The Blackfeet Brain Drain

By Sterling HolyWhiteMountain

I grew up on the high-elevation plains of northwest Montana, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, in a culture in which English did not become the dominant language until the middle part of the 20th century. Leaving to attend the University of Montana in the mid-1990s, after receiving a tuition waiver the summer following my senior year of high school, marked my first time living away from our reservation. My graduating class was one of the first in which many of us left to seek degrees, a development that mirrored a shift taking place nationwide; by 1996, 30 percent of Native American 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college, up from about 16 percent in 1989.

Some of us went to college to escape our treaty-established, semi-sovereign homeland and the social and political problems common in Indian country. Others left because there wasn’t anything else to do. Many of us, though, were driven by an idea about higher education that had recently begun to take hold on reservations—that the purpose of college was to prepare us to help our communities. Not until well into adulthood did I realize that this well-meaning notion reflected not only our communities’ need for help, but also their failure to understand that higher education, in the absence of structural change and economic opportunity on the reservation, was likelier to draw young people away from home than to help them make it better.

The relationship between education and economy is more complicated in Indian country than elsewhere in the United States. While access to higher education is a means to a better life as much for American Indians as for anyone else, connotations specific to reservation people exist that trouble the situation. Going to school means leaving a cultural context—which includes many relatives, sometimes too many—that doesn’t occur anywhere else in the country. Departing for college also means engaging with an educational system that does little to break the myth of how this country came to be, one that elides historical facts about broken treaties, Indian law, and Congress’s plenary power over tribal nations.

At the University of Montana, I found myself having to address American ignorance in an exhausting manner, explaining again and again that no, we do not go to school for free, and yes, we do pay taxes; that “blood quantum”—a measurement of a person’s “Indian blood” that determines membership for most tribes—is a colonial invention.

Prior to colonization—for millennia, in fact—the economy of the Blackfoot people revolved around the iinii, or buffalo, which provided not just food, but tepee covers, clothing, tools, and weapons. The animal’s sudden, severe decline in the mid-to-late 1800s, the result of slaughter on the part of Americans hunting for hides and so-called sport, caused enormous cultural chaos for all plains tribes. Within several years, many indigenous people in the vast region were without sustenance. In 1883, as many as 600 Blackfeet starved to death, an event that came to be known as the Starvation Winter. That time …read more

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