From the birth of the fur trade through the establishment of reservations and boarding schools to the present day, a touching portrait of race relations on the frontier.
Graybill (History and Southwest Studies/Southern Methodist Univ.; Policing the Great Plains: Rangers, Mounties, and the North American Frontier, 1875–1910, 2007, etc.) traces the history of relationships between Indians and whites by telling the story of Malcolm Clarke, a failed military man and fur-trading pioneer, and his Piegan Blackfoot wife, Coth-co-co-na, as well as three generations of their descendants. Beginning with the introduction of horses in the 1730s, the Blackfeet experienced European colonization as an unremitting avalanche of cultural change, which drove them from their position as the undisputed masters of the Northern Plains to a small, economically depressed reservation. Thomas Jefferson saw intermarriage as “the key to peaceful frontier absorption as well as the eventual assimilation of Indians into mainstream Anglo-American society,” but the reality was rarely so clean-cut. Utilizing primary sources at the Montana Historical Society and interviews with the Clarkes’ living relatives, Graybill uncovers a forgotten history culminating in the Marias Massacre, an epochal event for the Blackfeet but so obscure today that no marker commemorates its location. Evocative details and a close attention to the arc of its subjects’ lives lend Graybill’s narrative emotional heft. The family’s descendants include the remarkable Helen Clarke, a successful Broadway actor and Montana’s first female elected official, and John Clarke, deafened in infancy by scarlet fever, who became a world-renowned sculptor. Despite their fame, they never achieved financial stability or full social acceptance; the received knowledge was that “peoples of mixed ancestry...fomented dissension by manipulating their supposedly slow-witted relatives of pure [Indian] blood.”
An entertaining and insightful exposition of an unjustly ignored facet of the American social fabric.