There is an 8x10 black & white photograph of a small herd of forty or fifty buffalo hanging on the wall just above my computer monitor. I put it in a cheap plastic frame I bought to contain the letter I received from the Little Shell Tribe some years ago that indicates my application for enrollment with the tribe was accepted. The photograph lays over the top of that letter. I bought the photo for $10 at a vintage store in Bisbee, Arizona; it might be vintage but I doubt it. I love it anyway and needed to have it as soon as it was pointed out to me.
The image isn’t even particularly spectacular beyond the nature of its magnificent subjects. Still, I regard it often, as I spend a fair amount of my time at my desk leaning back in my chair, hands clasped behind my head, staring at the photo. Usually my thoughts are farther afield but they always come back to the image; to focus there, to love the woolly shapes and the blurry horizon, and to let my imaginings stray to an earlier time when free ranging buffalo still roamed all over this continent, this Turtle Island. The vastness of those herds. How important they were not only to the landscape but also to so many other living relatives, human and non-, who survived because of what the buffalo offered in their passing. And that passing! We marvel at trains that seem to go on for miles. Imagine instead a huffing, grunting herd of animals moving across the plain, not just for an inconvenient matter of minutes while you keep impatiently checking your watch and scrolling your phone, but for days.
"In war, one thinks almost only of war. The concepts of big politics—abstract discussions about the “theater of war,” about what belongs to “the West” and what to Russia and Ukraine—serve as mental refuges within war’s own intolerability."
– The War Diary of Yevgenia Beloruseets, Day 20
I am not binge-watching the war in Ukraine. I can’t. My social media is all deleted or disabled and I don’t watch television. I’m happy I don’t even have to try to avoid the sensationalization of war via revenue-based 24-hour news programs. I do see headlines in newsletters I receive and I get alerts from the Guardian and that is more than enough. I also read The War Diary of Yevgenia Belorusets every day. She is telling the story of this twisted encounter from the ground, not as a media personality “going where the action is” but as a citizen of a city and country under attack.
Her writing is beautiful and terrifying. On Day Twenty of this war, she writes: "In war, one thinks almost only of war. The concepts of big politics—abstract discussions about the “theater of war,” about what belongs to “the West” and what to Russia and Ukraine—serve as mental refuges within war’s own intolerability."
“In war, one thinks only of war.” That line really hit me. I see the world through genocide-tinted eyes, and when I travel around this part of the country it inhabits every moment. I fall into obsession with it sometimes.
The war against Indigenous people in the United States continues. It is all I see, stirred up by the news from Ukraine. My ability to make any kind of peace with it is not getting better, it is getting worse. The usual triggers are still there – the worship of the flag; the ongoing rhetoric of “public land means the land belongs to everyone”; the chest thumping by dipshits who think the origin of the continent is attached to a vague, ignorant idea of “founding fathers”; and yes, even the sight of churches – only now we are seeing a country invaded in real time. Not that it’s anything new. It’s just that white people here suddenly think it matters because it’s white people being invaded. That reality is triggering to millions of us. Indian people, Black people, Asian people, Latinx people, Trans people, Women … the list goes on. All besieged.
Belorusets relates a story she is told by a woman who is speaking of her grandmother, “who lives in a beautiful little house in Irpin with a well-tended flower garden.” “I learned that she absolutely refused to leave her house in Irpin,” Belorusets writes. “She can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
People often talk quizzically about how if reservations are so bad, why don’t people just leave? I answer: what if it is all you have left? What if you have been pushed into the last little patch of what is being allowed to you, and the spirit of your culture and your ancestors are holding out only there? Would you leave?
I admire those Ukrainians the most. The ones who are staying, who have decided that dead or alive, they aren’t going to budge. It’s what I admire about Belorusets herself, her courage in remaining, to be the one to tell these stories of people who usually only occupy casualty statistics. Selflessness wells up, breaking the earth.
In Ojibwe we call the buffalo “mashkode-bizhiki.” He is also one of the animals represented in our Seven Grandfathers Teachings. The grandfathers spoke of Humility, Bravery, Honesty, Wisdom, Truth, Love, all connected to animals; the buffalo is “Mnaadendimowin,” or Respect.
“The buffalo gives every part of his being to sustain the human way of living, not because he is of less value, but because he respects the balance and needs of others. To honor all creation is to have respect. Live honorably in teachings and in your actions towards all things. Do not waste and be mindful of the balance of all living things. Share and give away what you do not need. Treat others the way you would like to be treated. Do not be hurtful to yourself or others.”
I am fortunate that I am able to see buffalo pretty much whenever I want. There is a small herd along the route I most often take to Missoula that even includes a white buffalo. Amazingly, another white buffalo is part of another, larger herd perhaps thirty minutes of driving to the south from here as well. On my drives north I pass the Bison Range, where I took the photo at the header of this post, and I am always on the lookout for that herd. And, just another ten minutes or so north, there is another small herd.
One thing they all have in common is they are fenced in. Caged. Mighty animals who once went wherever they wanted were hunted to the brink of extinction before they were miraculously brought back. But those we have now, even the “wild” buffalo of Yellowstone Park, are no longer the genetic matches of those massive creatures who dominated the plains. Maybe that can be changed. Who knows?
I think of what was done to the buffalo. I think of what was done to Indian people. What is still being done. I am reminded of seeing images on maps of where wildlife is “protected” and how it looked to me like the maps of reservations laid out across Turtle Island. How we have all been pushed into pens that cannot sustain us long term.
With few ties to it I love the Flathead Reservation and I am grateful to be allowed to teach some children there. There are many Little Shell people living there too. Even a few of the kids I teach. I have a couple of acquaintances there I would like to have become friends.
Every part of the reservation is beautiful. The trees, the rivers and streams, the wildlife, the broad, open valleys. Especially though it is the mountains. Cresting the hill coming up out of Ravalli and seeing the Missions on full display for the first time, especially on a clear day, is never less than spectacular. If invited I could live there.
If you pass through, not knowing where you are for much of it, you wouldn’t even know you are on Indian land. Or what remains of it that still is Indian land. Most of the people you see will be white people because they outnumber tribal people by maybe four or five times. The tribe’s presence is best made known by the highway signs. Locations along the way through on Highway 93 – towns, geographical landmarks – are marked by signs indicating the Indigenous name and meaning. If one is headed north, the language is Salish. If south, it is Kootenai. I love these signs.
As much as I love the reservation there are things that make me crazy every time I head north. For example, just shy of its southern border is this sign that advertises the Gray Wolf Peak Casino, which is owned by the tribe.
“Your Fun & Friends are Waiting” it reads, with renderings of the faces on various denominations of cash: Franklin, Grant, Washington, Lincoln, and that ultimate bloody bastard, Andrew Jackson. None of these men were friends to Indians. On the contrary, in fact. I’m sure the design was created by some stupid marketing firm nowhere near here, but some Indians had to sign off on it, didn’t they? I don’t get it. Does the end – luring white people to the casino to spend their money – justify the means, which means invoking the energy of some of your bloodiest tyrants? I don’t think so.
Another stretch that bothers me every time I pass is the fifteen miles between St. Ignatius and Ronan. There are at least half-a-dozen signs for realtors selling property. Property that, thanks largely to that General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act, was long-game wrested from Indian hands.
Meanwhile as “St. Ignatius” is still fresh on my tongue, let’s talk about that mission itself. A historical site, visited mostly for the murals painted on the ceiling. Infamous to local Indian families whose relatives suffered there when it was a famously brutal boarding school. I would like to see it as a pile of blackened timbers and scorched bricks, frankly. I’d like to see every mission a smoking heap.
Ever since I attended a language conference in Missoula a week or so ago I am having a deeper sense of the world around me. The degree to which we are living in an occupied land. It’s not just Indian people who are. But it is Indians I think most about. How language permeates everything, connects everything, and how our disconnection from it makes things fall apart. How absent the tribal languages are from the Indian Country I am familiar with, aside from those occasional signs, and how little the people who are fighting so hard to preserve these languages have to work with.
We, Indian people, and our holy relatives – mashkode-bizhiki, buffalo; ma'iingan, wolf; migizi, eagle; miskwaadesi, painted turtle; makwa, bear; amik, beaver; and gaagaagi, raven – these beings who represent our sacred teachings, are living in occupied territory. The fences around buffalo, and so many other wild ones, pen them in and set boundaries beyond which they are killed by bloodthirsty protectors of an economy – a settler economy, an economy of ownership – that does not belong here. It is an economy that belongs nowhere and it is everywhere.
Ritualized and legalized killing of buffalo who stray outside park boundaries to protect the cattle industry is a population control device, just as blood quantum requirements for tribal enrollment keep the numbers down, the people penned. BQ represents the long game toward eliminating tribes completely, bought into by almost all tribes themselves. It consumes me with rage if I think too much about it. This constant, overwhelming commitment to control. To power over by people, like Vladimir Putin, “in charge.” All this talk of Russia’s occupation of Ukraine is stirring to life what I try and keep contained about the occupation of our own land.
“I wanted to see the subway station that was shelled last night … The ruins formed an eerie scene. I saw some women standing in front of the damaged buildings for several minutes, looking at the destroyed section of the street, as if they wanted to memorize every crack, every broken windowpane, forever.”
– The War Diary of Yevgenia Beloruseets, Day 20
Last fall I drove through the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota. They aren’t cranking away in any fashion now as they were in past years, when the region was overrun with man camps and fat oligarchs spent all day counting their money. But the scene remains bleak, with enough fracking well structures still rocking back and forth to imagine what it was like.
It’s also easy enough to imagine what it was like before all the destruction. In a few years, the land there went from an ecosystem teeming with life that supported multiple rich cultures – a veritable Eden, right? – to an eyesore depicting the worst elements of capitalism at its brutalist. I was the one stopped alongside the road to memorize the eerie scene, standing there, gutted, knowing the destruction was aided and abetted by corrupt leaders of the three affiliated tribes, Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan. What did this kind of “development” do on behalf of ordinary people? Four thousand on the Fort Berthold Reservation, ten thousand in all? Money flows uphill.
I remind myself: There are many people trying to make Indian lives better. Not all of them are Indians, and not all Indians are involved in the effort. People in education, in health care, even in government, all devoting life’s work to the effort without anywhere near the resources to succeed. When I say this country doesn’t care about Indians, I don’t mean those people. I mean the comfortably ignorant, the willfully ignorant, the powerfully ignorant. The people who set policy, who run on one platform and operate on another once elected. The ones who don’t bat an eye at how American spending on incarceration and death and destruction far surpasses any other nation on earth. The ones who support people like that.
The degree to which I yet love the world is unmeasurable. I saw my first robin yesterday and got a little verklempt. There is one class of 4th graders I teach who call me “Emotional Yeti” and I love them and their teacher for telling me they do.
Since the pandemic, and maybe before, I hardly talk to anyone face-to-face but I love so many people.
The world of dreams is as important to Anishinaabe people as the waking one. When I stare at that simple image over my desk I dream of a world where we still have massive herds of migratory buffalo. Of a world where so many of our relatives haven’t been driven into extinction, or pushed so far out of their traditional ranges that they have become something else.
I dream of what Turtle Island would look like if, from the get-go, we’d figured out a way to share this beautiful land, to live together instead of everyone else being expected to bend our necks to a particular class of arrogant, death-worshiping villain. I dream those villains into blooming flowers on trees spreading across a healing land.
It’s probably too late to bring this dreamed world into the awakened one.
But maybe not.
Chris LaTray is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians and author of the forthcoming Becoming Little Shell from Milkweed Editions. You can find more of his writing on Substack in An Irritable Métis.
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