The Great Wave of Civilization
Review excerpts
In the spring of 1867, Little Dog and Shoots-In-The-Air, warriors of the Northern Blackfoot Tribe, make their way from present-day Alberta towards friendly Piegan territory to the South. On a visit to a Piegan family in Teton River country in what is now Montana, Little Dog acquires a wife, Sitakapoki, whom he has been courting. All is not idyllic as it seems, however. The Piegans are being pushed into reservations. Flat Tail, Sitakapoki’s father, knowing what this means but no longer willing to fight, sends Sitakapoki’s two sisters with her northwards. Despite Little Dog’s prodding, Flat Tail won’t himself follow with his wife.

Little Dog and his friends, however, aren’t immune to white inroads, either. A growing whiskey trade has developed in the region and Little Dog, the next winter, gets caught up in it. He and a few others. with their women, head off with a supply of buffalo robes to a trading fort south of the line. The fort is manned by a handful of “free traders,” among them Snookum Jim and a feckless sidekick, Will Geary, who have perfected the art of mixing high-powered hooch. One of Little Dog’s band, Big Feet, insists on trading for firewater and becomes drunk. Little Dog, who has tried to warn him off, does not want to concede any triumph to the traders and also wants to rescue Big Feet from his alcohol-induced despair. He decides, on the spur of the moment, to pit his strength and the powers of the Great Spirit against the hooch. After summoning up the spirit power with his medicine bundle, he ceremonially drinks out of the whiskey jug. The defiant gesture proves to be the first step towards disaster. By the time the extended drinking bout ends, Little Dog, out of his mind, ends up trading away Sitakapoki herself, and Big Feet freezes to death.

Back in Northern Blackfoot territory, Little Dog, having pondered over what had happened, is anxious for tribal talk to stop and action to be taken. It’s now the spring of 1868. Little Dog leaves the tribe and becomes an outlaw. He returns, with his friend Shoots-In-The-Air, to the United States, roaming freely in the region, seeking not so much revenge as to destroy the traders for what they are doing to his people.

The free traders, however, are only a small, outlying part of the “great wave of civilization” that is bearing down on the Blackfoot Confederacy. They are underwritten and ultimately controlled by a couple of merchant princes at the whiskey trade’s home base, Fort Benton, Montana. Those merchants in turn are linked to financing in St. Louis and Chicago. Money and the doctrine of exploiting resources (the buffalo and their robes) rule. At the same time, Indian reprisals against white violence result in the strengthening of the U.S. infantry in the region, adding to the pressure. Missionaries are another factor.

Then, in 1873, Fort Benton merchant I.G. Baker, extending his reach, finances a new trading post, Fort Whoop-Up, across the “northern line” at the junction of the St. Mary and Oldman Rivers. The fort is managed by a well-known, tough frontiersman, Iron John J. Healy. Snookum Jim, Sitakapoki and others are in residence. Little Dog and Shoots-In-The-Air track down the fort and lay siege.

The rest is tragedy.
Copyright © Herschel Hardin 2005
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