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



It is our experiences that bind us to geography.
--Tom King


Before American white people got to the Blackfeet--with its tribal back against the corner where the Rockies meets the Canadian border-- the Pikuni were having to defend their territory with energy, not so much against whites as against the other native peoples displaced by the eastern whites and determined to hunt on Blackfeet lands.   Blackfeet resistance was supported by English traders from the Canadian side, who still saw the States as traitor colonies.  

The young United States soon defined Indians as "Other,"  to be seen as not-human, mere playing cards on the political table of empire.  To most leaders confinement, extermination, or assimilation were the only possible strategies.  Even to the most liberal people, who put high value on the "natural man," assimilation seemed the only possible future.  Mission schools were meant to fit the policy of assimilation, with the religious duty of conversion legitimizing the practical goal of erasing an ancient identity.   Force became lawful.  Kidnapping was accepted.  Specific abuses of Native Americans-- like corrupt agents or abusive schools-- were submerged in the competing evils of slavery, military excesses stimulated by the Civil War, and growing industrial opportunism like factories where women and children worked long, dangerous hours.  It was a harsh time, though some EuroAmericans were cushioned by the new industrial prosperity and the farming of the wide fertile lands of the mid-West.

In 1881 Carl Schurz, former Commissioner of Indian Affairs, said that Indians were confronted with "this stern alternative: extermination or civilization."  Then he pointed out that it cost nearly a million dollars to kill an Indian in warfare, whereas it only cost $1200 to provide eight years of education.  Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller figured it was costing more than $22 million to wage war on Indians and protect frontier whites-- enough to educate 30,000 children for a year.  These arguments have a curiously modern ring, tailored to persuade tax-payers.  But it is clear that education was always framed as an alternative to extermination.

One of key examples of early Indian education is the story of Carlisle.  Richard Henry Pratt, the founder, was a lieutenant in the army who was assigned to escort a group of arrested warriors to the old Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida.  A thoughtful and persuasive man, he converted his charges from sullen renegades into responsible citizens.  This he did by taking good care of their physical needs, imposing military-style discipline, and teaching them how to get along in the nearby communities.  It was Pratt who more-or-less invented Carlisle and made it work through his whole-hearted conviction that civilized people were the result of environment and environment only.  He told about an exceptionally pale Indian recruit who came to Carlisle with his tribal "brothers," seeming exactly like them.  Only after a while did the teachers realize the boy was a white captive who had learned to be Indian.  He was not a better student than the others, which proved to Pratt, at least, that properly educated Indians could be assimilated into the general population.   This was his goal  -- assimilation.  The controlling pattern was "us" or "them" as two mutually exclusive categories.


Schools among the Blackfeet came about through the efforts of Jesuits, often with the help of displaced Métiz (French/Indian or Scots/Indian people) pushed down from Canada.  Métiz were already a third category.  Most United States people know little about the mixed French and Indian peoples of the Canadian prairies of Saskatchewan who hoped to start their own nation.  On the reservation the St. Mary Valley (which opened to the north) and the Choteau area south of the reservation had strong French/Indian communities who came with fiddles, bright sashes, and creaking Red River carts.  Louis Riel himself, evading a hanging for leading the separatist revolt in Canada, taught at St. Peter's Mission in one of the four different locations it held as it kept being displaced north along the moving frontier.  The first school was three log cabins erected in 1859 near present day Choteau.  Only boys attended.

In 1872 the first public day school for Blackfeet was opened at Four Persons Agency near Choteau.  The Indians refused to send their children unless whites also attended.  Therefore the first enrolled class included ten full-bloods, six "half-breeds," and ten whites.  In 1876 the experiment ended because of poor attendance and the resignation of the teacher.  

The next year, 1877, the agency moved to Badger Creek and another school was started there.  It was a government-supported school with an extensive curriculum, but only eleven per cent of the children on the reservation were enrolled.  The agency had been "assigned" to the Methodists, so that there was a split between the education provided through the Methodist agent and that already provided by the competing Jesuits.

In 1884 the Ursuline Order of nuns arrived and began to teach girls alongside the Jesuit teachers of boys.  These were "contract schools," for which the United States government contracted to pay.  During the infamous Starvation Year of 1884-85 the religious teachers were able to save children from death, in part by sending some to the St. Ignatius Mission in the more fertile and temperate Flathead Reservation.  

In 1887 the patriarch Whitecalf contributed land and Miss Drexel, a midwestern millionare female philanthropist, contributed $15,000 to build dormitories and classrooms on the flood plain of the Two Medicine River. The fine stone Victorian buildings were finished in 1890 and named Holy Family Mission.  Mary Ground, an extraordinarily long-lived and vigorous old lady, attended Fort Shaw, St. Peter's Mission and Holy Family Mission, all three.  "Schools were good," she said.  "You didn't waste time... The good students were never punished...  I had plenty to eat. They were the happiest days of my life."  Since this was a boarding school, attendance was better than at the day schools.  In fact, there was a high fence around the grounds and running away was punished.  Some say Mary Ground had blue eyes and only liked the boarding schools because she was really white.  I knew her as a strong enforcer of old ways.  She liked order and it served her well.

By now many Blackfeet were living as refugees, homeless and starving, dressed in rags.  Tuberculosis and trachoma were epidemic.  Cleanliness was far down the survival list.  In any case, whites were beginning to be much more determined about getting assimilation done and over with.  

As in modern boot camp, hair-cutting was a way of establishing a new way of life and keeping the school population free of vermin.  The children's hair was not just cut, but thrown directly into a fire -- not a comfortable act to observe after hearing a sermon about hell.   In any case hair among Indians is a potent symbol of one's inner state.  It is a point of vanity, to be groomed and arranged with decorations.  Occasionally, hairstyles had religious meaning dictated by dreams.

In his absorbing book, “Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience,1875-1928,”  David Wallace Adams tells about the opening of Pine Ridge Boarding School on the Lakota Reservation.  Expecting trouble, the staff of the school had their barber sequestered indoors.  One by one the Sioux children were to be called in and shorn.  Curious to see what would happen, the children crowded to peek in through the windows under the drawn shades while the first child was seated in the barber chair.  The instant the new students realized their braids were to be removed, they set up a cry "like a war whoop":

"'Pahin Kaksa, Pahin Kaksa!' The enclosure rang with alarm, it invaded every room in the building and floated out on the prairie.  No warning of fire or flood or tornado or hurricane, not even the approach of an enemy could have more effectively emptied the building as well as the grounds of the new school as did the ominous cry.  'They are cutting our hair!'  Through doors and windows the children flew, down the steps, through the gates and over fences in a mad flight toward the Indian villages."

Even Pratt had difficulties with his first group of Carlisle recruits.  He had explained to his young men that hair-cutting was the routine military practise  (Carlisle was a military school complete with uniforms and drill.)  necessary as part of learning white ways.  The older boys were determined to resist, but only one actually did succeed in refusing.  He was left to himself, but -- maybe because he saw all his friends had been shorn and maybe because he realized he could not resist for long -- he took the act into his own hands.  Going to the parade grounds that evening, he sang the mourning song appropriate for hair-cutting and chopped off his own braids.  The other students began to wail and ululate along with the grieving youth, until the whole dark campus rang with the other-worldly sound.  The staff did not sleep well.

Blackfeet could not have felt differently about having their hair cut, their clothes burned, their siblings separated and their language forbidden.  They loved the old ways and they loved their children.  Being forced to choose was very hard.  Some reconciled with the necessity of becoming white, and turned away from the old ways with forceful conviction.  Others never did accept the demand.  The split remains alive on the reservation today and often will be described as "those who want to go forward" versus "those who want to go back."

In 1889 forty-five Piegans went off to Pratt's Carlisle, Pennsylvania, school.  This was the beginning of many migrations of young Blackfeet people to government boarding schools off the reservation.  It was thought to help them break with the old ways and start a new way of life.  At Carlisle itself, Pratt experimented with sending students as isolates into the white community, in hopes that they would be assimilated even more quickly, but the strategy didn't work very often.  As had happened from the earliest contact with European households, the students were sometimes treated as slaves, or at least servants, and though they worked hard, they were not taught school subjects.  


Teachers in School District #9, which is Browning, are expected to take classes in the history of the Blackfeet within the first year of their employment.  Darrell Kipp has been key in developing these courses.  Often the first assignment is to prepare a Blackfeet Time-Line.  Mine was a card file, so that I could continue to expand it and so that I could lay the dates out on a table like playing cards and think about how things changed.  Most striking is the speed with which the Blackfeet world was transformed -- given new shape economically and materially.

Here is a quick review of my card file, if you will forgive some repetition: 

1872:   The first formal school for Blackfeet children opened at Teton River Agency in Choteau.  (This is four years before Custer met disaster.)  The Blackfeet Reservation was steadily shrunk by executive orders pushing back the boundaries from Sun River to Birch Creek to Badger Creek, until in ten years it had gone from being  one-quarter of the present State of Montana to its modern size.    
1882:   This was the last year there were any buffalo herds.
1883:   Starvation Winter.  Nearly 600 bodies were laid out on Ghost Ridge above Old Agency, waiting for the ground to warm enough for a burial which never came.  In desperation Indian Agent Young told the Blackfeet to simply eat any cows they could find.  Mostly what they found was trespassing herds from adjoining ranches.  Young was indicted by a grand jury for this.  At age 72 he was accused of "keeping a Harem of young Indian girls."  The cattlemen who accused him were led by the chair of the jury, William Conrad, who was running 12,000 head of cattle on the reservation without paying any fees.  Trader T.C. Power defended Agent Young because he had the profitable contract to bring in commodities for the tribe-- the goods just never seemed to quite make it to the reservation. 
1886-87:  This was the terrible winter that broke the free range cattle ranchers.
1888:   The Sweet Grass Hills were severed from the reservation because gold had been discovered in one of the buttes.   (In 1995 entepreneurs are still trying to get back to Gold Butte to begin cyanide heap-leach mining on the remnants of the original mine.)   Strikes of other substances were made in what would become Glacier Park.  In the heart of the area sprang up the small town of Altyn, where white miners ran their own school for their own children.  A wanna-be cowboy called "Kid" Russell began to hang around in the Blackfeet camps, drawing on every flat surface and learning sign talk.
1889:  Montana became a state, which was possible only because the Indians were confined to formal reservations.   The first group of Blackfeet was admitted to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.  (These young men would have been young adolescents during the Starvation Winter.)  After the Carlisle men had graduated and returned, they formed a group called "The Red Man's Literary Society," which met to talk as the students were used to doing at school.  This group was soon disbanded by the agent, for fear that they would form the nucleus of an uprising.  If the agent had not been so short-sighted, they could just as easily have formed the first group of formally educated native leaders.  Undoubtedly they did maintain the bonds formed by their shared experiences, but not in so public a way.  

In those tense days, School Superintendent Coe reported the local reservation schools were a disaster.  Agents of this time were accustomed to hiring their female family members as teachers in order to supplement the family income and often got into power struggles with the superintendents.  The agent counter-complained that Coe was a drunk.  George Magee, a local justice of the peace, complained that the agent colluded with a salesman of cheap jewelry to rip off the Indians.  One of Joe Kipp's friends joined in this complaint, but then Joe Kipp was blamed for using the agency sawmill to build the Jesuit Holy Family Mission School on Two Medicine.  That same year a Thunder Pipe Bundle was sold out of the tribe to a non-Indian for the first time.  Early missionaries had said,  "We must teach these people to be greedy so they will value what they have."  Evidently they were succeeding with the help of many EuroAmerican examples. 

1890:  The Great Northern Railroad was built through Marias Pass, making Lake MacDonald and other resort areas accessible.  Lt. Ahern was exploring this part of the Rockies for the government and the Dalton gang was hanging out near Chief Mountain.  Great Falls, a hundred miles to the south, had a population of 3,979 and the first dam on the river had been completed at Black Eagle.  Work had begun on the Boston and Montana Smelter, the tall copper smelting stack that was finally dynamited as obsolete one hundred years later.  Paris Gibson, the founder of Great Falls, caused many sapling elms to be planted.  Some of them reached the century mark before Dutch Elm disease made it necessary to cut them.

1893:   The Great Northern Transcontinental Railroad was completed, generously supported by Blackfeet hay, wood, and labor which the agent authorized without pay.   Tourists began to arrive.  The government gave out great tracts of land for homesteading in order to supply the railroad with customers. 

1894:   The Town of Browning was legally established.  Opinions differ about whether it was intended to be an "island of jurisdiction," a bit of the state of Montana put inside the reservation.  This argument continues to the present, with the balance tipping against the Town.  

1896:   Glacier National Park was torn off the side of the Blackfeet Reservation.  The Blackfeet people agreed to sell it only because they were starving again.  At this same time the gold-strike at "Last Chance Gulch" made Helena a millionaire's town where prosperous citizens enjoyed oysters, fine wine, and some of the earliest telephones--connected by the best copper wire smelted from the mines in Butte.  

1901:   The last recorded smallpox epidemic struck.  Willow Creek School was in a disastrous state.  Boys caught riding calves were confined for a week in an old meat refrigerator with holes in it, emerging only for meals of bread and water.  Again the root cellar was flooded and dead rodents floated there.  The Blackfeet fullbloods were so angry that Agent Monteith threatened to arrest White Calf.  This provoked the Indian police to quit en masse.  In addition, Little Dog announced that if Monteith ever dared to do such a thing, he would be bound with ropes and thrown in front of the next train.  In this year there were estimated to be 2,084 Blackfeet with 50 births and 33 deaths.  Births were finally outnumbering deaths.  64 children were attending Holy Family Mission and 57 pupils were assigned to the government's Willow Creek School.  The Duke of York was visiting in Calgary.  These are the Upstairs, Downstairs years in England.

1903:   Chief White Calf died.  My father-in-law, Thaddeus Emory Scriver, came to Browning.   This is the beginning of oral history as I have heard it from people I know.  About this time a formal tribal council was organized under government prompting.  Elected to it were Joe Kipp, Horace Clarke, and seven older full-bloods.    Horace, who evidently got his temperament from his father, soon made so much trouble that the agent banned him from the reservation.  He remained a tribal council member in absentia and was just as active in state politics.  (One thinks of Irish Gerry Adams, elected to the British parliament but forbidden to speak.) 


Thad Scriver made it a point all his life to avoid politics and to be friends to all sides of controversies, at least in public.  It was better for business and Harold, his oldest son, followed his example.  In private Thad puffed his pipe and shook his head.  He had a lifelong preference for full-blood Blackfeet as they were in the early days, though his friend Doug Gold wrote his master's thesis on the premise that full-bloods had lower I.Q.'s than mixed bloods-- that, in fact, the more white blood in the student, the more intelligent he would be. (This is Pratt flipped over.)  In those days people had not thought about culture-bias in tests standardized on white populations.  They did not realize that rather than intelligence, they were actually measuring degree of assimilation.  Therefore, assimilation seemed to them a good thing, since it meant being more like them, but actual intelligence went unmeasured.  Clearly, their own intelligence was faulty.

For a while in recent times, the Browning school actually brought into being by Doug Gold was named Douglas Gold School, but then that unfortunate thesis arose from the moldy library stacks and finished off his reputation.  The school was renamed for Napi, the Blackfeet trickster figure who has an even worse reputation.  (K.W. Bergan School, also named for a white man and a much lesser figure, kept its name.)  Gold had written a book, A  Schoolmaster among the Blackfeet, which demonstrates his fond but patronizing attitude.  Some of today's elders appear recognizably as youngsters in the stories.  Thad Scriver simply said you could trust full-bloods.  I never heard him express an opinion of Doug Gold, who was considered a genius and was often a guest at the family table.  As a superintendent, in addition to building the present Napi School, Gold made a number of educational innovations, supported Robert Scriver's bands and even owned a boarding house for teachers.  


September 10, 1904: Cut Bank Creek Boarding School was opened for students.  It’s Victorian buildings were of brick and nestled in a beautiful small valley. 

1911:   The large and handsome resort hotels of Glacier National Park were being built, as well as the road over Marias Pass which ran parallel to the railroad.  The reservation counted about 3,000 tribal members.  

The Blackfeet Reservation was being surveyed in preparation for allotment of the land to individual tribal members according to the directions of the Dawes Act.  This Act of Congress made it possible for reservation land to be owned by white people through patent and sale.  Until this Act passed, the land had been held in community by the tribe.  Indians were defined as legal minors, who required oversight by federal trustees, and could not sell land without permission.  The Dawes Act was represented as a way of conferring dignity on individuals by letting them run their own affairs.  But tribal members did prove to be vulnerable to the unfamiliar technicalities of land-holding.  Anyway that argument was only a distraction from the creation of "excess lands," which remained after each adult member of the tribe had taken possession of his assigned acreage.  These "excess" lands were considered federally-owned rather than reservation and were sold.  The money did not go to the tribe but rather to the United States government.  Clearly, someone knew that by dividing the land, they were diminishing the reservation.  Some experts feel this was the point where reservations were doomed.  The effort was to make reservations into homesteads-- and therefore, divide tribes into individual families which could be more easily assimilated.

From Thad's point of view, things were going well enough.  He had taken a partner and established himself as an independent Indian trader.  In 1911 he returned east to marry Ellison Westgarth MacFie, a girl from a prosperous Quebec Anglophone family.  She told me she wept for days when she saw her new home, lined with gray insulating paper, heated with bulky coal stoves and guarded from wandering cows by a strand of barbed wire.  Quickly she rallied and her memories of those early days were much livelier than Thad's.  I believe she thought of Native Americans as being somehow French, like the household help often hired in Quebec.  Some Blackfeet, of course, had Métiz ancestors (Salois, St. Goddard, Pepion, Chouquette)  and even spoke a bit of French.

On many reservations, tangled lines of federal bureaucratic accountability still pitted agents against school superintendents.  The agent of this time, McFatridge, had a medding wife and a spoiled son, Leslie, who boldly threatened S.E. Selecman, the Browning principal.   Selecman thrashed the kid.  McFatridge fired Selecman, who went to court to get his job back.  Locals called the McFatridge family "the father, the son, and the Holy Terror," and feared the wife the most.  In the end McFatridge was fired and escaped to Canada with $1200 of Blackfeet money.  

The Duke of Connaught was visiting in Calgary at the time.  Wessie Scriver sometimes reminded me that her mother was first cousin to Lady Kemp.  The strange intersections between aristocrats of one sort or another and the Blackfeet people recur to the present and, if you count Canadian Blackfeet, include Elizabeth II of England, who is particularly fond of Alberta horses.  Elders of the tribe have received many European royals or have gone to Washington to meet important people there.  Their manners and sense of protocol are impeccable.

1914:  In this year both Bob Scriver and George Kicking Woman (who is currently one of the most prominent ceremonial elders) were born.   Inspectors found that the Cut Bank Boarding School had become a tragedy.  An investigator named Elsie Newton reported that there were still six or eight polygamous families and rampant adultery and prostitution,with the whites as bad as the Indians.   Almost no one on the reservation was farming, as was supposed to be the goal, and Blackfeet individuals were in debt to local traders for a total of $115,000.  The allotted lands were hopelessly confused, genuinely incompetent people had been allowed to patent and sell their land for ridiculously low prices, and everyone was after the "surplus" lands, which had not been formally allotted.  Standard Oil of Ohio requested a blanket lease for oil and gas.  Huge reserves, a legacy of the Cretaceous Era, lie under the reservation and all along the east slope of the Rockies.

Lily Monroe once told me she used to lie in bed and look out her bedroom window over the flowering hayfields where Browning was eventually built.  Everyone agreed it was an exceptionally beautiful place because there was so much water.  The town of Browning needed a good many culverts and drainage ditches before it became liveable.  Even now in spring the Indian Days campground to the west is liable to be flooded.

The original Sherburne patriarch, J.H. Sherburne, acted as the "agent" for the town.  At the beginning of the twentieth century a small private school was sponsored by the Sherburnes on the second floor of the house next door to the Scrivers.  Judging from photographs, the students were both Blackfeet and white.  The teacher was a Sherburne nephew.  In the Sixties that second floor caught fire and I helped carry out old maps, books and furniture still lingering there.

1918:  The roots of the present Browning Public Schools go back to when Mrs. Isabell Cooper patented her land so that it would be privately owned and not part of the tribal trust.  This land was not for the school but for a polling place that would belong to the county and state, an "island of jurisdiction."   94 voters went from Browning to Mrs. Cooper's land in order to elect trustees.   It was clearly time for public education, since for at least five years the community had been sophisticated enough to support two "show houses" with vaudeville and silent film.  

In the Sixties one of those show houses still stood, though it was in dreadful condition.  One summer day I stepped inside through a hole in the wall and found the stage intact.  Film cans were strewn among the wreckage of seats.  Soon afterward the derelict building burned.  Bob Scriver said that as a child one of the puzzles he worried over privately was why the bursting dam painted on the fire curtain never seemed to move, but always to be suspended in time.  Perhaps it was an omen.

1919:   Glacier County was formed and Browning nearly became the county seat.  The new Glacier County school superintendent had the responsibility of overseeing public education in Browning.

October 9, 1925:  The Browning Citizen, local newspaper, declares that the town population is more than 1000  "with the necessary complement of business houses, civic, religious and social activities."  There are three churches: Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist.  A "big high school stands on a slight eminence."  (This is the building brought into existence by Doug Gold and now called Napi School.)   There are many rural one-room schools:  "Babb, Peskan, Heavybreast, Camp Nine, Swingly, McKelvy, Old Agency, Douglas, Many Glacier, Little Badger, Hamby's, Galbreath's, and Clark's."  These, asserts the paper, "are evidence that the best criterion of a civilized people, their education, is not neglected in this part of our great country."

Jack Holterman, a language teacher and historian, taught at Swims Under School, not far from Heart Butte, and at several other one-room rural schools on the reservation.  He says his memories of those years are mostly good-- quite different from today's complex bureaucracies.  "I was alone with the children and responsible for everything," he said.  "Once there was a fire, but we simply put it out."  

An older Cree/Métis man who attended one of these one-room schools says he was the victim of sexual discrimination-- even abuse!  A grandpa now, he is still indignant as he explains that he was the only boy in the school and that all the girls, big and little, found him irresistible.  They used to chase him and catch him so they could kiss him -- which he found objectionable.  Since he rode to school on a horse and kept in a shed behind the school, his solution for lunch-time survival was to dash out the door and gallop his horse to a nearby ridge where he could eat in peace.  When other boys showed up in the neighborhood, he was greatly relieved.

1924:  The Blackfeet became citizens of the United States of America.  Many had fought in World War I, though legally they were still considered "incompetent" and therefore wards of the government.  

1934:   The Indian Reorganization Act created the present form of tribal government, but the schools remained either public or federal-- not tribal.

At first Public School District #9  was two rooms and fifty students.  By 1936 the "big high school" needed much renovating, which was done as a WPA project with nearly all Indian labor.  By 1939 it had grown to 570 students  K-12, with 125 in the high school.  The building included a dorm, an auditorium, domestic science and industrial arts rooms, a typing and business department and a science laboratory.  In addition there were six rural schools, accomodating in total 100 children.  At the end of the Thirties there were about four thousand Blackfeet tribal members.

In these two decades Robert Scriver went from first grade to faculty member.  Besides teaching academic subjects, he threw himself into the music program and soon the high school band was taking first place in state contests.  Scriver had trained at Vandercook School of Music in Chicago where he learned an aggressive, innovative teaching style.  In one three-year period before WWII and another three-year period after WWII, the students became so proficient that they could play Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite from the original score right along with a recording by a major orchestra.  At one point in state competition they earned a "Superior ++++" (That is, four pluses above Superior, the highest category).  At another competetion, Scriver rewrote the "St. Louis Blues" into a march, and again they won prizes, though the judges thought the idea was a little unconventional.  Scriver formed a Blackfeet band, which played in full buckskins on major occasions --including the visits of royalty, politicians and movie stars  --and a small jazz band which played for dances.  Earl Old Person, present Chief of the Blackfeet Tribal Council, speaks fondly of his days in Scriver's band.

Robert taught the smallest kids with simple plastic song flutes so that they would learn breath control and develop their ear.  The flute is a traditional Blackfeet instrument.  Recent research hints that developing a musical sense causes the logic centers of the brain to grow, because music is a kind of language.  Sometimes Scriver tried writing out "Indian singing" with European notation.  He composed musicals for the kids to perform.

Scriver was a disciplinarian who locked the doors of the rehearsal room at the time of starting -- being late meant you didn't get in -- and he insisted that the band play one note over and over until it was perfectly in tune.  Yet decisions about punishment (mostly suspension from practise for up to a week-- almost never elimination from the band) were made by the "Band Board," which was composed of the First Chairs of every section.  Parents sewed the costumes (black pants, white shirts and red capes) and ferried the students to games and competitions in a small flotilla of private cars.  Students were so dedicated that they would cut class all day, but show up for rehearsal.  One young man rode a horse in from Starr School five miles away.  

People still remember both the glory and the unyielding rules.  To older folks in Browning, this was what school was supposed to be like.  Yet the Superintendent, K.W. Bergan (the one for whom another School District #9 building is named), opposed the band and accused Scriver of trying to convert the whole system into a music school.  (No one has suggested renaming K.W. Bergan School.  I personally would like to rename it Green Grass Bull.  The only school presently named for a tribal member is Vina Chattin Grade School.  "Viney" was a dynamic force for education with flaming red hair even in advanced old age.)

Decades later, in the Nineties, there are still Blackfeet musicians who got their start in those high school bands.  Besides being a lifelong joy to everyone else, these musicians have been able to keep their pride and to strengthen their lives through their enjoyment of music.  Late in life, they still play taps at the graves of veterans and dance tunes for parties.  Compare what happened to them with the record of the athletes.   The basketball players were reduced to reminiscences in a decade or so, but long after the rallies for high school games, the bandsmen went on playing.

1944:  The National Congress of American Indians formed.   Indians were making strong contributions to both the military forces and the huge civilian efforts to build ships and guns.  Many Blackfeet worked in the shipyards and airplane factories of the Pacific coast, creating enclaves in Seattle and Los Angeles.   

1950:  Government policy was to end reservations by relocating Indians to cities, but no one provided sufficient funds or orientation so that stranded and destitute Indians formed slums in Minneapolis and the West Coast cities.  This was quite different than the voluntary migration during the war.

1953:   The law was changed to allow Indians to drink on the reservation.  The persuasive argument was that if Indians could fight in Korea, they ought to be able to drink at home.  Some say this is when women first began to drink.  They had never or rarely been included in the “raiding parties” of men in old cars who travelled off-reservation to drink and often wrecked on the way home.

1960:   John F. Kennedy, Jr., extended federal housing assistance to the reservations.  Many people were living in shacks and huts with no plumbing and undependable electricity.  But television antennas were beginning to sprout from the humblest shelters.


In 1961 I arrived in Browning.  From this point I saw for myself.  When I came onto the faculty of the Browning Schools, the movement was towards consolidation.  Rural schools were being closed down.  Students rode school buses with radios.  Croff-Wren, Pontrasina, and Starr Schools were still operating as part of School District #9.  St. Mary, East Glacier and Heart Butte had separate grade schools but bused their high school students to Browning, when weather allowed.  The administration was struggling to require the faculty to become Montana Education Association members, in the belief they would become more "professional."   

In that social revolution parallel in time to the Vietnam War and landing on the moon, came a quick succession of events that could be summed up as Indian Empowerment.  The "relocated" tribesmen were drifting back.  They had learned a lot in the city, much of it from Black Power.  In Browning we watched desegregation through grainy black and white newscasts from Lethbridge television in Alberta.  The attack dogs, the water cannons, the assassinations, all seemed like insanity to us.  We were grateful to be in "God's Country."

1966:  The first school organized and run by a tribe was Rough Rock Demonstration School in Chinle, Arizona, among the Navajo.  This was the year I first quit teaching.  In 1965 the daughters of the principal, the superintendent, and the chair of the school board became pregnant out of wedlock.  It was clear that something had to be done, so six white teachers, myself among them, had our salaries frozen for "having affairs."  Some wanted to fire us, but were afraid of the lawsuits.  All quit except me, who taught one last year and then resigned.  I had been assigned to the new Browning Junior High School, which was going to revolutionize education by running "open classrooms" in "pods."  Instead, I married Bob Scriver.

1968:   A congressional investigation of Indian education found that on the whole the government schools and public education for Indians was a "national disgrace."    AIM formed that same year in Minneapolis. 

1969:  "Indians of All Tribes" seized Alcatraz.
1970:  Nixon disowned both the policy of terminating reservations and the machinery of relocation.   Russell Means captured the Mayflower that Thanksgiving.  a pan-Indian group climbed Mount Rushmore and claimed it back.  The new policy towards Indians was called “self-determination.” In the spring of 1970, newly divorced,  I was hired by School District #9 to be a public relations person who would try to settle the local unrest by placing good stories about the schools in the media.  I failed in this task and was reassigned back to teaching.

1971:   The Native American Rights Fund was founded.   The Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop began operation, the first school operated by Blackfeet for Blackfeet children.  It was organized as an alternative school for drop-outs and the diploma was a G.E.D.   

1972:   AIM occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington, D.C.

1973:  This is the year of Wounded Knee II, when a demonstration at the original massacre site became a seige at Pine Ridge, as well as the year I left both the reservation and teaching.  Feeling that the world was passing me by, I returned to Portland, Oregon.

1979:   The American Indian Religious Freedom Act became law.  For the first time Indians could legally worship in their traditional ways.  In addition,  the Archeological Resources Protection Act, strengthening the portections of the 1906 Antiquities Act, tried to stop the destruction of ancient archeological sites.

The Blackfeet Community College, a tribal school, received candidate status for accreditation in the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges.  Its status has been precarious ever since, but it persists.  A major problem was soil contamination on the campus from the gas tanks of a service station nearby, but this turned out to be an advantage when the penalties from the contamination paid for more buildings.  (One of the few times money has arrived on the reservation from Butte instead of going the other way.)  It provides a focus (what the Red Man's Literary Society might have been), grants two-year associate degrees, and is a location for technological innovations like the Internet.

In the Eighties and Nineties, School District #9 has grown to a huge complex plant that includes giant satellite dishes to link the school to the world.  The  budget and payroll are the biggest in town, possibly exceeding even the Federal offices.  Nearly a dozen buildings must be maintained, counting bus barns and administration buildings.  Four former students have served as Browning superintendents:  Tommy Thompson, Don Wetzel, Randy Johnson and J.R. Clark.  The last two were both in my English classes.  Keith Schaaf, another of my students, is also a school superintendent.  [This piece was originally written before Mary Margaret McKay Johnson became superintendent of the Browning Public Schools.  She has proven to be an EXCELLENT superintendent.  Like Randy, her husband, she was in my English classes.  These people would shine anywhere.]

Randy was one of the last students to ride a horse to school. His family lived on the Methodist ranch outside Browning.  When he died of cancer in 1989, the whole school population attended his funeral in the high school gymnasium.  He had made sure to leave an inspiring message for them.  Randy was the only non-enrolled local superintendent, but he was married to a McKay, one of the outstanding Blackfeet families.  Iliff McKay had been a Tribal Chairman who died of anaphylactic shock after a routine penicillin injection.  Many have wondered how history would have been changed if Iliff had lived-- or if Randy had lived.  Too many fine leaders have been lost.

Today Browning students boldly intend to be brain surgeons or astronauts, and they qualify for good colleges.  The Indian Health Service hospital has grown in spite of cuts in federal support.  Teachers, doctors, administrators, technicians of all sorts are Blackfeet.  But the town itself has shriveled up.  Many businesses have gone broke.  There is little housing in Browning for whites and few whites run businesses.  The exception might be Bob Scriver, who has built himself a small empire as a sculptor, but must keep out burglars with steel shutters, barbed wire, electric fencing and a trained attack dog.  It is like living in a Third World Country.

Parallel to developments in the rest of the country, people tend to either be doing very well or to be on welfare.  The destiny and therefore control of many people on the reservation rests with a few bureaucratic institutions: Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, Blackfeet Tribal Council and School District #9.  These tend to be secretive and competitive, self-contained communities without much crossover.  Constant rumors circulate about graft, mismanagement, and other potential scandal.  Many people say there are no real Indians left.  My white friends advised me not to write this book for fear of retaliation.  A document compiled by lawyers for use in a lawsuit against the U.S. government circulates secretly and my friends urge me not to admit I’ve read it.

In 1989, after years of planning, the little village to the south of Browning, Heart Butte,  opened its own public high school.  I was the first high school English teacher.  The actual building was not dedicated until the summer of 1995.  The remainder of this book will focus on that specific community and the constant struggle of its schools.


But Heart Butte is not the newest school on the reservation.  The newest school is a one-room school house on Moccasin Flats.  When I first taught at Browning High School, my classroom looked out on Moccasin Flats, originally built at the turn of the century as a row of log cabins and rough shacks to house elderly Blackfeet with no other place to go.  In other words, it was a refugee camp, though everyone thought of it as "the kind of place where Indians live."  In 1961 the little houses still had no running water, no garbage pickup, and no yards, but they had accumulated many auto hulks, mangy dogs and crooked television aerials. 

Now the shacks and cabins have been mostly replaced by housing projects.  The road is still rough, but mercifully that keeps traffic slow where kids are likely to dart across.  On one edge of the Flats, which some people can no longer point out, is the Moccasin Flats Blackfeet Immersion School, Amskapi Pikuni Ipausin Eskenimatoyis which translates literally to "The South Piegan Language School Where Is The Speaking Language of Ourselves."  The new building is sun-flooded by skylights and the front door exactly faces the rising sun at spring equinox.  It is owned and operated by the Piegan Institute, a non-profit corporation funded by private money, not government or tribal funds.  Students pay tuition, but scholarships are provided.  Inside, one must speak either Blackfeet or American Sign Language.  

Staff comes before sunup to drink coffee and make plans-- in Blackfeet.  The four-year-old students have already soaked up enough words to make jokes in Blackfeet.  As soon as they learn the word for apple (aipasstaamiinamm), they are calling each other Apple Boy and Apple Girl.  Two little girls in the cloak room call to another,  "Puks sa put!  Ki ki neet ti kit!"  ("Come over here!  Candy!")  One little girl comes to school in her grandmother's clothes, because no one was awake to dress her and the clothes were handy.  On the first Saturday the kids come rapping at the window, hoping to be let in.  

A puppy comes to school and takes a nap with the children on their rugs.  They sleep with their arms around his fat, furry body.  "Do we allow this?" asks Darrell, the sort-of head of the school along with Dorothy and several others.  The sophisticated, high-standards, Canadian Blood female teachers laugh.  Blackfeet kids and dogs have been together for thousands of years.  

Darrell takes his pickup downtown to run an errand and comes back just in time to spot the entire school, including the cook, disappearing down the road on foot.  They've decided to go use the Headstart playground.  All the people who stand around watching, hoping for some chance to show their superior wisdom, say,  "Darrell, can't you get those kids a proper van?"  But Blackfeet kids have walked over the windy prairie for many centuries.

The next week everyone is stumped.  How do you say "Halloween" in Blackfeet?  Or for that matter, in American Sign Language?  "Regular" schools at Halloween are supposed to make Jack O'Lanterns and witches on brooms.  This school and the teachers are not quite sophisticated enough yet to say,  "Those are European witchcraft figures.  Halloween is an ancient European religious holiday that goes back to the times when the Europeans themselves lived in tribes!"  They get out the construction paper.

1996:  The school, again celebrating Halloween, appears on NBC news with Tom Brokaw.  They are the background for an announcement that Eloise Cobell, acting on behalf of a coalition of Indians through the Native American Rights Fund, is suing the United States Government for losing the invested capital of the Blackfeet Tribe and its individual members.  The records of leases, mineral rights, interest on investments and inheritances are so hopelessly confused that independent auditors estimate that two billion dollars are simply unaccounted for and cannot be retrieved.  These funds were put in the care of the U.S. Government to be protected for the Indian people because it was assumed they could not manage their own affairs.

Darrell Kipp says that he and his sister receive checks from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in strange amounts:  $32.77  or $4.32.  When he takes the checks up to the BIA office and asks to see the records, they can't show him any.  When he asks what they are payment for, they say they don't know.  When he asks what lands he has inherited, he is told the same thing.

Darrell Kipp's grandfather was a survivor of the Baker Massacre, a child of the Heavy Runner band adopted by the Kipps out of contrition for what had happened and given their name.  Thus his past is divided between both the victim and the aggressor in the Baker Massacre.  Darrell Kipp, a senior in high school when I came to Browning, is easily old enough to be the grandfather of these small students.  Only six "degrees of separation"-- six generations --  are between these kids and the old chief of the Amskapi Pikuni who sprawled in the scarlet-stained dawn snow, his peace paper in his hand and a bullet in his heart.  What will the Seventh Generation learn in their lifetime?

No comments:

Post a Comment