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



Place is space with historical meaning.
A yearning for place is a decision to enter history.
--Walter Brueggemann.


What follows is not a novel, but an attempt to imagine something that really happened.

The winter prairie was flat and white as a page.  The sky over it gave barely enough contrast to read the horizon.  Moving northeast, a column of cavalry scuffled along in the snow, following ridges, too muffled against the subzero cold to talk. Their horses were shaggy with winter coats and frosted with their own steaming breath.

Major Baker's mounted infantry was going to discipline the Blackfeet.  The Department of War knew how to do it properly now.  No more wasting money chasing bands here and there over the prairie, while they vanished before the troups like smoke.   Sheridan's proven technique was to arrive at a winter camp before dawn and slaughter everyone there, burning the lodges before leaving.  It had worked before and now in 1870  it would work on the camp of the renegade warriors who had killed Malcolm Clark.  "Strike them and strike them hard," were the orders.   Congress was anxious for the Indian Problem to be solved so that the plains could be filled with homesteaders, made prosperous by farming.  The railroads needed settlers. 

The leaders in the Department of War felt it would be best to get rid of the Indians swiftly if violently.  Protests in the east would not last long.  Elimination was the real answer.  Confinement to reservations  (only made acceptable by the idea that Indians would die out or intermarry into oblivion) was a poor second-best, though some easterners were still talking of education, like missionaries craving converts.   
Anyway, fighting the conventional way cost too much -- some estimated as much as a million dollars an Indian.  This sudden "striking" in winter was hard on the soldiers, but they were a tough bunch -- leftovers from the Civil War and semi-criminals from the growing cities.   Mulish and sodden, most of them felt that they were doing what had to be done for the newly reunited States of America.  A country must have land and these savages weren't using theirs.  Just look at the wasteland stretching away on every side.   A few of the cavalrymen were blacks displaced by the end of the slavery, but you couldn't tell that with their heads so wrapped up to protect their faces from freezing.

In front rode the two scouts, Joe Cobell and Joe Kipp.  They pushed out from the column and rode in great arcs, searching the terrain for ridges where snow had blow away and for signs of other people -- but there were none of the latter.  They were alone on the infinitude of prairie.  Sometimes the scouts disappeared ahead, finding a way down a coulee and across a watercourse.  Once in a while they met and talked, their breaths pluming up.

Joe Cobell was an Italian, come up from New Orleans on a river boat and a long time American Fur Company employee.  His second wife was Mary, sister of Mountain Chief, whose band they were supposed to strike tomorrow.  Cobell was beginning to get a little old for winter riding, but maybe he thought he could protect his wife's relatives or maybe he just needed the money.   Joe Kipp was half French/half Mandan, another American Fur Company man, but also a trader, a whiskey runner, an entrepreneur who turned his hand to whatever might show a profit.  The two men may have been wary of each other in this winter of 1869-70 and even more wary of their employers.  Half-European, half-frontiersmen, they had little patriotism for the U.S. of A. way out here in the Montana Territory.
Back in the column of riders, Horace and Nathan Clarke, barely teenagers, half Blackfeet/half English, struggled along in the column.  they were softer than the hard cases around them, but fired from within by the desire for revenge.  It was young men from Mountain Chief's band who had killed their father, in spite of the fact that their mother was also a sister of Mountain Chief.  Peter Owl Child and his friends had picked a fight, killed Horace's father in front of the boys, shot Horace in the face, and thrown Malcolm's body down the well.  Horace barely escaped death. 
Birds came from nowhere to overfly the trail of broken snow, dotted with steaming dung from the horses.  In order to withstand the cold, the horses had been well fed with oats, and the little horned larks of winter dipped and dived over the bonanza.   The men sustained themselves with not-very-secret flasks of alcohol.

In the winter camps of the Blackfeet scattered along the valley-arc of the Judith River, the few able-bodied men who would ordinarily be watching the sky and the long hills around them had left to go hunting, forced to go farther and farther after food.  So many people were sick that the clusters of lodges scattered along the river were not as orderly as they might have been.  Feverish, weak people could not get far from the tents when they had that need, so the trambled snow was sullied.  Heaps of firewood were small.  None among them realized that a quarrel born in the previous summer had smoldered until it was about to become a sudden holocaust for the people of Heavy Runner.

The U.S. cavalrymen camped early and waited in the darkness so that they could ride down on the Blackfeet camp before first light.  Kipp had been in Mountain Chief's camp only ten days earlier, so they were confident they were in the right place.   At the signal, they came down from the river bluff above the lodges as fast as they could ride without killing their horses.   

The people were rolled in their robes, their fires not yet stirred up for cooking, and their dreams heavy with cold and sickness.  It was not Mountain Chief, but Heavy Runner who was camped there.  Kipp claimed later that he tried to turn the soldiers back, but was restrained at gunpoint.  By the time Heavy Runner understood what was happening and ran out waving his document of peace, the shooting was underway and he himself was killed in the doorway of his lodge.  Some say Joe Cobell in old age confessed to shooting the patriarch, to keep the soldiers from going on to the camp of Mountain Chief eight miles farther downstream.  

Almost A Dog, Imazi-imita, tried to carry his small daughter to safety, but she was killed in his arms and the same bullet crippled him for life.  His mother, father and wife were all killed.  Red Horn, Ikuzozkina, and Big Horn were killed: both were hostile sub-chiefs travelling with the band.  Black Eagle, another subchief at odds with the Army, was wounded but escaped on horseback and took the alarm to Mountain Chief's camp where the people cleared out in time to race for the safety of Canada.  It is claimed that Natahki, who become the wife of James Willard Schultz and the mother of his son Hart Schultz, was in Heavy Runner's camp but survived along with several other children.

Part of the "striking" technique was to burn the lodges with their contents and to take the horses.  This was done and bodies were thrown into the fires.  Maybe not all of them were completely dead.  When the soldiers realized they were dealing with smallpox victims, they abandoned all captives.  Finally, they found Mountain Chief's camp and destroyed everything left there.


When I first arrived in 1961, ninety years later, no one ever spoke of this incident, though I was teaching the direct descendents of Mountain Chief, Heavy Runner, Kipp and Cobell.  The oldest Blackfeet had been alive at the time of the massacre.   By 1989 people often spoke of the Heavy Runner Massacre and students wrote about it in class.  It was considered an unique atrocity,  white man's treachery, and entitlement to special treatment as compensation.  

Research indicates that locating a small encampment of the enemy, taking them by surprise, and killing everyone except a few women and children was an accepted war strategy among plains tribes.  Probably Sheridan developed the tactic from his knowledge of Native American warfare.  It was the only way to make an impact on a people who could disappear like smoke across the prairie.  If Baker had completed the deed as the tribesmen would have, he would have kept some of the children to raise as his own and some of the women to keep as slave-wives.  (White civilization of the time had just fought a war over slaves.)  It is said that Kipp, Cobell and some soldiers did take surviving children to raise as their own.  Some escaped to other nearby camps, probably carrying sickness with them.

Perhaps this was a white form of warfare after all, because it is based on the use of horses reintroduced to the continent by Europeans, which allowed people to travel far, to strike hard by surprise, and then to withdraw before resistance from other bands could arrive.  Introducing the horse to the American plains was something like introducing Chinese gunpower to Europeans in armor, or maybe like the invention of wheeled chariots among the Old Testament tribes.

Try telling that to a small town high school class on the Blackfeet Reservation.


The Baker Massacre was a single event in a chain produced by a complex social narrative  The United States was in the aftermath of the War Between the States, with displaced and traumatized people everywhere.   Military men found it hard to give up their power and thought of political goals.  The Blackfeet, "raiders of the plains" as the anthropologist Ewers calls them in his definitive book, found it hard to reconcile with the new reality.  The high prairie was still unsettled, particularly the  Montana territory, where white people in the newly wealthy mining cities like Butte and Helena longed to become a formal State.  This was only possible if the Indian population were confined to a reservation so that the rest of the land could be surveyed, claimed and developed by whites.  It was the climax of a period marked by whiskey-trading, murder, and horse-stealing on both sides of the 49th parallel, but more on the American side than the Canadian because of the Mounties' efficient elimination of bootleggers.  

The record of what actually happened to cause the Baker Massacre is blurry.  Various books have suggested a half dozen versions.   The following account is easy to challenge, but as easy to assert as any other.  An arrogant young man named Pete Owl Child  (Net-us-che-o), alleged killer of his own people, claimed that Four Bears had enticed or molested his wife.  Four Bears was the Indian name of Malcolm Egbert Clarke, who was white.  (No doubt he liked being called Four Bears better than being called Egbert.)  A West Point cadet who had been dismissed from the Academy for "gross infractions of the law,"  Malcolm worked for the American Fur Company until it went out of business in 1864. Then he started up a ranch near Wolf Creek, about where the family ranch of Senator Max Baucus is today.  This was the scene of the prologue to the massacre.  

Clarke was known as violent and ruthless, and perhaps because of that, he prospered, taking as his wife a Blackfeet woman (Cathco-co-na or Cutting Off Head Woman, whose father is given confusingly in the 1906-7 census as Owl Child, perhaps the son of Mountain Chief) and raising a number of "half-breed" children to adulthood.  They included distinguished people.  A daughter, Helen P. Clarke, was an early school superintendent.  A son, Horace Clarke, became a political force to be reckoned with on the Blackfeet Reservation and around the state.

According to written history, which is contradictory or vague, at Fort Benton on July 16, 1869, there was a quarrel with members of Mountain Chief's band.  Two white men were killed and then, presumably in retaliation, white men killed several members of Mountain Chief's band, including some who were completely innocent.   Pete Owl Child, who belonged to Mountain Chief's band  (perhaps was Mountain Chief's son)  may have felt this was excuse enough to get away with attacking Clarke for his personal grudge.  Some say it was Mountain Chief's brother who was unjustly killed. 
In any case, Owl Child showed up at the Prickly Pear stage stop (Clarke's place) with his "gang" at suppertime and was fed as a matter of family hospitality as well as frontier and Blackfeet custom. Then Pete Owl Child picked a quarrel.  He and his friends killed Malcolm Clarke and shot Horace in the face, leaving him for dead.  Helen and Isabelle, Malcolm's daughters, escaped out the window.  Clarke's wife,  Cathco-co-nah, was not hurt and neither were the several other Indian women and children present.  The Clarke children identified the killers.

For those who wished to eliminate Indians, the death of a person so prominent and active in politics as Clarke served as an excellent excuse.   A family quarrel now became a matter for the United States Cavalry.   Colonel or Major E.M. Baker of the 2nd Cavalry at Fort Ellis was sent on January 6, 1870, to take four companies of mounted infantry to Fort Shaw.  On January 19, fortified by two companies of mounted infantry from Fort Shaw, he left to find the camps of Mountain Chief, Bear Chief and Red Horn in order to punish them.  The famous phrase in his orders was "strike them and strike them hard!"  He was specifically instructed to spare the Heavy Runner band and other peaceful groups.  His scouts were Joe Kipp, who had recently been to the hostile camp, and Joe Cobell, who was married to another of Mountain Chief's daughters and lived near Malcolm Clarke.   Horace and Nathan Clarke rode along.  (Helen and possibly Isabelle had gone to relatives in Minnesota where she stayed for the next six years.  Eventually Helen, when she became the first superintendent of schools in Lewis & Clark County in Montana, owned one of the first pianos in the Montana Territory.)

One account of the statistics of the massacre reads thus:

Over 300 horses were taken.

107 persons were killed in the hour-and-a-half-attack.  (Guns being used were .50 calibre longshot rifles.  This much time must have included the burning of property and rounding up of captives.)

10 men between 37 and 60 years of age were killed but already had smallpox.

8 men over 60 were killed.

35 women between 12 and 37 were killed.

55 women between 37 and 70 were killed.

50 children under 12, mostly babies, were killed.

140 captives were taken, many of whom perished because the lodges were destroyed.  Most froze to death.

46 survived as captives, finally arriving in Fort Benton.

18 were women.

19 were children under three years old.

Many were wounded.

5 men were hunting at the time of the raid and therefore were spared.

One soldier was killed in the fighting and one other fell off his horse, breaking his arm.

There was a great public outcry back east, but Baker was quietly exonerated. Similar, more famous, massacres had happened before, but this was one of the last.  (Wounded Knee was in 1890, twenty years later.)  One of the better consequences was that Congress had been about to reassign Indian Affairs to the Department of War, but indignation over this massacre was enough to turn public sentiment in Indian favor so that they were left in the Department of the Interior.


Various versions of what really happened that sub-zero winter morning -- or even of what happened when Pete Owl Child showed up at what is now the Baucus Ranch in Sieben -- exist in writings made both then and now.  None of them can be taken as actual reality.  Many contemporary people base their political attitudes on what they believe to be the truth of the encounter and most people believe that at least there is a truth, a right and a wrong side that could be found through the examination of the facts.  Only in the age of quantum mechanics, when we know that atomic particles are both waves and entities, both there and not-there, can we begin to accept the unknowability of history and give up the constant wrangling over whose version is more true.  But the question of who "owns" the story  and what it means will remain because of its importance to the future.

In the next fall after the Baker massacre, that of 1870, the Blackfeet fought one more fierce battle with their long-time enemies, the Cree and Assiniboine,  on the approximate location of Lethbridge, Alberta, near Belly River just a short way over the border.  The Blackfeet won triumphantly and made a peace agreement with the Cree the following fall.  It was their last old-time fight.  In the winter of 1883-84 the buffalo did not return, the agent did not provide enough food, and one fourth of the people died of starvation, far more than were killed by Baker's cavalry.  A great triumph was almost immediately followed by tragedy.

By 1890, the total number of the South Piegans was 868 men and 943 women.  Of that number it was reported that:

95 could read.

150 could speak English.

42 children were educated out of 679 children.

64 of the men were polygamous.

225 homes (one-room cabins) existed.

There were in that year 34 births and 52 deaths.

The reservation included 52 miles square of territory.
5% of the people were Christian and the rest were "Sun-Worshippers."


Bob Scriver and I often visited John Clarke, ancient deaf/mute woodcarver, who was the grandson of Malcolm Clarke.   We attended John Clarke's burial near his sister Helen's grave in East Glacier and were present when the ashes of Hart Schultz, son of Nahtahki who survived the attack, were put to rest.  My class roll book listed Mountain Chief, Heavy Runner, Kipp and Cobell. 

Change has always been drastic in Browning.  When Bob Scriver's father arrived in 1903, he confronted a culture newly broken. The  middle-aged men who stood across the counter from him were the younger warriors of the Battle of Belly River.  One of the major warriors, Green Grass Bull, hauled laundry water to households around town.  His wagon full of barrels was famously rickety and always followed by a pack of dogs.  My mother-in-law bought water from him.  Most of recorded northern Montana history has happened only decades in the past.  The area was settled late, partly because of the fierceness of the Blackfeet and partly because of the violence of the weather.
And yet there was another earlier era for the Blackfeet when they still controlled the northern watershed of the Missouri as well as much of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.  In those days the only whites were the fur traders who came in from the north on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company.  The beavers they wanted were not hunted by Blackfeet, who were a buffalo people, and so the Blackfeet set about becoming provisioners for the Cree and French trappers.
As soon as the horse arrived, the Blackfeet economy blossomed, for it was possible to hunt buffalo in small bands and to follow them for many miles.  Horses made it possible to deliver much dry meat over long distances while the women stayed home tanning the many buffalo hides for lodges and clothing.  Trade meant that the hunters brought home glass beads in gorgeous colors, brass falcony bells, small mirrors, Stroud cloth (red wool from Stroud, England), and lathe-turned pipestems.  War became more deadly and more necessary, because their prosperity meant that they had more to defend.  A man needed many wives, some of them captured slave-wives, to do the work and maintain the bigger lodges.

Then the American Fur Company began to send representatives up the Missouri to the very heart of Blackfeet country and with them came the cream of European adventurers:  artists, aristocrats, writers, and explorers.  They reported that the Blackfeet were a large, handsome people who lived very well.  Major Culbertson, who was the best of the American Fur Company managers, married a Blackfeet woman, Natawista, and proudly carried her back to St. Louis society to preside over his mansion.  She put up her lodge on the lawn and wore the very latest fashions.

It took waves of smallpox pandemics, perhaps deliberate germ warfare sent via infected blankets on the riverboats, and the elimination of the buffalo, maybe through over-hunting and maybe through cattle-carried disease, to weaken the Blackfeet.  It was all the harder for them because they had been so much gifted during what the anthropologists call "climax culture."  For a few years it was as good as it gets for human beings on this planet.  Then they were broken to the level of destitute refugees.  Their pride survived somehow.

The Blackfeet retreated to the Reservation only because the government promised to pay them in food, equipment and schools.  In that infamous winter of 1883-84 when the buffalo failed to return from their annual migration to the south, corrupt and morphine-addicted agents diverted money meant for rations, never bothered to buy any, or let them go astray  en route.  This is not word-of-mouth rumor, but documented.  Liberals and reformers of the time raised hell about it in the Eastern newspapers and wrote blazing letters to the government with little effect.  

Temperatures were deeply below zero and the many people who died of cold, starvation and disease could not be buried.  That the bodies were laid in the snow in a long pile like cordwood along the ridge at Old Agency was perhaps only a little less shocking when living people still practised the ancient tradition of leaving bodies, well-wrapped and surrounded with their household goods, on prairie ridges.  The colorful myth of Indians being "beaten fair and square" that whites tell themselves is false.  The native people were conquered through disease and starvation in the face of a promise of help -- a documented but unfulfilled treaty.

Almost-A-Dog, the crippled survivor of the Baker Massacre, kept a record of the deaths in the Starvation Winter.  On his counting stick he cut 555 notches.  This, rather than the massacre, was the lowest point for the Nitzitahpi.  The historical marker for Ghost Ridge is on the road in from Highway 89 to Heart Butte.   Even in the Twenties and Thirties, decades later, people in Heart Butte were starving and the townspeople of Browning, who had their own Depression troubles, put out an appeal to help the smaller hamlet.  It was the Somalia of the reservation.  And, inevitably, people blamed them for being poor.  They must be backward or lazy.  God must not smile on them.  They must have what one of our Blackfeet friends called "unluck."  

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