By: Barbara Theroux
Fact and Fiction
for Mountain West News
Nov. 08, 2012
"Many of our people disappeared in the days of the early reservation. They went away to boarding schools, the army, jail. Some never returned. We didn’t know what happened to them. Spopee was the exception. He came back. But we still didn’t know what had happened or where he had been. Like our chief White Calf and our people who were confined to the reservation in the last days of the buffalo, Spopee too had been unjustly confined. Now, thanks to William Farr, both pitiful stories are told by someone who knows our history well."
—Earl Old Person, Chief of the Blackfeet Nation
In 1879, a Canadian Blackfoot known as Spopee, shot and killed a white man. Captured as a fugitive, Spopee narrowly escaped execution, instead landing in an insane asylum in Washington, D.C., where he fell silent. Spopee thus "disappeared" for more than 30 years, until a delegation of American Blackfeet discovered him and, aided by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, exacted a pardon from President Woodrow Wilson. After re-emerging into society, Spopee spent the final year of his life on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, in a world that had changed irrevocably from the one he had known before his confinement.
This was the story the author first heard more than 30 years ago from Joe Bear Medicine, an elder from the Starr School community on Cut Bank Creek. At that time, Spopee was scarcely remembered on the Blackfeet Reservation. It had been nearly one hundred years since 1915, when he died and was buried in Browning. His people had little time to remember him or create new memories. Blackfeet stories need to be repeated to stay alive and attach to the landscape: "When the land no longer remembers you, it won't speak to you, won't tell you its stories." Most of Spopee's story had happened elsewhere: Helena, Detroit, Washington, D.C.
In 1914, Spopee was more than 60 years old was discovered in St. Elizabeths Hospital, the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C.—where had been for 32 years. First he disappeared in a jail in Helena, then federal prison—Detroit House of Correction, and finally to St Elizabeths. By 1893, Spopee had become physically mute to most of his people. He had simply disappeared—they did not know where.
Starting in 2001, Farr began to investigate the story of Spopee. What he discovered was a hidden story with many parts.
“The story was found in the 'archival records of the territorial courts, the federal justice system, the Government Hospital for the Insane, the Blackfeet Agency, and the Office of Indian Affairs. Whether in Washington, D.C., Denver, or Seattle, these preserved writings and texts, notes and descriptions, collected and now housed in climate-controlled…were the key. Gave life, dimension, and even voice to what had been a silent Spopee and shed light on Blackfeet experiences, including their unjust tribal confinement to their reservation.'"
The research revealed not only a tale of personal loss, unfair trail, imprisonment, confinement, belated redemption, but also a story of perseverance, confusion and cultural misunderstanding, one with terrible consequences. The reader follows Spoppe’s chase, arrest and murder trial, as well as the tribal tragedy of the American Blackfeet, the buffalo hunting people, who were marched away in the dead of winter and unjustly restricted to a reservation void of game.
The story begins in 1879, three years after the defeat of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry and two years after the Nez Perce Wars in Whoop-Up Country. The year before many Canadian Blackfoot speakers came to Fort MacLeod for weekly rations, Spoppe and his wife were among them. But in 1879 he came alone. This time instead of finding something to eat, he found trouble; he was accused of killing a white man.
"It mattered greatly that the victim of the 1879 crime was a white man, and this fact alone created within the criminal justice system a unique dynamic. The ghastly crime along a well-traveled trail, assumed to be in Montana Territory, and against a lone white man had been committed, it was alleged, by one or two Indians. Something had to be done. The territory had to set an example—a show trial for the instruction of all, but especially for other Indians. This was the reason for the trial, even though, as it turned out, the facts in Spopee’s case were less than persuasive, the motive contested, and the jurisdiction questionable."
Spopee's case was by most appearances procedurally correct, but its fairness and substantive justice was dubious. He did not understand English, let alone the legal language, nor did he understand that he had legal rights. Was an interpretation of Spopee's story correct? Was it self-defense? Exactly where did the incident happen? Why were no witnesses called on his behalf?
"He had not been able to tell his side of the story, and with so much manipulation, so much suppressed or tainted evidence, and so much disagreement over interpretation, he had been deprived of his constitutional right to due process of law. The legal process, on the surface so procedurally correct, had been hollow, stacked against him with a predetermined outcome. His story was that he had been provoked and attacked, with the scars to prove it; that he had killed in self-defense; that the incident occurred across the international boundary and not in the United States; that the prosecution witnesses, including Good Rider, had been tampered with or promised rewards; and that reputable defense witnesses, including White Calf, had not been called. Eloquently, if obliquely, Spopee summed up the proceedings of the court by relating how he had followed his people’s standard of behavior when dealing with enemies: 'When I saw the Sioux I killed them; I stole their horses; my heart is brave. You are a great chief and can hang me, but you have no right to do so. I have spoken straight, and am done.'"
Spopee was sentenced to hang. After the Helena trial he had become mute, depressed, and dejected—in a sense, he ceased to be. The decision was appealed; he did not hang but was sent to prison for life--not to Deer Lodge rather to Detroit House of Correction. Prison officials in Detroit described his state as one of melancholia, and in less than one year he was transferred to St. Elizabeths Hospital, the Government Hospital for the Insane, in Washington, D.C. From August 1882 until the summer of 1914, he chose silence, for there was nothing to say, nothing to tell and no one to tell it to. There were no listeners, animate or inanimate, real or spiritual—no one who understood.
During the summer of 1914, two Blackfeet delegations made a trip to Washington, D.C. "Each represented conflicting political and economic positions as they sought to influence the belated implementation of the General Allotment Act of 1877, which was not completed on the Blackfeet Reservation until 1912.”
One group made a totally independent visit to St Elizabeths where they discovered Spopee. After years of not communicating, he used sign language and words—he was being understood. This breakthrough led to Commissioner Cato Sells of the Indian Office of the Interior Department seeking a presidential pardon. On July 7, 1914, President Wilson unconditionally pardoned Spopee, his commuted sentence expired at once, and he was to be released immediately. Dressed in a pinstripe suit, Spopee rode in car to meet Sells, talked to the press and left the next day on the way back to his daughter and the land of his fathers in Browning, Montana.
“It was not a good time to return to the Blackfeet Reservation. Browning was turbulent. Spopee, however, did not know that. What he knew was that he was going home, returning to what was left of his family from his own long war trail. He was coming back alive and well, coming back, as the elder Blackfeet veterans would have said, 'with berries in his mouth.' Life was sweet.”
Spopee’s homecoming seemed a celebration and was easily lost in the pageantry. It had been34 years since he had been with them "when he came home, he was just like a white guy, he could even write."
Prior to leaving, Commissioner Sell prompted an investigation to see if Spopee could be adopted by the Blackfeet. Such an action had to be approved by the general council of the tribal membership. Council recommended that Spopee "be given an allotment, furnished with a team, wagon and harness, and such items as he may need to farm his land, free of cost and that it be charged against the Blackfeet Indian Funds."
He was offered a home with his daughter, but it was "hard for the old man, so used to his own space, ample provisions, a clean bed in the hospital, and an orderly, even palatial, institutional setting, to be stuck into a cramped canvas teepee without amenities and closely surrounded by eight people, including underfoot children and crying babies."
Before long he was given a job as a janitor in the agency jail and police quarters—he returned to a structured world of meals, beds and routines. He died on May, 29, 1915, less than one year after returning.
Farr gives us more than the story of Spopee. He relates a larger story about racial dynamics and prejudice as he documents the early Montana Territory and its criminal justice system. Alexander Botkin, U.S. marshal, Montana Territory who was confined to a wheelchair; Judge Everton J. Conger; Col. Wilbur Fisk Sanders and Judge William Chumaser—were all part of the trial.
The author also tells the broader story of the U.S. government's harsh confinement of Blackfeet Indians, a buffalo hunting people confined to a reservation with insights into: the 1855 treaty rights; the humiliation of White Calf and their forced return to the Blackfeet Reservation; the belated allotment of the Blackfeet Reservation, the controversial sale of surplus lands, and the dismissal of Superintendent Arthur McFatridge from the Indian Service.
“Beyond the issue of remembrance and documentation, however looms a taller order—what to make of Spopee's whole dramatic story now that we know it? Are there parables or historical lessons to be taken from it? What is there to conclude, what is 'the take-away,' as they say on the evening newscast? I have no doubt that Spopee’s story will now 'talk' to those who encounter it, but what does it say?”
Barbara Theroux is the manager of Fact & Fiction, now part of the Bookstore at the University of Montana.