Book Review: “Blood on the Marias: The Baker Massacre”

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(I just read the new book “Blood on the Marias: The Baker Massacre” and reviewed it on Amazon. It’s a tragic story, but I’m sharing my review here because, even at this late date, I think it’s important people know what happened on January 23, 1870)

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It’s hard to fathom. But there was a time when the U.S. government actively engaged in ethnic cleansing.

And U.S. military and political leaders actually pondered the idea of genocide… on American soil.

American Indian history isn’t taught much in schools today. And it’s easy to understand why. Our treatment of the aboriginals of this country is a dark stain which may never be erased. And one of the most appalling chapters in this sad saga is the story of the Piegan Blackfeet of northwestern Montana. “Blood on the Marias” deals with that chapter.

Most Americans have heard of Little Bighorn, even if they don’t know the details. Colorful cavalryman George A. Custer had his last stand here. But few Americans know about Sand Creek, Washita, Ash Hollow, Bear River, and Wounded Knee, where innocent Cheyenne, Sioux, and Shoshone women and children were slaughtered in the name of Manifest Destiny. And only a precious few historians know of the Marias Massacre, also known as the Baker Massacre. There’s a reason why this abomination has been kept secret: as shocking as the above episodes are, the bloody encounter on the Marias River in 1870 is perhaps the most shocking of all.

Author Paul Wylie came upon this story by accident, while researching for a previous book. But he’s produced the first comprehensive analysis of the Baker Massacre, and his scholarly treatment is long overdue. It evidently took him years to pry details of this massacre from the iron vaults of the National Archives, and from army correspondence papers, personal letters, and obscure newspaper accounts. He frames his examination of the massacre – in truth, a “mass murder” – with a solid history of the Piegan Blackfeet, including their fascinating and fortuitous 1806 encounter with explorer Meriwether Lewis.

We also get the all-too-familiar perfect storm scenario that led to the attack: the inevitable broken treaties, murders (on both sides), settler and newspaper hysterics, and heinous practice of whiskey trading by unscrupulous frontier lowlifes. This all dovetailed with a U.S. Army run by commanders who were hardened by the Civil War, who had a penchant for glory-seeking, and whose brutality was informed by racism at best, and sociopathic tendencies at worst (Sheridan and Sherman receive full treatment here).

Without giving away too much, the Baker Massacre had several things which separated it from similar atrocities against Native Americans: first, the Piegan village that was attacked was, at the time, being ravaged by smallpox; second, most of the Piegan braves had gone hunting, leaving primarily women, children, and elderly; third, the attack occurred at dawn, in sub-zero temperatures, with minimal resistance from the villagers (only one soldier was killed, with a minimum 173 Indians killed, although probably many more); fourth, the commander and many of the troops were drunk; and fifth… it was the wrong village.

Wylie, a retired attorney, must have really struggled to restrain his emotions while writing this book. He slips into subjectivity only once, in his Preface, when he describes what happened to those villagers as being one of the saddest things he’s ever encountered. The rest of the book is entirely objective and buttressed by credible footnotes.

The Baker Massacre is, indeed, incredibly sad. It’s also one of the most shameful incidents in this nation’s history. It’s been kept under wraps because the army wanted it kept under wraps. If you’re a history teacher, please devote class time to the history of Plains Indians and the Baker Massacre. If you’re not a history teacher, but enjoy reading about history… strike a blow for truth and get a copy of this book.

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Blackfeet tipis, circa 1910.  Photograph by Arthur Rafton-Canning

Remembering Biff

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I left the town where I grew up several decades ago.  But last week I visited my mom, who lives in a retirement village there, and I decided to have an early Sunday morning jog through one of our old neighborhoods.  If you’ve ever re-visited a place from your childhood after a long absence, especially if little has changed, you know what a strange and exhilarating experience it can be.  Memories trickle in like dappled sunlight: the park where my dad taught me how to ice skate; the hill where my bike skidded on gravel and sent me tumbling to the pavement.  And you wonder if the houses might contain familiar faces.

As I approached our old house, I passed by a well-kept, single-level, yellow house with two front doors.  This was where Biff Schlossman had lived.  Biff was one of my childhood friends.  He was the only kid who was in all my classes from kindergarten through 4th grade (when we moved out of the neighborhood).  He was also in my Cub Scout den, and I’m sure we exchanged a couple birthday parties.  Physically, he was very striking, with brown skin and hair as black as night.

I’d passed by Biff’s house maybe a half-dozen times since we moved away in the late ‘60s, with only a glancing thought about him.  This time – with the tang of March chill on my skin, fresh air in my lungs, and a sudden feeling of nostalgia – I whispered to myself “I wonder whatever happened to old Biff.”  He was pretty bright, so I figured he’d joined the professional ranks as a doctor, lawyer, or successful businessman.  Thanks to the miracle of cyberspace (and to Biff’s unique name), I made a mental note to find out.

When I later plugged his name in the search engine, I discovered a few things.  One was that a very successful novelist had borrowed Biff’s name for the main character in one of his books.  We both knew Biff from grammar school, but neither of us knew the other (yes, it’s a small world).

The other thing I learned was that Biff wasn’t a surgeon, defense attorney, or bank president.  In fact, he’d apparently shunned the standard American Dream to pursue his own dream.  He’d become a classic back-to-nature hippie troubadour.  He’d moved to the mountains of Montana to ski, hike, and sing and play guitar in local bars and ski lodges.  And in the process he made a lot of friends, and became sort of a local legend.  It didn’t surprise me.  My biggest memories of Biff (besides his Indian looks) are his sparkling eyes, impish smile, and soft-spoken manner.

Sadly, I also learned that Biff died unexpectedly at a young age.  Looking into the past can have its sorrows.

I wish I’d have hooked up with Biff long ago.  I think we would have clicked even beyond childhood, as we shared a certain idealism and a lot of the same interests.  Sometime during our raucous post-pubescent years, we separately kindled a passionate appreciation of music.  And after college, I made my own trip out West, to backpack in the Cascades, and I drove right past where Biff may have been strumming guitar.  If I’d have turned left at Bozeman – the “road not taken” – who knows?  I didn’t have his musical talent or performing confidence.  But if not pulling up a stool with him onstage, maybe I could’ve tuned his guitar or offered a lyric or two.

Two memories stand out about Biff.  Both of them coincide with pivotal moments as I grew up.  If Biff were around now, I’d share both memories with him.  The first occurred in kindergarten.  Biff was Jewish, and I remember him talking about his faith during Show-and-Tell.  He brought in matzo crackers to share with the class.  Even though they were unsalted and unlike our regular diet of sugared cookies, we all liked them.  More importantly, Biff’s presentation was my first awareness that people could have differences beyond the physical.  And that this was a good thing.  It’s a lesson I’ve had to relearn time and again.

The other memory was when we were nine and attended summer camp together.  Our moms signed us up to go as buddies and cabin bunkmates for two one-week stints.  It was the first time either of us had been away from home for longer than a night.  I was pretty homesick, but Biff, being more outgoing and adventurous, made friends with another kid in our cabin.  This kid (I’ll call him Eddie) was maybe a year older, from the rougher side of town, and he had a swagger.  I didn’t like Eddie, but he liked Biff, and they kind of teamed up.  Of course, my homesickness was even worse after this.  But I distinctly remember Biff approaching me later in the week and saying “Pete, I don’t think Eddie likes me anymore, he hasn’t talked to me in a while.”  Maybe it’s rose-colored glasses.  But this may have been his way of trying to make me feel better.

I didn’t return for that second week of camp.  I was just too homesick.  In hindsight, I wish I’d have forced myself, because my copout probably started a pattern of avoidance.   But Biff did return.  I’ve always wondered how he fared.  Our family moved only a few months later, so I never found out.  For all I know, those wooded hills of north-central Ohio helped inspire Biff’s later migration to Big Sky country.

I never saw Biff again, either.  But friends from youth have a way of searing themselves into your consciousness.  Maybe because, when we’re kids, we’re not aware of the concept of time.  When we’re kids, neither the past nor the future are relevant.  We haven’t yet learned how to reflect on things, good or bad.  And we don’t worry about what’s in front of us.  We only live in the present.  For most of us, it’s just a brief period in our lives.  But it’s where you can find true happiness.

Here’s to you, Biff.

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