In 1961 I came to Browning Montana to teach English. Many adventures later, in 1990, I returned to teach English, this time in Heart Butte, a more remote, more old-timey, and much smaller community on the same Blackfeet Reservation.

These are my stories. Today I live in Valier, Montana, and write all day every day. Some of these people are dead. Some have disappeared. Their grandchildren live all around here.

Saturday, August 10, 2013



"None of  this vivid natural performance is exceptional; 
it is normal, and universal. 
 And so is the political vigilance it takes to be a member of this place.
In one sense it is all just more layers of text 
on the rich old narrative of wild nature."
--Gary Snyder


In May of 1996 the ground was broken for the second Blackfeet Immersion School.  It is called "Cuts Wood School," after an old story about a boy who has secret sources of power that he brings to his people.  The location is just down the street from the house that Thad Scriver brought his bride to live in, the house where she gave birth to Bob Scriver.  She has been gone for many years.  I don't have any idea how she would react to the idea of a Blackfeet Immersion School.  But she was very much a rural, nineteenth-century person who understood one-room school houses and she was Canadian.  The Scrivers had the same stubborn belief in education that my ancestors had on the South Dakota and Manitoba prairies.

So many of the Immersion Blackfoot teachers are from Canada that they "take tea" instead of mainlining coffee.  In fact, on Mother's Day in 1996 the students gave a little tea to honor their mothers.  The food, rather than traditional sarvisberry soup, was fresh strawberry shortcake and each small student went to a table to assemble a shortcake especially for their mother, their grandmother or their almost-mother.  When I drove over to visit in late May, Darrell acted it out for me, recalling the children's talk amongst themselves in Blackfeet.

"My mother likes lots of whipped cream," remarked one.  

"My auntie is always on a diet.  Not much whipped cream."

"I'll just sprinkle a little sugar on this one.  My granny loves sweets."

This is the culture that is forming: nourishing, tailored for the individual, and a conflation of customs based on service.  The real point was the pride and competence glowing in the faces of the children, who knew who they were, what they could do, and who they belonged to.  Through the whole first school year, none had dropped out.  In fact, there was a waiting list.

On this trip I wanted to take more photos of Heart Butte, but at first the weather was rainy and even snowy.  Then one morning I woke at dawn to a ringingly blue sky arching over immaculate mountains and a finally greening prairie.  I went out the "inside road," stopping to get out and then driving on with the window rolled down.  In the town all was quiet.  I doubled back, up and down the creekside roads.  I took photos of the new high school, ready for dedication in a few days.

It was Memorial Day weekend, the traditional day for branding and castration.  At Crawfords' ranch behind Heart Butte School many people were clustered around the corral full of bawling cattle.  At the house I found the three Crawford daughters-in-law on the sofa in a row:  Floy, who is Blackfeet; Charlene who is blonde; and Jane who is quite English and earning a degree at the Blackfeet Community College.  All three are beautiful women, artistic, resourceful, tough when necessary, and good cooks.  They were enjoying the pause between getting the big noon meal ready and actually feeding the crowd.  A steady stream of little kids arrived at the door, politely asking to use the bathroom.

Christie Crawford was one of the stars of my novel-writing seventh grade.  Her first child, handicapped by a brain hemorrhage, smiled and wriggled next to Floy.  She will start regular kindergarten next fall.  In Heart Butte everyone is mainstreamed.  When Christie came in from carrying water to the cowboys, she held out her arms to me for a hug, then went to the back bedroom and returned with her second child: a husky, healthy boy.  Plunk he went into my lap, where he twisted around to stare at this new face.  "His name is Che," said Christie.  "You know, for the boy in our novel!"  

It's hard to go back without being able to stay.  The Z's and I write back and forth between us, dreaming of a world that might have been, one that we wouldn't have to leave.  Wouldn't it be great to watch Che grow up, to share the joys and sorrows of all "our kids," see bears on the mountainside, invent new ways to teach? 

But Heart Butte is already changing even more.  The fifty HUD houses we had talked about when we applied for the high school will be ready by fall.  They fill up the space across from Thompson's store and the post office.  That means as many as several hundred new students at the school, not counting the growing population along the nearby river valleys.  The Catholic Church is planning a million-dollar church and conference center.  There is talk of pulling down the little old Heart Butte School with its tall windows.  Otherwise it will have to have serious reconstruction to be safe.

The new superintendent's manufactured home is twice as big as any house in town and has a spacious deck across the front.  More teacher housing has been added.    Whoever lives in my old apartment has put a "pizza-pan" television receiver on its wall, to pick up 500 channels from a satellite.  It's easy to imagine a time when the growing school and the growing town will meet on the hillside.  But the fence around the schoolyard was closed and locked.  There is a fence around the watertanks, so no one can get in to unbolt them and no kids can play horseback tag using them for "home."

Jon Rehyner, who was there seven years before me, describes a quiet hamlet where he lived in the old teacher housing in town and walked up the hill to school every morning, crossing the creek on a board.  Jack Holterman, who taught decades earlier at the unconsolidated Swims Under School at Badger Creek, has a whole different set of memories.  He was the only teacher in a one-room schoolhouse with rooms for living in the back.  A highly educated man with a degree in Spanish and an interest in history, Holterman taught shy rural kids who spoke Blackfeet as a first language.  His notes on the Blackfeet language have become the first book published by the Piegan Institute.  Bob Scriver's students, now retired, come by the studio to say hello when they are in town.  Many of them still play their instruments in small pick-up bands. We are a shadowy procession of former teachers.

None of the kids I taught in Heart Butte has graduated from college yet, but a few have begun to take  college classes.  Most of them will need several tries, especially if they leave the reservation.  Blackfeet Community College makes it easier to get a handhold.   About half of the first seventh grade and half of the eighth grade made it through to high school graduation.  Nearly all of them have babies.  Some are formally married.  Quite a few have tried military service, a few washing-out early and others thriving.

One is in a federal penitentiary, serving time for murder.  He didn't want his story told here, but I write to him.  He says,  "Send books."  He claims he is writing screenplays and an autobiography, which I hope is true.  I remind him that in this decade of his youth, his twenties, he will be eating, sleeping and washing regularly, getting exercise and earning a degree.  When he gets out, about the same time I will retire, many of his classmates will be dead and others will be unrecognizable: fat, maimed, fried by drugs or booze, unemployed.  This young man may be getting a better deal in prison than his classmates did in public school.  It is becoming a national pattern.


I do not think of the people in Heart Butte as Indians or Blackfeet, much less as "Hairy Noses."  (Enough people in the area were Metis with mustaches that the epithet stuck to the whole community.)  To me they are individuals.  Some of them made me very angry and others made me rejoice.  I don't feel neutral about very many of them.  We shared intense times and now we are attached.

I remember seeing red-headed Ernest Arrowtop on horseback with a wet new-born calf over the front of his saddle.  He was towing the confused new mother with a rope and his face was incandescent with pride.  That was the first calf he ever delivered by himself.  Ernest was one of my best writers.  When the class was assigned to write about what would make Heart Butte better, he found the answer simple:  build a rodeo grounds.

I remember being invited to tell a story at a grade-school conference in Browning and choosing the Robert Browning version of The Pied Piper.  A few days later a little girl came up to me in the store, tugged my sleeve to get my attention, and asked if I were the lady who told the story about rats.  I admitted I was.  Producing a little brown rodent folded out of construction paper with a yarn tail, she tucked it into my pocket.  She grinned, showing two huge front teeth any rodent would be proud of.  Her dark eyes flashed pride and fun.

Not all the memories are comfortable.  I sat on the gym floor with one of the senior boys, who explained to me that I had ruined his life, and felt my stomach shrink into a knot.  It probably wasn't true.  This boy's father was talking to me when G. R. McLaughlin announced over the Browning High School speaker system that President Kennedy had been shot.  This boy doesn't get along with his father.  He hopes to have a better life and I think he will.  He was the first to figure out the computers at Heart Butte.  

One recent Indian Days I was walking around the dance arbor in the dust and came upon one of my most intransigent students.  He had just graduated from high school.  “Oh, I’m so pleased!” I exclaimed and shook his hand.  He smiled shyly.  

Behind Heart Butte School rises the actual Butte itself.  It exists because it is of harder rock than whatever once surrounded it.  Thrust up in cataclysm, the Rockies were carved by glaciers and are still being worn down by weather until what remains is only the most durable geological structures.  Heart Butte has endured.   Nature's way is to create extravagantly and then to edit mercilessly.  

The people here are numerous right now, but there is erosion and not everyone will survive.  Rightly done, education will not lead to extinction but to salvation.  We who have taught there keep every student in our hearts.  We would not want to choose which to save or which to lose.  We can only hope to work towards educational goals that could save us all, the entire planet.

No comments:

Post a Comment