You told me I was poor and needed money, but I am not poor. What is valuable to a person is land, the Earth, water, trees.
- Chief Isaac of the Kootenais
RONAN - Inside the safe of an abandoned store were found the journals that told Joe McDonald what had happened.
McDonald's father visited the Beckwith Store on the day his younger brother - Daniel McDonald, Joe's uncle - had died, at the age of 7.
His father bought a casket for $75, paying for it by signing over the deeds to two Flathead Indian Reservation allotments, including Daniel's, to the store owner.
"It's not that he was screwed out of it," McDonald says. "But that's the kind of trading that went on."
Forced a century ago into an unfamiliar agrarian economy, and into the middle of a culture foreign to them, many Indians wound up settling debts in the 1930s by signing away the deeds to lands that had been allotted them a quarter-century earlier.
"The sad part of the (Indian) allotments was after 25 years you got the deed, could take it out of trust and sell it," McDonald says.
McDonald says U.S. Sen. Joseph Dixon, who pushed the Flathead Allotment Act through Congress in 1904, was one of many who showed up on the reservation later to take advantage of it.
"Joe Dixon was one of the people who set up mercantiles on the reservation and let Indians charge for goods," McDonald says. "Then they'd put pressure on them to pay their bill."
Can't pay? No problem. Just sign over the deed to your allotment, and the debt will be forgiven.
"It was said among Indian people that one mercantile owner alone had title to 80 Indian allotments of 80 acres each," McDonald says.
When David Steindorf presented his research (see related story) on the homesteading of the Flathead Reservation at a family reunion over the summer, he also invited McDonald to speak about it from the Indian perspective.
"They were certainly brave souls," McDonald says of the homesteaders. "Most came in and didn't know the politics" behind the opening of the reservation to non-Indians.
McDonald, president emeritus of Salish Kootenai College, told the Steindorf family and other descendants of homesteaders to be thankful for "brave parents that came out here and drove a stake in the ground and claimed their land."
"They had to live on it and ‘prove up' the homestead and pay it off," he went on. "It must have been pretty bleak in some places. Over across the river, I have come upon abandoned homesteads. It made me sad; one could feel the family struggling to make a dry-land farm support themselves."
The era was no picnic for Indians or homesteaders, but it certainly did funnel money into the pockets of businessmen, many of them from Missoula - who had pushed to have the reservation opened up to homesteading - not to mention the railroads that brought the settlers west.
McDonald quoted a dissertation by Ron Trosper from 1974, where Trosper wrote: "Rather than putting them on equal footing with the whites, the (allotment act) thrust the Indians into direct competition for which they were unprepared. They lost more control over the reservations (and) they lost the economic opportunity associated with land development. Moreover, the number of white settlers increased so rapidly that the Flatheads soon became a minority on their own land."
The arrival of homesteaders changed more than land ownership, McDonald says.
They started fencing the land. They claimed water rights from streams and diverted it for irrigation.
The state established country schools, but Indians weren't allowed to vote and had no say in what was taught, or the fact that their native languages were banned there.
The same held true for boarding schools.
"A school is to help the students understand who they are and learn their language, songs and culture," says McDonald, a longtime and highly respected Montana educator.
Even powwows were banned, although the Indians got the best of the feds there.
They went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, even before the reservation was opened to homesteading, and asked if they could hold a "Fourth of July celebration."
"‘My,' the BIA officials thought, ‘this is good,'" McDonald says.'" They are finally coming around.'"
That "Fourth of July celebration," the Arlee Powwow, continues to this day, 110 years later.
"Amid all of these developments and social pressures," McDonald told the Steindorf reunion, "the Salish, Pend d'Oreilles and Kootenais survived."
"We have a rich cultural and natural setting here," he went on. "We need to work together to keep it nice, a strong Indian community, a strong agricultural community, a strong service community and a strong retirement community. We can have a wonderful quality of life if we try to enjoy each day, each moment."
Oh, and that parcel of land McDonald's father traded for his little brother's casket?
Joe McDonald and his wife bought it back in the 1950s. It's adjacent to the land McDonald's father was allotted, and that Joe has owned since his father's death.