Down to the bones

A historic discovery on the Blackfeet Reservation runs the risk of being lost amid another showdown with the federal government



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At 66, Murray still walks with a swagger. He wears a black leather jacket and Wranglers. His long hair pokes out from underneath a baseball cap and a pack of Marlboro Reds sticks out of his jacket pocket.

Murray earned a master’s degree in education from Montana State University and his diverse resume includes teaching at the Blackfeet Community College and a four-year stint as superintendent of the elite Blackfeet firefighting crew, the Chief Mountain Hot Shots. For the past nine years, he’s worked as the tribe’s preservation officer.

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • “This right here is a slap in the face. They’re still trying to civilize us.”—Blackfeet Tribal Preservation Officer John Murray

Murray’s first experience with the BIA came in 1956, when he was sent to live at the bureau-run Cut Bank Boarding School. He still remembers the day the school administrator arrived at his family’s two-room home to speak with his grandmother, who was then caring for him. Murray peered through the doorway, eavesdropping.

“I could see a leg sticking out, high-heeled, nylons,” he recalls. “All I can remember of that conversation is that I should be at the boarding school because they had modern playgrounds.”

Like dozens of other BIA-operated boarding schools, the one at Cut Bank Creek was guided by directives set by Col. Richard H. Pratt, who, as founder of the nation’s first Indian boarding school, famously espoused killing the Indian to cultivate the man.

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres,” Pratt told the 19th annual Conference on Charities and Correction in 1882. “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Murray says that when he arrived at the Cut Bank Creek Boarding School at 10 years old, Pratt’s directive remained in effect. Children had their long hair forcibly cut. Murray’s sister’s locks were used to adorn a marionette. Blackfeet language and religion were forbidden. Violations drew discipline, including being forced to kneel on a broom handle for hours at a time.

Murray recalls sitting on the swings inside the playground that the female administrator used to lure him to Cut Bank Creek, and realizing how different the school was from where he came from.

Murray couldn’t help thinking about the BIA’s modern playground pitch in July, when members of the bureau’s Office of Facilities Management and Construction arrived in Browning to celebrate a groundbreaking ceremony for the new dorm.

“The guy from OFMC, he gets up there and says, ‘We’re going to have a modern dormitory with modern technology,’ and just like that,” Murray snaps his fingers, “that conversation came back—modern playgrounds.”

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