Silence One Silo


Jay Hansford C. Vest

It was a time when the Reagan administration had floated the unthinkable in tactical nuclear warfare as a means of opposing Soviet “aggression” in Europe.  Not that any Soviet aggression was evident, mind you, but there was talk that the US and NATO did not have enough conventional troops on the ground sufficient to halt a Soviet invasion of western Europe.  Reagan had inflamed the tension with his cold war rhetoric and demands regarding the Soviets in Afghanistan, as this talk was another political ploy to taunt the Soviets and brow beat them back in line.  Still the very idea of a limited nuclear war was to think the unthinkable and to engage in a fantasy rhetoric that left no place on earth safe.

In Montana, we were reminded of the M.A.D. – Mutually Assured Destruction – policies in place as we travelled to and from the scenic and natural wonders of the Rocky Mountain front and the Missouri Breaks.  On such trips, we took note of Maelstrom Air Force Base with its insidious motto – “Peace is Our Profession” – where a series of nuclear missiles were stacked away underground along our scenic vistas.  Once on the way to the Missouri Breaks, I passed a flock of goslings crossing the road ahead of me with a nuclear silo in the background and the absurdity of our nuclear deterrence struck me in the moment.  Manifest in the encounter there was the fragility of new-born wildlife under the care of watchful parents vis-à-vis our assured destruction hidden beneath ground on the beautiful prairie.  It was like a group of grade school children led by their teachers on a field trip to Armageddon.  All in the name of some notion of ideological freedom, so that I found myself wondering what good is freedom if there remains no one or no thing to be free.  A kind of nihilistic fantasy set against the willful earth and sun power that had given life to the goslings and all other creatures of our wondrous little planet.

Later in Missoula, I attended a Silence-One-Silo rally and found myself in much empathy with the espoused message of the peace on earth mission.  A philosophy professor, a minister, and others had formed this focus group to contest the MAD policy and Reagan rhetoric of limited nuclear warfare.  Their goal became the disarmament of one nuclear silo in Montana’s killing fields nearby the Great Falls Air Force base.  They had located a farmer outside Conrad who had  a silo within his farmstead and he was sympathetic with the cause so he gave permission for the peace group to stage protests on his farm.  The protest began with a series of solo peace activists crossing onto the silo site defying federal anti-trespass warnings and laws.  Prior to my interest in the campaign, two activists had been arrested and jailed for their trespass in protest of the nuclear silo.

Word was issued that one of my philosophy classmates was going to jump the silo fence in a third protest.  Receiving the invitation to join the peace rally and see my friend off on his civil disobedience mission – to Silence One Silo – I decided to take the journey to Conrad.  In my preparations, I thought to drive north through the Flathead Valley and cross the Rockies using Highway 2 south of Glacier National Park onto and through the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.  It was a place and community that I had only heard of and read about in my university course books but I was anxious to meet these Indians.  As I made my way north and then east across the mountains, I found time for some short hiking near the scenic vistas and in this leisurely approach I arrived on the Blackfeet Reservation near evening.  Travelling south on a reservation road intending to take a short cut to Conrad, I thought to take a look at an area referred to by tribal members as the Badger Two Medicine, which I had heard mention of during a wilderness hearing in Great Falls.

Huddled about a small campfire, I recalled the previous summer of 1982 when together with Bill Cunningham, several other conservationists and I had attended and testified at wilderness hearings in Billings, Great Falls and Missoula.  During the Great Falls hearing, there were two Blackfeet tribal members who spoke giving testament to the need to preserve these wildlands.  Of the two, I recalled only Joe whom I had met at the university on a couple of occasions associated with the Wildlife Film Festival.  In Joe’s remarks he referred to the area as the “ceded strip” giving affirmation that it had once belonged to the Blackfeet as an integral part of their reservation but was ceded as a result of an 1895 Agreement with the United States.  Now included in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, the Blackfeet retained treaty rights upon the area so long as it remained public land.  A forestry student specializing in wildlife conservation, Joe was a student of the famed grizzly bear biologist, Dr. Charles Jonkel, who also devised and hosted the International Wildlife Film Festival on campus.  Joe and his partner testified that to omit the Badger Two Medicine from wilderness review was a Forest Service oversight.  He contended the tribe’s treaty rights – the right to go upon the land, the right to hunt, fish and gather, the right to personal timber products such as teepee poles, and the right to graze livestock on the land – were consistent with wilderness preservation.  Joe and his colleague were particularly concerned with tribal observation of spiritual practices on these wildlands.

As they concluded their remarks before the lawmakers, Joe and his tribal brother contended the failure of the Forest Service to consider the Badger Two Medicine area for wilderness review was a mere smokescreen hidden under the tribal rights clause.  It was in fact according to them a failure to serve the tribal treaty rights.  Subsequently when the area around Goat Mountain and Hall Creek were leased for oil and gas exploration, Joe’s concerns appeared born out as this practice threatened the Blackfeet treaty rights.  Because of this activity, Joe further contended the Blackfeet people never received a fair consideration of the treaty based land use issues involved.  There land rights without wilderness consideration it seemed were to be trumped by oil and gas exploration and Joe was emphatically asserting this claim before the Congressional delegation.  In his opinion, the Forest Service had simply proceeded with their own oil and gas agenda without considering the Blackfeet reserved rights and wilderness consideration for the Badger Two Medicine.

The impassioned testimony had made a significant impression upon me that afternoon in Great Falls and it gave me cause to pause during my journey to consider these sacred wildlands of the Pikuni-Blackfeet.  During the next morning I decided to do a little exploring up Badger Creek toward the canyon.  Although I did not get very far into the area, I encountered some very happy go lucky Blackfeet people who were coming out of the mountains.  Our encounter was brief but friendly and cordial with a good spirit that seemed to prevail over me that morning.  One thing that particularly caught my eye, it was a Sun Dance Lodge near the creek.  At the time, I had no experience with the Sun Lodge except the teachings of Joseph Epes Brown had given me in his Missoula classrooms but I recognized the sacred structure and assumed the site to be a holy place.

With this observation, the morning was passing and I needed to get to Conrad for the protest rally.  So from the spiritual sanctuary of the Blackfeet, I proceeded to the hard and hardened site of Armageddon’s promise – a nuclear missile silo near Conrad on the high plains of Montana.  Some time after my arrival at the silo site, speeches were made and we broke bread with Jim, our idealistic hero, who made his way onto the nuclear compound.  As support for his protest effort, we ringed the silo site standing in a circle just past the no trespass perimeter.  Armed Air Force personnel appeared and leveled their weapons upon us while our friend was taken into custody.  Afterwards we drove down to the federal lock up in Great Falls to await his arraignment at the Court House.  Jim was to spend six months in jail for federal trespass in his non-violent civil disobedience effort to silence one silo.

Later as the nuclear tensions became ever increasingly apparent, the television movie – “The Day After” – aired and we gathered together to watch in horror as the unthinkable was played out before us on the small screen.  Star Wars in an atmospheric nuclear shield soon became the Reagan mantra for our protection against the “evil empire,” but everyone was slowly made aware of the unthinkable plans that our government had so perilously made for our freedom loving annihilation.  In the tough talking rhetoric of a B movie and with the insane nuclear scheme. Mr. Reagan sought to take credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union but never before, even during the Cuban missile crisis, were we so perilously near total extermination of life on our beautiful little planet.  In that reflection it has always seemed to me that it is the gosling power and wildlands that most deserve to live free.


About the author:

Jay Hansford C. Vest is Professor of American Indian Studies at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. His published works account for nearly one hundred twenty publications including books and monographs, as well as one hundred peer refereed journal articles or book selections. He is an enrolled member in the Monacan Indian Nation and a direct descendent of the famous chief Opechancanough of the Pamunkey Nation, who took Captain John Smith captive as a murder suspect in 1607.

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