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



"Indianness" never existed except in the mind of the beholder.
--Vine Deloria, Jr.


In the nineteenth century a Native American man was found wandering alone on the prairie and put into an insane asylum in Washington, D.C., where he was held because he would not talk.  This was thought to be a symptom of catatonia.  After many years he was found by Helen Clark who knew his native language.  Hoping to comfort him, she sang to him a child's lullaby in Blackfeet.  He responded with joy, tears running down his face, and was released.  

Only a couple of years ago here in Oregon a man was arrested.  He was clearly Mexican-looking, but would not speak either English or Spanish.  Again, he was put into a mental hospital for evaluation.  This time it was only days before his friends found him and explained that he was Indio -- native to Central America -- and spoke the language of his tribe in a remote part of Mexico.  Like it or not, language is a key to credibility.

In the early Eighties a class at the Blackfeet Community College went out to look for Blackfeet speakers.  They found that 30% of the people on the Montana reservation spoke some Blackfeet and all were over 40.  The 200 fluent speakers were all over sixty.  The estimate was made that in thirty years the language would disappear.  In 1970 some VISTA workers took a broad survey of the reservation and found that 99% of the parents wanted Blackfeet history and culture to be taught.  In 1987 Dennis Clarkson did another survey which found that 87% wanted Blackfeet history and language taught.  Why has it taken twenty years to get effectively underway?

I can easily brainstorm a list of ten reasons:

1.  Teaching such things makes the white administrators nervous.

2.  For full-bloods to be the experts makes the mixed bloods nervous.

3.  No one knew quite how you're supposed to do it.

4.  The State doesn't require it and the State is the perceived authority.

5.  People think that learning a language is just "learning the names for things," not learning a whole way of perceiving the world with a different set of grammatical assumptions.  To them a foreign language is a kind of parlor trick.  For years, all that was ever taught was how to count to ten in Blackfeet.  No one ever saw anything but children's books printed in Blackfeet.  No one ever heard it except from the announcer at Indian Days, which whites see as a tourist event.

6.  The scholarly work being done in Blackfeet was in Canada and though it was only a hundred miles away, the border is a major psychological barrier.  Scholars there have produced a dictionary and a grammar, but they are expensive and not often available in Browning.

7. The school was already carrying an enormous burden.  To add another whole dimension was very difficult.  Where was the space, the time, the budget, the personnel?  Who knew whom to hire?  Who would certify teachers?

8. Blackfeet is an oral language (so far) and has no library of books where a person could go alone to study.   European culture defines education and religion in terms of the book.  Thus Hebrew could be brought back to life by the people of Israel because it was a written language and scholars had kept it alive so they would have access to the original documents.  But Blackfeet depends upon living speakers in community, with their living memories as the only "paper."  Even tape recorders are inadequate, especially since many Blackfeet consonants are soft palate and glottal sounds which are hard to see, much less record.

9. The prohibition on Blackfeet speaking has been both political and religious.  The generation educated in boarding schools were thoroughly convinced that clinging to Blackfeet and the other old ways was sacrificing any chance of economic success in the new world order and perhaps even sacrificing one's soul.  Speaking Blackfeet was equated with hanging on to the old religious ways, the ancient prayers and stories -- maybe going to Hell.

10. Considerable prestige attaches to being able to speak Blackfeet these days.  Old timers who can pray effectively are in demand, likely to be asked to open meetings and appear in videos.  Though they are a generous sort of people, they are not so dumb as to not realize that if everyone speaks Blackfeet, one of their incomes and sources of prestige is gone.

Darrell Kipp says that when he works with adult Blackfeet, even the younger ones, he has to push them until they know enough language to make simple statements.  Grown men get beads of sweat on their upper lip.   Only after they get "into it" for a while does something "go click" in their brains so they realize they are not going to be struck by lightning.  Up to that point it is not just an act of faith, but also an act of considerable courage to learn a language their grandparents and parents had given up and denied in a despairing attempt to survive.  Beating the old language and ways out of children turned out to be all too effective.  Surprisingly enough, most of the people recently objecting to the teaching of Blackfeet language have been at least in part Blackfeet.  They believe that the only hope of survival is to become like the oppressors who took their language.  The question is, if they become like their oppressors, aren't they gone anyway?  Is that survival?


In the Sixties Peter Red Horn was a Blackfeet speaker who made a brochure for tourists, a little noun-and-phrase book someone pecked out on the typewriter.  That was long before there were associations for the preservation and promotion of indigenous languages who publish posters that show which languages have gone extinct in the previous year.  When I look at my copy now, which I've had for thirty-five years, I can recognize most of the words and know how to pronounce some of them, although real speakers laugh at my accent.  Peter used to be master of ceremonies at Indian Days, the role that now is filled by Earl Old Person.  Indian Days is one of the times a person can hear long Blackfeet speeches, whole sentences and paragraphs of carefully shaped rhetoric.  Darrell says that in Blackfeet people have different personalities than they have in English and some who seem irrelevant or slow-witted in English become people of stature and eloquence in Blackfeet.

One night in Heart Butte I tuned the radio to "Wind Speaker,"  an aboriginal program that comes over CBC in Canada.  Usually it is mostly in English, but carries news about tribes across the prairie.  On this night the speaker introduced a man who then gave a five minute speech in Blackfeet.  I couldn't understand it except for a few words and the tone of his voice, but I sat riveted, recognizing without being told that it was indeed Blackfeet  and realizing that it was the first time I'd heard the language over the radio.  The sounds were familiar, even though I couldn't make out the meanings.

I came to Blackfeet like a child, not a scholar.  Speaking Blackfeet was natural and playful.  In the Sixties I never thought of studying it in order to speak whole sentences.  I just learned words because they were there and I like words.  I was romancing Bob Scriver, who used store-keep Blackfeet all the time because he hired full-blood help and bought furs from full-blood trappers.  Anyway, he had learned Blackfeet phrases as a kid and liked to use them.  His accent is good (I think)  because he learned so young.

Once Bob Scriver and I had driven up to Cardston for some reason or other.  It's a small town and in the 1960's there weren't many businesses.  We stopped to get gas.  I went to use the restroom, but when I came back out I almost collided with a huge Blood woman with a lot of little kids, all of whom had to go to the bathroom in a hurry.  She was angry that I had been slow and as she went by me, she growled,  "Napi-yahki ! Eeematuskee!"  Without expecting to, I understood what she said.

When I climbed back into the pickup, I must have had a strange expression on my face.  Bob asked me what happened.  "That woman just called me a damned white woman and a dogface!"  We looked at each other and burst out laughing.  At school they had told us if anyone called us "napi-yahki," they were to go straight to the office.  It didn't really mean "damn" at all-- just "white woman," but the tone of voice could give it sort of the same spin as "squaw" or "buck."

Eeematuskee was a word I knew because of story Bob told about his childhood.  A very old lady used to sit out in her yard down the street from his house and make tipi covers from canvas.  She used a huge sailor's needle and stout thread.  Bob was still a little kid, and not a particularly "good" one.  He was fascinated by the old lady and, knowing eematuskee from his friends, he ran up and called her that.  Instantly she leapt to her feet, outraged, and chased after him with her long needle flashing in the sun.  He barely made it home.  He had just learned that calling someone "dogface" in Blackfeet was about the world's worst insult.

Bob Scriver is not a Blackfeet speaker really, but he has always thrown Blackfeet phrases into his conversation the way some people use French or people in Texas pick up Spanish.  When someone came in to sell something or ask for a job, he said,  "Oki, tchiki!  Tchenustepi?"  Which is to say,  "Hi, kid.  Whatcha want?" 

"Let's go get our anacost."  That meant let's go get our wagon, meaning the pickup.  "Bring our sknih-nitsi-mah."  That meant to bring along the bags and bundles.  Pooksapoot meant "come over here."  Mistapoot meant "get out of here."  Keekah means "wait now," which is a sort of famous phrase in Browning.  I've seen both "wait now" and "keekah" on personalized car license plates.

One summer a pair of sisters, seasoned old ranch cooks, ran a little cafe across from the museum.  When we got a break, we would run across, hop up on the stools and holler,  "Quick!  Siksikimi!"  meaning coffee.  The joke was that the sisters were Cree and looked at us incredulously.  Then one would say,  "You heard 'em.  Sock it to 'em!"  Laugh-In was popular on television then.

I made a set of puppets for the kids back in the Sixties, including an Indian princess whose flannel dress featured my first lumpy attempts at beading.  I think it was Beverly Bullshoe who named her Sik-et-soo-ahki, and taught me that it meant "dark and pretty."  Now I know that sik means "dark" or even "black" as in Siksika, Blackfeet, and ahki  on the end of a word means "woman."  My name is Mik-skim-yahki which is "Iron Woman," so I feel safe in saying that mik-skim probably means "iron," but it might mean a phrase that refers to iron, like "metal that rusts" or "red metal."  Bob always joked that it referred to my disposition.  Bob's name is Sik-poke-si-mahp which is to say  "he who likes his back fat burnt black," or "this guy likes to char his fat meat crisp when he eats it."  Or "Make his steak well-done!"

Some young Blackfeet have set out to become fluent in their language -- fewer have had Blackfeet speakers in their own households to teach them.  It is possible as a scholar to learn Blackfeet grammar and build a Blackfeet vocabulary.  Sometimes that is an attractive prospect to me.  But curiously, when I think of undertaking such a project -- and I have been to workshops and do listen to vocabulary tapes -- my mind turns instead to learning the ancient British languages, say, Gaelic.  If the Blackfeet language has come out of their land and their genes, wouldn't it make sense for me to follow my own genetic heritage back to Scotland and Ireland?  And yet Darrell encourages me by saying that historically the crucial line separating Blackfeet from the others was language -- if you could speak Blackfeet, you were considered at least a friend and were entitled to hospitality.  You would not be killed.  I wonder which modern Blackfeet would honor that besides himself?

One of my Heart Butte students says that Darrell "might have studied [Blackfoot] but I live it.  I can talk my language very well.  I can talk it so well that I can have a long and meaningful talk with any Blackfoot-speaking person on or off the Rez.  There is a lot more to talking Blackfoot than counting to ten or saying hello to someone.  Or saying coffee or water.  There's a whole other world in Blackfoot, and if you're gonna learn it, you must forget English.  They do not go together!"  Before that moment, this fiery young man had never given me a clue that he spoke Blackfeet at all.  I doubt that the surveys found him.


Everywhere I've gone since living with the Blackfeet I have been deeply homesick for the reservation, in a way that only people who have lived there a while can understand.   Partly it's the glory of the geological place itself-- ancient seabed, grassy sky-bowl  -- with all its extremes.  Storms can be seen approaching from a long way off.  Clouds sail like great ships.  Sunrise and sunset are operatic in scale.  Partly it is the intensity of experiences in a place where the weather can kill you, bears are sighted, and emotions run high.  Ordinary life is full of confrontations, revelations, and shoot-outs.

There is something deeper: the wrenching dilemma of a whole people caught and broken by time. So many people there look back at a Golden Age, a simpler time.  I was young there, inventing myself.  I think that in 1989 at some level I believed -- turning fifty years old -- that if I returned to the scene of my youth, I would be young again.  Once there, I figured I probably had one good shot left at doing something worthwhile for the Blackfeet.  I decided to be a change-agent.  I knew it would get me thrown out, so I have no right to whine.  

"I can't figure you out, Mrs. Scriver, " commented one of my Heart Butte students.  "Sometimes you seem like an Indian and sometimes you don't."  I made it a point to use the scraps of Blackfeet I knew.   I drew the outline of the Rockies from Chief Mountain to Heart Butte -- a line I often recognize in paintings or photographs --freehand from memory on the blackboard and challenged them to do the same on paper.  I cut flat lodgeskins out of brown wrapping paper and drew on them with felt-tip markers the symbols for mountains, puff-balls, the Pleiades, animals with their hearts and kidneys colored red.  My classroom was lined with famous Indians, including Winold Reiss calendar portraits of Blackfeet from living memory.  It was a pitiful effort, really, but I used all I had.

I made everyone in all my classes read "The Old North Trail", by Walter McClintock, a trained naturalist's account of his sojourn with Blackfeet about the turn of the century, illustrated by photographs he took.  Over and over I told stories about the early days I had heard from my father-in-law -- who knew McClintock -- and stories from books written on or near the reservation.  I wanted to challenge their assumption that no white man could know as much about the place as they did, that no white man could love and stay in the place because it wasn't worth it.  I wanted them to look at where they were and love it as the Sokeetapi, the old ones, had.  I wanted them to walk up and down the Old North Trail through plants they could name, even use.  I wanted them to be wreathed in stories, to cross thresholds, to make Bundles.  But they may only have felt put down that a white person from outside knew more than they did.

Always I circled through the ideas of philosophy of place: how this high prairie against the east front had shaped the Nitzitahpi into the people they were and how endangered that place has become.  Drilling oil wells, dragging huge gang-plows, damming rivers, trenching cables and burying pipelines -- these acts had changed both land and people.  Industrial-scale uses of the land were making it small.  The topsoil was blowing away.  No longer was the air as clear as it had been even thirty years earlier.  Smoke from the aluminum refinery across the mountains stood above the peaks in a red plume of warning.  The Blackfeet knew all that, really.  They just didn't agree what to do about it any more than white people do.

One late night in Heart Butte I stood in my doorway watching a ground blizzard.  To the height of my shoulders a driving wind whipped snow into swirling tidepools of froth, obscuring even the teacherages across the way.  Above that, the mountains rose into a clear night, where a glowing moon lit the glaciers.  Into this ancient scene flew a bomber. seeming at treetop level, flashing its colored lights, practising attacks on terrain chosen because it resembles parts of Russia.  What did the Old People know about industrial warfare?  What story would they have told?  Could it save us from the immolation of our planet?


In 1966, soon after I married Bob Scriver and just before the death of his daughter who was my age,  Bob was working on a sculpture of the "Opening of the Thunder Pipe Bundle."  We attended a Pipe Bundle opening at the home of George and Molly Kicking Woman, a day-long experience we found intense and holy.  Nancy Tailfeathers sat beside us, tactfully prompting us to do the right things.  The acts are as simple as communion: dance, song, objects, food and prayer.  But the protocols are strict and the consequences of breaking them are drastic.  One does not repeat the details without good reason.  The chairman of the tribe came with a tape recorder, but when the old folks stormed that if he taped the ceremony it would be bad luck and cause people to die, he retreated with his machinery.  He knew very well that someone was bound to die in the coming months and that he would be held personally responsible. 

Soon after, Bob woke one morning and told me a dream.  It was vivid and moving to him, as though it were a message.  He had dreamt he was a small boy sitting in a Blackfeet lodge that was struck by lightning, killing all but him.  Adding scientific details, he said he was spared because he was sitting on a pile of hides and skins which included that of a black bear, good insulation against electricity.  Much of Bob's life has been occupied by the handling of such hides and skins because of his taxidermy business.  He doesn't just name these objects: they are strong sensory entities to him.  He knows their behavior and where they live.  Each carries meaning.

When he told this dream to the Old People, they said it meant that he was supposed to become a Bundle Keeper.  In the next weeks Bob was guided through a protocol that included wrapping himself in a blanket and going to the home of Tom Many Guns, where he presented gifts and a pipe for smoking.  By accepting the gifts and smoking the pipe, Tom agreed to a pipe transfer.  

The transfer took place, guided by Richard Little Dog who was said to be the last person on the U.S. side of the Blackfeet Nation who knew all the songs and prayers.  Anyway, it had been his pipe.  The traditional gifts of a horse and tobacco were honored, as well as a practical exchange of cash for both Richard and Tom.  We prepared a new canvas lodge, engaged "dog soldiers" to keep order, learned a proper prayer, and bought clothing to exchange for other clothing that Richard and Margaret Many Guns would give us to wear, so that the spirit of the pipe would recognize and go over to us.  Since Richard had been widowed, Margaret acted as the female helper.  Her husband before Tom Many Guns, a man called Stud Horse, had been a major religious figure in Canada and she knew the protocol.

Richard gave us each Blackfeet names:  Sik-pok-sa-mahpee ("He-who-likes-his-backfat-charred," otherwise known as Middle Rider) and Meek-skim-yahkee (Iron Woman, presumably wife of Middle Rider).  Bob knew the original old-time Middle Rider and respected him very much.  We were pleased.  These were not tourist names.  Every  year since then, except when he was ill or in some kind of crisis, Bob Scriver has opened his Thunder Pipe Bundle and has properly maintained it in his studio with smudges and prayer.  His fourth wife now acts as the wife of the Keeper.  He has given her the name of Badger Woman.

While I was still acting as "wife," he had another dream of the same kind.  This time it was about a badger and the old people said it might be a lodge-painting dream.  Bob wanted this to be true and immediately set about getting his design ready.  Everything on it related to the dream.  The children of his dead daughter were there and helped him to collect the objects necessary, mostly small animal skins.  One last thing was missing:  a badger hide for the tipi flag.  

On a summer morning Bob called me in East Glacier, where I had moved, to tell me his father had died.  I immediately started down to Browning.  At the side of the road was a small dead badger, freshly killed and intact.  I stopped to pick it up.  It became the tipi flag for Bob's dream-painted lodge.  Thus the badger totem became deeply enmeshed with the spirit of Bob's father, who had been small but strong and tenacious.

For both Bob Scriver and myself, the Thunder Pipe Bundle, which had been part of the uneven healing after the death of his daughter, and the Badger Lodge, which was mixed with the spirit of his father, were sacred and psychologically supportive.  They are still part of the identity of our individual selves and of our ended marriage.  Very few people on the reservation are really aware of this.  Only one or two of the people who sat in our Bundle Opening circle still live.

Rather, the younger militants focus on Bob's presumed wealth.   Over the years he had collected Native American objects, some as minor as a little leather bag of needles off a balsam fir (sweet pine), and some as major as a Bear-Knife Bundle which features a large dangerous blade with clusters of brass falconry bells attached.  Together with objects collected by his father and brother, these things resulted in a major collection.  But the militants never admit that even the Bear Knife Bundle is made partly of whiteman materials imported for trade with Europe.  These are 18th and 19th century artifacts, made after the ways of the Dog Days were already changing.  A purist would have to seek ceremonies even earlier.

With a rising Indian Empowerment force on the reservation, the same Scriver who had been accepted and taught by the Old People was brought under attack by the young people who had never participated in the old ceremonies, but now claimed entitlement to them because of their blood quantum.  Just as he reached a position to be an elder to them -- and he is still well-remembered as a band teacher and justice of the peace -- they turned on him.  He returned the favor.  To him these modern mixed-blood descendants are nothing like the Amskapi Pikuni people he knew as a child.  One has to admit that's true.

At about the time I returned from Canada to the Reservation in 1989,  Senator Inouye was approached to sponsor a double-pronged bill.  One thrust would protect Native American religions (especially those which traditionally used drugs like peyote or tests of endurance, like piercing at Sun Dances) and the other would return publicly-owned Native American artifacts and skeletons to the original tribes.  Seemingly idealistic and generous, these ideas had some unforeseen negative effects.  Private collectors of Native American artifacts (and possibly museums)  now saw them as endangered, subject to government seizure, and therefore even more valuable.  German and Japanese collectors, always powerful and interested,  realized that they should pay high prices very quickly before everything went off the legitimate market.  Unscrupulous Native Americans saw that they could represent their tribes, collect the artifacts, and then quietly resell them underground.  Some of these people were Blackfeet.

Even legitimate tribal representatives had no experience or funds for proper cataloguing, storage or display of the vulnerable objects.  In truth, most of the younger people who were the loudest and most politically heated knew little or nothing about what they were after or what to do with artifacts to either preserve or reactivate them into ceremonial use.  The Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning has been damaged and without a credentialed curator for many years.  At present the government plans to close it down.

Even deeper, the young had no familiarity with the land-based life and animal ways that gave rise to the objects in the first place.  Very few could speak Blackfeet.  They had adopted the white man's idea of ownership and entitlement in place of the old ethic of sharing and generosity.   At the same time, when ancient skeletons were returned for burial, the old people shied away from the ceremonies of re-interment, fearful of ghosts clinging and insisting on revenge.  It was the younger, bolder, educated people who buried the ancestors.

About this time a movie called Warparty was filmed on the reservation.  The plot revolved around young men stealing back --"liberating" -- artifacts from a museum,  which in the movie was the Museum of the Plains Indian but stocked with Bob Scriver bronzes.  Bold talk about "raiding Scriver" went around.  There was even talk about roping him off his horse during the North American Indian Days parade, in which he has traditionally ridden.  Nearing eighty, Bob might not have survived being roped and dragged, but he had no intention of not riding.  His solution was to ask Carl Cree Medicine to ride alongside him.  Carl and his sons have worked with Bob for thirty-five years.  Carl was happy to ride.  No one messes around with Carl Cree Medicine.  Aggressors stayed back.

Many of the young Neo-Traditionalists lived in the Heart Butte area and sent their children to that school.  In the classroom the hostility against Bob was easily displaced to me.  At the very least there was curiosity and sometimes a demand was made that I turn against Bob so as to be in solidarity with the Red Power advocates, though they rejected any relationship with me personally.   The school administration and the white teachers had no consciousness of this dynamic at all.  

After many qualms and frustrated inquiries, Bob Scriver decided to sell his artifact collection to the Alberta Provincial Museum in Edmonton.   Someone stole and made public the inventory of objects that had been used for insuring the collection, which amounted to a value of about a million dollars.  The magic phrase "million dollar collection" attracted much media attention.  Political attacks came from all sides, but the collection was indeed sent up to Edmonton where Bob had spent World War II with the U.S. Army Air Force band.  Montana Blackfeet followed to Edmonton and "put a curse" on the curator of the museum.  The Alberta Blackfeet prayed it away.

About the same time, the Browning Mercantile burned to the ground.  The old wooden building with its oil-soaked floor had been bought by a local Blackfeet family, who were using it for storage.  In Heart Butte I heard about the fire on the radio and drove to Browning just in time to see the last of the smoking ruins being drenched.  The fire chief, one of my original seventh-graders from 1961-62, came over in his rubber coat to offer sympathy and the opinion that "It wasn't arson-- We're sure it wasn't arson."   That building was older than some of the artifacts Bob had sold.  

An older Blackfeet woman came and stood next to me.  "We'll all miss that place,"  she said.  "It was part of our past.  I feel sorry that it's gone.  Don't cry too much.  Times change."   The more superstitious Blackfeet said that the Thunder Pipe Bundle was punishing Bob Scriver for selling his artifacts.  More modern folks spoke of insurance.

Mrs. Old Man Chief, an ancient tiny old woman, used to sit on a straight chair in the front of the store, watching the people come and go.  When late afternoon came, Leo would put the groceries in the delivery van and then Mrs. Old Man Chief would get a ride home.  One day I saw her lifting her tiny moccasined foot from under her six or seven calico skirts in an attempt to get into the high delivery van.  When I put my hand under her elbow to try to lift her up, I nearly threw her onto the seat.  She was no heavier than a wren and even that weight must have been mostly skirts.  Maybe somewhere in heaven she is sitting in the Browning Merc.  Maybe the Browning Merc went to the Sand Hills.  Certainly, things are more complicated than it would seem on first glance.

Bob Scriver did not sell his Thunder Pipe Bundle nor his Badger Lodge.  The sculpture of the Pipe Opening (which includes recognizable portraits of all the participants in our Transfer Ceremony except for he and I, who are replaced by Charlie Reevis and Mary Blackman) and of the story of the Badger Lodge are still in his Museum of Montana Wildlife as part of his bronze history of the Blackfeet people.  No one from Heart Butte goes there, though the Browning Schools sometimes take the kids through as a field trip.  Before the artifact collection went north, Bob Scriver had it photographed and made into a book at his own expense.  Now every Blackfeet can own the collection and many people can study it.  

Few people in Heart Butte can afford the book.  The school did not order it for the library.  Everyone pretended it didn't exist.  Except that up at the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, which could afford the book, the old people were seen poring over it, recognizing objects and trying to remember who had them last.  When they were pressed very hard to say that Bob Scriver had done something evil and shouldn't have a Thunder Pipe, they said that the Blackfeet way was for each man to guard his own conscience.  They would not judge.  Judging was a white man's way.  The essence of a Holy Object is that it has the power to protect itself.


In the Seventies I had been marginally connected to the Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop, a community tribal free school for high school dropouts.  The Browning High School counselor, Bill Haw, had become the director of the school and I, as a part of his East Glacier circle of friends, often stopped by the school in its converted warehouse.  Something interesting was always happening, if only good conversation.

Once I helped with a memorable summer teacher's institute meant to raise the consciousnesses of kindergarten teachers who might have Native American students.  Bill believed in experiences rather than lectures, and he had a bold imagination.  The women (I don't recall any male teachers) were dropped in groups: one was to hitch-hike back from Browning to Boarding School where they were staying; one was to go on a scavenger hunt across Moccasin Flats asking for eggshells, coffee grounds, an old newspaper and so on; and one was -- without telling them -- to be "arrested" and thrown into the tribal jail for an hour.  As it turned out, one of the strictest tribal judges, Mary Spotted Wolf, just happened to be in the group.  All the white women had been nervous about even staying at the Boarding School.  Now some were panicky that they might not survive the day.  But by the time we reassembled for supper, they were euphoric over riding in the backs of pickups with kids and dogs, taking tea and cookies inside the little houses that looked so humble from outside, and making friends with several of the town's drunks.  Even Mary Spotted Wolf turned out to be a good sport who joined in jailhouse singing!  (Haw was relieved.)


Every attempt at reform curves through the same trajectory of optimism, success, ossification and closure.   Yet a little core of the change always proves to be a seed for future growth.  One of guides of the school in its successful period had been Darrell Kipp.  Darrell, a graduate of Harvard and Goddard, had always impressed me as exceptional.  His Browning teachers always spoke proudly of him: he was "inspire-able."  When his high school English teacher left, she gave Darrell a box of classics from her own library, which he actually read.  

One day he was sitting in his cabin at St. Marys feeling old and existentially exhausted -- reflecting on a solution.  Maybe it was one of those mid-life crises.  "When things are wrong, go to the Center," he believed.  So he got into his pickup, drove over the border to the Blackfoot Reserve there and walked into a cooperative moccasin factory.  "Teach me to be a Blackfoot," he asked, and the ladies there were delighted to oblige.  What they taught him was an old piece of wisdom:  that he already had what he needed.  Slowly, he began to recall his childhood, to recover the lives of his parents and grandparents.  He began to see that the whole tribe needed to do the same thing.

In the Nineties, newly returned again, I made it a point to attend Darrell's evening classes.  Blackfeet "history" was controversial and often used in power claims, so Darrell switched to discussing Blackfeet "philosophy,"  which was understood by most people to mean  "it's just my opinion" and therefore tolerable.   (His background is in sociology.)  The classes were meant to satisfy a school district legal requirement that all teachers take classes in Blackfeet culture.  It was in one of these classes that I finally recognized Delores Butterfly Bird, the woman with "wings."   Over a period of years this class has allowed many whites and educated Blackfeet to participate in loose discussions and often emotional testimonies.  At last we were doing what Dean Barnlund had taught us would work!  I aligned myself politically with this line of development.

In Great Falls, when I took the National Teacher Examination in preparation for re-certifying to teach, a Blackfeet woman asked to sit with me at lunch so as to become acquainted.  She was a Canadian engaged by the Browning schools to teach Blackfeet language and culture.  Once a bartender in Browning, she had powerful family connections in Alberta, and was now embarking on a more dignified career with a fresh degree.  Though the administration did not confide in me, I feel sure that they thought by hiring a Canadian they would avoid local controversy over who "owned" Blackfeet culture and the valuable jobs that accrued from that definition. 

This woman must have known about my "Bundle-Keeping" and was very much aware of Bob's reputation as a wealthy and powerful sculptor.  But she soon found that because of the sale of the artifacts, it was better in some circles to be identified as an opponent than as a friend.  She advised me to "dump Scriver" and "leave that old man alone," so as to be on her side.  I chose to decline.  The newly formed  Piegan Institute had the goal of supporting and developing the Blackfeet language in a broad philosophical way without using race as a qualification or entitlement.   They evaded confrontation.  I put my trust in them.

At a summer school class in Blackfeet Language under the auspices of the Canadian confronter, I  became the focus of what nearly amounted to an interrogation.  A national news team had come to Browning to do a story about Bob's "million dollar artifact sale."   Bob's accusers had been interviewed on film and Bob himself had been interviewed.  This film, uncut, was shown at Blackfeet Community College, and the indignant meeting that followed was video-taped.  The moderator was Gordon Belcourt, then the president of BCC, later to have his contract broken over other issues.  Gordon, once an English student of mine, made the most of the opportunity to storm the ramparts.  The resulting film-around-a-film was shown at the language class, over protests from some that it was not relevant.  

I tried to remain silent, to simply play the interested observer, but in the end Dorothy Still Smoking asked what I thought.  I did speak up to tell what I knew about the objects and about Bob's relationship to them.   I became tearful.  Soon afterwards, when the class was taking their "final exam" on videotape, I was also pressed to take mine.  Somewhere in the archives of some institution, there is probably still tape of me trying to remember Blackfeet vocabulary in a trembling, weepy voice.   I have my certificate of competency, along with my mini-text of Blackfeet words.  

These dynamics of opportunism, rear-guard strategy, and webbed relationships are impossible to keep track of without many years' experience and much long discussion.   Sitting in a kitchen or a bar, one discovers some bit of information from decades earlier that finally unravels a mystery-- something about parentage or jobs or romance.  Everyone is seduced into gossip.  If I picked up this much of a political penumbra in thirty-five years, imagine the accumulation over several hundred!  And imagine how inscrutable it would all be for someone only there to take notes over a summer.  The complex of privilege, entitlement, resentment, and relationship stretches back through history long before Malcolm Clarke showed up in Montana territory with his West Point failure rankling him-- even before Lewis and Clark located Camp Disappointment and killed two Blackfeet on the way home.   Maybe it goes clear back to the First Peoples who ran buffalo over a cliff at Head-Smashed-In buffalo jump while the Pyramids were being built on the other side of the planet.

The more powerful memory I carry away from that ill-starred language workshop was an hour with Ed Little Plume, an expert Blackfeet speaker.  Ed not only speaks the language, he speaks it with particular clarity and style.  But in this short class he was not teaching vocabulary.  Rather he wanted us to think about the shape of the year, what the seasons meant to us as they followed one after another.  He described his boyhood in the Twenties, how the round of the year seemed to begin joyfully when school first let out and then shifted into work when the hay was ready to cut.  He spoke of softball leagues on long summer evenings and then the fall coming with geese travelling through.  Winter was ice-cutting and soon there was the Christmas Pow-wow...   It was all poetry, a golden window on a time when life seemed to be in balance -- not the romantic horse-and-buffalo time, but the pastoral pause before the Industrial Revolution got to the Rez.  Ed is a faithful Baptist with a personal Jesus.  After a few years of working with Piegan Institute, he panicked and joined a back-to-Jesus Pentecostal group, discarding everything -- including his friends.  And yet the land is still there and he still loves it, I feel sure.


Darrell and Dorothy Still Smoking had collaborated many times as grant writers.  They had created programs and signed contracts any number of times, but it seemed as though no matter which institution they were dealing with-- tribe, BIA, schools, whatever-- people within the institution would manage to subvert the goals, either out of lack of understanding or in order to gain personal advantage.  Yet foundations and governments do not like to give money to individuals: they want a corporate body.   Finally Dorothy saw that the thing to do was to create their own institution.  She drove over to Darrell's, where he was sitting on the porch, and yelled,  "Get in the car.  We're going to work."  

After brainstorming they decided the goal to pursue was the restoration of the Blackfeet language.  Ed "Red Man" Little Plume was identified by many persons as being the most excellent Blackfeet speaker on the U.S. side of the tribe, so they pulled him into their organization.  Others are included as interest and need moved them.  For instance, Joe Fisher was cinematographer when they made a video about the Blackfeet language and has continued on with tapes on other vital subjects, like Blackfeet water rights.   The group agreed that they would try not to be personality stars, but work as a group.  Anyone who hasn't lived on a reservation won't understand how subversive that is.  

Darrell and I wrote back and forth, even though I was just thirty miles away -- which is nothing on the Rez -- because it was a way of keeping a record.  He was working in Browning to make sense of how to create an effective bilingual Blackfeet program.  Also, School District #9 still asked him to present those night classes for teachers who had not fulfilled their Blackfeet education requirement.  I trusted him to listen properly, partly because of the Free School experience.  I knew I didn't have to be Politically Correct or worry about indiscretion.   If he agreed, he said so.  If he didn't agree, he hinted tactfully or provided other information.  His life was no easier than mine, and sometimes we just blew off steam.  But he listened a lot of good ideas out of me, and I was pleased to applaud when he had a brainstorm.

When I look back over the pages and pages I wrote in Heart Butte, I see more whining than insight.  A lot was hard to understand while I was still in the middle of it.  The first insight I ought to have had was that to remain I would have to build a constituency, like any politician.  That's what the administration feared I was doing.  They expected to have mobs of parents up at the school defending me, and maybe I could have done that, but my instinct was not to involve people in my battles.  I didn't want to offer any hostages or start any wars.  The first time the Supe told me to resign, I staggered into my senior English class and blurted the truth.  In a half hour they had prepared a petition demanding that I be rehired and had thirty signatures on it.  I still have that document.  It makes me feel great, though it would never have saved my job.  (Similar petitions failed to save Mr. Z and Dave West.)

I tried to stay an observer, uncommitted, but I'm sure my failure to sign petitions or attend war councils was interpreted to mean I had put my money on another player.  In faculty meetings I never did succeed in not making faces, muttering to myself like an old bear.  In the end, though, I was not clever enough to see how to get past the problem of not revealing other people's secrets in the process of explaining myself.  Not just embarrassing things, but major moral betrayals as well as federal felony-level crimes like murder.  And I never did figure out how to reconcile the various splintered cultures.  I thought I knew what ought to happen, just not how to get there.


I've mentioned that first year my source of Blackfeet information was The   Old North Trail by Walter McClintock.  The book has since become politically incorrect, since McClintock was a white man.  [Also, more recently, a white female historian working from documents damned him for not being more politically active on the behalf of the Blackfeet.]   My father-in-law, who came in 1903 when McClintock was still around, had no comment beyond approval.  Keeping his scientist's objectivity and staying out of politics, young McClintock recorded many small invaluable details of daily life, ceremonial acts, and ethnobotany-- right down to a puppy he befriended which unfortunately ended up in his neighbor's soup pot.  In addition he took photographs, which he later touched up and colored.  These materials have recently been reissued.  If you wanted to order some seeds for sweetgrass (also called "vanilla grass") or to exactly imitate a Bundle opening, this book would tell you what you need to know.  But be warned that imitating a Sacred Bundle will bring you criticism-- maybe bad luck.

I told the kids that the book was their heritage and that I expected them to learn it inside and out.  There wasn't enough money for books for every student, so I had a box of them which I passed out and collected, allowing them to be read only in class.  In that first year the books were defaced only once, by some lover of horseflesh who drew a mighty member on the belly of a steed in a photo.  I performed an operation with WhiteOut.  People told me they doubted that the book was easy enough to read, written as it was in a kind of nineteenth century style, but instead I found that many students read ahead of what they were assigned.  The weakest readers spent long moments on the photographs. 

Darrell hypothesized that many local kids seemed to learn to associate ideograms better than they could sound out words in the English letter-for-a-sound (more or less) way.  Partly for fun and partly to respond to that, I made all my workpage quizzes like cartoon puzzles.  Instead of the same old list of ten questions, I took a page for each chapter and drew circles or squares with little doodles for clues, like skulls or birds or flowers.  The answers went into the spaces.  I asked both easy and hard questions.  Sometimes I asked for a list of every bird or flower mentioned in the chapter. (McClintock often spoke of a dozen or more.) or had them draw lines connecting the description with the name.

Some of the older boys and more of the lazier students failed to find the answers by reading and simply copied them off someone else's paper.  But I heard them telling each other the stories and recalling names of characters.  They discussed The Old North Trail  at least as much as they discussed television, which was all I could ask for.  A sort of Old North Trail trivia game developed.  By the end of the year the books were disappearing into the community.  But then a strange thing happened:  people got into trunks and bottom drawers and brought out old copies of the book that they had bought for courses taken long ago.  Darrell's idea is that books that are taken must be fulfilling a need and the responsible school would simply buy more until the community is saturated. 

One of the students demanded to know why we were reading books about Indians in English class.  "This is English class.  We ought to read English books."  

"Just what is an English book?"

"It's drill.  You ought to know that-- you're an English teacher!"

"In what language is this book we’re reading written?"

A long pause.  "English."

"I look forward to the day you can read a novel written in Blackfeet.  I look forward to the day you can write a poem in Blackfeet.  Until then, this is English."


In the second year I assigned each class one native American book.  The freshmen read "The Ways of my Grandmothers" by Beverly Hungry Wolf, a Canadian Blackfoot.  I knew Beverly slightly since she and her huband Adolph had been coming around in the summers since the early Sixties.  Adolph made a home industry of his Good Medicine books, filling them with directions for authentic artifacts and photographs from old negatives.  But I particularly liked Beverly's stories, and so did the kids.  

The sophomores read "When the Legends Die" which was cheating a little since Hal Borland is not Indian and is mostly known as a naturalist.  But this particular book had always been popular among my high school kids.  I've read it aloud half a dozen times and only admire it more, though the plot -- involving a faithful relationship between the boy and a grizzly -- is a little preposterous.  There is a movie which is enough different for a good discussion of what changes were made due to the media being different and whether they ought to have been made.  There's a lot of rodeo in the story and my kids loved rodeo or even just horse-breaking.  

Juniors read  Oliver LaFarge's "Laughing  Boy, a Pulitzer prize winning romance about the Southwest.  They found it difficult, more distant from their experience, and I read much of it aloud.  The mothers of the students, who often borrowed books, liked this story better and told me they wept over it.  Seniors read James Welch, Jr.'s break-through masterpiece, "The Death of Jim Loney" and found it hard to digest.  It is more sophisticated than most casual readers are used to, but I think the real problem was simply that it was so close to their own experience that they couldn't get any emotional distance on it.   It was material supposed to be secret.  Today I would substitute Welch's later "Fool's Crow" or Darcy McNickle's "The Surrounded."

When I was the study hall monitor in the Browning Middle School, one of the more harum scarum girls came to me in a panic before classes started.  "I forgot my homework and I'll be in big trouble if you don't drive me home to get it!"  She was convincing, so I agreed.  It was a gorgeous late winter day, the snow was striped with gold and blue reflections, and on the horizon stood the Rockies in immaculate glory. 

"Look how beautiful!"  I enthused.

She wouldn't look.  "I hate it.  Everything is too cold.  It scares me."  She went into her grandmother's house -- I recognized her in the window and waved -- and came back with a hairbrush instead of books and papers.  

"Where's your homework?"

"Oh, I didn't really have any.  I just wanted this hairbrush and I knew you wouldn't bring me back down here just for that."   A few years later this girl  -- probably after a drinking party -- was thrown out of a car late at night on a rural road and left to die of hypothermia.   

Many of the kids hardly had the concept of reservation in their heads except as a substandard place to live, a ghetto.  Darrell said to me once,  "First we had to teach them to care about themselves.  Then we had to teach them to care about their language.  Now we have to teach them to care about their land."   

I wept.  What enormous irony to have to teach people once defined by their ability to live on the land that the very same land is more than blowing dust and dead dogs.


In the summer of 1995 I had returned to the reservation for a visit and stopped by the cabin of Darrell and Roberta Kipp, where they were trying to restore order after nearby St. Mary's Lake had flooded, ruining their floor. We talked at his picnic table until an envoy from Missoula, a Blackfeet man, came around the corner.  A university Native American class was waiting out on the road with their professor, hoping that Darrell would have time to give them some insights into the nature of the Blackfeet.  Darrell, suppressing a sigh over the half-done floor, agreed.  The professor came slouching down the path and slipped Darrell a packet of cigarettes, a tobacco offering, described in the literature as proper payment for old tribal wise men.  (Afterwards I laughed untactfully at this little symbol, not valuable enough to be decent payment for Darrell's time and too contemporary in form to really evoke old-time rules.  To be authentic, it ought to have been twist tobacco, which is available.  I'm a snob.)  The professor, very young, kept his eyes downcast. He'd probably read somewhere that looking straight into the eyes of a Native American is a disrepectful challenge, like staring into the eyes of a wolf.  He slumped onto a bench.

When the kids came filing down, Darrell carefully asked each name and shook each hand.  The kids were white, except for one girl.  After a bit of small talk,  Darrell launched into his regular spiel, well practised from giving lectures to tourists at the Glacier Park hotels, but he could feel them drifting away.  

Suddenly he changed tactics and began a sort of autobiography.  "I'm going to give you the secrets of my success," he promised, and they all looked up.  He told about leaving after high school graduation with a couple of friends, determined to go to college in Billings.  In the Sixties Montana state colleges were obliged to accept anyone with a Montana high school diploma, so there was no problem about admission.  The difficulties became apparent one by one.  

The first was entering the gym for registration, into a chaotic mélee of students struggling to get classes they wanted.  "There's only one way to do this," announced Darrell to his cohorts.   "We will pretend we are the most handsome young men ever to enter this gym."   The tactic worked and they were soon signed up for the basics.  

"Who is paying your tuition?" asked the registrar.  They managed to get the tribe to pick up the tab.  "Where are you staying?"   They hadn't thought about it, but the school had places.  "How are you going to pay your room and board?"  Again, they hadn't thought.  Pretty soon they had jobs mopping the floors.  They tried to be good at it, to do it with pride as the Jesuit brothers who had taught their parents would have have wanted.

By this time the group from Missoula -- undoubtedly far more filtered, guided and subsidized than Darrell had been -- was riveted.  The conclusion to his talk was the same advice he gives to the reservation teenagers.  "Listen," he said in his best old-wise-man voice,  "Look people in the eye!  Shake hands!  Find out people's names, remember them, and use them correctly!  Show up on time and do your work without complaining!  Stay clean!  Keep your word!  Be brave!  Have dignity!  Never get into a place too small to get out of."  The students' faces were full of light.  Several hours had passed.  The group left with shoulders back and heads up, all except the young professor, who sighed deeply.   I had the feeling he had hoped for something more arcane, mysterious... privileged.  

The paradox of it all left me gasping.

No comments:

Post a Comment