Publication Date
October 10, 2019

Leif Castren is a graduate student of Environmental Management and Religion at the Yale School of Forestry and the Yale Divinity School.

Yale’s Beinecke library houses the original maps of the 1907-1912 allotment of lands on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation (Montana). The General Allotment Act (a.k.a. the Dawes Severalty Act or Dawes Act), enacted February 1887, contained provisions to break up Native American reservations where the tribal land base was held in common ownership and to assign to individual tribal members 320-acre homesteads. In other words, allotment was the imposition of a private property system onto native peoples and their remaining lands. Cartographer Abner F. Dunnington and his team of surveyors from the U.S. Land Office drew up the maps setting what were, from the perspective of the lands and the peoples of the lands, unprecedented lines of division and assignments of propriety. The lines inked onto these maps have been etched into soils and souls across the plains—on the Blackfeet reservation and beyond, for the Blackfeet (a.k.a. the Amskapi Pikuni or Southern Piegan) and for all heirs to the history of this country. Incontestably, the power of the maps was wielded by Euro-Americans against Native Americans. An inquiry into these maps has compelled me not only to judge harshly the historic actions of my government, but to reassess the moral legitimacy of a geographic system I still largely take for granted.

These maps are an historic artifact of what is now the hegemonic American plains geography. While they strike me, an American familiar with the modern Great Plains, as a rather banal illustration of basic cartographical, political, and legal principles—a land surface surveyed in two dimensions; crisp boundaries delineating distinct fields; individual human proprietors who hold the right to alter, develop, and use—my complacence reveals only that the gridded, two-dimensionalized spatial order, the private property regime, and intensive agriculture have been effectively naturalized into the wetware of my psyche and normalized in the zeitgeist of my society. For the Blackfeet who had been living on the plains for millennia—hunting and gathering in nomadic bands, congregating in larger groups for ceremonies, interacting in war and diplomacy and trade with autonomous neighboring tribes—the allotment maps were almost certainly an unfamiliar and seemingly arbitrary way of delineating space and assigning meaning to place. Here, not from some simple-minded lack of understanding—surely the Blackfeet were able to comprehend the concepts the map peddled—but rather because the universe within which the Blackfeet’s territory on the northern plains was situated had an arrangement, an order—people and animals and plants had their places and their own meaningful ways of relating to one another. Thousands of years of sensitization had yielded ingenious indigenous adaptations of lifeway to the complexities of the plains landscape. Nonetheless the ancestors’ ways of living, perceiving, and representing the meanings of land were swept under the rug of the colonial political process.

The Dawes Act neither originated in nor served Blackfeet interests, needs, or values. Most charitably, it drew from a paternalistic effort to pre-package a pipedream of self-sufficiency through agrarian individualism and to deliver it to native peoples through a re-organization of land they already owned. Allotted parcels were meant for use in agricultural production, but the government officials responsible for facilitating the transition largely neglected their charge, for it was insincere. Farmers across the country were abandoning subsistence agriculture in favor of marketable cash crop farming and most of the lands of the Blackfeet Reservation were widely understood to be unfit for agriculture. Cattle grazing, the actually profitable industry for which many Blackfeet expressed an interest and aptitude, presented a high bar of entry to would-be Blackfeet ranchers, most of whom had not the means to make requisite initial investments. Savvy Blackfeet negotiators, in an effort to protect their people, had included a provision to 1886 legislation ensuring that the lands of the reservation would never be allotted, but to no avail. Allotment proceeded in 1907 on the Blackfeet Reservation, largely serving cynical agendas in Indian Affairs: it demeaned where it pretended to describe, exploited where it pretended to protect, and disenfranchised where it pretended to empower.

For example, some lands were allotted with fee patents, conferring citizenship on their recipients as well as full title and the capacity to sell their lands or use them as security on a loan. However, most allotted lands were kept in trust by the Department of the Interior, and while the entrusted (as opposed to entitled) allottees did not have to pay property taxes, neither did they receive the full economic and political benefits of land ownership. The land was theirs by designation in perpetuity but conferred neither political capital nor financial liquidity. To receive the fee patent to their land, allottees had to meet the standards set by a Competency Commission under the Department of Interior’s Office of Indian Affairs. They established their own criteria for ownership under the guise of objectively assessing Native Americans’ capacities for responsible land management. These included the length of a person’s hair (as though a Native American man who cut his braids were more competent) and the ability to sign one’s name. Ultimately, sickeningly, the rubric was cultural and economic assimilation (to Euro-American ideals or not) and blood status (descent in terms of % Native and % white), not any legit measure of merit, that determined so-called competence and thereby the issue of title. The efficacy of these prejudices is clear—90 percent of the patents issued went to individuals of one-half or less Native blood—and the impact in exacerbating insecurities and inequities was profound. Where benefits of allotment can be said to exist, they were discriminately distributed along racial and cultural lines already associated with economic and political power, and served to enforce the normative supremacy of Euro-American culture and lifeway.

I’ve come to see property boundaries on the plains as a kind of cultural, spiritual, and ecological scarring—a testament to the impositions of the Euro-American civilizational vision on already visionary peoples, their established systems of inter-relation, and the landscapes, already rich with meaning and productivity, in which they made their home. While I relate to and appreciate many of the modern iterations of prairie life—ranchers and farmers, for instance, are essential providers in the only economy I have ever really known—I also mourn that the present pattern of the plains preserves a paucity of its ancestral ecological and cosmological ambience. That any remnant of the native populous survives the nightmare of colonization and that native cultural forms persist amid the capricious pressures and prejudices of the modern American milieu speaks to the resilience of the human species and the strength of Native spirit. Appraising the history and legacy of colonialism, in allotment and beyond, presents political and philosophical questions for the present, too. What does it mean to heal, to enact justice, or to de-colonize? For the architecturally inclined, the question may be how to draw and design the landscape anew.

In the immense web of inter-relations on the ancestral plains, I would argue the most notorious and generative was that between humans and bison. Bison were the primary source of plains people’s metabolic energy. They were also a fundamental driver of a complex continental ecology, cyclically re-distributing nutrients and aerating soils in their migrations. Cognizant of these essential functions, the pioneering American government used mass bison execution like a tactic of ecological scorched-earth warfare against indigeneity at large. By 1890 the bison, heartbeat of the plains, had, for expressly genocidal intents and purposes, been exterminated, undercutting the foundation of plains livelihood and effectively clearing the path for homesteading. Blackfeet claim not only that the bison (or Iinnii) supported their lifeway, but tell stories of bison as a consanguine of the plains people, Bison People. In secular parlance we could say that they are related in any of three ways: by exchange of flesh in a predator-prey dynamic, by shared intergenerational history in place, and by genetic relatedness through a common mammalian ancestor. But the Blackfoot Confederacy (a contemporary polity that includes the Montana Blackfeet and Canadian peoples of the same ancestral society) speaks to what I’m inclined to describe as a supernatural relatedness. The plains people and the Bison nurtured each other—materially, culturally, and spiritually—and in so doing nurtured a cosmos.

Nowadays, revitalization of Native American communities and restoration of Bison to the landscape are thought by many to go hand-in-hand. Those who make effort to restore roaming herds of bison to the American prairie must contend with a proliferation of property lines one-hundred-and-fifteen years advanced from the allotment maps in the Beinecke. But perhaps even more difficult than negotiating the practical challenges presented by a highly pixelated political geography, efforts at holistic healing must contend with the compartmentalization of the human spirit. Scarred landscapes mirror scarred and hardened hearts. Racial and cultural prejudices persist, often permeating the discourse of lands and wildlife management between tribal and inter-tribal governments and state and federal agencies. Nonetheless, some initiatives have found success in reintroducing bison and excitement grows about the possibilities for community revitalization through restoration of bison to integrated presence in modern plains lifeway.

Representation is an important part of communicating and enacting this aspiration. In part, this is a project of drawing new maps for new purposes—perhaps with fewer lines, softer lines, or lines of a kind that compromise the paradigms of cartography as we know them. Political and practical application of social, ecological, and epistemological justice principles don’t have easy answers. I, for one, hope that the Native Americans and the Buffalo can be co-conspirators and legitimate collaborators in the map-making exercises that determine the future of the American plains. While many can claim concern for and authority on the socio-politics and ecologies of this landscape (and I, as a Montanan and Master in Environmental Management to-be, am one among them), the gravitas of native claims to sensitivity, insight, intimacy, and care for these spaces of the American West have no superior. Nevertheless, across the Western Hemisphere from 1492 to the present, they have all-too-often been commanded and controlled out of political process.

Publication Date
October 10, 2019
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