Sunday, June 1, 2014

"Blackfeet Sentries," the Rest of the Story

"Blackfeet Reservation Sentries," by native son and sculpture, Jay Polite Laber
Rusty metal sculptures stand at each of the four modern-day entries to the Blackfeet Reservation, on the rolling plains the east of Glacier's mountains. Warriors mounted on wild steeds stand watch as silent sentries, men and horses all sculpted from wrecked and rusted car parts that were abandoned decades ago.

These are awe-inspiring creations, and they stand on their own merit as fine art. But there's also a seldom-told back-story to these sculptures, a story of survival that was born of destruction 50 years ago this week. A Great Falls newspaper described the events as tragedy unfolded in June, 1964:

"Sunday June 7 dawned bright and clear... Before noon, clouds had packed themselves tightly overhead and a steady rain began to fall. It was a lighter rain than had been falling in the mountains since the previous Friday."

On Monday, June 8th, as the relentless rain continued, dams failed on the Two Medicine and Birch Creeks. Flood waters swept across the Blackfeet Nation in a rising tide of physical destruction that was unknown in recorded history. The 1964 flood affected approximately 30,000 square miles, or nearly 20% of Montana. Later research determined that a flood of this magnitude might occur but once every 5,000 years.

Thirty lives were lost in the flood - all on the Blackfeet reservation. In addition to the dams, the reservation also lost 265 homes, much of its road system, and every single bridge. Plus countless barns, corrals, sheds and livestock.

The Blackfeet were the hardest hit, hands down, but almost all of the news coverage focused on damage that occurred elsewhere, in Kalispell and Great Falls. Just across the mountains, the little Hungry Horse News famously won a Pulitzer Prize for its flood coverage, but the paper's prize-winning stories failed to even mention the Blackfeet for weeks after the flood. Time magazine reported that, "at least 30 were drowned, 100 were missing and over 1,200 were left homeless," by the flood. But even this national magazine failed to mention the reservation. All of their flood photos were from Great Falls, implying that the fatalities also occurred there.

Among the many Blackfeet children whose families lost homes and relatives to the flood, one boy named Jay Polite Laber was forced to relocate to New Hampshire with his family. As a young adult, Laber made his way back to Montana to search for his roots. He began experimenting with sculpture as a student at Salish Kootenai College, in Pablo, and he now teaches in their Fine Arts Department.

Scores of homes, barns and cars were destroyed and abandoned after the 1964 flood. Thirty years later, Laber began collecting rusting parts from flooded cars that had been abandoned along local stream and river banks, debris that he eventually transformed into four sets of mounted warriors. Laber completed the "Blackfeet Reservation Sentries" in 2000.

But there's more to this story.

Holy Family Mission during 1964 flood (MT Historical Society archives)
Holy Family Mission during 1964 flood
(Montana Historical Society archives)
Laber chose all of his materials based on their significance in Blackfeet tribal history, including the stones used for foundations. The sandstone blocks were recycled from the Holy Family Mission, along Two Medicine Creek some 15 miles southeast of Browning.

The mission was a Catholic boarding school that opened in 1890 and operated for 50 years. It was closed by the time of the 1964 flood, but many of the flood victims' bodies were brought to the mission during and immediately after the flood, as it was located on higher ground just out of the reach of flood waters.

The mission was one of many boarding schools built in Indian country as part of the U.S. Federal Indian Policy, a regime of forced assimilation meant to "civilize" the native children and convert them to Christianity. The mission is gone now, replaced by a renovated Catholic church.

Both buildings were the lingering results of an earlier flood - a tidal wave of mostly white settlers that swept across Montana and the west during the late 1700's and early 1800's. But this flood caused more cultural destruction than physical destruction. Montana's native peoples were subjected to relentless waves, sweeping away the ways of their forefathers and changing the survivors forever.

Those of us alive today didn't witness the earlier flood, and very few outsiders understand it's historic depth and significance. But without a long view, it's almost impossible for most of us to really understand why there are so many persistent problems on the reservations.

So at the four corners of one Montana reservation, stoic Blackfeet warriors bear witness as unspoken reminders of what has gone before. Some people say that when the wind washes through the rusted remnants, you can just barely hear two warriors speaking in native Blackfeet tongue. I've heard this myself, late at night, but I couldn't understand.


For better views of the earlier flood, read "My Life as an Indian" for one white man's perspective during the early 1800's. For a view from the Salish perspective, this one from the Bitterroot Valley, read "The Salish People and the Lewis and Clark Expedition."

Montana's Worst Natural Disaster: The 1964 Flood on the Blackfeet Reservation 

'64 Flood, a documentary film in progress

Information on Jay Polite Laber

Holy Family Mission history


This image is a light painting that I made late at night while waiting for the full moon to set. I placed the moon at the warrior's eyes, waited for a car to sweep past with red taillights, then "painted" the sculpture with a small flashlight during my 30-second exposure. The never-ending wind blurred both flags.