By Martin J. Kidston
In the morning when the sun is shy and hides behind the hills of the Bear Paw Mountains, the shadows are long, deep and cool. While the day contemplates its rise, the Chippewa-Cree of Rocky Boys Indian Reservation will prepare for their spiritual Sundance, ready to honor all that is sacred.
A different culture exists off the reservation where, in the United States, Independence Day will begin a day to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the freedom which it promised.
But as the sun burns trustfully on Independence Day, while one nation celebrates its prized freedom, another, hidden from the eyes of most, will watch and try to remember what it was like before that freedom, as it was known, was taken away.
Bob Murie, a Native American professor of Native American Studies at Stone Child College on Rocky Boys Indian Reservation, expressed the disheartening fact that Americas freedom came at the expense of the Indian way of life.
They say were a sovereign nation thats not right, Murie said. When Americans got their independence, we lost ours. Everything we do here now, we have to ask permission from the great white fathers.
The 1999 World Book Encyclopedia reads that the arrival of Europeans in the Americas marked the beginning of the end of the Indian way of life, one they had known for centuries. Missionaries tried to convert Indians to the right religion. Whites saw land as a possession and took ownership, while Indians had always been the lands caretakers.
Just 54 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which was designed to free more land for white settlers by moving Indians out of the East, and relocating them West across the Mississippi. This new territory, seen as being worthless, was dubbed Indian Territory, and treaties with the U.S. guaranteed that lands in Indian Territory were the Indians.
However, in 1848, gold was discovered in California and the worthless land in Indian Territory suddenly had the golden gleam. Settlers flooded west into the territory already promised by treaty to Native Americans.
Then, in 1871, Congress concluded that Indian tribes were no longer considered as separate, independent governments, which consequently freed the U.S. from the need to make treaties with Indians in any manner.
The Indian wars would follow and Montana history would witness such travesties as the battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, the surrender of the Nez Perce in 1877, and the white settlers desecration of the American bison, which before western expansion, was recorded as one of the worlds most abundant large mammals until they were slaughtered for sport to near extinction.
100 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, promising autonomy to we the people, thousands of years of freedom enjoyed by the American Indian had come to an end, and with it their harmonious way of life.
As far as independence is concerned, it is a day, to me, for white people to celebrate their own freedom, Murie said. But were all here now, and we all have to work together and have a spiritual love for one another.
Following that belief, several Chippewa-Cree tribal members have fought to maintain Americas independence. As portrayed in Johnny Cashs folk song, The Ballad of Ira Hayes, World War II veteran Ted LaMere and Korean War Veteran Robert Oats are proud of their service and feel, despite the apathetic treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government, to have donated significantly to Americas freedom. Both were drafted into service by the U.S. government.
I came home from Korea on the Fourth of July, said Robert Oats, who was drafted into the Army in 1952. It is a special day for me, and American independence is something were a part of.
Fellow war veteran Ted LaMere, an anti-aircraft gunner in World War II, was drafted into the Army in 1942. He fought in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany, and though hes proud of his service and plight for American freedom, he prefers to celebrate Independence Day in the Native American fashion.
Im going to Arlee for the powwow, he said. I go there every year.
Recalling the draft, he simply said, We had to go.
The recognition of Independence Day for the Chippewa-Cree is not so much to celebrate Americas Independence, but rather, to honor the tribes own veterans, said Russell Standing Rock, a member of the tribal council. Here, there is difference in distinction.
Originally, Independence Day never really had any significant meaning with any of our people, said Standing Rock. We were here to impress non-Indian people who celebrated Independence Day. In the early days, we were kind of like conscientious objectors, then some of our people were selected to go into the draft.
As the draft pulled Indians into the American military and asked them to fight Americas wars, members of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe struggled to find ways to honor their brothers who were risking their lives in battle.
We tried to coincide Americas Independence Day with an annual Powwow to celebrate our own veterans, Standing Rock said, adding that the tribes first Independence Day-Powwow was held in 1964. However, back in the 40s, a lot of those veterans were my uncles, people like that. Theyre all gone now.
Standing Rock continued, Really, the Fourth of July is the white mans day of freedom, and we celebrate our own veterans who have died for that freedom.
Standing Rock explained that Independence Day, with its honoring of the tribes veterans, has slowly evolved into a religious ceremony a time when the Chippewa-Cree celebrate through spiritual endeavors.
Now, we look at the Fourth of July as being our Sundance week, Standing Rock said, unable to put in words the meaning of the sacred holiday. Its our belief, our number one religion. Its not something that can be written about.
Off the reservation, while America partakes in firecracker retro weekends on the radio, pyrotechnic displays and picnic cakes all to celebrate 223 years of independence, the Indians on Rocky Boys Indian Reservation will remember their own history, which came down diverging paths quite separate from that of the United States.
The Cree were my mothers grandfathers people, led by Chief Little Bear, Standing Rock said. The Chippewa were led by Chief Stone Child.
According to the Book of Montana History, Chief Stone Child, leader of the Chippewa group, was a Wisconson-born Indian who first moved to Canada, then brought his group into Montana. Meanwhile, Little Bear, chief of the Cree, was a fugitive from the Riel Rebellion, who came to Montana in 1885, where he was granted political asylum by order of President Cleveland.
The two tribes wandered separately over the state for 30 years and were hated by the press of the state.
Why they were hated by the press it did not say, but it gave a footnote to check the 1954 winter addition of the Montana History Magazine. Efforts to locate the article were not successful.
Nevertheless, what is now Rockys Boy Indian Reservation, nestled in the cradle of the Bear Paw Mountains, was once occupied by Fort Assiniboine. In 1916, a portion of the fort was set aside to accommodate the wandering Chippewa and Cree Indians, but only after years of agitation led by some of the most prominent citizens of Montana Joseph Dixon, William Bole, Frank Linderman and Paris Gibson.
As to how Rocky Boys Reservation got its name, even that has a mistaken past. Standing Rock said that Chief Stone Childs name was not translated properly from Chippewa into English. Thus, the name Rocky Boy evolved.
In 1935, the two tribes officially became known as the Chippewa-Cree after the creation of a tribal constitution.