Defending history 

Blackfeet gear up to fight for museum

On Feb. 1, two representatives from Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg’s office, about 12 Blackfeet tribal members, Great Falls anthropologist Ruthann Knudson and North Central Montana Resource Conservation and Development program chairman Gerald Smith gather around tables at a retirement home in Browning.

Rehberg’s office has formed a coalition of legislators from South Dakota and Oklahoma to fight the proposed cutting of federal funds for Browning’s Museum of the Plains Indian, and the group is gathered to discuss the museum’s importance to tribal members.

Long Standing Bear Chief, the tribal member who arranged the meeting, tells Rehberg’s representatives that come Oct. 1, there will be people standing outside this museum, ready to fight anyone who tries to take its collection to Washington D.C.

That’s the date the Museum of the Plains Indian, along with two other federally funded museums in South Dakota and Oklahoma, could see their budgets axed. The threat comes from a January recommendation by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) to shift $450,000 from the museums to programs that investigate and prosecute purveyors of fake Indian artworks. If that happens, and no alternate funding is found, the widespread belief is that the collections will be sent to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the Native American in Washington D.C.

But the Smithsonian has thrown its support behind continued funding for the smaller museums. And although it has been widely reported that the collection would be moved to Washington, and attendees of the Browning meeting share that belief, no one, including Long Standing Bear Chief, Rehberg representative Tom Waite, Smithsonian representatives and a U.S. Department of Interior (which oversees IACB) spokesperson, could identify the source of that idea. Regardless, without funding to keep the museums open, their collections will need to be stored somewhere.

Later that day, Long Standing Bear Chief and I are the only people taking in the exhibits at the Browning museum. It’s winter, after all, not the best time for tourists; 15,000 tourists visited the museum last year.

Long Standing Bear Chief is an ideal tour guide for this museum. He served as acting director of the Native American Studies program at the University of Montana during the 1970s, and has written several books and articles about Native American culture.

He points out a feathered Blackfeet headdress, explaining how it’s different from Sioux headdresses—its feathers stab straight up into the air, whereas a Sioux headdress’s feathers sweep gently back. In another part of the museum, he explains a diorama of the Sundance Ceremony, how the 28 beams radiating from the center pole symbolize the menstrual cycle, and the 28 ribs of a buffalo. He describes how the young men standing around the center pole, their skin painted ghostly white, will, at the completion of the ceremony, dance forward and touch the center pole four times, and finally run backward, tearing wooden piercings from their chest.

This diorama and the museum’s many artifacts, including original pipe-making kits, Blackfeet clothing and weapons, are important to the tribe for several reasons, tribal members tell Rehberg’s representatives.

“The only reason people stop here is because of the museum,” says Charles De Roche, a Blackfeet man in a flannel shirt and snow bibs with twin gray braids. “If we don’t have that museum, nobody stops. If you can stop somebody, they can spread the money around.”

In an interview after the meeting, Long Standing Bear Chief also notes the financial aspect of losing the museum, pointing out that the IACB’s mission statement says it “was created by Congress to promote the economic development of American Indians and Alaska Natives through the expansion of the Indian arts and crafts market.”

But their concerns go beyond economics. “It won’t be long before the young generation here has nothing, not even their heritage,” says De Roche.

“Mark my words,” 22-year-old Browning resident Jay Dusty Bull says he told his mother when the National Museum of the American Indian opened in Washington D.C. in 2004. “Two or three years after that national museum is built, they’ll start closing down our little museums.”

Scott Cameron, an official with the U.S. Department of the Interior, says closure of the museums is not his department’s intention. Instead, he says, the department plans to solicit financial support from communities near the museums to keep them up and running. Cameron expects locals to prove more adept at marketing and operating the museums than the federal government has been.

Long Standing Bear Chief doesn’t believe rural Montana has the money to support the museum, which currently receives $138,000 annually from the federal government, accounting for the entirety of the museum’s budget.

“We don’t even have bootstraps to pull ourselves up with,” he says.

He does agree the Museum of the Plains Indian could be more efficiently marketed and operated, but says for that to happen, the museums need more federal funding, not less. He hopes for something closer to $3 million per year, to not only renovate the 65-year-old museum, but to help market it, adding seminars, book readings and films to its offerings. That approach, he says, would better fulfill IACB’s mission of economic development.

Waite agrees that the maintenance of federal funding should be only the beginning.

“We need to not only reinstate funding, but find a long-term solution. This is a good starting place,” Waite says. After the meeting, Long Standing Bear Chief, Waite, Smith, Knudson and another Rehberg representative head to a local diner where they discuss strategy over pie and coffee.

Long Standing Bear Chief is contacting the other museums, and in the meantime hopes to get more people on the Blackfeet reservation involved with the fight to save the museum.

So far, he’s gathered 200 Glacier County signatures on a petition to keep the museum open. Half those signatures are from Cut Bank, which is not on reservation land.

“We need to awaken more people to what’s going on, let people know [the museum’s] really going to close,” he says.

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