South St. Paul Mayor Meets the Blackfeet
*In order to protect my relationship with the Dakota County Historical Society I am publishing only an abridged version of this article. If you are interested in reading the full story, I encourage you to contact the Dakota County Historical Society, or to seek out a copy of the upcoming Over The Years publication.*
[T]his pipe . . . is a symbol of strife for the Blackfeet, of geographic
change for our nation. The pipe itself, while unassuming, tells us a story of politics, of industrial revolution and the human condition. The ceremony of a calumet, or what is now commonly dubbed a peace pipe, is a beautiful one. Traditional peace pipes were predominantly used among the Northern Plains Indians, though, through time, they have become widely associated with many North American tribes. For the Blackfeet, it was a way of communicating prayer. The smoke billowing out of the pipe would carry a person’s wishes for hope, fortitude, and thanksgiving away into the sky toward the heavens where it could be heard by the spirits. When two people shared a pipe it was considered an experience so divine that the two were permanently bonded, from that moment on they were redeemed of one another’s animosity and thus, could live together peacefully.
The 1920′s were a particularly strenuous era for the Blackfeet Indians of Montana. Having just faced the eradication of Bison during the fiercest winter in decades, they were starving. The Blackfeet were well known, feared even by the neighboring Flatheads as vicious, violent hunters and explorers cautiously avoided their territory since the time of Lewis and Clark. Once nomadic, the Blackfeet were forced to sell their land to the United States government for a total payment of $1.5 million, due to increasing reliance on guns and other manufactured goods which they needed for their survival.[i] As part of the agreement in the sale of the land, the tribe retained its right to hunt on the land. They were placed on a reservation east of what would become Glacier National Park, and forced to learn unfamiliar trades. The Blackfeet struggled to tame the rocky terrain, but learning to farm was difficult for a group which had for so many generations thrived on hunting and gathering. As government schools were opened on the reservation in 1892, traditional Blackfeet culture had already begun to dwindle. School teachers would scold and beat children for speaking in their native tongue during classes, and tribal ceremony was regarded by government officials as if it were horseplay[ii]. Rather quickly, the ceremony and the tradition began to fade away.
[Glacier] was finally given National Park status in 1910, which meant it would remain permanently wild[iv]. Unfortunately, the connotations of this arrangement were not all positive. When the park lost its designation as public lands, the Blackfeet lost their right to hunt on the land, thus furthering their struggle for survival.
Great Northern Railway under the reign of its owner and developer “The Empire Builder”, James J. Hill was dominating the North during the early 1900′s. James J. Hill, notably called the railroad his great adventure and he sought expansion into Montana’s wilderness as the next leg of his journey. In 1907, Louis W. Hill, Sr. was given ownership of Great Northern[vi], and the younger Hill’s vision rested in mountainous Montana. In an era where it wasn’t uncommon for the wealthy to travel abroad to Switzerland to have an adventure, Hill conceived an image of Glacier as “America’s Alps”. To seal the deal, Hill commissioned the development of two major Hotels. The first, completed in 1913 is Glacier Park Lodge the more exuberant Many Glacier Hotel was the second. Opened in 1915, it was done in the style of a true Swiss chalet allowing guests the most authentic experience of the American Alps[vii]. In the wake of the Great War, upper-class America could have a taste of Europe right in their own backyard.
The railroad began distributing literature introducing the world to what the Great Northern dubbed the “real” romantic old west. To further interest the prospective adventurers, Hill developed an intricate publicity stunt: he would send the Blackfeet out on tour to promote both the railroad and the park. First stop on the tour was the Chicago Trade Show in 1916, from there they made one of many treks north to the Twin Cities, where they were guests of honor at a University of Minnesota football game. For the next several years the Blackfeet travelled by train, in some sense regaining their nomadic lifestyle. Along the way they posed with such celebrities as Shirley Temple and a plethora of silent film stars. They carried with them the Glacier Park flag and handed on-lookers Glacier Park medallions.
In Dakota County it had been an election year. March had brought with it the onslaught of political mudslinging in the truest sense of the term as mayoral candidate George F. Kramer of the Union Labor Party fought for election against Alderman John E. Fearing. Kramer’s principles were for the unification of South St. Paul. His victory marked a change of power for the city one that he would demonstrate first by disbanding the board of police, a move that proved controversial.[xiii] The second major act he undertook as mayor was a city beautification project for which he elicited help from the South St. Paul Reporter to list dos and don’ts for keeping a clean house, lawn, and neighborhood.
On the 21st of April, the mayor got his first chance to unify the city in a way it had never been before. It was the day that the Glacier Park Indians arrived in South St. Paul. People lined the street to see the show, as the unfamiliar men in their unusual garb danced and chanted carrying the huge banner that waved in the wind. They gathered on the street in front of The Fair, one of the larger stores in town which had, on that day, planned to give away a car. Mayor Kramer met the Blackfeet, and was given the calumet as a token. It is impossible to tell exactly what kind of exchange took place that day. It is a mystery that will forever be hidden by the past. However, one can tell from the carefully kept pipe obviously displayed and cherished, and a well kept photograph, with a list of the prolific natives Kramer met that day, each labeled along with a date, that this was in fact a day that would be influential upon the rest of his life.
[i] Casagrande, Louis B. “Louis W. Hill, Sr., and the Blackfeet at Glacier National Park.” Encounters May/June (1985): 12
[ii] Casagrande, Louis B. “Louis W. Hill, Sr., and the Blackfeet at Glacier National Park.” Encounters May/June (1985): 13
[iv] “Historical Overview.” Glacier National Park. National Park Services. 23 Dec. 2009. <http://www.nps.gov/archive/glac/history/overview.htm>
[v] “People & Events: John Stevens, 1853-1943″ American Experience. PBS. 1 Jan. 2009. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/streamliners/peopleevents/p_stevens.html>
[vi] Mattson, Gerald. “Free Air: Dakota County’s First Brush with the Silver Screen.” Over the Years. Dakota County Historical Society. 46.3 (2005): 42
[vii] Casagrande, Louis B. “Louis W. Hill, Sr., and the Blackfeet at Glacier National Park.” Encounters May/June (1985): 10
[xiii] “New Council Starts Off by Ousting Police Board; Mayor Announces His Appointments.” St. Paul Reporter 20 Apr. 1921.
[Special thanks to http://www.firstpeople.us/ for allowing access to their incredible database of Native American Portraits.]