who wears a t-shirt that says "freedom isn't free," is one of four people in her family who are in the military or have been at some time. She's a human resources specialist, and went to Kuwait in 2006.

Crenshaw says she will always obey her commander in chief, but she's concerned about the decisions Obama has made.

"Obama's never even been in the military," she says. "It doesn't seem like he has as good of a grasp on what's going on as he should."

Crenshaw says the extra troops could be beneficial, though, because they'll supplement the soldiers who are already there and hopefully prevent some deaths by creating a stronger force.

But she also knows how those soldiers' absences from home will make a difference. When her son is gone, it's one less place at the dinner table. When her husband is gone, there is less help with the kids. And when she's gone, it means someone else will have to cook and clean.

"When a soldier deploys, it's not just him," Crenshaw says. "His family deploys with him, and so does his community."

In Ronan, Mont., the military members and veterans know the importance of obeying the commander in chief. But they also know that 30,000 is not just a number -- it is people, families and communities. If all that is going to be further ricked in Afghanistan, they say, they should go until they win.