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Monteau: Stay afloat or sink together

This last year brought hard lessons in economics. I was one of those homeowners who believed my house had doubled in value in five years. I drew on this “paper value” to make home improvements and finance a business. Unfortunately, the business was dependent upon availability of credit for reservation economic development projects. Not only did I borrow money on the false value of my home, but I put the money into a business that never had a chance as the economic crisis unfolded.

On a positive note, I know again the joy of finding a loose $5 bill in the dryer and have learned to live on cash. I do not have a single credit card for the first time since I was 17. I have also greatly curtailed “helping” family members through various stages of educational endeavors or through rough patches or lengthy joblessness. (I’m in my own prolonged term of unemployment. Employment for an old Indian lawyer is about as scarce as a Cree dog at the pound.)

Remembering who we are and where we came from will help us put our lives back into proper perspective.

Will I go back to “helping” once I’m over my own rough patch? Probably, because it’s just what Indian families do. I’m not afraid of being poor. My grandfather and my father both finished their lives on Social Security and USDA commodities (love that cheese!). I would not be ashamed if that is my destiny.

King Faisal of Saudi Arabia once said, “My grandfather road a camel and my great-grandchildren will ride a camel.” The king, philosophical about the new oil riches of his country, acknowledged that the finite resource would one day run out and his people had better be prepared to go back to the pre-prosperity way of living. (Just to clarify my analogy, the Chippewa Cree ride horses and pickups, not camels.)

A Cree elder told me, “It is our poverty that preserves our cultural.” Although what I and a lot of Americans are experiencing right now is not “poverty,” the experience certainly helps us understand what he was saying. Without the distractions of material things and excess material comforts, it does not take long to fall back into a simpler, more spiritual way of life. The complications of maintaining a materialistic lifestyle can distract us from the things in life that really count, mainly our families, our Indian people and our Indian ways. It is easy to forget where you came from and that most of your people are still there when you are flying high and living large.

Indians weathered the Great Depression because it was business as usual on the reservations. My dad remembered it as a time when it was tough getting a job, but because most families on the reservation already lived simply, the ability to put food on the table remained fairly constant.

Present circumstances are not anywhere near the poverty that existed on the reservation when I was growing up. As late as the 1960s only about half of reservation homes had electricity and most had no indoor plumbing. The heart of winter was especially difficult. I remember a few times when we went without power for extended periods. To this day a good wood fire and a kerosene lamp bring back some really good memories. I don’t know that my parents appreciate the nostalgia the way we kids do.

I remember neighbors who had no electricity, no working car or even money for groceries, yet somehow they got through the harsh Montana winters. Those same families were the first to help out and the first to contribute at ceremonies, even in the dead of winter when they were at their poorest. Not coincidentally, they were the living repositories of our culture. They recognized that the well being of their extended family and tribe depended on their commitment to the well being of the entire Indian community. They shared what little they had.

I know again the joy of finding a loose $5 bill in the dryer and have learned to live on cash.

Does that kind of raw poverty still exist on the reservations? Yes, it does, especially in the Heartland. Those of us that have cashed in tend to forget that a lot of our Indian people still live in poverty. Will the wealthy tribes eventually feel the pain? Perhaps, but I hope not so badly that they can’t help their fellow Indians through these times. I wish a few more wealthy tribes would have ventured jointly with “poorer” tribes and put their money into “real” assets instead of entrusting it all to the money managers. I’m sure that those who had a lot of tribal money invested in the paper values promoted by money managers certainly wish they had invested in something more tangible.

Remembering who we are and where we came from will help us put our lives back into proper perspective. Those experiences will help us fall back on Indian ways of thinking and living that have sustained our people through times of plenty and times of deprivation.

I’m not talking about living in tipis and hunting buffalo. I’m talking about cultural teachings and tribal values that emphasize the survival of the group rather than the material wealth of the individual. Indian nations will stay afloat or sink together if individual tribes don’t look out for the group. The reality of our modern tribal existence is that our ability to survive and prosper as individual tribes is inextricably tied to our relationship to all of Indian country and not just to our own tribe, community, village or rancheria.

This too shall pass.

Harold Monteau is a Chippewa Cree lawyer who writes from the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho and can be reached at