THE DUST SETTLES
When I need advice, I'll ask a raven.
BLAMING THE VICTIM
The summer I moved to Heart Butte there was a murder in Dupuyer, thirty miles away on the southern edge of the reservation. A couple of alcoholics, chronic to the point of being "wet-brained," had been hanging around town pestering people. They slept in unlocked cars and outbuildings, bummed money and food, and generally made themselves a nuisance. In the city they would be called street people. In so small a village as Dupuyer everyone knew them by name. Except one person. An old gent from somewhere else had recently bought one of the Dupuyer bars, expecting (not unreasonably) to make a lot of money. Towns have always lived off the thirst of reservations. Many Montana fortunes have their roots in a still.
It would not be wise for a Blackfeet to be drunk in the larger Pondera County town, Valier, which was founded by Belgians wanting a place to raise families away from the rough oil town of Cut Bank. College-educated mixed bloods-- especially Browning school administrators and coaches (often the same thing)-- drink in Valier. Browning bars can be rough and may not treat Heart Butte drunks kindly in the event of trouble. So by default tiny Dupuyer has always been a more or less safe place for a quiet binge.
But this new tavern owner did not know these particular drunks. When one was thrown out but returned to beat on the door, the owner locked it, went around to the back to his living quarters to get a rifle, and circled to the front again in order to lean over the fence and fatally shoot the drunk. The old man was acquitted. His defense was that he was afraid for his life and that the drunk was getting a tire iron from a pickup in order to attack him.
No tire iron was found. But the archetype of an angry man taking up a pipe or bat is the reservation equivalent of a drive-by shooting. I have seen them myself, walking forcefully in two's or three's-- rarely alone--searching for their enemy at any time of day. Even reservation women enraged with their lovers will take up a bat and destroy the offender's car. One of Browning's most admired students had been killed with a jack handle by another youth only a short time earlier. People near the reservation were willing to believe there might have been a tire iron. White people.
At first people interpreted the incident as racist. (Rightly, in my opinion.) In only a few months most of the local Blackfeet were saying, "Well, that drunk in Dupuyer should have known better. He never was much good." This is called "blaming the victim." It has the advantage of not requiring action. For a while the local Blackfeet avoided the tavern, but as soon as they had sufficiently settled in their own minds that the drunk himself was to blame, they drifted back. He became different from them, and therefore they felt safe. He was the scapegoat, heaped with the sins of the community and then sacrificed.
If I had been an old-time Methodist minister, like the one who finally ended vigilante hangings in Helena by going out with a saw one morning and cutting down the hanging tree, I would have taken a sheet of plywood down to the tavern and nailed it over the front door. But to make such gestures, one needs a source of income that comes from elsewhere. The social hierarchy is held in place by economic opportunity.
The drunk had two high-school-aged daughters and one son. They had loved their father, whatever his faults, and they grieved almost secretly. In class it was hard to hold their attention. Soon they began to act recklessly and to disappear for months. The drunken man so many were quick to blame was a vital and necesssary part of their personal lives, even in death. Too many people expect the school to be able to discipline, comfort and inspire kids like these. The school copes by denying that any of these community problems are their business.
And so the dynamics that created the “Baker Massacre” continue. Fringe characters cause low-grade trouble. No social entities take responsibility. Someone over-reacts. Lives are lost which means that the innocents around them suffer and the society in which they live is torn, and then there is a storm of blame, soon suppressed because it is painful. No one looks for root causes. No one takes responsibility for change.
"Who is your man?" the students asked me. A woman without a man in a place without law and order is seen as a person one can hurt without consequences. In the Sixties the mere name of "Scriver" was enough protection for me to walk anywhere on the reservation-- even in the middle of the night-- without fear. Bob Scriver was both the City Magistrate and a Justice of the Peace. His father and brother were respected city fathers. In those days being white also gave me some protection, since an Indian who bothered a white woman-- like a Black man in the south-- was bound to be in serious trouble. White people dominated Browning and the BIA. I often heard it said, "Well, we can't let the Indians get control of this." Strangely, they would say it right in front of the assimilated Blackfeet among them who ran successful businesses. If you had asked those indiscrete whites why, they would have said, "Oh, he's not an Indian. He's one of us." That's what assimilation means: becoming just like the dominant group, who think they are the norm and therefore the way people ought to be.
BONDS AMONG ALL PEOPLE
Many of those enterprising men fit the stereotype of the Westerner shaped by Jimmy Stewart, Randolph Scott, and John Wayne, whom they consciously took as role models. Hard-working, handsome, lean men with families, they ran the ranches and small businesses of the town. Some were World War II or Korean veterans. Few were easy on their wives and more than a few were hard drinkers. Some were misfits in the larger society who had found a little corner where they thought they could be themselves. Secular or maybe Christian in the narrowest sense, they mostly attended the white Methodist church if they went at all, and didn't give much thought to the larger community of Blackfeet, except to shake their heads over laziness, tardiness, dirtiness and the other things they hated and tried to eliminate in themselves.
The children of these men dominated the high school activities of the Sixties. More than a few of the children married Blackfeet classmates, so now these white men are the grandfathers of mixed-blood Native Americans whom they tenderly cradle on their laps. They are not always sure about their sons- or daughters-in-law, but dearly love the third generation. For the sake of those children, they are willing to at last curb their prejudices. And, a little late, they begin to realize that their kind of white man, small family ranchers, is as endangered as they thought Indians were.
Until the Sixties when the BIA decided to hire Native Americans, the white employees of the BIA and the hospital were a kind of co-community with the white residents of Browning. Often well-educated and more worldly than the local whites, the whites "on the hill" from past times were legendary to me through my in-laws, but I knew the last white superintendent, Bill Grissom. He was an intelligent man who achieved heroism when the Big Flood came in 1965. In the John Wayne tradition, he personally labored to save people and did not sleep until all were safe. In fact, Phil Ward and other school officials went out to help and faced the horror of seeing children they knew drown before their eyes, though they stripped barbed wire from the fences, tied tires to the end, and ran alongside the rushing water to throw them as impromptu lifesavers. For weeks the schools became refugee centers.
It has always been a strength of the reservation that in times of real emergency, everyone forgot their differences and threw themselves into the effort to save lives. The bonds formed in those circumstances are what keep the small prairie communities of today still alive. Perhaps it is the many perils of ordinary life in such a place that give it more depth and “edge” than life in tamer settings.
About the time I went to Browning, the nurses at the Indian Health Service began to be Indian. Audra Pambrun was the most famous one, winning national awards for her dedication to helping. Then in a few years the doctors were Indians from other tribes, and finally now, after decades, there are Blackfeet doctors. Many of these people are talented and dedicated to helping, forming a flying wedge for improvement in at least the health aspect of the tribe. These days they put much of their effort into prevention. Since health care workers used to responding to anyone with a need, they are also a force for inclusion and in an emergency do not turn away anyone, red or white, local or tourist. They have rescued Scrivers several times. Mary Ellen LaFromboise, now a director of hospital programs, is the great-granddaughter of Chewing Black Bone, last warrior to have taken a scalp and friend of James Willard Schultz. She is only one among many to have found a new path.
In the days of my in-laws, the first decades of Glacier Park, the rangers and managers of the Park Service mixed with the people of Browning, but now there is little relationship except in the tourist towns right at the gates to the Park. Glacier Park's white bureaucrats hardly interact with the Blackfeet except in small confrontations over summer jobs. Smart park superintendents are careful to invite Blackfeet to speak to tourists in the big hotels or to work making beds over the summer, especially after the Minnesota college kids have worn out and left. But they are not anxious to have Blackfeet as real players in the Park Service hierarchy.
By now Browning's businesses have been mostly sold to outsiders who may "run-them-to-failure" (a conscious business strategy when there is no hope for growth). Or they may simply have been left in physical ruins by aging proprietors with no heirs. A series of governmental and tribal blunders have created half-developed hulks of factories around the town. Some mixed-blood people run cafés and service stations, but the most prosperous are only fronts for investors in Butte. A few whites have managed to sustain good businesses. A nun and a priest fell in love, married, raised a family, and sustained a series of businesses, never wavering in their hard work. Another couple kept a small clothing store humming along. The IGA is said to be the most profitable unit of the owner’s modest chain. The owner hires local help and does not live in Browning anymore. But the smaller village of Heart Butte has had no white community to speak of until the high school brought in so many new teachers at once.
The Tribal Business Council becomes ever more aggressive about keeping the chips in front of themselves. New taxes are being imposed and contracts are signed with the State in spite of loud opposition from tribal members. It is against the law to buy or sell property without the knowledge and approval of the Tribal Business Council, a rule that gives that particular set of individuals something like insider information to the stock market. Getting onto the Tribal Business Council is like striking gold. Election battles are free-for-alls. Recent Council minutes quoted a local tribal leader as saying, "What we need around here is one honest Blackfeet." He meant that every time a good business prospect develops, the people in control of it can't resist using it for their own benefit.
LOOKING FOR WORK
White people who wish to put down Indians often say, "Let those deadbeats get jobs. They should get off welfare. Then they can hold their heads up." But the truth is that jobs for all simply don't exist. Wealth comes to the reservation through the major institutions: Bureau of Indian Affairs, school system, Indian Health Service, federal welfare and state unemployment. Payments come in enormous amounts, which means it is easy for the skillful to cut off little slices here and there without anyone noticing. Much of the wealth is doled out in salaries, which depend upon staying in the good graces of one's boss and complying with whatever regulations pertain. There are no labor unions except the teacher unions, which works somewhat in Browning but not in Heart Butte, which is not big enough to be worthwhile for a union to concern itself. (Both the NEA and AFT reps told me that bluntly.)
A great deal of money comes in grants and contracts, governmental and private. So far as I know, there is no way to make a comprehensive inventory of either sources or recipients, since they are so various. Those with education and vision can support themselves in the modern "hunter/ gatherer" mode, taking consultancies and doing projects. If they are people of conscience, they can share what they find. But when an organization like Headstart or Piegan Institute succeeds and prospers while helping others, people react with suspicion.
To be a good school administrator on a reservation one must be a dedicated reader of federal regulations. Some funds come automatically through student attendance numbers, like federal money that is meant to replace local state property taxes which is the traditional means of supporting public schools. This money is necessary on the reservation and on military reservations or other blocks of federal land because few state taxes can be collected there, even though the schools are a state responsibility.
Some money comes through treaty obligations, the agreed payment for lands surrendered by Blackfeet a hundred years ago. Other government funds come through various application processes that mean monitoring and meeting deadlines. The funds might be earmarked for remedial education, for affirmative action, for libraries or a host of other "titles" as they called in shorthand for the part of the law referred to in conversation. Currently, the titles are grouped under a United States law called the Improving America's Schools Act.
School grants, public or private, demand considerable thought and resourcefulness. One must write an application-- sometimes even come up with the concept. My brief experience with grants was in Browning in the Seventies when I helped Bill Haw write a grant for Experimental Schools that would have supported a major reorganization in Browning. The amounts available approached a million dollars. Our ideas weren't good enough, the panel said, but our appeal was so eloquent that they were sending along $10,000 for us to use to do research so we could reapply. The administration used the money for something else-- transporting parents to basketball games, I heard.
Another teacher in Browning wrote a grant application for a measly $500 to buy art materials for his class. Art is one of the effective organizing and healing forces for the kids. The money came but was used for a snow blower. The art teacher quit. This pattern is repeated over and over in many variations. The institutions who make the grants are stretched thin to even sift through the applications, much less follow up to make sure the funds are used wisely. Anyway, the Blackfeet Reservation is so remote that no bureaucrat wants to take the sequence of airports, rental cars, and risky roads --much less the time -- to see what goes on. One might not make it back to the airport on those roads in the dark. Montana has been like that since the first Governor was lost overboard from a riverboat.
If someone becomes an effective grants writer and even uses the money properly, the Blackfeet Tribal Council or the henchmen thereof are likely to come around like bears scenting carrion. Recently one such councilman actually hired a "financial investigator" in Minneapolis to get access to personal credit records for one successful individual, in hopes of finding juicy material for a confrontation that would knock his target away from the big economic card table that is the reservation. Everyone always suspects the school superintendents of some kind of skimming. Some entrepreneurs are exploring the modern lawsuit as a kind of mining operation, blackmailing corporations one way or another. Public sympathy for Native Americans is high. Juries are likely to generous, unless they are from near the reservation.
In Heart Butte when I was there, the favorite trick of the Supe was to apply for funds through ear-marked Titles (sub-sets of bills passed by congress) for a drug counselor, a language aide, or a library aide-- then use the employees as substitutes or office help. Financial statistics were a secret-- though they were supposed to be public record-- and committees required by law didn't always really meet. Instead the Supe would take a quick drive around town consulting individual members to get a quorum of consensus. That way democratic processes like arguments didn't slow things down. He was always fighting deadlines. If things didn't turn out well, the board members could individually claim that they didn't know, were deceived, didn't make that decision or weren't even in town that day. It seemed like a good strategy for re-election, but in fact it was a good strategy to keep everyone divided and indecisive. Of course, when a meeting was called in Heart Butte, there was never any assurance that people would show up even if it were in their best interest.
The Heart Butte town dogs were unknown to me, but the teacherage dogs had distinct personalities. When I first came, Shunka, which is Sioux for "dog," felt he was the alpha-male. A husky mix, he ran loose, making puppies and chasing off intruding males. Two other vaguely shepherd dogs were kept in their yards. One small cringing female, a black dog with brown eyebrows, attached herself to Mrs. Marlboro, who got her spayed and named her "Kiki." (I called her "Keeka," meaning "wait now" in Blackfeet, which annoyed Mrs. M.) A female blue kelpie, valuable for working cattle, raised a batch of pups under Mr. Z's trailer. The Lederhosens soon brought in a foolish female shepherd mix. At first the dogs didn't make as much trouble in my life as a big yellow tomcat who came visiting, unwanted by me or my spayed calico cat. But pretty soon the tomcat mysteriously died.
Then a big white dog appeared. Maybe he had a little blood from the huge white Kuvasc dogs sometimes used around there to guard sheep from wolves. To get rid of him, he was given to Augie, a student who lived in down in the village and unwisely remarked it would be nice to have a dog. But the big male, now named "Augie," refused to stay in town. Churchill, the athletic director, took a liking to him and began feeding him the scraps from the Omaha frozen steaks he favored. Churchill called the dog "King."
One day King and Shunka engaged in an archetypal battle for dominance. All day they alternated between slashing at each other and taking short rests. Once they fought their way into and then back out of one of the garages, leaving long spatters of dog blood on the walls. Their snouts were bloodied and their sides were streaked. No one tried to intervene and anyway nothing short of shooting one of the dogs would have worked. We all, teachers and students, kept track of what was happening but didn't stand around watching. In the end King crunched Shunka's foot hard enough to break the bones. The loser went crying off with his foot held up. The kids were glad because Shunka was known to bite them. The men were secretly proud of the shining white King. The women were glad that Shunka would be staying home for a while because they liked to walk over the grassy hills and Shunka always insisted on coming, but chased cows which made the teachers unwelcome.
I was fond of King, too. But when the Lederhosen's moved to the single teacherage next door to me with their female, now with a puppy by King, the three dogs covered the yard with droppings and leapt into my car trunk to steal groceries unless I closed it after each trip to my door. King got into the habit of sleeping on my doormat, so that I had to heave him to his feet to get in or out. I began to be annoyed. My disposition was not improved by Mr. Lederhosen's attachment to loud musical instruments on which he never played whole melodies, but only intermittent snatches as the mood struck him. I was beginning to get cabin fever-- shack batty. A familiar malady in those parts, but mine came from wanting to be even more alone.
The Lederhosens gave birth to a baby. Their first goat, fond of riding around on the front seat of the pickup next to Mr. Lederhosen, was once transported in the back of the vehicle, where it found a bag of dry rice and foundered during the ride. Their second goat, a sweet little angora nanny, was tethered to her goathouse alongside the teacherage. Mrs. Lederhosen was standing next to the goat, holding her baby, when King came out of nowhere and tore the throat out of the goat, killing it on the spot and traumatizing the gentle mother. Later, calves began to be killed and King was shot on the scene of slaughter by one of the students whose family owned the calves.
Probably nothing divided the outsiders from the insiders so clearly as their reaction to the death of the King. Country people hardly paused to notice King was gone. More dogs were always coming. City people thought that if someone just tried enough, they could find some way to end violence, prevent bloodshed, and stop the dominance of alpha-animals. These dogs are my metaphor for the conduct of administration in Heart Butte. Likewise, the community would make attacks on the administrators, one after another, believing the supply of new superintendents was endless. The teachers believed that reform was possible and tried to organize committees, write letters, and make plans. This got them fired.
The cynical conviction that underlay much of the Heart Butte political scene was, as Churchill put it, "Big dogs eat first." The administration and the community families were pitted in a battle for dominance as surely as Shunka and King. The goal was economic security, which only the school could provide in this tiny reservation hamlet. This dynamic was so strong that everything else became scenery and every kind of strategy became legitimate. White educators off the reservation, and even Browning administrators, watched with interest but had no desire to intervene. They also intended to be Big Dogs and to Eat First. But Heart Butte wasn't their pack.
Strategies included hiring weak teachers, making sure they never got tenure, keeping facts -- especially about funding-- secret, doing business in a fractured and unrecorded way, buying off enemies, and -- if necessary-- bluffing. Few administrators or school board members, if any, ever took any interest at all in teaching methods or content unless the community questioned them. Government overseers, both state and federal, were too far away to know what was going on. The biggest advantage the Heart Butte administration had was simply racism, both the racism of the local white community and the racism of the elitist half-breed community. Secretly, both groups believed that Heart Butte did not deserve help. They thought nothing could be done to improve the situation and would freely say so in bars -- though not in official contexts. In short, the local citizenry was so busy fighting each other, they were easily shunted aside from saving themselves.
In the actual matter of killer dogs, the Supe issued a memo, which I quote exactly:
There has been a lot of dogs in the neighborhood that have not been under control, fenced, leashed, or kept in. The problem needs addressed immediately.
All dogs who are not kept under control by a leash, fence, or kept in, and is allowed to run, will be subject to removal by the authority of the Heart Butte School District.
No real action was ever taken. The Supe knew that if he really did anything, people would be angry. In short, the Heart Butte School District would claim no authority. Let sleeping dogs lie.
I flatter myself that the Heart Butte administration would have been terrified if they had understood what I was about. They, like Edward T. Hall's one-time boss on the Navajo Reservation, disliked anyone "Indian, intellectual, outsider or not under his thumb." That is, they disliked sources of trouble and were alert to identify those persons, so as to eliminate them. They mistook me at first, because they thought I was a white woman from Browning (therefore racist) and because they didn't understand my connection to Bob Scriver, whom they assumed I would resent. My education, from my B.S. in theatre at Northwestern University to my M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago and my M.Div. from Meadville/Lombard Theological School, was a total mystery to them. They thought all ministers were Christian order-keepers -- not intellectual iconoclasts or social change-makers.
The superintendent--who said he wanted the school to be a clean, orderly haven (white) in a degraded world (Indian) -- finally began to sense something different and asked me to explain what I was doing, but I evaded him. Not knowing made him suspicious, but knowing would only confirm the worst. His intent was to impose a rigid small-town set of standards that would reduce Indians, in the name of "what's good for them," to a class of servants who wait tables, change tires, arrange shop shelves, and are grateful to the white man for his generosity. Many of the Indian adults would have said that was a good goal, in fact, the only one they could imagine. Many Montana white people live their lives as servants and do it proudly. But they all secretly want to be Big Dogs.
The only way I could see for Heart Butte to have a future was to create a generation of entrepreneurs and cooperators who could make the reservation self-supporting. I thought these kids could want to learn, demand to learn, learn in spite of the difficulties. They needed to take their lives into their own hands, find out what they cared about, and accept the challenges of doing things never done before. In a world so rapidly reconfiguring, this is what kids everywhere must learn to do. The technical part was not a problem for Heart Butte kids -- they could program a VCR as well as any suburban kid -- but they were terrified of taking hold of their lives. In fact, they figured they wouldn't live long enough to have any choices anyway and often said so.
Just as exercise, I brainstormed small business ideas all the time and wrote up little plans about how they could be done. "Pretty Maids All in a Row" would be a contract motel-cleaning service and supply teams of room-cleaners trained to be fast and thorough. If they were in teams and traveled together in a van, that would solve the problem of individuals who disappear to go Pow-Wowing in the middle of summer. It could be run as a co-op that contracted for its own manager.
"Yellow Jackets" was to be a sewing enterprise involving jackets in Blackfeet designs but with modern casual materials: Corduroy and rickrack, wool and embroidery, maybe velvet with sequins for evening, and--as an expensive climax-- buckskin with beads or quills-- absolutely authentic right down to the tail of the deerskin folded over under one's chin.
"Lodge Willow" would be a furniture company that made chairs from lodgepole pine and rawhide, with Blackfeet willow backrests. For tourists, who can't take big chairs along, they could make little toy chairs or even miniature authentic Blackfeet backrests. "Red Skins" could be a hide-tanning business, specializing in smoke-tanned buckskin, wonderfully aromatic, waterproof, and suede finished. Anyone who thinks they can make these businesses work on the reservation is welcome to the ideas.
When I talked about these ideas, most people looked blank. I asked a senior boy, one of the best shop students, to make me two sawhorses so I could put plywood on them for a table, but he never could understand how to begin. Yet there have always been fine builders and cabinet-makers around the reservation. It was just a matter of believing it can be figured out and that nothing would be lost by trying. Something in the experiences of the young people kept them from trusting themselves. They looked always to authority figures, but then blamed them when things didn't turn out to their liking.
TOP OF THE HEAP
At the time of year I was hired to teach at Heart Butte, the Supe was the only administrator. A big ruddy man with the beefy-tallow of an athlete gone to seed, the Supe had spent years selling insurance and could spin a story. He was born and raised poor in a tougher and smaller place than Browning. He fancied himself a philosopher and a benefactor of the Red Man, though his idea of doing them a favor was to close down the reservation and kick them all off welfare. Our hiring interview was almost flirtatious. ("You're quite a woman!" he exclaimed.) He told me about a dream he had that he'd like to develop into a book. The hint was that I might do a little ghost-writing. It sounded a whole lot like Brigadoon: going on a walk one day and finding in the mist a magical place where everything was all right.
I was told by people who had known the Supe in his days of college football coaching that he had run a rough squad. He had been divorced from his first wife--the children from that marriage were grown and almost all well-placed in education jobs around the state. Now he was married to a woman quite a bit younger. They had adopted two pre-school-aged Native American children, not Blackfeet. I was never in the Supe's house, but was told that his wife kept it immaculate and made every holiday magical by decorating and baking.
The Supe was a "jack" Mormon, meaning that he was raised that way but did not obey the precepts or attend services. His wife seemed truly religious and enjoyed singing with the Catholic choir. Later, when people became angry at the Supe, one of their punishments was to drive her out of that choir. I always thought it hurt him more than any attack on himself personally. He sometimes got tears in his eyes when he spoke of his wife. I wondered if she hadn't saved him from personal disaster somehow, maybe by helping him to break a drinking habit. But even as he tried to protect her, he tried to figure out how he could get her on the payroll to teach music without causing a great outcry over nepotism, one of the hot-button issues in Heart Butte.
The Supe was pulling down a salary approaching $60,000 -- same said $72,000 when free housing and other benefits were counted. (As a former insurance salesman, he made sure that we got the best health insurance policy in the state. I always regretted not taking more advantage of it.) In Montana that amount of money is what the governor of the state is paid. He thought he needed all the money, as well as serving Heart Butte a third year, before he could retire with enough pension to build a house over in the Flathead Valley. He knew that very few administrators ever got through a second year at Heart Butte: most of them lasted only one. The Supe was hoping that by riding the wave of a new high school, he would pick up popularity.
He also managed to establish in everyone's minds that he had great expertise with money and was the only person who could make sure that Heart Butte got everything coming to it from the Federal Government. Day after day he sat in front of his little Apple IIC computer crunching long lists of numbers. One day I came into his office a little too quietly and realized he was asleep there, snoring quietly with his head tipped forward.
Everyone was impressed by the Supe except Athena, who second-guessed every move the Supe made. This woman was always convinced that someone was bleeding off money from the school. Early on I accidentally happened upon school office staff running an appeal for funds for the Catholic church through the school mail meter. Everyone knew that the school let the church use school buses, classrooms, and copying machines at no charge. It would have been political suicide to refuse. When I asked Athena about the church using the school mail meter, she violently denied such an idea.
Some of the opportunities for real, if petty, graft didn't occur to me until later. After I had left, the Supe retired but then discovered he didn't have enough money after all. (California Yuppies in search of paradise had immigrated to the Flathead in such numbers that real estate and building prices had soared.) The frozen food company that had delivered all our cafeteria meals and much of the teacher groceries gave him a job driving one of their refrigerator trucks. It suddenly came clear why three big guys with high cholesterol counts always threw out scraps from the very best Omaha aged steaks, the kind advertised in good magazines. And why the school cafeteria constantly served reheated frozen deep-fat-fried fast food-- mysterious and nearly inedible single portions labeled "gyros" or "pizza pockets"-- instead of more healthy meals as government guide-lines suggested.
I began to think about why our milk was often sour and why the Doc was so reluctant to object to the provider. The kids said, "They give all their bad stuff to us because we're only Indians." The Doc said, "Oh, it's just a state of mind. One person says sour and everyone else gets the same idea. But it's really all right." Once I made a protesting little girl attempt to drink some but she gagged on it. She opened up the carton and showed me: completely curdled and spoiled. I was ashamed. The kids were right. And the Doc would not challenge the distributor even when I carried the evidence to him.
I also wondered about our top-of-the-line athletic equipment-- what special perks went with them? Especially remarkable was the football equipment in a place where, because of temperament and the climate, football was not particularly popular. (In fact, no one turned out until the coaches worked on the boys for a while.) There were expensive jackets for all athletes and big color portraits of all the teams. Yet there was little money for the yearbook. Then what about that wonderful teacher insurance for a place where most of the teachers and staff were entitled by treaty to the free full services of the Indian Health Service? They rarely used the white doctors or hospitals who would have asked for insurance.
After my first interview, the Supe walked me through the school, proudly describing all the heat-saving features and showing off how well-maintained the place was. "Except for this little corner here, where Shorty stands all the time and rubs a greasy spot, this school is kept immaculate." (Shorty had severe fetal alcohol syndrome.) It certainly looked much newer than the ten years it had seen. The library had a wall-sized photographic mural of a rain forest. A hallway had another mural of woods with a deer. Both were un-defaced, remarkable in a locale where no sign featuring an animal goes unperforated. In Education for Extinction, the author remarks that many of the old government-employed educators saw their mission as protecting the government's property. The Supe wasn't a government employee, but still was prouder of the building than of the students.
In the cafetorium ghostly portraits of native Americans were painted on the walls -- somehow foggy. The Supe explained that the Blackfeet art teacher had painted the figures but became unhappy when he wasn't paid as much as he thought he deserved, so tried to spray them over with white paint but ran out of paint. It was politically inadvisable for the Supe to paint them out with the burnt orange enamel of the walls, but he still refused to pay to have the figures finished. Thus, a standoff--warriors in a mist.
One of the more exciting stories in Education for Extinction is about a clash between a sixty-five year old Indian Agent on a Shoshone reservation in 1899-1900 and a female school superintendent. The agent, who had been running the schools himself after the previous superintendent had left, tried to power down Anna Egan, a mid-thirtyish red-headed female: Irish as Paddy's pig, Catholic, and independent as a hog on ice. She was also evidently an early feminist. The agent, John Mayhugh, said that within twenty minutes after arriving she announced that "for the first time in her life she was placed in full power and she knew how to use it."
Documented by reports to headquarters from both sides and finally by a court case, the two strong personalities struggled for dominance, spreading rumors and accusations. Mayhugh stormed that Egan wasn't up to her task. Egan objected that Mayhugh was trespassing. As usual, sex-- not gender but eroticism-- got into the picture. Agent Mayhugh claimed that two young women, one a student and another a kitchen worker under Superintendent Egan's sphere, were immoral and doing bad things. He sent agency police to remove the two bad girls. Egan staunchly defended her student and her kitchen helper. saying they were always "under her eye," and she turned away a posse of five officers with her pistol, threatening to use it "next time." She stationed a woman with a telescope in an upstairs window to watch for developments. The doctor and his wife sided with Egan. The wife waited on the front porch with a two-foot club. It appeared to the Egan side that the Mayhugh side was arming, though in fact Mayhugh had no gun and his friend, Mayers, carried only a broken gun which he hoped was intimidating.
Finally Mayhugh and Mayers rode up to the school porch, threats were uttered, both Egan and Mayers waved their guns, and Doc Merriweather-- evidently cracking under the strain-- grabbed Egan's pistol and fired two shots. One grazed Mayers and the other went wild. The Indian police came galloping up, firing over everyone's heads. From then on, there was no more violence but many accusations and no clear conclusion.
In my time matters in Heart Butte rarely reached quite this pitch of violence, but the potential was always there. What did happen was lawsuits over things like people "living in sin" in the teacherages or being wrongfully discharged from their jobs for unproven character flaws. At least one person came away with a comfortable settlement. (Probably I myself had an excellent potential lawsuit, if I'd had the inclination and the money for a lawyer.) Some parents occasionally offered to fight administrators out on the lawn. A previous principal told about spanking a child but later, when the child's grandmother arrived in a rage, having to run for safety in his office while the school secretary calmed the woman.
In the summer of 1989 I began moving my furniture into one of the teacherage units for singles, though the assigned unit was already full of school-owned furniture. By the time I had all my 120 boxes of books squeezed in, it was tight work getting the school's pressboard bureaus and bright print sofas out, but the Supe and a couple of custodians came down with the pickup and did it all in an hour or so. The custodians hardly said a word. The Supe was so ebullient and over-the-top in his bouncing around kidding everyone that I wondered if he always maintained such an energy level. I was picking up bad vibes.
The other incident came one day just before supper. I heard a man's voice shouting and went to the window to see the Supe trying to make one of his small adopted sons come home. The boy, about three, simply refused and evaded him. The Supe roared down on him, took his belt out of its loops, and threatened to swat the boy while dragging him by the arm. It did not seem like idealistic or professional behavior in an era when schools tolerate no violence or even touching. I got the impression that the Supe was out of control, though he didn't really beat the child. Others who knew the child better than I said he was incredibly strong-willed boy who needed a firm hand.
It was this incident I remembered when, later in the fall, I questioned the re-allocation of a $500 refund on textbooks sent back by the publisher from whom we had originally ordered remedial English books, later trading them in for literature. I wanted to use the refund for more books. This made him angry. His face grew red, his voice rose, and he began to grab computer printouts and fling them on the tables and desks with such force that they slid off onto the floor. One he put under my nose, moving it around and slapping it with the back of his fingers so I couldn't quite read it. A car salesman did that once: waved a contract at me that he claimed showed he was losing money by selling me a car, but kept it moving too fast to read. I still wonder whether that refund ever showed on the books.
Again, when bad behavior on the part of the students finally compelled an assembly, the Supe lost his temper. The high school boys, several of them approaching twenty-one, enjoyed every chance to literally press themselves on the girls. The younger kids were protesting to their parents that they were embarrassed. The big boys had given so many younger boys "swirlies" (forcing their heads into toilets while flushing) that the victims were desperate to get permission to go to the bathroom during class. In an empty hall they could check out the bathrooms before entering or sneak into the teacher or primary bathrooms. There had been a lot of vandalism: one of the newly delivered desks had had the formica carved off. And the teachers were on the receiving end of a lot of nasty language from students.
The Supe started off meaning to deliver a kind of locker-room pep talk, but it soon ran away. "No one treats my teachers this way! I demand respect, do you hear me? Respect!" He sounded hysterical. The kids were snickering. "I love my dear wife but I don't twine myself around her in public like some kind of a snake." The bigger boys looked interested. Then he lost it entirely and held up the defaced desktop, wrenched off its chair. "Look at this! JUST LOOK AT THIS!! SHAMEFUL! JUST SHAMEFUL!" And he hurled the slab of wood down on the gym floor, the sacred gym floor which was the whole point of having a high school so that Heart Butte could once again have warriors. For the week that people talked about this assembly, all they remembered was that the Supe might have dented their gym floor. People came up to school to take a look. (The most impassioned school board meeting I attended in Heart Butte was about poor quality paint used for striping lines on that floor.)
From then on, the Supe never made the political mistake of confronting an issue in public. He did no more assemblies unless he was there to make an award or share praise. All public duties were shunted off to Churchill and then in the second year, Cheever.
My relations with the Supe originally cooled because of my clashes with "The Doc" as the Supe called him. Later, at a National Council of Teachers of English conference I met a woman who had been part of a nasty political implosion in Harlem when the Supe had been superintendent there. She told me one version, and when I mentioned it to the Supe, he told me another version that showed him in a much more favorable light. "I had to take those people down a notch! They thought they were just too good!" He talked fast and his face got red. He was never friendly again.
STRATEGY IS THE BEST POLICY
Technically, Churchill was the elementary principal, but in the juggling of roles among the three administrators it became clear that Churchill was the diplomat and the athletic manager with little or nothing to do with elementary school matters that more or less ran on automatic. He was a man of quiet diplomacy whose hero, Winston Churchill, suggested that psuedonym. Long a high school football coach, he had also been a high school history teacher and so believed in strategy. He came at all out of friendship for the Supe and because of difficulties in his private life, including health problems like severe overweight. Though he only stayed a year, he was able to snuff out many a potential firestorm. He was especially skillful with the big hormone-saturated basketball players, the weaselly little misfit boys, and me. I soon decided he was the only one with enough education to understand what I was doing. He did my evaluations, always positive, though I had to keep copies myself because the Supe "lost" them. When there was a game, dance or assembly, it was Churchill who quietly saw them through in ponderous dignity. I never saw him rattled or angry. Everyone was particularly fond of his wife, a small cheerful person who sometimes came into the office to restore order or do a special project. She was a professional administrative assistant but could not be hired as the school secretary or board clerk because of nepotism.
THE NAVY LANDS
In July the Supe told me he had hired a principal, "Specialist in Indian stuff, already has a complete curriculum, fresh from Alaska, doctoral-level-- exciting, huh?" The man turned out to be a blowhard with a belly, a marcelled hairdo, many tattooes from his twenty years in the Navy, and a watch band of carved walrus ivory. (Later, the fourth grade wrote letters to him telling him that he was contributing to the endangerment of a species, but they were scared to actually deliver the letters.) He installed a very dirty stuffed penguin in his office. His wife always referred to him as Doctor So-and-So, since he was fresh from a D.Ed. program in Bozeman.
Ironically my lowest moment with the Doc came when he made me a peace offering: a box of matches from a supply cache left behind by Admiral Scott on his ill-fated journey to the South Pole. I had mentioned that Scott had been a childhood hero of mine-- not so much by choice as by accident. A movie about the expedition was repeatedly shown at my younger brothers' scout meetings because it was free to check out of the library. Scott, rolled up in his sleeping bag with only a tiny pup tent for shelter and a candle stub for light and heat, wrote in his journal, then numbed into death while the tent was buried in snow. The image stays in my dreams, as well it might during a Montana winter. The Doc had been with a Navy expedition to the Antarctic (thus, the penguin) that discovered the cache and basically looted it. I thought he had desecrated a shrine and scornfully turned aside his little box of matches.
The Doc was not bashful in telling us that he had gotten into big trouble in Alaska by offending local people. He said that he was always saved because his wife was the bookkeeper at the big headquarters, with the implication that either because of her knowledge of financial irregularities or her ability to short-circuit requests, she had the weapons to protect him. He said there was a town up there that hated him so bad that there was a sign at the edge of town forbidding him to return. He said he had had one troublesome Eskimo (he never used the word Inuit) student who was so incorrigible that he routinely locked him into a small storage closet all day and once forgot him over night. Later he said he was only kidding.
Because he had been a supply sergeant in the Navy, The Doc had been assigned in Alaska to organize the setting up of new schools-- not the curriculum, but the physical materials. The famous Bering Straits curriculum turned out to be a red herring. Though he possessed a copy of it, he had no idea what was in it. He was constantly talking about "natives" in terms of Bering Straits people. The school secretary, a Blackfeet, kept trying to say that there was no similarity between a culture based on a frozen sea and a culture based on hunting grassland buffalo. "They're all natives, " he declared, seeing the important distinction as being between Dominant White and "other." He was not aware that even the theory of American Indians coming across the Bering Straits is a smoking hot button issue, because the theory is used by Europeans to imply that everyone in America is just an immigrant and therefore on an equal entitlement footing. Sure enough, in the curriculum itself I read the statement: "All Americans are immigrants. The Indians just came a little earlier."
On the first day of school the Doc sent us all off with the most "Indian-looking" elementary teacher (who was only half Blackfeet) so she could tell us about the culture. He warned us, "You know, in Australia you don't want to say 'Kleenex' because that's their word for 'Kotex!'" He didn't come along himself. Luckily, the woman is an intelligent and strong person who gave us excellent advice about how to survive in Heart Butte. Her bulletin board was full of pictures of students she had loved and supported over the years. The most salient thing she had to say was that parents would simply not accept any disciplining of their kids. This attitude evidently comes from a strange combination of prideful entitlement on the part of the parents and pity for the children, who mostly are living in poverty.
So "the Doc" directed us all to observe local taboos and then sat down comfortably under an array of photos of himself shooting bears-- a taboo if you're a Blackfeet purist. Bears are seen as other "two-leggeds," nearly brothers. Still, he got by on bluff and loudness until two girls got into a fight in the hallway. He came barrelling out of the office, grabbed one girl by tucking her head under his beefy arm, and then failed to realize what he had done until her opponent took advantage of the restraint by running around behind him and landing several good punches in the face of the captive. That was enough to convince the population of Heart Butte that he didn't know what he was doing. Complained the Doc, "These people fight like Puerto Ricans."
A LITERARY APPROACH
In the second year, Mr. Cheever arrived to replace Churchill, though without Mrs. Cheever (a second wife) or his teenagers (from the first marriage), all of whom refused to leave Missoula, the college town where Mr. Cheever had just ended a year of unemployment. He was an English teacher with a book manuscript under his arm, an almanac of Montana historical events. It had been rejected by every publisher he sent it to. His specialty had been teaching English on reservations, moving on after every second year, until he couldn't get hired for that position anymore and retrained for principal.
Mr. Cheever was a workbook teacher. He had one particular workbook he admired, with one subject for drill and review on each page, and he "did" a page a day. "I wasn't a lazy teacher," he said. "I always corrected those workbooks every night." I thought they were the most boring, useless, beside-the-point things I had ever seen but inevitably I ended up teaching out of them, as did the two other English teachers we had somehow acquired. This had the side-effect of letting the kids who took English from several of us find out the answers in one class, hand them in for the other class, switch workbooks after one had been corrected, and otherwise confuse and subvert all attempts to make order. Within weeks every workbook except those belonging to the habitual good guys had been lost at games on the other end of the state, locked in the trunks of cars, trod upon by horses, left in team buses or soaked in showers. There was no sense in trying to make families buy replacements-- they had no money.
I was particularly disgusted because the Heart Butte kids were workbook students. From kindergarten on up they did workbooks, collecting little stamps, scratch-and-sniffs, paste-on hearts. They expected everything to travel at the pace of the slowest person, to do everything in groups and to always have adult support and guidance, and --most of all-- never to have to figure anything out by themselves. Most of the literature on teaching Indians will assert that this is cultural and should not be challenged. At least a half dozen of the high school kids never did figure out that the answers to the workbooks were in the back. One of the ones who did find out immediately showed this little treasure to The Doc, who demanded that I tear all the answers out and destroy them. When I did, the learning curve showed no changes.
Anyway, Mr. Cheever was literate, if a bit morose, and he did understand my curriculum -- had even read the books. He was an Easterner, someone who had slipped out of a gray flannel family, with a sort of Richard Ford vision of life as a long, snowbanked, night highway where one could expect, at best, the excitement of occasionally sliding into the ditch. He got all the worst jobs, like phoning frantically around town -- in a town where fewer than half the people had phones -- to find substitutes for teachers with last-minute flu. One day the dishwasher failed to show up and no sub could be found in this village of near universal unemployment -- not an unusual occurrence -- so Mr. Cheever tied on an apron and got to work, good-naturedly. For this bit of heroism, he lost big points around the school. Clearly, he was a powerless bumbler to get stuck with such a job and not be able to make someone else do it. The kids scoffed and jeered. Their parents suggested he was taking work away from the tribe out of racism.
I fought a constant and lonely battle against the erotic harassing inflicted on the long-suffering, oddly maternal, girls. One lunch hour I sat on a cafeteria bench talking to Mr. Cheever when I realized he was looking over my shoulder at something. His eyes dilated and his upper lip swelled. I turned around to find one of the usual suspects with his nose buried in the neck of one of the girls, snurfling and sucking as far down in her blouse as he could get. When I yelped, Mr. Cheever came to the boy's defense. "Innocent fun," he said. For him, maybe.
I tried to warn him about the political undercurrents. At first he played things straight, the way the rules prescribed, like turning in my suspected incest case to the psychologist and dealing tactfully with the slightly crazed male librarian. (Instead of using the locked cabinet in his office for storing videos, the librarian hid them behind the books on the shelves, alongside muffins he had saved from lunch. But then he couldn't find the tapes when you asked for them. And if you went hunting on your own, you were more likely to find stale muffins.) When the postmistress began telling us that she smelled booze on the Supe in the middle of the day, I asked Mr. Cheever if the Supe drank at lunchtime. He innocently replied, "Oh, only a beer or two, I think." Or maybe he wasn't so innocent.
Then he began to see his own danger. In the third year of the high school, after I had left, he was rehired, but the new superintendent was run out in late winter. So was the other principal. Pretty soon Cheever also was fired. He stayed on out of inertia, and by default ended up running the whole place in spite of his dismissal. I always pictured him doing it with an apron tied on.
That superintendent who had briefly succeeded the Supe was hand-picked by Athena. When he proved unresponsive to her directions, she led the attack on him. The school board settled the resulting law-suit out of court. This replacement superintendent also had a law-suit pending at the school he had left in order to come to Heart Butte. The legal profession loves confrontations.
Heart Butte tends to be dominated by a few major families such as the Crawfords; the Calf Boss Ribs and Aimsbacks (who have reputations based on the size and volatility of their interlinked families); and the Running Cranes (ancient leaders among these bands). Rivaling these families are the Little Dogs (also ancient leaders) and the Tatseys, who have many ties to the BullShoes, a family of women famous for becoming locally powerful educational leaders. Another prominent family is Sioux, the Whitrights, who are better educated than most and linked by marriage to the Arrowtops, which is a Crow name. This is the level of politics where the real power is and the level that remains a mystery to most outsiders.
Since economic advantage depends upon control of the few jobs and prestige comes from such things as membership in the basketball team, families work hard to make schools represent their members as successful and honorable, regardless of the facts. Any kid from a powerful family is pretty well protected from punishment or bad grades. At the same time, everyone is quick to point out the faults of other families and demand that they be brought to account. A constant crossfire of accusation, defensive offenses, and other operatic fireworks might be amusing except that they rapidly escalate into the dismissal of anyone who doesn't have either a powerful family or a vital impact on the presentation of the school to the larger population, such as coaching basketball extremely well or causing kids to win prizes in state competitions.
In recent decades some of the parents of elementary students are little more than teenagers and many are single mothers. A high proportion of families are alcoholic or otherwise disfunctional because of constant economic hardship, various abuses, or a simple lack of any dependable cultural pattern. Television soap operas or talk shows are probably the most thoroughly internalized pattern, with all their emphasis on materialism, romance, sentimentality, and concern about whose baby is whose. Situation comedies are seen as an accurate depiction of Americans off the reservation and so are the "real life" cop shows. The family of one of my students canceled a vacation to Portland, Oregon, because drug busts were so often featured in one of those cop shows. When I said that was my home town, they were impressed but worried for my mother.
One of several teachers in Browning was alcoholic. The school sent him to a dry-out program, because that is contract protocol when the union functions. When he came back he told exciting tales, especially about one beautiful young woman with a spread eagle tattooed across her chest from shoulder to shoulder. The kids could hardly wait to get such a tattoo. Going to "program" had prestige. Kids asked each other if they had been to program as conversation openers, the way singles in bars ask about horoscope signs. Nevertheless, opposition to drinking and understanding of the dynamics of alcoholism are gradually growing. Support groups abound. AA meets within driving distance almost every night. Many people are now teetotallers. There is a women's shelter for victims of abuse.
Churchill searched for months to find a school drug program that was operated by Indians and finally contracted with a group from Portland, Oregon. Two consultants arrived, one "Sho-Ban" and the other Mescalero Apache. Driving to Heart Butte in a snowstorm after their first night in a Browning motel, their rental car slid into the ditch. When they accepted the friendly offer of a lift, someone stole the Apache's impressive broad-brimmed hat out of the abandoned car. (Later it came back.) The plan called for everyone to attend the drug program-- including school board and custodians. After a half day, no grown man was left but those obliged to be there--mostly faculty.
As it turned out, I had gone to high school in Portland with the Sho-Ban's sister and when we did prayer-words in a circle, I used my Blackfeet prayer which impressed some folks, so I was having a good time. But difficulties arose. The follow-up for the workshop became confused, and in the second year the expensive program was abandoned. The new drug and alcohol counselor objected to the humorous and unflattering illustrations of drunken native American kids the program used in their workbooks. Anyway, the two program facilitators seemed reluctant to come back.
The political scene on a reservation is always both fractured and fluid. Alliances change momentarily, not always for reasons anyone can perceive at the time. The first fracture in a dominated people is between those who identify with the oppressor, trying to become like "him," and those who try to keep their own separate previous identity. Soon there are marriage alliances between the oppressor and those who identify. Perhaps a trader has an Indian "wife." This creates a half-caste middle group which must decide which way to go: Indian or white. Malcolm MacFee, in his study of the Blackfeet in the Fifties, felt that the crucial element was the "choosing" of whether to be Indian-identified or white-identified. Whites could even "choose" to be Indian-like. Full-bloods could decide to live as whites, at least on the surface.
Thirty years later there are many more choices. Among the groups descended from MacFie's dichotomy are:
middle class whites;
assimilated Indians who try to live like whites;
Indians who continue in traditional ways;
Indians who try to return to being traditional after assimilating;
mixed bloods who try to be white-- usually middle-class;
mixed bloods who try to be Indian-- usually poor;
mixed bloods who move back and forth over the boundaries;
whites who try to be Indian in a romantic, literary way, like James Willard Schultz or Adolph
Hungry Wolf ("invented Indians);
Hungry Wolf ("invented Indians);
or Indians who are fullblood but from several tribes of Indian: pan-Indians.
These last became a common variation among the students at government Indian boarding schools and among families who travel to Pow-Wows all summer-- a natural enough consequence of young people from several tribes being together at the age of romance. Unexpectedly-- after Fifties relocation put many Indians in the slums of cities where recent immigrants struggled--new mixes have appeared: Blackfeet/Black, Blackfeet/Mexican, Blackfeet/Samoan, Blackfeet/Philipino. Some of them mixed through the urban drug culture. Blackfeet students at last began to attend college and even medical school, where they met and married whites. Add to that spectrum the political identifications of people attracted to reservations: scholars, feminists, gays, writers, ecologists, granolas, Vietnam vets, militia groups, do-gooders, Ivy-Leaguers, cultural drop-outs. The unforgiving choice between red and white is now shattered into dozens of variations.
This scattering may paradoxically clear the way for a new unification if some underlying essential quality of Native American can be found and affirmed as central. The question is how to find that definitive unity and assert it clearly enough to provide a focus for everyone. Will it be living on or owning the land base of the reservation? Will it be blood quantum? Enrollment with the tribe? The ancient language? Religion-- philosophy or practises? Is there some ancient ethos that can be reinstated?
Blackfeet imitate the very different kinds of white people who impress them: shop keepers, ranchers, Hollywood actors, literary intellectuals, anthropologists, politicians, evangelists, athletes. Indians, like cowboys, read what the anthropologists and novelists write about them and try to live up to it. After the Sixties the counter-culturalists showed up on reservations with romantic ideas about native Americans. Adolph Hungry Wolf (Adolph Gutohrlein, Austrian-born) had been living the hippie life in California. He arrived one Indian Days in an armored car converted to a camper. (I always wondered about the gas mileage and whether he expected armed attack.) He has been living an "authentic" native American life ever since.
In a strange folding-back, the Native Americans who could no longer remember the old ways took white interpretations of the old ways to their hearts and told them to new white men as the real truth-- until real memories became hopelessly entangled with memories of movies and late-night boozy conversations. The real traditionalists (often unrecognized even among their own tribe) found themselves confronted with New Age traditionalists they could not understand. When, one Indian Days, Adolph walked into a Blackfeet lodge with a wooden bowl and asked the old lady within to feed him -- as was once a tradition -- the old lady was terrified and ran to Bob Scriver so he would drive the intruder away. (Bob was the city magistrate and Adolph was white, so she knew her jurisdictions.) The old lady was boarding-school-raised and upheld Victorian standards. No strange men barging in!
So far, this complex cultural situation hasn't created enduring alliances that might stabilize the reservation. Nevertheless, the people in the larger Browning schools have settled into a middle-class, almost suburban, sort of routine. School District #9 is packed with "programs," of every sort: computers, science, anti-drugs, athletic, academic achievement, "stay-in-school" and so on. The school media station beams public television directly into the community all day, so that those who can't afford cable and don't have very good antennas or satellite dishes are watching this channel constantly. Local programs and a community bulletin board are produced.
Right in the center of the East Glacier bedroom community "teacher ghetto", HUD installed a set of houses for middle class Blackfeet. Now those houses are the most carefully maintained in town. The occupants are mostly assimilated BIA employees. The favorite radio station up there is National Public Radio from Missoula, brought in through a repeater privately maintained by community volunteers. Terry Sherburne, a descendent of the original Indian trader, is the most stalwart. For many years he taught foreign languages in Browning and even founded the original Blackfeet language program. Idealistic granolas also settle in East Glacier, interweaving with the teachers. Since "all the children are above average," the elementary school there is probably the most difficult teaching assignment on the reservation,
MEANWHILE, BACK IN BROWNING
In many ways School District #9 looks like a major success. Many of the graduates serve as administrators and teachers. (Keith Schauf, one of my former Browning students and a native of East Glacier, was the Heart Butte superintendent for one year. By the end of the year he was by default the superintendent, the principal, and the school clerk. He managed to stay the course and there was no lawsuit.) But I always have the uneasy feeling that the Browning programs are more important than the kids themselves. And there are always rumors of Watergate-type scandals: secret deals, shoeboxes of cash in safes, papers switched, credentials falsified, sexual harassment, etc. High school boys still show up drunk, but play ball anyway. The dropout rate remains the same, about half, although juggling the statistics can produce better percentages.
In the summer after I lost my job in Heart Butte, while acting as a stringer for the Great Falls Tribune, I went to interview the head of the drug program in the Browning School District. She was the young, slim wife of the superintendent in Valier. (Some said she never bothered to drive to Browning if the weather were bad. Her husband and the Browning superintendent were buddies.) As I pressed for specifics, she became uneasy and put me off more and more. The program had previously been controversial, partly because some overheated vigilante parents had grabbed a video camera and gone out to document local drug deals. They succeeded all too well. The firestorm of indignation and denial almost killed the program.
I remembered one afternoon when a knot of girls came out of the Browning Middle School bathroom acting high and tiddly. I had gone into the bathroom and searched for booze, but found none. When I reported this to the "apple" (red on the outside, white on the inside) principal, he became enraged and forbade me to even think such a thing in the future. "What would the parents have thought if you'd found something?" he demanded. He was right. The parents would have had his job, even though he was a local Blackfeet, and probably my job as well. Education for Extinction documents several such incidents on various reservations over the decades. In order to get money and praise, the Browning Schools must only appear to have success. There is no need to really succeed. Newspaper stories, television programs and mountains of paperwork are what matter. It pays to produce something that can be shipped to Washington, D.C. so that politicians there can use it.
LIVING WITH GRIEF
Yet, success happens even when it is not documented. One counselor in particular always impressed me with his straight-on approach to hard issues. In a school where one of the teachers could fill a blackboard with the names of his students who had been killed since he came there, Mr. Barnard ran a grief recovery group. He allowed me to attend, but I'm not sure he knew how paralyzed by grief I was myself. He was one of the few who acknowledged my ministry credentials. (No one at my liberal seminary had been able to address my reservation experience-- they could not relate to what I told them.) I wish I could tell you the stories I heard from the kids about their losses, but one of the conditions of attending was secrecy. What struck me most was the bravery of pre-adolescents in trying to help their parents, protect their younger siblings and somehow comfort themselves. Often the deaths that they cried over most were those of pets. Sometimes it was their own parents who had deliberately killed the animals.
Many of my former Browning students are dead. The beautiful and intelligent daughter of my first superintendent died young from a brain tumor. A brain tumor claimed a second, equally outstanding young woman, this one Native American and a nurse. A straight-A white boy committed suicide. A Blackfeet boy, an outstanding artist in a southwest school, also committed suicide. Another suicide was ambiguous, a drug overdose combined with drinking that might have been accidental.
Another past student was gifted, far beyond the ordinary, but he was a drunk. Instead of jail, the court would sentence him to the state mental hospital where he would play his guitar and sing for the children. When he was dried out, he'd come back and be all right for a while. Once, on a binge, he stole an ancient, bright red Glacier Park bus and drove it over the high mountain pass of Going-to-the-Sun Highway by moonlight. He used to come in his car and park in the yard, honking for me to come out and talk. Sometimes I went and sometimes I was irritated and didn't. I still have stories he wrote. His wife, a beautiful young woman, smoked while reading in bed, fell asleep and burned alive. Their youngest son was a "sniffer," inhaling solvents. The boy's sister has tried to guide him but inhalant abuse is brain damage that cannot ever be undone, actually dissolving brain cells in a chemical lobotomy. The father promised he would reform, but he died-- perhaps of grief. The grief of his son has never dissolved.
I could name half a dozen more lost students with special gifts. At least one has died of AIDS. Pneumonia. Epilepsy. Car accidents. One young man died in Vietnam. His special friend, the janitor in Heart Butte, brought me a rubbing of the soldier's name from the Memorial in Washington, D.C. To live on a reservation -- like any other ghetto -- means living with grief. The local newspaper is always full of memorial poetry, most of it detached from its proper attribution but some of it original. As a way of comforting the survivors, death is made to seem magical, even desirable. The dead people are held up as ideal, angelic, full of love and compassion. This is in sharp contrast to the old stark Blackfeet fear of ghosts as vengeful and likely to cause trouble.
Mr. Barnard, who never advertised that he was also part Native American, got into major trouble when he published in the local newspaper the results of a survey of young people in the state. The survey listed the percentages of kids who had sex, took drugs, got drunk and so on. The parents took this as an accusation of their own specific children and flew into a rage over the idea that anyone should talk this way. The kids themselves read the statistics calmly and agreed they were probably a little understated. When Barnard left, people said, “Oh, he thought he was better than us.” Maybe he was.
Back in 1961 when I was teaching that first seventh grade in Doug Gold/Napi School, I left the class alone for a few minutes while I ran to the office for something. When I came back, they were out of their seats and throwing erasers. "What do you think you are," I demanded in my parents' voice, "A bunch of wild Indians?"
The answer was loud and cheerful. "Yes! Of course! What did you think?" Today kids that age would be incensed that I would say such a thing and their parents would be up to the office the next morning. They wouldn't be able to tell you what the insult was, only that they felt there was one. When researchers asked some recent fifth graders if they were Indian, they covered their faces with their hands and refused to answer.
Disturbingly, when I have told these stories to friends -- usually well-educated, liberal people working in religion, education or government -- their reaction has not been to support kids in trouble. Rather they want to “get control,” “structure the situation,” “enhance self-esteem,” and force compliance to their own code. They want to be “big dogs,” too. Some will even defend the administrators, saying, “Well, they were in a hard job,” or even, “Come on! Everyone takes a little piece of the action. Otherwise the job wouldn’t be worth it.”
RELIEF THROUGH RITUAL
Most of the kids would have told you religion had nothing at all to do with their lives, but that was only because they had a narrow understanding of religion, limited to the institutional church and whether or not a person believes in God. To them everything else was secular, which is far different than the way most people through history have seen the world , particularly the autochthonous peoples of the American prairie -- their own ancestors.
Modern commercial holidays are sometimes closest of all to medieval "reversal" festivals: New Year's in Times Square, Mardi Gras in New Ordeans. In Heart Butte it was Halloween. Victor Turner describes theories of ritual in his landmark book, "The Ritual Process", which suggests key concepts in the anthropological study of religion. The "process" of the title depends on a three-step ritual that "goes over the threshold" or "limen" into a special virtual context in which everyone is totally equal, normal rules are suspended, and deep changes or catharsis can take place. It can produce an emotional and social cleansing after enduring oppression and confinement. Then one returns "over the threshold" renewed and ready to go on.
One "goes over the limen" by using music, drums, a special set-aside place, the control of light, the raising of a curtain-- something that will signal the mind in a sensory way that this time and place are different--like going into a church while the bells ring overhead, hearing an orchestra tune-up, or feeling the moment when the theatre darkens and hushes before the curtain rises. During the ceremony time and place take on virtual reality, a suspension of disbelief, an openness like children playing. When leaving the "liminal" space, there are again sensory signals that return one's thinking to the real daily world. But one goes back changed, renewed.
Even for ordinary people Halloween is special, with disguised little children going out at night to beg from door to door for treats they really ought not to have in such quantity. For the medieval people and for people in Heart Butte -- who had heard many vigorous sermons about the devil as well as many secret ghost stories from the old people at home -- Halloween was full of haunts.
Living in Browning as long as I had, I'd never heard about Halloween in Heart Butte. Trick-or-treating went as usual, but then everyone gathered for a dance at the school. Instead of store-bought costumes, everyone put on old second-hand clothes too big for them and stuffed the clothes full of other old clothes or rags, so that their bodies were completely disguised. Many had store-bought rubber masks that fitted completely over their heads. With their identities secret, they could dare to do forbidden things.
At the dance party, the older people sat in folding chairs around the edges. Dances alternated between Indian-style and country, with Leonard Mountain Chief acting as master of ceremonies and playing his fiddle. Like Indian Days pow-wows, there would be prizes for dancing in categories by gender, age and type of dancing. But the only way to claim the prize was to reveal who you really were. Some did and no one was surprised. Some took off their masks to gasps of astonishment. And some refused to unmask. Rumor was that they were nuns or priests, or strange intruders from other communities.
The main principle of a cathartic, stress-smashing, anxiety-purging festival is reversal. In medieval times the king was required to act like a beggar while a real beggar took his throne. In one French town the people of the cathedral performed a mass in honor of the donkey that took Mary to Bethlehem, and hauled a surrogate actual ass up the aisle, prodding him to make him hee-haw in the proper places-- that is, where the priest normally called out.
The first reversal I noticed in the Heart Butte cafetorium was a dozen full-blood Blackfeet dressed like Hutterites, who are white-- often blonde. They were stuffed out into the round, well-fed German shapes we all recognized, the men wore pasted-on beards, and the women had the typical dotted scarves tied under their chins. As if that weren't enough, they had actual names pinned to their backs, names of people we knew. In fact, the Hutterites had loaned some of the clothes.
Since I was not in disguise, it was a little scary to cross the entryway through the lounging bodies of smokers. Some of my trick-or-treat beggars I had recognized as fellow teachers-- their voices and kids gave them away-- but I wasn't sure that white teachers were really welcome at this dance. Big male figures leaned my way, and I wondered how far they would go. One had a gorilla head. A little chimp came up beside me and put its arm around me. I wasn't quite comfortable but tried to stand still. Glass behind the little eyeholes glittered and I tried to remember which of the boys wore glasses. Then the hole at the mouth gradually filled up with an oozing pink tongue which slowly worked its way out at me and reached up for my face. Hiding a little panic, I laughed and pulled away, going to sit with some of the older folks out of costume.
The dancing was extraordinary. Both Indian dancers and "jig-ers" went to extremes to be athletic and original. Arms and legs flew everywhere, heads bobbed nearly to the floor, bodies twisted and twirled in an impossible way. One of the most extraordinary figures appeared to be a lady from Dogpatch, her skimpy dress stuffed and weighted in front to create a pendulous bosom, a garter belt over her long, hairy, muscular legs which ended in high heels nearly squashed by her weight, her raggedy flowered hat held on by elastic but shedding an occasional petal, and her rear end jutting out under athletic shorts. She used her handbag like a weapon, clearing a space in which to dance. Another extraordinary female figure had two great spheres for boobs: one labeled "hot" and the other marked "cold." The gorilla turned out to be a pretty good dancer.
I thought this was what the old times must have been like, a great explosion of energy and invention woven around familiar things made strange by firelight. All the weighty vigilance of staying alive on the prairie among competing tribes must have been thrown off for a night of feast and revelry, a defiance of ghosts. For me to go was a trespass, perhaps, but soon I was laughing too hard to think about it much.
Then came time for the prizes and unmasking. The gorilla was one of my best senior boys. Other dancers were surprises, some of them middle-aged and wheezing. The Dogpatch damsel was a basketball player, an uncontrollable young man who belonged in remedial classes but was convinced he was going to be a college star athlete. It was a year before the little chimp with the oozing tongue confessed: it was a quiet, mannerly little girl I never would have suspected. So far as I know, no nuns danced that night.
If we only had the faith to confront the ghosts, what amazing energy might burst out of the kids?