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Thursday, May 3, 2018

What's Old Is New Again

Montana history has been jumping out at me from today's headlines. I'm seeing ties to the past just about everywhere I look these days.

Here are a few contemporary topics with historical resonances for those interested in teaching "the past as prologue."

1. County Splitting
"Blackfeet Legislator Proposes Creating new Montana County," ran in the May 23, 2018, Missoulian. Frustrated by the lack of services on the reservation during this winter's severe snowstorms,  Representative George Kipp III has asked for a feasibility study to look "at the costs of creating and running" a new county, carved out of Pondera and Glacier Counties, which has the same boundaries as the Blackfeet Reservation.

Here's how we wrote about the county busting craze of the 1910s, when almost half of our 56 counties were created in chapter 15 of Montana: Stories of the Land:
"One Progressive idea changed the map of Montana by splitting big eastern counties into smaller ones. As the homesteaders peopled more of Montana, they wanted to be more involved in local politics, so they wanted their county seats closer. And eastern farmers knew that having more, smaller counties would give them a stronger voice in the state legislature because each county had one state senator. (This changed in the 1960s.)  
"In 1915 the Montana legislature passed a law allowing people to redraw their county lines by submitting a petition to the state. In the next few years, Montana’s 27 counties split into 56 smaller counties. Splitting up counties was called “county-busting.” 
"Many small counties in eastern Montana struggle today with the aftereffects of the Progressive Era county-busting craze. Of the 56 counties in the state, 22 have fewer than 5,000 people. Thirteen counties have fewer than 2,000 people; Petroleum County has only 474. Nearly every legislature since 1936 has considered consolidating (combining several into one) some of these counties, but these measures have failed because citizens want to keep their county seats."
And here's an article Dave Walter wrote about county splitting: "County Busting: Colorful Memories and an Economic Legacy," Montana Magazine, 78 (July-Aug., 1986).

2. Disaster and Disaster Response

"Montana's Hi-Line underwater and in a state of emergency," read the April 18, 2018, Great Falls Tribune headline. In an April post, I pointed out that the Tribune had gathered its articles about the 1964 flood in one place, provided a link to an article on the 1964 flood on the Blackfeet Reservation, and referred readers to an old post I wrote about teaching about disasters. More recently I came across the site SixtyFourFlood.Com, which includes videotaped oral histories of the flood as well as links to relevant documents and archival collections. 

3. Tribal Nationhood
"Trump challenges Native Americans’ historical standing" was published in Politico on April 22, 2018.  (For those interested in bias in media--which should be all of us--note that, according to Media Bias/Fact Check, Politico is left of center in political orientation but its factual reporting is rated "high.")

Although the immediate issue is whether tribal recipients of Medicaid should be subject to work requirements, the larger issue is whether Native Americans should be considered racial or ethnic designation or whether American Indians are members of sovereign tribal nations to which the U.S. government has treaty obligations. Articles in both Mvskoke Media (the newspaper of the Muscogee/Creek Nation) and Indian Country Today (both of which approach politics from tribal perspectives) expanded on Politico's reporting with added emphasis on the topic of sovereignty.

There are also three cases before the Supreme Court this spring that will affect current interpretations of sovereignty and treaty rights, including Washington v U.S., which I touched on in this April post.

These current news stories reminded me of these excerpts from Chapter 20 and Chapter 22 of Montana: Stories of the Land, talking about shifts in federal Indian policy:
"Throughout U.S. history the government has shifted between two completely different policies toward American Indians. One acknowledges Indian tribes as sovereign (independent and self-governing) nations inhabiting their own lands. Under this approach the U.S. government made treaties (agreements between governments) with Indian tribes (see Chapter 7).
"The other approach, which is quite the opposite, sees American Indians as an ethnic group within the U.S. population. Under this approach the government periodically has tried to dissolve Indian tribes and to assimilate (absorb) Indian people into mainstream society. The Dawes Act of 1887 was one example of this policy (see Chapter 11).
"In the 1930s the government returned some powers of self-government to tribes and tried to encourage tribal cultures to strengthen (see Chapter 18). In 1953 the government changed its policy again. Congress decided to end, or terminate, its special relationship with some Indian tribes. The government called this policy termination (the end of something). The government selected specific tribes to terminate. The plan was to withdraw federal support from these tribes, abolish their tribal governments, sell off tribal lands, and end all treaty rights (tribal rights established by treaty). ...
"In 1975 Congress enacted the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. After 22 years under the termination policy (see Chapter 20), America’s Indian people gained back some of their sovereign powers. With the Self-Determination Act, American Indian tribes gained the right to govern tribal affairs on their reservations (land that tribes reserved for their own use through treaties). Self-determination means that Indian tribes and the federal government more often deal with one another on a government-to-government basis, as they did when the United States was formed." 
It also made me think of Essential Understandings Regarding Montana Indians #5: "There were many federal policies put into place throughout American history that have affected Indian people and still shape who they are today. Many of these policies conflicted with one another." Are we heading into a new federal Indian policy era?

One of my favorite "Enduring Questions" is "What has changed and what's remained the same?" A second might be, "What, if anything, can we learn from past attempts to wrestle with issues similar to the ones we face today?"

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