DUNCAN: Our second day in the town of Browing dawned and entrusted us with a single goal: kill time. This may seem a simple task, but being that we were stuck in a town of no more than one thousand souls it proved difficult and exhausting. We struck out first for Browning’s two main attractions: a native art gallery and a historical museum. Both were thoroughly interesting, and they painted a vivid picture of what life had been like for the Blackfoot Indians before they were defeated and subjugated by the settlers. It seemed that, while these people may not have always been at peace with other tribes, they were at peace with themselves, and with their surroundings; everything about their culture struck a balance between opposites. They were deeply spiritual, but also casual about their religion, they saw themselves as a part of nature, and their way of life seemed simple and full of contentment.
After we had finished with the museums, we alternated between lazing/reading in our crippled car and trudging up and down the town’s single main street over and over again, sometimes going to get something to eat, sometimes going to find a bathroom, and sometimes just plain going. As we went about our business, we watched as the native Blackfoot Indians went about theirs. Jim, Jeff, and the other workers at Jim’s Body works, all of whom were at least partially Indian, drove out to tow wrecked cars back to the garage or worked dents out of bumpers. Packs of Indian children ran across roads, sucking down soda and candy from the local gas station as they went, and were followed by stray dogs. Grizzled, homeless Indians sat and smoked on street corners. Drunken Indians stumbled aimlessly through the streets. Indians worked at pawn shops. Indians bagged groceries. Indians flipped burgers. About half of the Blackfeet were obese, and almost all of them had the same sad, slightly vacant look about their faces, like they were grieving but they couldn’t remember for whom or for what. I gradually pieced together an increasingly detailed picture of the reality of these people’s lives, and that picture formed a dark cloud that grew and boiled steadily in the back of my mind. This cloud was made partly of disgust, partly of pity, partly of disbelief, and partly of anger, but it consisted mostly of bitterness.
In my studies of American history, both recreational and academic, I discovered the white man’s conquest of North America to be nothing but a succession of atrocities, a sick parody of justice, and in my opinion, one of the darkest episodes in all of human history. Thus, I always reserved a particularly acute disgust for the story of the birth of this country. But that was just in theory. In Browning, I experienced it in reality; I experienced it today, in 2011. Sure, I didn’t see any American armed cavalrymen slaughtering innocent women and children, but I did see an entire people deprived of their land, flailing like fish out of water in their attempts to assimilate into a culture that, until 150 years ago, was completely alien to them, a harsh culture that their forbearers were forced to adopt. I saw a people that once enjoyed a level of civic and spiritual freedom that Western culture could never come close to providing, and I saw this same people forced to punch time clocks, to eat processed food, to pay taxes, to sever their time-honored cultural ties with nature, and to live the essentially imprisoned life of the Westerner.
And so I was forced to accept that this noble, admirable culture was mortally wounded by a savage, primitive one that happened to have better guns. I was forced to accept that this culture is now drawing its final, sputtering breaths and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. I was forced to accept that this way of life will soon fade into cold, dead history, and that it will be remembered, but never again felt.
In a small, seemingly insignificant little town, I came face-to-face with a dark, even embarrassing element in the story of the United States of America that is seldom discussed and almost never appreciated. Needless to say, I left the place with much more than I had arrived with. I will not soon forget Browning, Montana