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Telling the other side of Montana's history

History lecture on Montana's Indian Wars focuses on tribal perspective at FVCC

By Lailani Upham

KALISPELL — Dr. E.B. Eiselein, author and adjunct instructor of anthropology at Flathead Valley Community College, tipped off his audience that the historical lecture of Montana Indian Wars they were about to hear would be from the “Indian side.”

“I want everyone to be aware that I will not be explaining it (war) from a military tactic (view), but from a cultural background,” Dr. Eiselein stated.

Dr. Eiselein, Canadian Anishinabe descendant, kicked off the Native American Education lecture series at Flathead Valley Community College last week with a presentation called, “Montana’s Indian Wars.”

A crowd of over 50 people joined in to listen, mostly non-Native.

The three wars he touched on were the Heavy Runner camp massacre in 1870; the Little Bighorn massacre in 1876; and the Nez Perce War of 1877.

Eiselein said while it is a common misconception to envision 19th Century Montana as a land of constant warfare between the American military and the various Indian tribes, the number of military actions were relatively few.

Eiselein’s Indian name, “Speaks Lightning,” has written more then 14 reference books on Native American history, particularly a textbook called “Indian of Missouri.” Other books he has authored are “Indians of the Central Plains and “Indians of the Southeast. Eiselein’s goal has been to try and cover all tribes of North America; however admits he has tried to resist writing the books for quite some time.

Eiselein holds a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Arizona in the studies of Native American culture.

The discussion was focused on the cultural conflicts that led to the “wars.”

“Traditional Indian warfare was first carried out by small raiding parties and it was not about patriotism or personal gain,” explained Eiselein. “It was a very personal thing.”

Dr. Eiselein said much of his information came from years of speaking with elders and researching information from historical counts and archives.

He stated he was very careful when sharing what he knows out of respect for each tribal elder and the stories that were told to him over the many years.

Eiselein is over retirement age, yet still has the passion to carry on the knowledge of history from a Native perspective.

He said many picture that warriors were young men, but there were also women warriors. “Some warriors would ride out into battle with their wives.”

He explained it was not one tribe against another but small raiding parties and the war honors of counting coup.

“Counting coup differs from tribe to tribe,” he stated. However the concept is the same he said.

“Counting coup involved touching a live enemy and getting away with it. Capturing a buffalo, pony, or something of theirs (enemy) and coming through uninjured.”

Eiselein pointed out that culturally tribes did not engage in warfare in the winter months. The U.S. military was quite aware of this and in many incidents in history attacks were sent out on tribal camps during this time when tribes lived in peace and settled into camps for the harsh winters.

Another fact he shared regarding one of the well-known massacres, “The Battle of the Greasy Grass” or “The Battle of Little Bighorn,” was that a woman warrior rode out and scoped Lt. Colonel George Custer’s soldiers on their way. Because of her warning, the tribe launched a counter-attack.

He brought out another fact that Chief Joseph is known for the Nez Perce War, yet he was more of a leader and not a warrior. During the lecture Chief Joseph was mentioned very little.

However, another tidbit he mentioned is that one Nez Perce band sought to find refuge with their “Flathead” allies; however, after Chief Charlo got word that one of the bands (Nez Perce) men had attacked and killed a non-Native, he did not want to have anything to do with the group and waved them through, he said.

In an interview with the Missoulian Independent, Eiselein stated, “I did not go to school to teach anthropology. My whole career has been focused on what’s usable and useful.”

Eiselein included that in the 1990’s his anthropology work was steered away from academics when a Blackfeet elder, Long Standing Bear Chief, took him aside, offered tobacco and asked him to use this anthropology “knowing” to write books on tribal culture and history.

“In my tribe, and many tribes, when you’re asked to do something by an elder, you basically have to do it,” he says. “I didn’t have much choice.”

Eiselein lecture had to be captured in a nutshell, which is hard to do he said. “What I have given you is very basic, it’s material I usually cover in whole semester.”

Footnote by author Lailani Upham:
While listening to the accounts of the Heavy Runner (Baker’s) Massacre I had to hold myself together. This hit home, because it is a real story that my grandpa Joe Upham told us when we were kids. In each account of the massacre, whether it was a book, an article, a photo, or an oral tradition passed down by another Blackfeet; my heart hurts almost unbearably, as if I am at funeral – and it materialized at this lecture. I tried to sit up straight, or look at my camera as if I had photos to skim through, or act like I was taking notes just to hold back the tears. It didn’t help. I seem to carry myself back to that ice cold, traumatic event in 1870 each time I hear the story. The anger, the hurt, the feeling of injustice not only sparks in me, it still lives in the hearts of many tribal people in the U.S. and Canada. It is lifeblood of our families that our stories be heard in the history books, universities and public schools – it should not be a norm that the “Native perspective” be an interrupting truth to the rest of Americans.

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