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



The empire of climate is the first of all the empires.
--Montesquieu, L'Esprit de Lois


About the middle of June, 1961, I stood barefoot in the sun-warmed bronze moccasin prints of a Blackfeet man no longer living.  On the horizon to the west were the Rocky Mountains, still full of snow.  Away to the east stretched the prairie across which my parents had just brought me after graduation from Northwestern University.  Until I stood in those footprints,  I had no idea what to do with my life.  Even then, I only knew I wanted to stay there.  Forty years later many forces have pushed me out, then called me back, then pushed me out again. 
The heartbreak I speak of in this book is not mine alone, but that of a People, the Blackfeet.   Once freely roaming the Amerian Plains, today they are People of a specific legal domain: a United States reservation for which they qualify simply by having always been there.  Many would like to foreclose that reservation -- some say it would be the best thing that could happen to that tribe, because then they would have to be like everyone else.  But they would have to give up their ancestors, their ancestral home, and their identity.  Some would find that death.

I'm not Indian.  I was not born or raised on the Blackfeet Reservation, but over the last three and a half decades I have been drawn into a kind of Talking Circle, informal and ad hoc, composed of many sorts of people.  Many of them never speak directly to each other, but word gets around. One of us, Dorothy Still Smoking, believes the future lies with the young and has put her energy into Head Start.  Darrell Kipp loves language, any language, and has -- as an adult-- returned to speaking Blackfeet.  His wife, Roberta, is an administrator for the junior high.  His son, Darren, works in conservation and film.   Joe Fisher is a cinematographer.   Jack Holterman, in his eighties, has also loved the Blackfeet language and history since he taught on the reservation in the Thirties.  These, along with me, are what I call “Darrell’s Tribe.”  When he learned that one of the four groups of Blackfeet, the Scabby Robes, had died off earliest and most drastically because they were open to other tribes and traded with them, he took their name as his middle name so they wouldn’t be quite gone.

Bob Scriver, to whom I was married, was born on the reservation in 1914 when there were forty white men in town.  He was white, but put his love for the Blackfeet into bronze sculpture.  His father had come to the reservation in 1903.
The bronze moccasin prints in which I stood in were part of a circle of footprints commemorating the last of the sign-talkers, some of them whitemen wearing boots.  Sign language was the lingua franca of the prairie, more eloquent than pidgin versions of spoken language, and useful over more of the continent.  While the men stood in their circle, they were filmed as moving pictures for the archives of museums.  The sharp nostalgia of times passing away began almost as soon as the white men arrived and even the white men felt it.  "Why gone those times?" asked James Willard Schultz in the title of one of his heart-breaking books.

"No natural ecosystem is permanently isolated from the rest of the world or is stable against evolutionary change from within," responds Mark Ridley, zoologist at the University of Oxford.  The same is true of individuals.  In thirty-five years everything and everybody has changed.

The Blackfeet once occupied a territory mostly on the Canadian side of the border, reaching up to Edmonton and as far east as Saskatoon and Regina.  In the south, on the United States side, they pushed against the Cheyenne and Crow, while to the East were the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota.  This high prairie, called "parkland" because it is strewn with potholes left by glaciers and clusters of trees called "poplar bluffs" in Canada, was ideal for a nomadic people who followed the buffalo.  It was open enough for free travel, and yet shelter and water were everywhere.  First contacts with Europeans happened in the north through trade with the Hudson's Bay company.  When Lewis and Clark came through looking for the headwaters of the Missouri, a skirmish resulted in the death of two Blackfeet.  From then on, Blackfeet resistance was fierce until disease, starvation and massacre brought them low.

But I hardly knew this history when I came.  Walking through the Museum of the Plains Indian was my introduction to the People.  Just out of college, I had no plan for my life.  I never set out to be a teacher-- it just happened.  In those days female persons were either teachers or nurses.  My training was theatre,  but as insurance I had also taken teaching courses.    I'd never heard of Browning until that day.  It turned out to as theatrical as Broadway, not least because the Rocky Mountains stood always on the horizon.  In mid-June the high prairie was a paradise of yellow and purple flowers and the grass was high enough to dance in the wind.

All the way from Chicago where I had just graduated, I  had slumped in the back seat of the car, crowded by my own belongings, devastated by the prospect of life without my beloved theatre department, and defiantly barefoot.  Only  with my feet in the signtalk memorial in the front yard of the Museum of the Plains Indian, did I begin to come back to life.  "I'm going to stay right here," I announced dramatically.

The clerk in the Museum Craft Store said there was a home economics position open.  I thought I could teach home economics:  I had once been Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Year.   In those days I thought I could do anything. "Where do I apply?"  The clerk took me to the window and pointed out the principal, who was wading in Willow Creek trying to catch bullheads for bait.  So I rolled up my pants legs and went out across a field of wild iris to talk to him, sending up a blue heron from the creek as I went.  That's not quite how it was, but close enough.  I fell in love with the place rather than the people.  Not until later did I begin to understand how the people were indigenous, native, autochthonous-- that is, people of the land.   My Irish mother was a product of the southern Oregon valleys: a small-town, church-going person.  My Scots father was from the Canadian prairie:  politically progressive, book-worshipping.  Both deliberately migrated from rural to urban in search of opportunity, but both conveyed a nostalgic understanding of geology as destiny, geography as the shaper of life.  They spoke of Glacier National Park as though it were a temple, and indeed it seemed to be one with its ice-sculptured valleys and sharply carved peaks.

From our Many Glacier campground, I telephoned the Browning superintendent, who was in Missoula working on another degree and trying out the oldest golf course in Montana, which had only recently been built.  Once he got over his astonishment, he hired me to teach junior high school English.  In those days no one wanted to teach on a reservation, let alone young women with good degrees from Big Ten schools, girls who ought to be looking for husbands and houses in suburbia.  By mail my teaching contract followed us to Portland, Oregon.   The salary was $3450.  I spent the summer reading Isak Dinesen's, Out   of   Africa.  My Africa would be Montana.  My Masai would be Blackfeet.  I would find a Dennis Finch-Hatton.  And it all came true.

I arrived back in Browning in August.  The prairie was seared tawny and heat waves quivered over the potholes and poplar bluffs.  I had costumed myself in shirtwaist and pearls, with a straw boater.  For some silly reason, I had packed my tatty old cotton underwear in a Peck & Peck cardboard hatbox which I insisted on carrying as a prop.  Just as I stepped off the train into a blast furnace wind, the string on the hatbox broke and my unmentionables headed for the horizon -- stopped only by a barbed wire fence and many tall weeds.  The superintendent, who had come up with his wife and children to meet me, gallantly helped me collect my goods.  He tried not to laugh.  In the car his wife failed to persuade me to have supper with them.  Not much interesting happened in a small prairie town in those days.  The tow-headed kids turned round eyes on me over the back of the seat.  I know now what they were thinking:  "How long will this one last?"  But all I wanted was to see my new home.
Luckily, long before I heard of the Baroness Blixen, I had taken Anne of Green Gables to my red-headed soul.  An L. M. Montgomery moment was not going to intimidate me.  In that spirit, I looked around my tiny apartment occupying half a shack.  Newly repainted pink, furnished with a massive dark red sofa set, and dominated by a hulking gas heater, it presented a lot of scope for improvement.  The kitchen was so small that one could sit at the table while opening the refrigerator, reaching all the pots on the stove, and washing the dishes.  The whole apartment was roughly the temperature appropriate for baking bread.  My landlady had contributed a sprig of indestructible ivy in a ceramic apple that hung on the wall and more starched doilies than I had ever seen outside a county fair.

Jimmy Fisher, the school engineer, arrived with my trunk and a dozen whiskey boxes of books in his pickup.  "Looks like they hired a real boozer this time," he joked.  With a crowbar he opened my painted-shut windows and left.  Doubling back, he advised, "Better run your bathtub full of water.  Never know when the city water system will stop working."  I had just met my first Blackfeet Indian, but I didn’t know it.

With my clothes on, I fell onto the bed and fast asleep.  Next thing I knew was the air raid siren.  This was the Sixties.  I was trained for an atomic bomb drop.  When I finally sorted my thoughts out, I was clutching my radio and pillow, crowded under the kitchen sink alongside a box of mouse poison and and a drain plunger.  In a while it came to me that the siren was probably a curfew.   A small reservation town was an unlikely target for an A-bomb.  Unpacking sheets and a nightie, I went back to sleep properly.

At dawn, which comes early on the northern prairie in August, I woke chilled.  The temperature had slid to the fifties, as it might in the desert.  Past my bare feet, sticking out from where I'd failed to tuck in the sheet, I could see tall weeds sticking up past my window sill which looked out on the alley, beyond them an ancient log cabin, and beyond that a church built of stones.  Slanting sun gilded everything.  Then there was a pounding of hooves and the legs of a white horse passed by, with boots in stirrups.  That was Bob Scriver who became my Denys Finch-Hatton, but I didn't know it yet.

Pretty soon I dressed up complete with nylons and high heels and went out to find the main part of town.  There were no sidewalks but there was a path across the field where the log cabin stood.  I started along the path, cautious lest the burrs rip my stockings, but realized too late that a very tall Indian man in a wide cowboy hat was coming towards me and there was no room to pass.  At the last moment, the Indian took off his hat, made a sweeping bow, and stepped off into the weeds with his hat over his heart.  "Mawnin, Teacher!" he said.  I nodded in a dignified manner, but couldn't think of anything to say.  I thought he was my first Blackfeet Indian.  All over town people said to me, "Mawnin, Teacher!" and I wondered how in the world they knew. 

When I had gotten on the train in Portland, my mother had said,  "Now be sure to stay two years or it will look bad on your resumé!"  I stayed for more than a decade that first time and have returned many times, this last time for three years.  I would happily live there the rest of my life if I could make a living, but the only way I could earn a salary there would be to teach.  The schools will not hire me to teach on the Blackfeet Reservation.  When I have finished this book, you will understand why. Malcolm MacFee, an anthropologist from the University of Oregon, wrote his thesis about the Blackfeet about the time I first arrived in Browning.  What impressed him was that the people were split between those who identified with the old Indian ways (a few of them white) and those who chose the new assimilated ways, the way exemplified by the small town whites of Montana.  He pointed out that this had less to do with blood quantum than the people's understanding of how to survive.  He proposed the possibility of what he called “the 150% Man,” a person who could somehow reconcile both options within himself.  I assume he chose his percentage thinking that 50% of each would overlap.  The idea made enough of an impression on Darrell Kipp for him to try living the model with considerable success.

Today both the Indian people and the Montana white people are far more various than anyone could have imagined.  Now the problem for both Indian and white is not choosing which to be, or reconciling two opposing strategies, but rather finding any rallying point at all in a sprawling confusion of ways.  Hispanic, African and Asian mixed-blood strands have surfaced, partly as a result of the Fifties effort to move Indians to the cities.  Categories such as Métis have begun to claim their heritage on and near the reservation by clearing old cemetaries and creating little cabin museums.  Many of the survivors of the Red River Rebellion across the border to the north took refuge with the Blackfeet.  Tribal members have gone away to government schools where they married other tribes and brought back "pan-Indian" children, sometimes full-blood Indian but so mixed as to tribal heritage as to be unregistered with any tribe.

On the “white” side, more than ranchers and small town traders live in Montana now.  Survivors from the Hippie Era, technicians of natural resources both animal and mineral, organic farmers trying to escape over-used land, writers looking for cheap romance, crooks and smugglers doing what they always did, and rich folks chasing trends have all flocked to the Last Best Place.  

What can unify all these various people?  I say the land.  I choose the land rather than blood quantum, tribal certification, language or religion.  Others in the Talking Circle are working on those latter concepts as central and I support them, but my own reasoning begins with the land.


Vast and beautiful as the historic Blackfeet range may seem, it is a hard place to live.  The rich people, tourists, anthropologists and wealthier grain farmers only stay for the summer.  For those who live on the high prairie year-round, life can be tough in spite of insulated houses, down coats, and cars with electric plug-in heaters.  We can only imagine what courage it once took to face a Montana winter with one’s wits, a few tools, a pack of dogs, and an extended family.

The last year I taught in Browning, I lived in a two story house in East Glacier that had stood empty for several years.  The owner had grown up there and said she always liked the house because when the snow buried the first floor, you could go upstairs and still see out.  It was late in the year before I could afford a furnace and the friend who installed it barely made it home before the first major blizzard.  Even then, I sometimes only found it possible to stay warm enough reading if I dragged my old wicker armchair in front of the cookstove and rested my feet in the oven.

It was a twelve mile drive to Browning over a road full of deep cuts through hills which blew full of snow, alternating with high ridges built up through valleys where the wind could easily blow a car off since there were no side-rails.  One icy night I returned late, came over a high cut and found a herd of horses standing on the highway.  Rather than go over a twenty-foot drop, I turned off the headlights so the horses could see me, pumped the brakes (no anti-lock then), and tried to steer through the herd while they leapt out of the way.  The last horse wasn't fast enough and the left front corner of my van caught his rump, hurling him over the edge.  Eventually a vigorous cluster of well-fertilized trees grew out of his carcass.

That last winter was one of the worst on record.  I had to chain up to drive the single block out to the plowed highway, where I could usually manage with snow tires.  Over Christmas my parked van disappeared into a snowbank.  In April I hired a backhoe to dig it out.  In the meantime, we all car-pooled in Bill Haw's van, which had good traction since the three heftiest of us sat over the back axle.  Finally a storm hit that trapped the teachers at school, but luckily not the students.  For ten days the wives and children in East Glacier checked everyone's plumbing and fed everyone’s pets.  For ten days the teachers in Browning played penny poker and slept on their classroom floors.

One evening someone bold suggested we try to drift-bust our way to the new motel just outside town.  That way, we could get a proper meal and maybe see some new faces.  The evening went well, but the storm made it impossible to drive back to town.  Rather than pay for a motel room, I thought I would cross the highway to a friend's house.  When I opened the outside door and stepped out, my nose was sealed by snow, my lungs clenched shut from cold, and the wind knocked me flat on my back.  Hauled in and revived, I used my new VISA card for the first time.  In the morning when the wind stopped, people went out to try to start their cars.  When they opened their hoods, every tiny space was packed with snow.  Even after they dug the snow out, it took many extension cords to plug in the engine heaters that everyone in that country installs in their vehicles.  Even after the engines started, it was afternoon before the plow made a trail out to the motel.   Finally, the Burlington Northern railroad sent a huge locomotive-mounted rotary plow along the High-Line through East Glacier to Browning and we all went home on the train, looking like Siberian refugees.  

In the spring, the floods were major.  I tried to ford a flooded place on the highway to Cut Bank, and turned my van into a boat when the water lifted it off its wheels.  Luckily, the motor was high enough to keep operating and the turning wheels paddled to where they could touch pavement again.   A little cluster of on-lookers was trying to decide whether to try to cross and I remember their shrieks when they thought I was doomed.  A little more water running a little faster, and the van would have rolled.

Jack Holterman tells about a Thirties adventure.  Blizzards had closed his one-room school.  Desperate for civilization, he borrowed a horse from Old Man Swims Under, rode it ten miles to town, left it at the livery stable where people were startled by his ghostly white aspect, and jumped the train.  He had Christmas in Chicago.

Old-time Blackfeet simply put up their lodges in river bottoms out of the wind and close to firewood.  They stuffed the space between lodgeskin and liner with grass or leaves for insulation, and settled down for months of story-telling and sleep.  This was the time that the children learned their tribal ways.  It was a time to listen, remember and plan for the next year.  If people failed to be resourceful, to cooperate, to remember all their skills, the penalty might be death.


Gary Snyder has revived the old name of the continent:  Turtle Island.  The Blackfeet Reservation is also a Turtle Island in the sense that it is of limited extent and the people on it must protect the land or see it stripped. 
“Although it's clear that we cannot again have seamless primitive cultures, or the purity of the archaic, we can have neighborhood and community.  Communities strong in their sense of place, proud and aware of local and special qualities, creating to some extent their own cultural forms, not humble or subservient in the face of some "high cultural" over-funded art form or set of values, are in fact what one healthy side of their original American vision was about.  They are also, now, critical to "ecological survival."  No amount of well-meaning environmental legislation will halt the biological holocaust without people who live where they are and work with their neighbors, taking responsibility for their place, and seeing to it:   to be inhabitants, and to not retreat.”

...The process becomes educational, and even revolutionary, when one becomes aware of the responsiblity that goes with "rootedness" and the way the cards are stacked against it.

At first the reservation was only a remnant of the original free prairie.  Then its resources became objects of desire for those who lived around the boundary, tempting them into making repeated incursions for minerals, grazing, timber, and right-of-way.  The railroad took what it wanted with governmental blessing.  A fence was erected and laws made for the reservation only, like the law against Indians drinking.  The question was whether the reservation wasn't really a prison or a refugee camp.  Finally chopped up into family allotments, the reservation was meant to become private property.  Yet it remained an "island of jurisdiction," an ironic convenience for activities forbidden by the state.

What is the reservation today?  Some say more than fifty per cent of the land is owned by Federal lending bodies, foreclosed in the struggle to stay afloat on family ranches, some white and some Indian.  Some use it as a refuge for gambling, tobacco sales, and other state-regulated businesses.  To many it is home-- a place that can never be left.  To others it is a trap, never to be escaped.
Parents said to me,  "My boy has got to get an education.  It's the only way to get out of here."  (They rarely said that about girls.)  No one thought about what kind of education was necessary in order to stay right there successfully.  How do you educate young people in a place where there are no jobs, where the population is too thin to support businesses, and where the main talent of the youngsters seems to be playing basketball?

The kids said,  "This place is no good.  It's just dead here.  Nothing to do.  Nobody amounts to anything.  Nothing but dust and cold and dead dogs."  None ever said,  "I'm going to find a way to help this place."

But back in 1961, people took John F. Kennedy seriously when he said,  "Ask not what your country can do for you-- ask what you can do for your country."  And no one laughed when Martin Luther King, Jr. said,  "I have a dream!"  The high school students of that idealistic era when I first taught swore to each other that they would help their people.  In the 1990's they have remembered themselves and begun to act.  Darrell, Dorothy and Joe are among them.

There is a lot of work to do.  Blackfeet assets are in the hands of the government, held in legal trust, but millions of dollars have been misplaced through sloppy BIA bookkeeping.  Yet when a vote is taken, no one trusts the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council without oversight by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  The Blackfeet schools are in the hands of white administrators and “apple” Indians -- with a few exceptions.  Still today half of the students disappear between grade school and high school and roughly half of the students disappear between their freshman year and graduation.  Families are still broken.  Booze and drugs still sabotage good people.  There are not enough jobs.  The streets are full of dust and dogs.

But changes have begun.  My job now is to witness.  The way to bring about the “new paradigm” is to present the evidence that doesn’t fit the “old paradigm,” so that new explanations must be found.

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