A GOOD PLACE TO GET KILLED
In front of Teeple's grocery was the most scariest place I'd ever been.
--a cross country bicyclist in Browning, Montana
BEFORE HERE WAS THERE
One summer I attended a literary conference honoring Wallace Stegner after his death. It was held in his boyhood town, Eastend, Saskatchewan, which is just to the north of Havre, Montana. At about the same time, it was revealed that a complete skeletal fossil of Tyrannosaurus Rex had been discovered not far away. It had been kept a secret for several years, because such a find is very valuable -- not just the fossil itself, but also the tourist value of the location. Quickly, the organizers of the conference arranged for the chief paleontologist to come speak to the literary conference. (And just as quickly, an enterprising ranch wife put her kids to work baking and decorating dinosaur cookies to sell.)
"What was it like here when the dinosaur was alive," asked someone.
The paleontologist scratched his head. "Well, the first thing to remember is that there was no "here" then. One hundred million years ago -- the dinosaurs died out around sixty-five million years ago -- the continents we know now were still together in one mass, Pangaea. The whole continental mass was much closer to the equator than it is now -- or so we think -- and the weather may have been entirely different. Quite tropical." The audience was fascinated. Prairie people live by the weather.
In the Sixties, the year after the Big Flood, Bob Scriver, his grandchildren, and I had been prowling around the bluff above the Cut Bank Boarding School, idly looking for arrowheads, when we realized we were standing over the complete skeleton of some kind of dinosaur: head, ribs, legs and tail -- all where they ought to be. Excited by our find, we rushed home to the telephone and tried to find out what we ought to do. No expert or organization we could locate got very excited. "Just leave it alone," they said. "There are lots of dinosaurs." Crest-fallen, we tried to just forget about it. So far as I know, it eventually eroded away.
In the June 20, 1996, Glacier Reporter, an organization called the Blackfeet Human Rights and Sovereignty Coalition paid for an advertisement covering an entire page to accuse the current Tribal Councilmen of allowing a fossil to be sold for $25,000 which was then resold by a "Canadian firm" for $1,000,000. Fossils large and small had been "rustled" off the reservation for years and in fact the Council had passed laws against it, but this was the first time anyone had gotten so excited. Nothing attracts attention like the words, "one million dollars."
Much more than a million dollars has been pumped out of the reservation as a legacy of the Cretaceous Era. Huge oil and coal fields in Alberta hint that there is still more oil and natural gas left under the Blackfeet lands. As technology advances, resources that were left behind as uneconomical to recover have now become accessible. Mining companies long to get back to the Sweetgrass Hills, sacred land for the Blackfeet and other tribes, in order to try cyanide heap leach mining on Gold Butte, where a conventional mine was played out decades ago.
But the most valuable legacy of ancient geology is still the Rocky Mountains, the upheaval of sedimentary ancient stone that was later carved by glaciers into Glacier National Park. It is a major tourist attraction, but the value of the mountains is beyond visitor industries. Because the clouds coming inland along the storm tracks and jet streams must drop their moisture on those mountains to lighten their load and rise over to the prairie, the mountains themselves constantly feed a myriad of streams that carry water down and out across the dry rainshadow on the eastern side. The East Front of the Rockies has the fortuitous combination of sun and dependable running water that can create prime grass country. Of course, because the air has risen, dropped moisture, and then compressed in descent, winds blow constantly -- warm winds that are called "Chinooks" in winter. They can strip snow off the land like sheets off a bed.
This is high country -- the prairie comes up from the east in a long easy-rising slope that is imperceptible unless you are watching an altimeter or driving a heavy load. When the wind comes from the east, it is hot in summer or cold in winter. Once in a while, a slow bubble of extreme cold drifts heavily from the Arctic and sits... and sits... and sits, until the foam seats of pickups are like blocks of wood and you must not touch metal without gloves.
The Rocky Mountains are relatively young mountains thrown up by tectonic forces under the continents. Beneath the Rocky Mountains are other, older mountains, formed over many millions of years of colliding forces. However the combination of forces worked, the mountains of Glacier Park were overthrown up from the Flathead Valley, so that the oldest stone is some of the oldest on the face of the planet, and the younger layers are on the bottom. The stone is sedimentary, accumulated as limestone at the bottom of seas when tiny sea creatures died and their skeletons drifted down, as aeolian sediments blown in by the wind, and as volcanic dust, probably mostly from the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest Ring of Fire. All of this has been compressed under great weight and heat in the past.
The prairie is also sediment, but moving and shifting whenever the cover of grasses is disturbed, and worn down into coulees and valleys whereever watercourses tumble down from the mountains. It is estimated that the land has risen three times and been worn away into bench and coulee just as many times. One more upheaval may be underway now. No one knows for sure how many periods of drought have set the dirt free to blow or how long the rainy periods may have lasted, except that there have evidently been no trees for a very long while. Some say the native peoples used fire to keep them back.
Huge structures best observed from satellites still persist from the thousands of years ago that glaciers crept down to cover the northern half of Montana, even scooping into the mountains. Along what would become the United States/Canada border, volcanic action raised a line of hills which during the glacier ages became islands in the ice: the Sweetgrass Hills, the Cypress Hills, Old Man Lying on his Back, the Bear's Paw Mountains. Vegetation on the tops of these hills is ancient. Deep in the earth, poking up through the sediments of the prairie, came blisters of lava that didn't surface, finding ways through cracks and forming what would be-- when the land was worn down again -- buttes and dikes of stone.
Plants and animals must have thrived along the southern edge of the glaciers, just where the climate was too warm to allow the ice to persist, so that there was always water. And no doubt human beings found their way back and forth along this ice edge, just as they found their way north and south along the east slope of the Rockies until they formed the Old North Trail. Travois marks are still visible on that trail. No wonder the people thought of the four sacred directions when their north/south axis was the mountain ramparts and their east/west axis was a green edge along the blue glacier. Human beings have been on this prairie so long that there seems to be a Blackfeet word for "mastodon." It may have become the word for bull, "stumik."
Ten thousands years ago the glaciers began to melt again and form huge impounded lakes, more like seas. For centuries they deepened, until they found gaps in the hills and finally the gigantic glacial lakes of Montana swooshed down through the southern part of Idaho and through the bed of what is now the Snake River, pounding through lava in what is now the Columbia River and continuing to the Pacific Ocean. This is how the rivers made such deep gorges through the volcanic rock-- with irresistible force and long-term erosion.
Long ago as this happened, there may have been witnesses. To this day the Blackfeet don't like or trust water. They have flood legends, which pleases Biblical universalists. Their story about the origin of death involves a wager between Napi and his wife over whether a stone and then a buffalo dung will float or sink. In the end, death wins and it is the woman's bet that makes it so. So much do the Blackfeet distrust water, that even when they were starving they refused to fish. An effective form of discipline was water thrown on a child or even up its nose. Today some Blackfeet are assimilated enough to enjoy fishing from the shore, but few own boats.
A rancher on Milk River ridge, a glacial moraine, once showed me a place on his land where road-builders had dug for gravel. Where the hillside had been trucked away, the layered remains of three glaciers were clearly visible because of the different colors and textures of the soils. The rancher pointed out sorrowfully that the middle layer carried wonderfully fertile soil from what must have once been Canadian forest, but the top layer was full of rocks. "If only the order had been different," he lamented, "I could grow so much more barley!" Yet they say that when the glaciers crossed a huge limestone deposit in Canada, ice carried limestone on down to Montana, powdering the stones nicely on the way, and scattering the mineral so that it enriched the grass.
Sometimes the huge boulders called "erratics" were brought along by glaciers and left sitting solitary so that grass grew up around them, until the buffalo used them for scratching or shade and wore a dirt moat around the bottom. Hawks perched on them and the Blackfeet found them full of stories. Just as boulders were left, huge chunks of ice were left embedded in the land. These melted, forming potholes or "kettles," perfect for ducks and geese. Around the little potholes grew willow breaks and bush berries, so that humans and animals could stop in the shade or find shelter from the wind.
Along the old North Trail, north of the Sweetgrass Hills and Milk River Ridge, is a place good for scaring buffalo over a cliff. A meadow nearby offers good grazing, and then an abrupt drop, so that buffalo falling over it would be killed or crippled enough for human beings to finish them off with a spear or a club. Many of these places can be found. Layers of ancient bone are interspersed with layers of charcoal where the hunters got rid of their offal. These people were fire-users, setting fires to renew the grass or drive animals. Some say the Blackfeet got their name from walking through burnt grass.
At Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, where today there is a fine provincial museum, the archeologists have sifted down through the layers of bone char until they came to the bottom. They estimate that the jump is roughly the same age as the Egyptian pyramids. This place near Fort Macleod got its name when a smashed-in human skull was found among the buffalo bones. The archeologists envision a man running ahead of the buffalo, taunting them to make the thundering monsters chase him and leading them to the cliff-- but when it was time to leap aside, by accident getting swept over in the huge thunder of the herd.
No need for those long ago prairie people to build pyramids. The outcrops of the land provided plenty of high places. The land was their life and they fitted themselves to it inseparably, drawing from it not just shelter and water, but also their understanding of time, their sense of fitting behavior, and their endless stories. The day, the month, the seasons, were their clock. They watched the sky. Generation after generation the babies came, grew up in families and cohort groups who taught them how to be human, went out onto the land alone to seek a vision, fought skirmishes that brought joy and grief, made love, talked about everything, sang often, sometimes danced-- until they grew too old and their voices shrivelled into silence. Then they were wrapped and left on a ridge or perhaps high in a tree with all their material belongings.
This way of life has been described as "deep community," an evolved relationship among land, plants, animals and humans where everything fits together into an ecosphere that sustains lives disciplined by the good of the group and the inevitability of hardship. Over thousands of years the sensory world becomes numinous, holy, so that everything has meaning in the sense of poetic depth. The people dream in order to tap their deepest intuitions. Today many yearn after this way of life.
THE FORTY-NINTH PARALLEL
The chain of hills that runs approximately along the 49th parallel, including Milk River Ridge, determined the boundary of the United States. Thomas Jefferson had "bought" from the King of France the whole of Louisiana, which was defined as the drainage of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Lewis and Clark were sent out on their expedition to find just how far north the drainage went. Along Highway 2 on the road between Browning and Cut Bank is the location of Camp Disappointment where Lewis finally realized that the headwaters did not reach to the fiftieth parallel as they had hoped. These days the commemorative obelisk is much abused and marked with graffiti.
On July 22, 1806, Lewis -- who had separated from Clark in order to go take a look north -- wrote in his journal:
"This plain on which we are is very high; the rocky mountains to the S.W. of us appear but low from their base up yet are partially covered with snow nearly to their bases. There is no timber on those mountains within our view; they are very irregular and broken in their form and seem to be composed principally of clay with but little rock or stone."
Today this part of the east slope is called the "Lewis Overthrust." Lewis was standing on what would become the Blackfeet Reservation.
"I believe that the waters of the Suskashawan approach the borders of this river very nearly. I now have lost all hope of the waters of this river ever extending to N. Latitude 50º though I still hope and think it more than probably that both white earth river and milk river extend as far north as latd 50º."
After a few days of enduring a rainy and hungry camp, Lewis and his company moved on, encountering several deserted Indian camps with the poles of lodges remaining. He noted, "We consider ourselves extreemly fortunate in not having met with these people." Then their luck ran out. On July 26, a Saturday for what that is worth, they met a small band of Piegan Blackfeet and cautiously shared a camp with them. The American explorers were on Birch Creek, the southern boundary of the modern reservation. On Sunday morning there was a ruckus which ended in the death of at least one Blackfeet and so panicked the small party of explorers that they galloped all the way to the Great Falls over what had once been a seabed and is today wheat fields. By the end of September the explorers were safely back in St. Louis, attending a dinner and ball.
The Blackfeet, for their part, were aroused to ferocious resistance against all invaders, whether other tribes or whites. By acting strongly, they managed to postpone the breaking of their way of life until very late, almost the turn of the 19th century. The last of the buffalo herds lingered around the Sweetgrass Hills.
Relations with the Canadians went better, as had interactions with the early European traders. The Blackfeet were not beaver trappers, but revered the beaver and organized their major Sacred Bundle around that creature and other water denizens. Instead of trapping, the Blackfeet accumulated horses by stealing and breeding, and then used those horses for hunting buffalo and buying women for extra wives. At first they acquired weapons and other paraphenalia by provisioning trappers with pemmican, which their women made. Later they sold buffalo robes, which their women also prepared. The real wealth of the Blackfeet was women and they knew it. Lodges became much bigger and finer, and even a single woman could make a living by creating elegant beaded clothing and bags. Today men still acquire ranches by sending their wives to town to work as teachers or shopkeepers. Of course, now they are legally allowed only one wife at a time.
When in 1824 Jefferson laid out his topographical theory of the world, he started with the Blackfeet and then rhetorically moved East. He saw the distance in hierarchical terms with the high slopes of the Rocky Mountain front as the paradoxical depths of savagery and his own swampy capitol as the height of sophistication and culture.
"Let a philosophic observer commence a journey from the savages of the Rocky Mountains, eastwardly towards our sea-coast. These he would observe in the earliest stage of association living under no law but that of nature, subsisting and covering themselves with the flesh and skins of beasts. He would next find those on our frontiers in the pastoral state, raising domestic animals to supply the defects of hunting. Then succeed our own semi-barbarous citizens, the pioneers of the advance of civilization, and so in his progress he would meet the gradual shades of improving man until he would reach his, as yet, most improved state in our seaport towns. This, in fact, is equivalent to a survey, in time, of the progress of man from the infancy of creation to the present day."
Today we might be more inclined to see the romanticized Indian as the highest state while the swamps of Washington, D.C., represent the moral depths of civilization.
HIGHWAYS TOO SMALL TO BE BLUE
Something about the east slope of the Rockies makes it feel numinous, sacred, mysterious. Maybe it is the altitude or maybe it is instinctive in humans from early grasslands times. Many people find the Blackfeet Reservation spiritual-- yet dangerous. It is not really possible to understand the Blackfeet Reservation without reflecting on the geography. The topography, the climate, the soils and minerals, the fossils and wildlife, the transportation and communication networks are keys to both prosperity and institutional life. They dictate where there is work, where you can live, what you can grow, how much of your life is going to be tied up in getting supplies and services and what school district your children belong in. Occasionally, where you are becomes a life-and-death question.
If you drive north-to-south on Highway 89 from the Canadian border to Dupuyer (roughly along the Old North Trail), or east-to-west on Highway 2 from Cut Bank to the Continental Divide (which may have been the edge of the glacier for a long time) , you pass through Browning at roughly the midpoint of the Blackfeet Reservation, where the two highways run on top of each other. This is the capitol of the reservation. Main Street of the town is cut twice, once by the combined Highways 2 and 89 which swing around to get perpendicular, and once by Willow Creek which separates the Bureau of Indian Affairs Square from the town. In the early days of Browning, on the lawn of Government Square every spring Blackfeet girls in white dresses wound through a Maypole dance in the ancient British custom, though they probably did not realize it was derived from a pagan fertility ceremony.
Today few tourists slow down enough to see that there is a Main Street, unless they need the post office or bank, which are still at the old town square alongside Willow Creek.. In the days of my in-laws' youth, there was a pond where the livery brought their horses for water. Before World War I the Browning Mercantile was built on this square by Thad Scriver and his partner--right across the street from Thad's former employer, the Sherburne Mercantile. At one point Joe Kipp also had a mercantile store there.
If you continue south of Browning to Heart Butte, you may choose between two roads: either Highway 89 or "the inside road," which goes south through the railroad depot, giving access to many small ranches and home places. Either road must cross three creeks: Two Medicine, Badger Creek, and Birch Creek, which is the southern boundary of the reservation. These creeks carry the real wealth of the Blackfeet: water. The Rocky Mountains are essentially a water-maker, storing it as snow. Water makes grass which makes meat or small grain. In this century many ambitious irrigation projects have been started. The most successful has been the system that created Lake Francis where the hayfields of the Box Hanging 7 ranch used to be. It is next to Valier, just off the reservation. In recent decades the flumes and canals on the reservation have begun to cave, collapse and fill with growth for lack of maintenance.
A tribal paved road connects highway 89 with the “inside road” along each of the three creeks: you may turn west at Two Medicine, at Badger Creek, and then turn south again on the “inside road,” or if you choose the road along Birch Creek, you will turn north on the “inside road.” Birch Creek is the southern boundary of the reservation.
When you reach Heart Butte you will be at roughly 5,000 feet above sea level, just about where the snowline often stops. To the south and west is a great complex of federally reserved wilderness beginning with Glacier National Park at the top and then Lewis and Clark, the Great Bear, the Flathead and finally the Bob Marshall Wilderness areas together in one of the last remaining ecosystems large enough to support a population of grizzlies.
These days, partly in an effort to protect grizzlies by not attracting them to settled areas, reservation garbage collection is tightly regulated. Even so, when one takes a sack out to the dumpster, it is a good idea to whack the side of the dumpster a few times so scavengers will leave. Mostly magpies scatter, but once in a while a startled bear, even a grizzly, leaps out and scrambles off. In spring when grumpy, hungry bears are around, the aides go outside to scan the playground before the children take a recess. Often a lone bear is spotted up on the side of Heart Butte, ambling along, muttering to itself-- maybe needing dream therapy.
The spring before I came, bears hung around the school so much that an eight-foot cyclone fence was put up surrounding the schoolyard. One student told me he was alone out there when he saw a bear on the other side of the fence. Feeling safe, he taunted the bear. With one blow of its mighty paw the bear tore down the wire, which delayed the attack only enough to allow the student to escape into the building.
Others told me this kid was full of tall tales. In their opinion the fence was just another way to keep the kids in during school hours but out on weekends and vacations. Officially, it turned out that the bears were being attracted by a rancher's boneyard a mile away. When that was eliminated, fewer bears came around. Unofficially, more people than usual carried rifles for a while and if one or several of them happened to kill a bear--even knowing that the hides are relatively worthless in spring--no one would admit it.
One of the teachers' aides lived even farther up into the foothills. In spring she and her husband were often missing a calf or a colt. She said that if the predator were a wolf, what was left of the carcass would be on the ground, but if it were a cougar, the remains would be missing, only rarely discovered in a tree some distance a way. A quiet, gentle Blackfeet woman, she was reluctant to talk about any controversies, but sometimes the losses were frustrating enough for her to mention them. The subject was a hot one -- not between whites and Indians but between locals and outside environmentalists.
In the early nineties there seemed to be an excess of cougars all over the west. A few were coming into the hamlet itself, killing dogs. The kids, who loved to be spooked and expected the ancient tales that I collected for them, asked me, "What are these cougars a sign of?" "Weeeelll," I drew out the moment and leaned forward so they would come closer. "It's a sign the cougars are...HUNGRY! BE CAREFUL!!" They jumped back.
Actually, experts agreed it also meant the cats were young and incompetent, dependent on easy prey and looking for a territory. No one ever saw any big cats. We only found tracks or remains. On the west side of the mountains where the population was denser and less wary, pets and a few small children were attacked. (Mercifully, no children were killed). I call the west side the "fur" side of the mountains, because enough rain scrapes off the passing clouds against the mountains to make lots of trees. The easier climate means more community prosperity. On the east slope in the "rain shadow" of the Rockies, we lived on the "rawhide" side. Trees are scarce and the grass is cougar-colored most of the year. It is a leaner, tougher place to live. Ivan Doig calls it "drumhead earth."
Blackfeet from the other reservation communities sneer at Heart Butte, saying they are backwards and inbred. Inbreeding is a big concern among people who raise stock and who grew up in the Thirties when chromosomes and genes had just been discovered. In those days fairs held contests for "best humans" just like the ones for "best horses and cows." The winners were almost invariably big and blonde. The population of Blackfeet collapsed so swiftly and in this back country mixed so little with outsiders that the suspicion of inbreeding seemed realistic to lay persons. But mostly, the "breeds" could use the in-breeding idea to slam full-bloods, the way full-bloods, red or white, might say "mongrel half-breeds."
The importance of good genes to the male frontier psyche, cowboy or Indian, emerges in the local insistence that Hutterites sometimes kidnap exceptionally strong and handsome young men, take them off in the night and force them to make babies with Hutterite girls. Hopeful young men, both white and Blackfeet, will swear with tears in their eyes that they know someone to whom this personally happened. They will explain how they were tied to a table with a sheet draped over them-- the sheet having a hole in a strategic place, but covering their head so they won't recognize the girls afterwards.
Full-bloods attract romantic souls from back East who see Heart Butte as the last stand of the "real" Indians, a place where people preserve the noble purity and ancient ceremonies of their ancestors. They say the last true Sun Lodge was erected in Heart Butte and that the Indian Days there is truer than the one in Browning, which is now little more than a dusty fair for tourists and bead-peddlers who stay in RV's instead of proper lodges. In Browning more stickgame and blackjack happens than fancy dancing. The Sixties competitions for "most authentic lodge" that I remember and that Bob Scriver used to judge are no longer held.
Behind Heart Butte looms Feather Woman Mountain, alongside a peak called Major Steell's Backbone. Major Steell [sic] was one of many disastrous Indian Agents for the Blackfeet. In control between 1891 and 1892 and from 1895 to 1897, Steell somehow managed to get the support of James Willard Schultz in spite of Steell being a morphine addict. He stayed in his office at the Agency in Browning, speaking to Blackfeet petitioners only through a small door cut at eye level in his office door. Perhaps he was hooked on morphine in the Civil War, just as Vietnam vets got hooked on heroin. Schultz had a bad back himself and sometimes hinted at drug use. At least he often recorded a high opinion of "grass."
At any rate, Steell was married to a Blackfeet woman. Her allotment, a ranch, was on the reservation on the headwaters of Birch Creek. It was on her land that Swift Dam was built, the key to the irrigation project that created the massive ag complex of canals, elevators, railroads and international trade. Steele's fortunes improved dramatically during his tenure as agent. The mountain named for his backbone has a distinct sag in it.
At any rate, Steell was married to a Blackfeet woman. Her allotment, a ranch, was on the reservation on the headwaters of Birch Creek. It was on her land that Swift Dam was built, the key to the irrigation project that created the massive ag complex of canals, elevators, railroads and international trade. Steele's fortunes improved dramatically during his tenure as agent. The mountain named for his backbone has a distinct sag in it.
LITTLE TOWN ON THE FLOODPLAIN
Heart Butte the town is on the floodplain of Whitetail Creek where it comes out of the mountains below Heart Butte the mountain. During the Flood of 1965, the hamlet was devastated by the failure of Swift Dam. Many people were killed, particularly along the streambeds of the foothills close to Heart Butte. The original cluster of shacks and log-cabins was undermined, but then augmented by quickly built "flood homes." Never meant to be permanent, few have stood empty in the thirty years since and some of the little old shelters have been reinhabited as well.
One set of newer HUD homes is on the old location, and another more recent cluster is a quarter-mile away on a creek. When originally built, the houses all had modern amenities, but the telephones quickly ran up bills that some didn't pay. Now one must put down a sizeable deposit in the Three River Cooperative in order to have a phone, even if one has a long record of conscientious payment. When I moved in, I objected. In all the places I had lived, I had never been required to put down a deposit of hundreds of dollars. After being passed through several supervisors (me shamelessly demanding, "Don't you know who I am?") the deposit was waived, revealing it for what it was: a filter against Blackfeet assumed to be deadbeats unless proven otherwise.
The center of Heart Butte is a "round house," built of logs and once used for dancing on the major festive holidays but now condemned. The small Catholic church is on a slope nearby, alongside a cemetary where baby's breath from funeral bouquets seeds a lacy drift downwind every summer. The Methodists' quonset-hut type church is on the other side of the cemetary and recently added a fine community kitchen. It was financed in part by donations from rich women romanced by an ambitious previous minister and in part by hard work on the part of conscientious Iowa parishioners who come to work every summer and who supply heaps of used clothing the rest of the year. The minister, the Reverend Ms. Donna Martin, has grownup children and a supportive husband. For the sake of both health and low prices, they have organized a successful food cooperative that sells staples instead of junk food . The church often shelters a social worker of some kind who has managed to raise funding for a project. Sometimes the worker is from a foreign country, fired up with romantic notions about Indians, but nervous about actually being on a Rez.
The old tall-windowed Heart Butte school is near the round house, next to weather-worn tribal and BIA buildings clustered around a cement plaza. HUD has added modern split-level houses to the few small shacks not torn down in the name of renewal, but the streets that string them together have been intermittently paved. In summer one dodges potholes and in winter the school bus can hardly burst through the drifts. (The new school is too far up the hill for students to walk through winter winds and snow. In summer they are insulted by the idea they should have to walk.) The inevitable discarded cars and stray dogs scatter along dirt tracks made by impatient pickups taking shortcuts. Tipi poles lean against the houses. Any tourists lost enough to pass through would shake their heads and say, "How depressing."
On the church side of the highway, as well as the area across from the store, most of the land belongs to Tommy Thompson and his wife. For decades Tommy's mother ran a small store with a gas pump and a post office, which was also her home, so that she could wait on customers between her household duties as rural people have always done. Tommy was meant to have an education. When he got it, he became the school superintendent in Browning and then retired young. His present wife, a Greek from the Chicago area, continued the family business for a while. Then she wangled a new post office building where she presides as postmaster. Tommy yielded to the needs of the community by building a small store on the other side of his house. Competing stores always shrivel and die. The Thompsons' son goes to school in Browning where he also is meant to have an education. Athena has presided over the school board twice, the last time while I was there.
A mile or so away along a country road, a cluster of random houses belong to the offspring of the original Calf Boss Ribs, who died before the reservation was cut into parcels in 1911. The original small ranch house, much remodeled, is still occupied and descendants have brought in trailers which they have converted to houses when opportunity and income allowed. The men still run cattle, which sometimes hang around in town, and the boys all own horses. At roundup time the women also saddle up. The school draws heavily on this family for secretaries, aides and carpentry work.
UP THERE ON THE HILL
Up above Heart Butte village, where a ranch access road cuts from the highway to the school and back into the coulees below the Butte, is the Crawford land. Crawfords (whose name might once have been Crowfoot) have always maintained good relations with the wider world, sometimes by guiding people-- including modern passport Europeans-- into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Some of the "boys" have married white women and yet this family knows more than most about old ways. They do a little mechanic work and sell gas when the Thompsons are locked up. It was the Crawfords who gave the land for the new school. Crawfords supply both teachers and aides.
The "new Heart Butte School," a decade old when I was hired in 1989, was built as an elementary school, sunk into a hilltop for the sake for heat conservation. In theory it is heated by the lights and the body heat of the students. Problems developed while watching videos. Quiet students didn't produce as much heat, so in the middle of the movie the lights came on to compensate. Only the gymnasium/cafeteria entrances, part of the office, and the kindergarten classroom have exterior windows. The whole school complex is all-electric because, I was told, insurance companies will not approve gas. Frequent power outages force school closure, even when the weather is mild. Since water is brought in with an electric pump, when the electricity is off both the plumbing and the lighting are inoperable. Another problem unforeseen by architects not of that climate is that the two emergency exits, which are cut down into the hillside, pack full of snow all winter. They would be impossible to shovel clear except with backhoes. Anyway, the wind would soon pack them full again. I developed a particular fear of fire, since there were no windows or sprinklers. Certain boys thought it was very funny to set bulletin boards on fire and watch me react.
LIFE IN A COMPOUND
Teachers, unless they were already local, were not allowed to live in the town. Rather the school provided housing on the “campus.” Originally the teacher housing was separated into two strips of apartments: one row of apartments with two or more bedrooms for families and the other down the hill and across the road for singles. When the high school was begun, trailers and modular homes for the new faculty were moved in on a shoulder hurriedly bulldozed between the two strips. Wind wracked these trailers, so that their storage sheds and porches drifted off like unanchored boats. Everyone developed the habit of checking before stepping out the door-- just in case there was nothing to step onto. The insides were so new that at least one teacher complained of headaches from formalin fumes. He counteracted these by keeping his goat in the quite generous space behind the skirting on his trailer.
Water for the school and teacherages comes from spring-fed wells behind the teacherages, next to a beaver dam. The head janitor occasionally failed to send samples of the water to the State Health Department. We knew this because the law required that every time he failed, the fact had to be announced in the local newspaper so we could boil the water until safety was re-established. Generally the announcement said the water had been unsafe last week, but was okay now. The school's water storage tank was under the outdoor basketball court, a little lower than the school. On a very still night it was possible to hear sloshing down under the cement court.
Heart Butte in general, and the school in particular, were at the end of a "T" in the electrical lines, and heavy-duty transformers stood between the teacherages, which were also all-electric. At night I woke up to see my television's screen glowing, though it was neither turned on nor plugged in. During winter storms the electrical linemen worked heroically to keep the electricity on, knowing that otherwise we would have no heat or water. Even when the road was closed they found their way along ridges in big trucks. In a real disaster they used a snow-cat, a "weasel," right out of science fiction, which they sometimes loaned to rescue people.
Heart Butte people in the town below inevitably spoke of "those up there who think they are so good." The kids used to protest, "You don't know what it's like down in town." They were wrong. In summer even I could hear the fighting down below. Anyway, I'd argued with many a drunk during my years in Browning. Few drunks dared to come up to the teacherages and push their way in, but I knew that it happened to the kids' houses even when they were alone behind locked doors. Just because they knew who the drunk was, might even be related, the experience was no more pleasant.
When it became clear that yet more teacher housing might become necessary, I suggested loudly that new housing should be put right in town, preferably on scattered in-fill sites. "Are you crazy?" blurted the principal. "We'd never be able to get a teacher to work here then!" My thought was that teachers who had to live with the kids might demand law and order. That would make it a lot easier to teach in Heart Butte.
Also, a few of us had enough of a Peace Corps mindset to want to live with the locals. I personally was not comfortable that the janitors came and went from my apartment to suit themselves. When the pest eliminator came to spray our apartments, I asked that mine not be sprayed because of my cat and was promised that it would be skipped. Seeing a little gleam in the principal’s eye, I set a trap so I could tell whether anyone entered my apartment. They did. I wrote an angry letter to the school board who couldn’t see why I would get so excited.
The reality is that now even the Browning teachers live in a "teacher ghetto" resort town a dozen miles up the foothills from Browning. When that road is closed, school has to be cancelled. In the Sixties I had been told, "If you live in East Glacier, don't expect any pay for the days you miss." During those days in Browning older women, both white and Blackfeet, used to subsidize their retirements by owning little rental houses for teachers all around town. Not only did we live next door to everyone else, our landladies usually inspected our housekeeping while we were up at school. Both those old ladies and their houses are gone now.
Montana is a catalogue culture. Most middle-class housewives have a stack of shiny-bright books-- not just Sears or Monkey Wards, but also Yield House, Crate and Barrel, L. L. Bean. A particular favorite of the elementary teachers was about a set of dolls called "American Girls." Heart Butte teachers love to order goods by phone. An intrepid UPS driver and a charge card made everything possible. On days that school was called off and the roads were technically closed, I'd hear a knock on the door and find the UPS driver out there in the drifts. The mail-order stores nearly always demanded an address, which we didn't have. To big city folks post office boxes meant anonymity, unknown location, shady customer. To satisfy the people who took orders on the phone, we made up phony addresses: "43 Kensington Mews" or "83258 SW Pothole Alley," depending on the mood. The operators typed the information into their computers with no comment.
In actuality, the UPS driver simply brought everything up to the school where it was kept in the office until claimed. The Doc begged us to make sure our names were on the packages. He once had to open a padded sack to find out to whom it belonged, and discovered to his purported horror that it was lady's underwear. Myself, I ordered fresh coffee beans from Seattle and rented high brow film videos from New England. Delivery came in two or three days. I ordered my books from the Seminary Co-op Bookstore back in Chicago where my membership got me 10% off-- enough to pay the postage. What a life! I sat with my wool-socked feet up on the windowsill, warming my hands on a cup of fresh-ground filter coffee , watching a famous Swedish film vaguely remembered from a decade earlier, while out the window downy flakes of snow gradually decorated the bull pines! For a while it looked as though I'd discovered the ideal place to live the rest of my life.
Actually, the school community lived along the Crawfords' old ranch access road. First after the turn from the paved public road was the DeRoche's house, just before the school land began. Next was the Doc's house, beside a barbed wire corral he built for his three Tennessee walking horses. The kids never understood his horses not being able to run free. Tony. part horse himself, threatened to "save" them some night by cutting the wire. The Doc said he would shoot anyone he saw meddling around. Every morning he went out in what appeared to be his underwear (boxer shorts and an Archie Bunker undershirt) and raked the night's manure over the twenty foot bank of the coulee towards the creek that ran on through the town. When the manure had rotted pretty well, I used it on the roses someone in the past had planted around the singles teacherage close enough to the foundation to keep them from freezing.
I heard the superintendent gloating over having tricked the Doc, hired to be high school principal, into taking what amounted to the "gatehouse." But as a twenty-year Navy man proud of his hunting prowess, the Doc was willing to take guard duty, leaving the Supe and the other principal to new modular homes near the school. The Doc's horses were rarely ridden except by the Marlboros, looking romantic in boots and macinaws. Mrs. Marlboro, who taught art and P.E., was an "Iowa Sioux." What that meant I never asked and she never explained, though she remarked once that she thought it was strange that I didn't ask. Mr. Marlboro, the counselor, did indeed look like a Marlboro model but he was not a Westerner.
Despite fences and cattle guards, if the gate blew open, cows and horses drifted past my bedroom window inside the yard, sometimes seeking shelter from the wind and other times intent on the Doc's haystack. Often enough I woke to the cat hissing on tiptoe on my chest, and a long dark face peering in the window. Then I jerked something on over my nightgown so I could chase the intruders out and shut the gate. Sometimes I stood out there in the breeze and listened to the bull pines soughing, while the cat waited impatiently for me to get back in bed so she could warm up.
MONTANA COUNTY POLITICS
Heart Butte is the only part of the Blackfeet Reservation that is in Pondera County. Conrad, population 3,074, is the county seat. Conrad carries the name of one of the hard-core frontier Montana entrepreneurs, whose descendent has published a book about him. Conrad, the town, is near Interstate 15, the main four-lane artery to Canada. Truckers and county business keep the town alive in spite of being by-passed. From the highway on a forty-below winter night, its lights off to the side look like salvation itself, and one takes the turnoff. When I continued to do my shopping and banking in Cut Bank, seat of Glacier County, where I had always traded when living in Browning, I was accused by the Supe of not being "loyal to home." In fact, I probably did cut myself off from potential support by the county school superintendent who never, to my knowledge, visited us.
Cut Bank has the advantage of being on the "high line" of the Burlington Northern, originally built as the Great Northern. The railroad, from Chicago, follows just south of the Canadian border and links Cut Bank, Browning, East Glacier, West Glacier and on to the Pacific Coast. This is an Amtrak route and a good way to get freight out, but stops and runs are constantly being cancelled because of bad economics. More goods go by truck now, but trucks have a rough route through Browning and over Marias Pass to the Flathead. Just the same, Great Falls is a good place to buy things because it is at the end distribution point of truck shipping centers in Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, and Spokane.
Most Heart Butte folk bank and get their driver's licenses in Conrad, but the tough old wheat ranchers who act as Pondera County commissioners feel precious little concern for anyone but themselves. They hardly help out Valier, much less any Indians. When a major blizzard closed all the roads to Heart Butte for ten days, the Browning plows never made it out to us--partly because one of the drivers was snowed in at Heart Butte. There was no building to house the plow in Heart Butte. But only a few miles away in Dupuyer was a brand-new Pondera County plow that could have reached us easily. It was never fired up. When reproached that babies and old people were endangered, Pondera snarled, "You're Indians. Ask the BIA. Get money out of your tribe." Raising grain is industrial agri-business and risky even on today's mammoth scale. When things were going well, the prosperous agri-businessmen spend their winters in Arizona, but when the market is bad, they live in trailers on their fields. They survive by keeping their focus. As often as not, they don't survive.
Highway 89 runs roughly parallel to Interstate 15, closer to the Rocky Mountains and more or less along the Old North Trail which has been traveled by game and humans for thousands of years. When people from the reservation go to Great Falls, one of two towns in Montana approaching 100,000 (Billings is the other--no Montana towns are bigger than 100,000 but Lethbridge, just over the border from the reservation in Alberta, is bigger than that and growing.), they either go by the "Valier Cut-Off" over to I-15 which fast-driving 18-wheelers headed for Canada burn dry in winter, or travel along 89, which is a much twistier, riskier road any time of year. At dusk it is crucial to watch for deer crossing the road. I generally prefer the latter route, if only because when I stop for gas in Choteau I might run into one of the Nature Conservancy people. Just west of town is the Pine Butte Swamp Refuge, where grizzlies gorge on spring vegetation to clean out their guts after hibernation. The original dinosaur eggs were found out that way.
Even closer to the Rockies, from Heart Butte to Dupuyer, runs a dirt road usually called "the nine-mile road." If you take that road at night-- which isn't very smart if you don't have a dependable vehicle with good tires-- stop, shut off the lights, and get out. If there is a full moon, you will find yourself standing on an unknown silver planet. If there is no moon, you will be in the midst of a stupendous galaxy of stars. Space stretches out on all sides, marked only by wild sidereal lights never lit by human beings. A space walk by an astronaut must feel something like this. It's easy to believe that a star might speak to you, call you to walk up into the sky.
The reservation back-road networks serve a series of ranches and small lakes with excellent fishing. Running up to East Glacier is a treacherous dirt trail with particularly gorgeous scenery. When freshly graded and therefore passable by ordinary cars, locals like to cruise it. Three other connector roads follow away from the mountains down along Two Medicine River, Badger Creek and Birch Creek east to 89. We once had a small ranch on Two Medicine, two miles from 89. In those days one left pavement at 89 and drove on the peculiar fine dirt called caleche that turns to slime when wet. On more than one night my van mired hopelessly. If there were no moon and the stars were overcast, I took my shoes off and went home barefoot so I could tell when I was on the road. The next day someone would come to the ranch to get me and pull the van out. Or they might just tow the van over onto the grass so I could walk to it. If all else failed, I simply waited until the road dried out. There was no phone because there was no phone line. That was twenty years ago. Today the road is paved, the ranches have night-lights, and there is a phone line, but my van would be stripped if I left it overnight.
These various ways, these ancient Blackfeet trails, are never seen by tourists, who complain bitterly about the hardships of driving twisty Highway 89 in their Iowa-licensed Winnebagoes. Along the quiet creekside roads are an increasing number of homes, a reaction to the ghettoes inadvertently created in Browning by clustered low-rent housing. Few, if any, could make money ranching on these riparian homesites, but they are good places to raise a family. At night the ranch lights are startlingly numerous. I always found it hard to drop off kids from a school bus knowing they would have a dark half-mile walk to the house. Often an old car was left at the entrance gate or parents would drive out if they knew what time to wait. Yet, with headlights off, the clear night sky on the prairie is whorled and spangled with the universe. Can it hurt kids to walk beneath that? Or might they wish to marry a star person and leave their families?
Valier's population is 640. Dupuyer is too small for my Rand McNally to list it, but Charlie Russell once painted a picture he called "How Dupuyer Got Its Name." A cowboy is using rocks in the creek to pound the lice out of his cowboy shirt: "de-poulier" in French. Dupuyer is a little post office and supply town about thirty miles from Heart Butte. Ivan Doig once boarded there while he bused to high school in Valier, also thirty miles from Heart Butte and the closest place to get a Sunday paper if you want it on Sunday. (Most people get their papers by mail a day late.) Doig has made his English teacher, Mrs. Tidyman, famous. She deserved the accolade. Besides a fine job in the classroom teaching English, French and German, she sponsored the National Honor Society, the yearbook and the newspaper. But the Blackfeet kids who were in her classes--Heart Butte kids went to either Valier or Browning before there was a Heart Butte High School-- did not attract her attention nor does Doig write about Blackfeet.
Heart Butte is a distant satellite community, connected to Conrad and Valier because of being in Pondera County; to Dupuyer by friendships; to Browning because of the Tribal and BIA offices and the Indian Health Service; and even to Cut Bank, if anyone has business in the Glacier County part of the reservation where the timber leases and oil wells are. Babb, St. Marys, and East Glacier are oriented to Glacier National Park and the related tourist businesses. They tend to be white-dominated with little awareness of Heart Butte. In Babb and East Glacier newspapers are delivered to the stores and the dispenser boxes about the time the cafés open, even on Sunday.
One strong tie between Heart Butte and East Glacier formed through the Badger-Two Medicine oil-drilling controversy. The site can be accessed through either town. Called the "Ceded Strip," the area in question is just south of Glacier Park but its legal status is clouded. Historical documents are unclear about whether the land went with the Park when it was bought, or was reserved by the Tribe. It is claimed as sacred land, but geologists are pretty sure the area is oil-rich. Heart Butte students have little awareness of their geology or history. There is no book on the geography of the reservation. But they could hardly miss the deliberate seismic explosions of geotech explorations or the whapping of the helicopters that brought people in and out. When publicity and demonstrations began, even the kids paid attention. The issue is still deadlocked. Rather strangely, the headquarters for resistance to development is in Missoula, where the University of Montana is located.
CROWN OF THE CONTINENT
It’s easy to understand why anyone would fall in love with this country despite all the difficulties of climate and remoteness. Mystics and wildlife photographers never tire of the place though few stay through the winter.
First snowstorms often hit the Reservation around Labor Day, but quickly clear away for an interval of golden clarity while the aspen turn cadmium yellow and Canada geese yelp through, riding strong winds. You could speak of the time as "Indian Summer." Another storm usually comes around the end of October, and the first real blizzards hit about Thanksgiving. From then until mid-February, cold alternates with chinooks until the February thaw, which is unpredictable but always pleasant, with temperatures up into the fifties. March can be the roughest month of all, and April can still mean blizzards, often calf-killers which soak and freeze the newborn. If all goes well, winter snow is dry and soon blows, so that grass on hilltops is bare and the coulees fill with snow that will melt all summer to keep trout happy. If things get in the wrong order or out of proportion, deep snow can thaw and then freeze, so that cattle cut their legs and tire from trying to paw out food. Sometimes snow, sun, and lack of wind can create a kind of deadly torte, layers of snow/ice that trap grazing animals and freeze them where they stand. Those years become legendary as ranch-busters.
In winter the Rockies mark a division between two continental storm systems, a wet one that brings air off the Pacific and a cold one where the Alberta Clipper comes whistling down from the Arctic. If the two are mixed by the storm track, it is possible to leave Highway 89 on dry pavement and be up to your hood ornament in snow by the time you reach Heart Butte. To ignore this possibility can be fatal, especially since modern engines have air intakes low to the ground where they can be clogged by snow. Smart people always carry a small stove, a bedroll, and food.
I had a hooded rancher's coat so stuffed with down that it sat upright by itself on the pickup seat beside me. "My Friend the Coat" went everywhere with me and literally saved my life several times. People tell about an old rancher who kept a fifth of whiskey under his pickup seat in case he got stuck in a drift. But when he did get stuck, it was so cold that the whiskey had turned to slush. My van had no radio and my heater was undependable. I used a personal tape player with headphones, but once it got so cold that the batteries wouldn't operate unless I put the player down my neck inside my coat. That worked fine except when it was time to change the tape.
In summer (a relative term since at this altitude a snowstorm can come at any month of the calendar) the climate is ideal, bright but not uncomfortable because of the low humidity. Pothole lakes become mirrors where horses wade up to their bellies in their own reflections. A breeze keeps insects moving along. The growing season is not quite long enough to mature tomatoes, as I discovered when I tried to finish raising some seedlings NASA sent the science class to grow after the seeds had gone into space. If the winds hold off, fall can be a glory of glittering yellow aspen, purple hardy aster, and red "sticky geranium" leaves.
In every season the landscape offers one vista after another. Even in a blizzard a sensitive eye sees washes of palest blue or rose on the snowy delicate pencil sketches of weed and branch, and bursts of golden light even when the air is full of goosedown snow. Rainbows can arch in every direction, one inside the other, and every summer cloud is followed over the land by a shape-shifting indigo shadow. Boulder erratics the size of a house stand alone on the prairie, some of them shaped vaguely like buffalo or other forms. In the old days, The People found them Sacred.
When I sat in bed reading, I could glance up from my book and out the window beyond the town's water tower, down the long valley of Whitetail Creek to a row of hills that were miles away. Often I would look up to see a dark purple sky with light-struck, gold-dipped hills in front of it. Or maybe the reverse: dark hills with fabulous gleaming clouds piled up behind. Sometimes I forgot to get back to my book. Bull pines, gnarly limbed and long-needled, with cones covered by clear, dripping sap, stood just outside the window, the rust of the dead limbs contrasting with living green. One quiet Sunday afternoon when everyone was gone, I went out with a pruning saw and made a little space in the boughs in front of my desk window so I could see the town and the landscape beyond. One of the teachers always said that after the school was moved underground, her lessons took half as long as they used to in the old tall-windowed school. I wondered what could be a more important lesson to teach than one's own landscape.
On that hillside out my bedroom window the junior high boys on their skinny horses loved to play tag. The town water tanks, an original and a second newer backup, were "home" because they were easy to touch on horseback. Still-high voices would mingle with thumping horse feet. They rode wildly, out of balance and yet never falling. I was careful not to let them know I watched. They already felt too much scrutiny and wanted to be let alone.
In the coulee behind the single teacherages the brush sheltered many magpie nests. These showy but raucous birds are hated by ranchers for their habit of ripping at wounds on stock. One day I dumped a box of old nuts out on a stump in the backyard, thinking it would attract the chipmunks, but soon a mandala of twenty magpies was pecking away at them. Their bills struck the wood like hatchets.
Writing at my desk one day, I heard the snap of small gunfire. Checking the cat-- safely asleep, what else?-- I cautiously peered through my gap in the boughs. It was Bill Kennedy, potting young magpies with a .22. I watched to see if he were being careful about shooting towards the teacherage and he was. I couldn't really object-- I got tired of the mess and noise of the creatures, too. Coming from the city, I was nervous about guns-- not because I am unfamiliar with them but because of nightly driveby shootings. (The part of Portland, Oregon, where I grew up had become ghetto -- "Little Beirut," people call it.) Few people on the Rez carried handguns. Mostly, only white people seemed to keep them hidden in their pickups. Everyone else carried rifles openly, on racks across the back window. Many were too poor to buy ammunition, let alone guns, so they often borrowed. A particular gun became recognizable to a number of people. "Oh, that's Joe's old Enright. I made that chip right there when I fell on the rocks."
When the young goat-owning teacher first arrived, wearing authentic lederhosen, he set out to climb Heart Butte. Other teachers had done the same, sometimes with students along. This tall, sun-burned blonde was proud of his solitary exploit, experiencing exaltation and a sense of privilege. There are books to read about the point in time when Europeans began to interpret peaks as a challenge to strenuous adventure, something to conquer. The old Blackfeet always thought of mountains as dangerous, a good place to get killed.
What the teacher didn't know was that the whole time he was climbing one of the Heart Butte students watched him through the scope on his rifle. "I could have picked him off anytime," said this boy to me. He didn't. In fact, if the teacher had fallen, this boy would immediately have organized help. But what if it had been another boy, one angrier and more out of control? One on drugs?
One night a year after I left, in front of the teacherage where I lived, a pickup burst into flames, burning its occupant beyond recognition. The consensus was that the victim was Charlie Hirst, the slender and amiable man who maintained our school buses and who lived in the teacherage next to me the first year I was there. More than once he rescued me and my balky car, and he did the same for others. I always admired the neatness of his shop. No one knew whether the fire killed him or if he was already dead or whether he was murdered. As I write, his death is not solved. In fact, I hear that the FBI refuses to even positively identify the body as Charlie's.
Heart Butte is a good place to live, but it is also a good place to die. Living up on the hill with the teachers does not necessarily save a person from violence. Many people pretend that Heart Butte isn't really there. Maybe they are afraid. I have no way of knowing exactly how many unsolved murders there have been, but I suspect the number is high, even for a ghetto.
Blackfeet once roamed the east slope of the Rockies from Great Falls to north of Edmonton and east of Saskatoon. When the reservation on the American side of the 49th parallel was formed, only part of the greater Blackfeet coalition was settled there: the South Piegan portion. Of the clans making up the Piegan tribe, some of the most traditional settled near Heart Butte, which ended up in a lobe of the reservation extending out of Glacier County into Pondera County. Thus Heart Butte is a separated part of the American Blackfeet reservation that is a separated part of the pre-existing continental Blackfeet nation. Many tribal Heart Butte people keep alive their ties to Canadian Blackfeet-- sometimes having more in common with the traditional people up there than with the white-assimilated population in Browning. Pondera County sees them as part of the reservation, which is irrelevant to the white world.
All these forces cause Heart Butte to turn back on itself with a sense of isolation and abandonment. Those who wish to tease them call them "hairy-noses". No one knows why or what it is supposed to mean, but it makes people turn red and get angry. Sometimes they feel like a pariah population, poorer than the others, considered more violent, and certainly in the past more isolated because of the lack of good roads. "Don't go out there," advised one of my full-blood friends. "Those people are 500 years behind the times."
Heart Butte gathered a certain amount of Montana fame through a column in the weekly Browning paper, The Glacier Reporter, written by John Tatsey, the local arm of the law in Heart Butte in the Sixties. John's surprising grammar and deadpan sense of humor were very popular and he built quite a mythology about the Napi-like (coyote/trickster like) antics of local people drinking, gambling, racing horses, and chasing or being chased by women. His favorite butt of jokes was "Stoles" (Stanislaus) Head Carrier, a large gentle man who loved drink and gambling. I saw him once, seated on a blanket playing cards while babies sat and lay all around him, left by mothers who knew he would stay there and watch them. His sister-in-law taught Blackfeet language at Heart Butte School while I was there. She was fully accredited by the state of Montana and retired about the time I left.
Tatsey's columns were reprinted at various times and places, including the Congressional Record, and are part of a genre based on antics of people like those in Kinsella's books, or Dan Cushman's Stay Away, Joe (which became an Elvis Presley vehicle), or most recently The Pow-Wow Highway, written by David Seals. Tatsey had a curiously superior attitude towards his townspeople, though he was once brought before Justice of the Peace Bob Scriver himself for being drunk and disorderly and, in all fairness, put that in his column, too. A collection of his columns was published locally as Black Moccasin. His descendents have formed a strong, tightly-knit clan entrenched in the local schools. Many are teachers and a few are administrators, though that generation is nearing retirement.
In the early 1960's there was a notorious incident near Heart Butte in which a policeman confronted several young men who roped him and dragged him to death. Because the Tatsey columns have been reprinted so much over the years, in a kind of print loop, the incident has remained in many minds, taking on the status of a truer-than-truth myth, until the family of the policeman recently have begun to talk about a posthumous award for his bravery. In fact, George "Duffy" Comes At Night was finally honored at the Bureau of Indian Affairs Law Enforcement Memorial in Artesia, New Mexico in 1994, the National Police Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1995, and finally on the annual Montana Peace Officers Memorial Day in 1996. People in surrounding white communities have forgotten the case is thirty years old. In 1988 an official at the Canadian border told me the story, swearing that it had happened only a few years earlier.
It has been easier for white folks to forget the 1965 flood. Swift Dam, upstream and not far from Heart Butte, crumbled because of lack of maintenance and sent a wall of water down Birch, Badger, and Two Medicine Creeks that killed many people and destroyed homesteads. Families were disrupted and many moved in the ensuing grief and confusion, some ending up in Browning. "Flood homes" were issued only to Native American survivors, prompting a good deal of jealousy among local whites who were also hit hard. Three dams had broken, all of them federal and in theory monitored by federal authorities. They had originally been intended as part of a huge irrigation project in the Thirties that had slowly lost its focus and died. The federal government had deducted the cost of the project from the negotiated payment for the reservation land.
Paving the reservation roads in the Eighties had made it possible for Heart Butte families to move back while keeping jobs in Browning, so the number of children in the community increased dramatically. In 1989 Heart Butte Grade School was finally granted permission to extend itself to a K-12 school, but since the change was experimental the additional classes were housed in the same ten-year-old building where grades K-8 attended. A separate building was to be provided once the viability of the expansion seemed assured. By the time construction was finally begun in the summer of 1994, every teacher on the original high school faculty had been driven off.
In 1990, a century after the Starvation Winter and after paved roads made it possible to get to town on most days, certain young healthy men without jobs, but possibly with drug habits, survived by raiding the houses of their frail grandmothers to get food bought with Social Security. They did not mean to do harm, believing that the grandmothers would simply receive more food or money. The sources of federal money are dim and arbitrary. In most young tribal minds the money is an entitlement rather than welfare. The tribe does receive entitlement money from the U.S. Government as part of treaty agreements and payments, but individuals also may be part of the same welfare and social security programs as any other citizens. This money could not be replaced and old people went hungry, along with the children they tried to raise. Other family members threatened violence.
When I heard about the situation, knowing that the offenders were among my students, I told about the Arctic Inuit who had to survive the most dreadful of circumstances and I repeated stories of small isolated families who had to resort to cannibalism, eating the old people in order to keep the children alive. Though an Inuit would understand that keeping the children alive was keeping the whole group alive and therefore justifiable in extreme circumstances, the students were horrified. Without being specific about individuals, I told them there was no difference between the young men who stole their grandmother's food and the Inuit who cannibalized their grandmothers. "Were times really that hard?" I asked. "Was there no other way to get food?"
Robbing the grandmothers didn't happen again-- or so I thought. This is the power of a story. A hundred years earlier the stories would have come from the old people themselves and the young men would have honored them by bringing food they had hunted in cooperation with each other.
When I was finally ordered to leave Heart Butte, it was really because I dared to tell such stories. "English teachers," said the principal, "Are supposed to teach correct grammar-- nothing more." Stories are political-- an ancient and effective way of teaching-- and who can control the way they are interpreted? Politics are important to a superintendent making a higher salary than he could ever earn in a white school, especially just before retirement. (One's retirement salary is determined by one's last three years of pay.) For the administration, confrontation was effective so long as it was with their white teachers. If administration confronted community, even through the school board, they would be gone, too.
On the other hand, it was wrong for me to tell the story--because I was not the right person and therefore the reason for telling it could be construed as a white woman telling lies about the local people and accusing them unjustly. I could be too easily slid from defender to persecutor.