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



Without some transcendent narrative, some shared story that makes learning meaningful and gives almost a spiritual imperative to learning,
schools become houses of detention.
--Neil Postman


In March, 1989, on what must have been a teacher payday in Heart Butte, Montana, I returned after dark from grocery shopping in Cut Bank, a town sixty miles away in Glacier County.  Leaving pavement among the rocker pumps of the oil fields that sustain both Cut Bank and the Blackfeet Tribe, I crossed the wheat fields of the eastern part of the reservation and followed Two Medicine River between the cottonwoods and the nearby cliffs.  From those sandstone precipices buffalo were once driven to their deaths in order to feed hungry encampments.  The cottonwood groves along the river have been a favorite spot of the Blackfeet for centuries.  James Willard Schultz, who came to be among the Piegan in 1877 and chronicled their exploits in dozens of books, is buried near this road.  He asked to buried near his Blackfeet mother-in-law, whom he loved.  Schultz' son, Hart Schultz (known as Lone Wolf) did not get along with his father.  Bob and I helped Paul Dyck and Naomi Schultz put Lone Wolf to rest next to his Blackfeet uncle, after all not far away.

Approaching the historic Holy Family Mission, I saw that the windows of the three-story sandstone Victorian building, once the boys' dormitory and main classroom building, were glowing amber.   My first bemused thought was,  "Oh, there must be a party in the old building!"  Scenes from movies glamorizing the era of kerosene lights flashed through my mind.  Hoopskirts and ringlets, gentlemen in boots.  Then I thought again.

Holy Family Mission had been closed in the Thirties.  The haunted building had been stripped and ruined for decades, unsafe to enter.  Now I realized it was on fire.  The girls' and nuns' building had already burned earlier in the year.  No fire engines or people were present to fight the fire.  I drove into the yard where the ice and snow had been melted back thirty feet from the walls and saw many tracks.

Square holes in the thick sandstone walls once had been windows.  Through them I saw that the roof was gone.  Inside, all three stories of old wooden joists and floors had subsided to a bed of coals.   Shimmering heat had cleaned the ancient sandstone to the cream color it must have been when cut from the buffalo jump cliffs on a summer day not quite a century earlier.   In spite of one side having been undermined and collapsed by the Big Flood of 1964, the stones remained square.  Father Damiani, inspired Italian Jesuit missionary/
architect, had not thought about building on a flood plain, but he had laid his foundations true and level.

The first time I was in the building, early in the Sixties, people still spoke of restoring the graceful rooms.  Double front doors opened into a hallway where a wood-paneled stairway rose to the second floor hallway.  Downstairs were classrooms with tall sliding doors between them.  Some said the first floor was for the girls and the second for the boys.  The top floor, up under the eaves, was said to have small study rooms for the priests.

The story goes that one night a priest stayed up late studying with his oil lamp.  The nun on duty came to ask him if he would like some tea to help keep him awake.  He said yes.  After a bit he heard a shriek from outside his door and, suspecting some mischief from the students, threw open his door.  There stood the Devil himself, grinning redly, while the terrified nun sprawled backwards down the stairs with her tea tray.  The priest slammed the door in the Devil's face just as his two front hooves hit the other side.  

Forever after, I was assured, the Devil's hoof prints were charred into that door.  People swore they had seen them -- like mule shoes, they said.  I had never trusted the old creaking floors enough to go up and see for myself.  Now in 1989 the entire building was a hellish inferno.  

The Jesuits never had to ask whose school they were running or what it was for.  Their mission was plainly to make Christians of heathens, and that meant re-forming them into the appearance and lifestyles of rural 19th century white people.  Many of the Jesuits were direct from Europe, often Belgium.  They knew what peasants, people of the earth, were supposed to be like.  The school, of course, was ultimately authorized by the Pope himself, the highest human authority, and God.  Who could question this?

During the summer before the fire, Darrell Kipp and Joe Fisher had taken videotaped testimony from old folks who had once been students at Holy Family Mission School.  Standing in the early morning sun in front of the building now burned, the Blackfeet said,  "Oh, they cut our hair.  They took us from our families.  They made us sick.  They whipped us if we spoke our own language."   Then they looked up into the rising sun and said,  "I was never so happy again."  Their eyes filled with tears.

Looking at the tapes, one wondered what they meant.  Evidently, hard as the mission life was, it provided something to believe in when the world became a holocaust for the Blackfeet, reducing a nation of tens of thousands to fewer than one thousand souls on the American side of the border.  Misguided and overly harsh as the Jesuits and their lay helpers were alleged to be, their rules were consistent, unlike those of the ever-changing Indian agents or the fickle United States Congress.  Until the Depression came and the Mission was lost through debt to a local mercantile store, the Mission farm fed everyone there as best it could from its gardens, dairy and pig pens.  

When the old people were forbidden to perform their ancient ceremonies, such as the Sun Lodge and Bundle Openings, and the Societies were disbanded out of confusion and despair, the students at Holy Family Mission had learned the Holy Roman Mass and the assurance of the new rituals:  Communion, Rosary and Confession.  The Mission taught them how to fit into a new world:  stay clean, be obedient, keep your manners, find a job, don't make trouble.  In summer, plant a garden, cut hay and wood for the winter.  In winter, study and pray.  Always go to Mass.  Those who did these things survived.  Boarding school educated people are still a strong cohesive force in the tribe.  Now they are very old.

Aloof from all visitors and most investigators, Chewing Black Bone, the Ahko Pitsu  of James Willard Schultz stories, was able to sustain old ways past the 1960's on the Two Medicine ranch of his descendents, the Mad Plumes, very close to the Mission.  Chewing Black Bone, said to be the last Blackfeet to have actually taken a scalp, was blind in his last years but lived in his own lodge indifferent to white ways and hostile to the Blackfeet Tribal Council, which from his point of view was a collection of half-breeds.  His own integrity was stainless.  His family dares not say whether he was buried in his Ghost Dance shirt for fear someone will try to dig him up.  Such a shirt would sell for a lot of money.

An exceptional few of the old people managed to participate in both the remnants of the old order and the Jesuit-prescribed ways.  Louis Plenty Treaty, a Bundle Keeper, shows up in photos of both Methodist and Catholic events, but Bob and I saw him acting as a Holy Person in the rarely observed Horn Society ceremony.  He was simply a spiritual person, vibrant with the core of truth shared by many traditions.  He and his wife lived in one of the small log cabins built in the 19th century.  Holes in the glass of the windows were stuffed with rags.  Yet all was clean and neatly in place.  Louis was one of the good farmers who benefitted from Agent Campbell's Five Year Program in the late Twenties.


In the early days of reservations, government bodies hoped to cover their mismanagement of Indian affairs in a mantle of sanctity.  They soon discovered that the Christian denominations were competitive about who got to convert which "savages."   To keep the peace they arbitrarily assigned the reservations to various denominations.  Although the Jesuits had been in Montana since the earliest days and already had been working with the Blackfeet, the Blackfeet Reservation was assigned to the Methodists.  History testifies that the Methodist agents they sent were just as corrupt as the ones the War Department chose, with the additional flaw of obsessing about driving out the Jesuits.  

It was so clear to the European-descended bureaucrats that the task was primarily one of extinction or conversion to their own world-view, that they were not aware of the content and significance in the old pre-existing religion.  To them, at best it was gobbledegook, unintelligible.  In any case, Christian work of that period was focussed on missions -- saving souls by forcing them to be like their oppressors.  So the agents cooperated by forbidding the language, the rituals, face painting, or even crafts like beading or quillwork.  

Institutional history has presented a confusing problem for the contemporary Methodists on the Blackfeet Reservation.  In the time of Bob’s childhood, white people in Browning attended a Presbyterian church served for fifteen years by a Scots minister.  Over the years, this congregation shrank and finally, by the Fifties, folded itself into the Browning Methodist congregation, which was just one part of the Blackfeet Reservation Methodist Mission.  This gathered group of white people, in actuality generic rather than denominational Christians, has been not entirely comfortable with the outreach role of the mission.  But the bulk of the funding for the whole operation comes from the larger denomination, specifically to be used for mission.  Today the Methodist congregation, entirely aside from mission work, includes people of mixed blood and various heritages.  It is ecumenical in its formal purposes, but the steadfast remnant of the earlier post-war congregation doesn't find it easy to be passed over in order to supply the mission work.  Many of the Blackfeet whom the church serves do not attend the Methodist services, nor do they contribute in labor or money.  It is always unclear whether the bales of rummage that constantly arrive are to be sold to support the mission or to be given directly to poor people.  Of course, it is the local congregation that is expected to sort, label and distribute -- a full-time job with no pay.  (The Catholics also import much used clothing.  Older women in the Sixties prized men's wool suits which they cut into precise squares for quilts, gaily tied off with red yarn.)  

At Heart Butte a large quonset hut church has been built across the cemetary from the Catholic Church.  In part, the new Methodist church is to fulfill a promise made by the Reverend Jim Bell to the old-timers at the time of the Big Flood.  The flood had washed away the Little Badger Church much beloved by its people and Bell promised it would be rebuilt, though he didn't exactly intend a church in Heart Butte.  Bell was an ecumenical, justice-seeking man who tried to include Blackfeet ways in his services.  

Today in Heart Butte during the summer the Catholics have church school half the day and the Methodists have church school the other half.  Approximately the same kids attend both, eager to break up the summer boredom, make friends, and enjoy some good food -- maybe travel to camp.  The sturdy midwestern Methodists, who come every summer to build and teach as part of their mission extension, are a little baffled.  "I guess Jesus wouldn't object," opined one.

No one wonders what Mohammed, Confucius, Buddha, or any of today's posse of religious philosophers might say.  Sophisticated contemporary religious thought is unknown on the Rez except among the clergy.  The whole idea of religion as an expression of a located cultural world-view is foreign.  Cultural pluralism is vague and irrelevant, and therefore presents no moral dilemmas.  (In fact, irate letters to the editor use "multi-cultural" as an epithet.)  Christianity is simply the main option, with Blackfeet so-called "Sun Worship" as a conceivable sub-option.  Issues are seen as "us" or "them,"  normal or weird, right or wrong.  There is some idea that Blackfeet religious concepts and values are simply another version of Christianity and therefore shares privilege, as opposed to other world religious systems full of error -- heard-of but indescribably pagan.  A strong sub-group of indigenous Blackfeet continues to oppose and try to eliminate the old Nitzitahpi religion, believing it is satanic and destructive.  They are often Pentecostal in affiliation.


Prairie religions among the Native American peoples were free of metaphors of king and city, free of the authority of a written document, and free of the kind of logical reasoning that depends on dualities and deductions.  More than anything else, the people responded to the authority of the land, first and last, under pain of death.  If they were accurate and timely in their observations, they survived.  If not, they ended.  If their ethos was one that supported and guided their lives, then it was reinforced.  If notions arose that did not help their lives, they weakened and faded.  Fittingness to the land was the great morality.  The land was The Book and The Law.

Imagine a long, long expanse of prairie, furred with short grass and creased by watercourses.  Imagine island hills on the horizon and an 8,000-foot-tall ribbed wall of mountains at your back.  These shape the weather patterns and therefore the world.  You must not lose track of the four directions even on the grayest days and you must not forget the personalities of the landmarks.  To confuse two landmarks is to fatally misjudge the location of food, water, and sanctuary.  Mistaking the Bear Paws on the American side of the border for the Cypress Hills on the Canadian side is said to have ended the long journey of Chief Joseph.  He paused on the wrong side of the Medicine Line.  On the Canadian side, the cavalry could not have attacked him.

Each morning the sun is greeted in the east.  At night the stars form shapes , but not the ones the European astronomers named.  Stories are about Star Boy, the Direction Star, and about stars that fall to earth.  People dream of walking up into the sky, even marrying a star, but then speak of homesickness for the familiar earth places.  Streaking meteorites are associated with puffball fungus in the grass which are associated with children and painted onto lodge covers.  The shapes of the clouds, the direction of the wind, sun-dogs, rainbows, lightning are noted.  Precipitation in every form -- snow, hail, freezing rain, thundershower, fog and dew -- is significant.  Year-counts often mention weather events: the winter of ice, the spring of floods, the summer the stars fell.  Life is sky-centered.  But the earth is vital, too.  Where is fuel -- either firewood or buffalo dung?  Water is crucial.  Where are plants for food, for doctoring, for cleansing and perfuming?  Everyone is an herbalist.

One does not leave the outdoors -- there is no "indoors" in the sense of walls, roof, door, a fort.  Shelter is made by wrapping skins around one's self or around a framework.  Sounds are never cut off.  Everyone is exquisitely aware of relationship in terms of spatial position:  where in the camp each lodge belongs, where in the lodge circle each properly sits, how each element of housekeeping and etiquette inside maintains order and cleanliness.  Women who keep a neat fireside while they cook or an orderly work-spot while tanning are respected and admired.  Choosing the proper wood for the proper kind of flame and heat is an art form.

With the fussiness of all good workmen, one learns to strike obsidian at just the right angle to chip an edge, to pound plant material until it is reduced to fiber and then to roll it into ropes.  Sinew from a carcass becomes thread.  "Things" take on a kind of intentionality of their own: their grain, their resilience, their willingness to transform.  Language modalities note the difference between a thing lying passive, unused, or a thing put into relationship--the tension of action.  Objects have auras around them.  While laminating, gluing, drilling, wrapping, quilling, beading, tanning-- sitting with friends and talking-- the mood of the maker becomes part of the work, so when seeing that bow, that shirt, that belt, years later, the time when it was made returns to the mind.

Animal life surrounds and supports the people.  The dog and horse are part of daily life.  Great herds of buffalo, elk, and antelope wander the prairie, following their own needs and season.  People are around you, telling you who you are.  Stories give many patterns of ways to behave and particularly urge everyone to be generous.  The strong are to support the weak, because anyone can become weak in time.

Hallucinations may result from hardship, fatigue, starvation, ingestion of toxic substances, trauma or sleeplessness.  Move on through such states, persist in goals and yet to be aware and mindful of strange, threatening phenomena.  Avoid what seems dangerous.  Dreams and visions are taken seriously as a legitimate part of life.  Intuitions are powerful.  Poetry and philosophy are life itself.

All of this is religion, but a kind almost forgotten by Europeans.  The Celts would have understood.  All the early peoples of Europe once must have lived in some similar way.


Father Dan Powers combines new, old and very ancient in his role as celebrant at the little church still remaining on the grounds of the Holy Family Mission.  The stained glass windows depict flying doves to stand for peace.  The little congregation supports alcoholics in their fight for sobriety and therefore -- in a medieval practise -- does not offer wine to the congregation at communion, but only bread.

In Chicago, Father Schreiter, who taught pastoral classes at Catholic Theological Seminary, urged us to a sophisticated point of view when considering what he called "local theologies."  The Catholic church, because of its mission outreach around the planet, has had much intercultural experience, some of it startling.  In some places bread is unknown.  Does one substitute rice?  Rice often means fertility, not a concept usually connected with the Body of Christ.  In some cultures sprinkling water on women's heads is thought to make them sterile, an awful curse when children are the basis of prosperity.  So how can baptism be conveyed?  Schreiter cautioned us to look deeply into the symbols of one culture for their psychological and spiritual content -- then search carefully in the other culture for new equivalents.  Can one speak of Jesus as a Fisher of Men and tell the story of the loaves and fishes in the Blackfeet world where people starved to death rather than eat fish, a taboo food?  The Underwater Spirits are among the most powerful and malevolent of their old prairie figures.

Clearly, when dealing with religious symbols one must be cautious and aware of the context.  The first step is simply the awareness that what stands for virtue and safety in one culture, may not represent the same thing in another culture.  But this does not make the other culture bad or even wrong.  It simply relates to the place where it arose.  No matter the number of Ph.D.'s among the Blackfeet, reaching ancient concepts embedded in rituals and stories of the original tribe remains problematic because they were metaphors drawn from an ancient way of life.  Living memory grows ever shorter.  The scholar reaches for material grown shadowy.

My own idea is that the concepts remain in actual sweetgrass and cottonwood, sky and buffalo stone.  The land itself serves as the original text, source and authority for prairie religion.  I would say that the land -- mediator of holiness -- is the equivalent of the Body of Christ, but for most Christians this is a heresy.

The Piegan Institute, a better authority than I, feels that much of the old way remains in the very language itself.  Vocabulary -- concepts in Nitzitahpi words that have no equivalent in English or French or Chinese -- can still be collected.  More than that, the grammar itself -- its internal coherent structure -- reveals the old world-view.  It is enough different that to some European people the language will seem grammarless.  But then, Europeans are the same people who rip up the complex perennial grass culture of the prairie in order to plant rows of monoculture grain in strips which must be sprayed with fertilizer and weed-killer and replanted every year, wearing away the topsoil.  They see only their own kind of order.

The old stories have changed, adapting themselves to modern tastes, but early versions were recorded in writing.  These may still be sources of reflection and insight.  I have been told that there exists or once existed a set of key oral stories that in ancient times had to be memorized word-for-word, because the words themselves were so significant.  Jewish people would recognize this, since their nomadic tradition also depended on the memorization of stories and psalms.  The Ark of the Covenant could be seen as a kind of Medicine Bundle.

Blackfeet grammar has a unique pattern of inflection, that is, ways of changing word particles as we do in English to distinguish such aspects as singular from plural or male from female.  Blackfeet language allows an object to be referred to in one of three ways.  In the first "case," the object is just itself in the sensory world, like one of the huge stones left behind on the prairie by the glaciers.  In the second "case," the stone is considered living and might speak.  In the third "case," the object becomes sacred, valorized with meaning like the huge rolling boulders that sometimes pursue Napi when he has been up to mischief.  To have evolved language indicators of these matters, the Blackfeet must have had a need to know whether an object was inert, living or sacred in any particular context.  This tells us something about their world-view.  No object is ever "dead" in the European sense.


In the Sixties, both Midnight Mass at the Catholic church in Browning and Christmas pow-wow dancing at Starr School were classic Blackfeet experiences.   In those days the roundhouse, an octagonal log-cabin, was still in use in the little village of Starr School, where the school ought properly to be called "Starr School School."  Homemade steel-drum stoves glowed dangerously cherry-red.  Inside the roundhouse the temperature was like a sauna.  Drums and leg-bells pounded, driving rhythm heart-deep.  Outside, it was far below zero and people were wrapped in vapor from their overheated  bodies and from the tobacco in their hands.  The drunks were quiet and overhead the stars were thick as avalanche lilies.
In Heart Butte in 1990 their round house was closed down, dangerously decrepit, and no Indian dancing was scheduled.  But there would be a Midnight Mass at the little church and I resolved to go.  The Methodist Church was having no service and I wanted to share this holy, starry, frozen night with a congregation.
Melting snow had frozen when the sun went down, so that the church on its side-hill slope was like a castle on a glass hill in a fairytale where the hero needs a horse with spiked shoes.  I was struggling to sidle from one clump of sticking-out weeds to another, when suddenly two hands planted themselves firmly on my butt and propelled me right on up to the door.  I turned around to find Angie Howe and her mother, Donna, the home ec teacher, laughing and panting beside me.  It was Angie who had decided I needed help.  We went in the door pink-cheeked and wreathed in good will.

The Catholic church in Heart Butte was an old one for this part of the country.  It was stuccoed concrete over logs, with buttresses to keep the walls from bowing outward, and had an emerald green door which peeled  between repaintings.  It was a mission church, which had been maintained by devoted Jesuit priests and Ursuline nuns.  I chose a corner seat over to the right rear, mostly because that is always my tendency, but also because the two other times I had come to this church-- once for Mass and once for a funeral -- I had sat in that place and human beings are creatures of habit.  

Bob Scriver had worked on the statue of Virgin Mary in the adjacent graveyard.  I felt that gave me some legitimacy.  I knew Father Dan Powers would not object to my presence.  Recently I had attended his Mass at Holy Family Mission and afterwards shook hands with Carl Cree Medicine, who used to work for us.  Tonight, as near as I could tell, the only white people present were myself, the priest (who has grown braids as a sign of joining the people) and Sister Edna, who is also a blood sister to Bishop Hunthausen, known as the Peace Bishop.  Donna Howe is Blackfeet, married to a Crow.

The funeral I had attended here was for Carl Cree Medicine's son, Butch.  When I had last seen the young man he had been a toddler clutching Carl's long leg.  Barely adult, Butch was killed by a young white drifter, high on drugs which they may have been sharing.  The killer, at the wheel of Butch's pickup, shot the Blackfeet boy as he sat on the passenger side.  When a Highway Patrol officer named Mary Pat pulled the weaving pickup over, expecting a drunk, she also was shot point blank but survived.  The case got a lot of attention, mostly focussed on Mary Pat.   Father Dan had begun the funeral by sprinkling us all with Holy Water from a twig of sweet pine.

This Christmas Midnight Mass began, as usual, a little late.  (One of the first cultural differences whites generally notice is often called "Indian Time," which means things are done when all is ready -- not according to a clock.)  The sanctuary was painted peach and the windows were merely frosted, not stained glass.  But the Stations of the Cross hung in place.  In the front at the right was a kind of grotto for the créche, formed of Christmas tree and branches.  On the left was a pastel plaster statue of the Virgin Mary.  In back was a country music band around an electric piano.  Someone played the flute and someone else the fiddle, while the piano player sang softly into a microphone.  Father came in and out the door at the back of a partitioned corner at the right which led across the path to his house.  Another partitioning on the left was only storage.  When the crowd began to gather in earnest, Father gathered his vestments out of that corner, and calmly put them on in our plain view.  The chasuble was a brilliant red with the Latin for "kairos" (the transcendent moment which contrasts with "chronos" or ordinary time), in a gilt pattern on the front.

People came in breathless, dipped fingertips in water, crossed themselves, chose a pew, genuflected before entering and knelt to pray quietly-- the pattern is old and natural.  It was I who seemed stiff and resistant, just sitting in my Protestant way.  I began to be aware that my fancy lined boots smelled of mothballs.  Gradually more people came until the room was full and we were praying and singing together, melded into a real congregation.  

Father's sermon was just a story but a true one, he said.  It was about a little boy and girl, Blackfeet, who had lived not many miles away.  Their parents were drinking and careless: there was no food or fuel in their house.  They had been ill and though the boy, who was older, tried hard to take good care of his sister, on Christmas Eve they felt they could stay alone no longer and resolved to go to the neighbors.  Reservation neighbors will always take you in.  There was no phone and the nearest neighbor was five miles away.  It was very cold and the snow was deep.  But they wrapped up and set out together.  

The little girl, who had been the most ill, began to falter after a couple of miles, but the boy urged her on.  At last she said she could not go farther.  He tried to carry her, but could not make much headway in the snow.  Then she died there in his arms on that cold snowy night.  

Years later this boy had still not recovered.  Now it was he who drank too much and could not stop.  But it gave him no comfort, for he was always haunted.  He behaved badly.  Somehow on a Christmas Eve he found himself back near the same place where his sister had died.  He was drunk and he fell in the snow.

Instead of dying, he had a vision.  His sister came to speak to him.  She was standing with Jesus and she told him she was happy and wanted him to be happy, too.  She told him to go from house to house until he found a home where there was a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.  He was to stay with that family and to get well, to stop drinking, to make something of himself.  The vision faded and the young man hitch-hiked back to town.  He did go door-to-door and he found the family, who welcomed him.  And he did stop drinking.  Now he is married and has babies of his own.  If anyone comes to him wanting to stop their bad ways, he lets them stay and helps them.

Father named the man and we all knew him-- or so we felt.  The story seemed true.  Two years later, Father confessed to me that he had made it all up, but that he had been divinely inspired, not knowing what he was going to say next, just working to stay open to it.  It didn't matter.  The story pointed the way to salvation.

It was time for Communion and people went forward reverently.  Two women and one man, a tall and dignified Indian rancher, offered the wine and blessed wafers.  One of the women was the Indian clerk of the school district.  I sat quietly abstaining, praying, half-dreaming.  The band sang softly, both Christmas carols and the usual country gospel church ballads.

When it was time to go back out over the threshold, the men stood spaced out and handed us along across the ice.  Ungloved, I went from one large, dry, strong hand to another.  People paused to wish each other Merry Christmas.  The stars were great wreaths and swirls of sarvisberry blossoms across a black velvet sky.  There was no wind to make the pines swish, but their smell enveloped us.  

I had parked away from the church, down by the cemetery, so that I wouldn't be trapped in the crowd leaving the mass.  From a little distance the small church on the hill was archetypal: it could have been anywhere, maybe in Poland or China or Paraguay .  The voices of the people rang and echoed like bells.  Human experience united us.


In the summer of 1990 a minister friend and his wife came to visit me and I took them to see Holy Family Mission.  Carefully choosing our way, we walked through the ruined rooms, seeing in our minds' eyes the students and the teachers in black robes,  and imagining all the stories that must have played out there.  My friend and I, with our divinity school educations, stood before the ruined altars -- still white and gilt in the midst of the debris, with a dove representing the Holy Spirit on the front of each -- and imagined what those Belgian and Italian Jesuits must have believed as they chose their lives, many of them dying far from home and family, and what they must have hoped would happen instead of this ruin.  In an essay one Jesuit complained that the Indian world collapsed so fast they couldn't get organized in time to save the people.  

On this visit, from the litter on the floor, I pocketed a bit of wall plaster with "Virgin Mary blue" paint on it.  It was June -- the month that I had first seen the Reservation deep in grass and tapestried with flowers.  Through the tall windows, now innocent of glass or muntins or sometimes even frames, I saw cottonwood trees intensely green with sticky new leaves.  I wondered if the priests planted them or if they just volunteered.  Bits of cottonwood down drifted like snow through the windows, glowing radiantly when shafts of sunlight hit them.  Up above, in the high places where the priests had studied, we could hear the rustling and cooing of the pigeons that had moved in.

While the others took photos, I walked ahead and came up the broad formal stairs to the second floor, where I looked out on the little church with its stained glass windows of doves.  I could see the broad burial ground with many familiar names, the rubble of the nuns' and girls' building, the house where a rancher still lives and uses the old farm buildings, and the tall more-gold-than-ivory cliffs from which the stone of the building had been cut and from which buffalo once had been driven in order to feed the people.  

Suddenly, soundlessly, I felt a breath and turned just in time to see white wings flare into sunlight, then float down over my head and on out the window.  It was not the Holy Ghost -- only a barn owl who preyed on the pigeons -- but I shivered.

I said to Blackfeet friends, "You ought to go gather up the stones of those old Jesuit buildings and use them to build a new school where Blackfeet are taught by Blackfeet."

"Oh, no," one answered.  "They're probably haunted.  Cursed!"

The other friend, Darrell, kept silence.  The Catholic church is meaningful for him.  His mother was educated in this boarding school and never lost the comforting faith she found there.  Some day he'll write a poem about the stones, just as he helped make a video about the building.  The soundtrack of the video footage of the ruined boarding school is the bird-like sound of crying, children calling for help.


The December 7, 1995, issue of the Glacier Reporter has a cover story about St. Anne's Catholic Church, the little Heart Butte church with the emerald door.  It is slated for demolition.  The parish has raised $430,000 for the construction of a new church which will seat over 300 people and include classrooms, a kitchen, offices, bathrooms and real heating and cooling.  Father Dan says the church needs more room for overnight gatherings, funerals, services and other church activities like community meetings, cultural programs and self-help groups.  The new church will be even more impressive than the Methodist's quonset hut.

But I'll miss the old church and so will many others.  Built in 1910, the little House of God stands for a time that remains golden in memory.  Few Blackfeet that I know mourn for the loss of the old Dog Days -- not many are eager to spend a Montana winter with only the supplies a dog travois could carry.  Some have feelings about the Horse Days, when young men in particular roamed freely and hunted easily.  Who could resist the triumphant image of returning home from a raid on galloping horses, swinging the spoils of war overhead?

But Blackfeet and the native white people (if there can be such a thing) both reminisce about a time when the horses overlapped with the early automobiles, the Edwardian Era, a time when the 19th century reached over into the 20th between the turn of the century and World War II.  Life was much slower and simpler then.  It was a James Whitcomb Riley world, a Hamlin Garland world, even in Browning, Montana.

That was when Christianity became conflated with Patriotism, being American.  Blackfeet fought in World War I and felt for the first time that they were part of America.  Young men from all over the States fought in that European war, united as Americans and beginning to form a picture of just what "being American" was.  We were a rural nation then-- most people, including my parents and the Scrivers, lived in small towns or on farms.  Houses were modest and clothes were practical.  Most people didn't travel very far, so life was centered in the small communities around the churches, schools, and granges.  

Things were quiet on the Reservation until oil money came to the Blackfeet at the end of the Twenties.  Then the Big Hotels in Glacier Park saw some wild times, especially since during Prohibition they were conveniently close to Canada and its fine whiskey.  Several Blackfeet were pretty good moon-shiners.  But the "doin's" in the Park was not for most tribal people, except those who put up lodges on the lawn of the Big Hotel and met the trains in beaded costumes.  Some got to be in movies or visited Washington, D.C.  But the white people in the back rooms of banks dealt them no cards.

It occurs to me that the Blackfeet were broken twice, once when they were starved out of their horse-centered lives, and then again when the industrial world caught up with them, making their small farms obsolete and tormenting them with influences from the outside world.  The quiet world that Christian missionaries had held up as an ideal and that some families had accepted with success, was shattered by the Depression, then World War II, and the subsequent invasion of competitive post-War veterans looking for ranches.  Charlie Russell arrived on the frontier just as the horse-days were ending and for the rest of his life resented the coming of the "skunk-wagons".  A dwindling number of old-timers around Montana-- red or white, on the Rez or off-- share the sentiment.
There is no first-hand written account of the dog days.  No one living remembers the days of the horse and buffalo.  Only a few living remember the first decades of this century, but when those few talk about how it used to be just after the turn of the century, their faces glow and their voices soften.  "I was never so happy again," they say.  

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