We Were Here First

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Corey Stapleton Montana Secretary of State

So, here’s the question:

When is it better to blend tribes together, and when is it better to keep them apart?

We Were Here First

I bumped into a childhood friend last week, while doing some last-minute Christmas shopping.  Gerald (and his brother Mike) were just like any other Great Falls kids back in the day—socializing and playing sports. We ran in some of the same circles.  They were also part of the “lost tribe” of Chippewa.  Years ago, when other Indian tribes in Montana settled into reservation lands, the Chippewa stood strong against settling for an inadequate offer from a more-powerful United States government—and it backfired.  The Little Shell tribe of Chippewa got nothing, and they became somewhat ‘lost’ without a piece of land to call their own.

It’s an interesting idea regarding land: “We were here first” often has a strong legal foundation in civilized courts and governments.  But not always.  Just because a tribe or nation occupies a certain plot of land hasn’t historically assured its future ownership.

Just days before I ran into Gerald, I was in Israel.  And wouldn’t you know it—they’re dealing with the same thing!  Kinda.  Several other Secretaries of State, and myself, spent the better part of a week learning about the small nation of Israel and all the nuances of living in a region where different tribes and nations really don’t like each other.  Trying to allocate land and property based upon who was there ‘first’ doesn’t always work very well, to say the least.

Both the Jewish people and the Palestinians want to live in the same place.  Both sides have claims of ownership going back to the beginning of recorded history.  But the creation of the new country of Israel in 1948 on the location of Palestine (as a direct response to the devastating World War II holocaust that ended in 1945) is the rule of the day.  Israel is the mandate of the modern world.  The Jewish people were given a place of their own.

So, here’s the question:  When is it better to blend tribes together, and when is it better to keep them apart?

Both the Jewish and Palestinian leaders agree that a ‘two-state solution’ is the only acceptable course.  In other words, they each want to have their own country, and be physically separated from each other.  They don’t want to live in the same neighborhoods, have children attend the same schools, intra-marry, or vote in the same elections.  They do not want to assimilate cultures.

In Montana, we refer to our Indian reservations as ‘sovereign’ in some regards, but in other situations the tribes are treated just like other citizens of the state and nation.  I guess we could call it a ‘softer’ two-state solution.  Our Montana and U.S. constitutions attempt to balance both cultural respect and assimilation as noble goals for Indian reservations.

I suppose Charles Darwin would have a different answer to my question.  Darwinism would likely emphasize evolution and “the strong survive” argument, pointing out that national borders of countries have changed a million times.  Nothing stays the same, even the continents break apart and drift away.  Species, languages, races all adapt and assimilate or they fade away.

With our world’s population approaching 8 billion people, I think this question of assimilating tribes versus separating them will not be going away anytime soon.  Luckily in Montana, we have lots of land and not many people.  Native Americans and Hutterites have plenty of room to segregate themselves, while the Irish, Chinese, Mexican, Italian, German, African, etc., tend to blend into our towns and cities without much fanfare.  (Too bad the French didn’t negotiate for a reservation, back in 1803, when they sold us Montana in the Louisiana purchase.  We could drive to the French reservation to shop, eat!)

I congratulated Gerald and his Little Shell tribe for their long, hard-fought victory in recognition.  I know how important it is to them, and other Native Americans, that they honor the wishes of their ancestors.  Gerald inherited this struggle from his tribe.  The Little Shell tribe was just recently given 200 acres for a new reservation.  I pray for the Little Shell tribe of Chippewa, that they blossom into their full potential.  Gerald is now the Chairman of the Little Shell tribe.  He’s a quiet, persistent leader, and I’m proud of him.

I pray for peace in Israel and Palestine, too.  My brain isn’t big enough to figure out how to solve the problems of the Middle East.  But I do know that the world is getting smaller, with more and more people, and our modern governments have to learn from the horrendous lessons of last century.

Perhaps the best wisdom for settling land conflicts, something both Gerald and I would remember, is from an 80’s movie called Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure:

“Be excellent to each other!” 

Happy New Year,

Corey Stapleton

Corey Stapleton
Montana Secretary of State

The Mission of the Office of the Secretary of State is to help commerce thrive, promote democracy, and record history for future generations.