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


Speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee.
--Job, 12:18

The United States Government repeatedly promised education as part of the payment for taking the homelands of the People who orginally lived on this continent.  This is recorded in treaties, which are binding by law.  Because public education is considered the key to effective democratic citizenship, universal public education is an entitlement for all children in the United States.  Today, a little more than a century since the Blackfeet were forced to change their ancient way of life, what is the evidence that they have received the payment due them or have become citizens educated for public participation?  Most evaluations have been dismaying.

The answer is more than mixed, but I will not use statistics to make my case.  Rather I offer as evidence my experience of nine years as a high school English teacher on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana: five years between 1961 and 1966; two years between 1971 and 1973; and, most specifically, two years between 1988 and 1990.  During the first two periods, I taught high school English in Browning.  In the third time span, I taught seven-through-twelve English in Heart Butte.  Forty years is long enough to see students grow up, have families, and send their own children to school.  Many of my original students have grandchildren. 
When first I taught in 1961, half of all the Blackfeet students dropped out between the eighth grade and high school.  During the four years of high school, another half dropped out.  Very few went to college.  Roughly the same is true today except that there are many more children, nearly all Blackfeet-identified or at least Indian-identified, and probably a higher proportion of them are middle-class, expecting to attend college.   A few have succeeded very well, becoming M.D.’s and Ph.D’s.
The schools I am talking about are not the infamous government or religious boarding schools, but rather ordinary public schools governed by the county superintendent of schools and the local school board, which in my experience has always been substantially Blackfeet.  Teachers have ranged from the brilliant to the appalling, with both extremes more likely to move on than the average plodder.  Special programs abound.  Administrators proliferate.  Parents become more demanding.  Young people still crave something to fill their emptiness.

Two vast and uncertain "paradigms" control the concept of "Indian education."  Notoriously, our notion of what an "Indian" is has been polarized between the "natural nobleman" and the "drunken savage."   Today the indigenous Peoples themselves claim the right to picture who they are.  Yet the question remains open -- deeply factionalized by schisms within the native population.   Is "Indian" identity a matter of blood quantum, tribal enrollment, governmental recognition of specific tribes, residence on a reservation, the ability to speak the tribal language, faith in an indigenous religious system, or solidarity with political activists?  Is it a card you carry, a face you see in the mirror, or something deep in your heart?
Most non-Indian people have no awareness of these alternatives or their implications.  Those who would like to see Native Americans disappear are hoping blood quantum will be definitive, in the belief that full-bloods will intermarry (dilute towards white, what else?) into oblivion.  An increasingly common phenomenon is a full-blooded Indian whose ancestors are from enough different tribes that he or she cannot be enrolled in any one of them.  No category includes them, though they are richly and deeply Indian.
The other paradigm is "public education."  The concept has been thrown into question throughout the United States.  We are unsure about everything from how to finance schools to what ought to be taught in them, much less how to define or guarantee achievement.  There is a flight to private schools of various kinds for various reasons.  But on the reservations --  just where it ought to be questioned-- "education" is taken for granted as a known entity.  These small communities assume school to be just what it was in the 19th century: a dictator of “rightness.”  Recent charter schools sponsored by religious denominations are even more centered on rightness, now including morality.
Until recently education has been frankly meant to assimilate, but now we are afraid to say so.  The issue has remained submerged by adding token classes in relatively trivial ethnic phenomena, like games or foods, rather than examining the underlying assumptions of two cultural paradigms.  The definitions of  both "Indianness" and "education" are deeply intertwined, and yet often they are opposed.  When that opposition happens, public education is still meant to eliminate Indianness.
My contribution here is mostly raw evidence and personal opinion.  A few of my friends refuse to believe that some of these things really happened:  they do not like their convictions challenged.  Indeed, in spite of every effort to be honest, my interpretations must be tentative.  I may have completely misinterpreted what happened.  Some will be troubled by my adventures: certainly I am. 
Alongside my own classroom adventures, I am able to supply tales from the late Thirties, when my former husband Bob Scriver taught in the Browning schools, and as far back as 1903, when Bob Scriver's father first arrived on the Blackfeet Reservation.  There were no public schools then, but there were Indian schools provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or by religious groups, who were convinced that part of assimilation was conversion to Christianity.  Montana is still today one of the parts of the United States where American is usually assumed to mean the same thing as Christian.

In the end some of the insights here may be useful for the country at large.  Reservations are intentional microcosms where the problem of drugs is being confronted with increasing success, where environmental issues have a sharply cutting edge, and where explosive population growth may turn out to be as much of a problem as the catastrophic population collapse was a century ago.  Above all else, the reader should keep in mind that we are all connected.  Nothing that is relevant to the Blackfeet is irrelevant to the rest of us.
Be warned that I am writing "against genre."   Most books about Native Americans begin with the arrival of the Europeans at the east coast.  I am calling up the Cretaceous Era on the huge inland now-dry seabed that is the American prairie.  Most books about "Indian Education" are about elementary school students and ignore the tumultuous factors that arrive in the classroom after puberty.  In fact, the dangerous side of the reservation itself is usually not mentioned when dealing with education.  This is not a story about charming, docile, bright-eyed children, but questions about near-adults involved in violence, sex and drugs.  I am not asking whether "Indians" should or should not be assimilated, but where planetary culture goes from here and how the Nizitahpi  can become leaders in that new culture.  The time of assimilation is gone.  Now comes the time for innovation.

One more realization came to me slowly and painfully as I wrote.  Although the invasion of the Americas by Europeans began five hundred years ago, the final devastation of the Blackfeet happened barely one hundred years ago, closer in history than the Civil War.  The Blackfeet were not defeated in honorable battle, but wiped out by smallpox, starvation and massacre --  deliberately.   No living people are actual survivors of the Baker Massacre or the Starvation Winter, but their children and grandchildren are still with us and remember hearing the stories from eyewitness accounts.  European Americans have never really come to terms with their own culpability and Native Americans have only begun to release their rage and depression.  It is a terrifying process on both sides, especially when connected to environmental devastation and religious issues.   I would wish to broaden the consideration of trauma recovery to include the land itself, which once defined Native Americans and gave rise to their culture.  I point to the urgency of the dilemma.

All Peoples on this planet are in the grip of time and change.  None of us can go back.  The question is how we can educate our children to go forward.  None of them will go on alone, no matter who they are.  No one is Other.



The empire of climate is the first of all the empires.
--Montesquieu, L'Esprit de Lois


About the middle of June, 1961, I stood barefoot in the sun-warmed bronze moccasin prints of a Blackfeet man no longer living.  On the horizon to the west were the Rocky Mountains, still full of snow.  Away to the east stretched the prairie across which my parents had just brought me after graduation from Northwestern University.  Until I stood in those footprints,  I had no idea what to do with my life.  Even then, I only knew I wanted to stay there.  Forty years later many forces have pushed me out, then called me back, then pushed me out again. 
The heartbreak I speak of in this book is not mine alone, but that of a People, the Blackfeet.   Once freely roaming the Amerian Plains, today they are People of a specific legal domain: a United States reservation for which they qualify simply by having always been there.  Many would like to foreclose that reservation -- some say it would be the best thing that could happen to that tribe, because then they would have to be like everyone else.  But they would have to give up their ancestors, their ancestral home, and their identity.  Some would find that death.

I'm not Indian.  I was not born or raised on the Blackfeet Reservation, but over the last three and a half decades I have been drawn into a kind of Talking Circle, informal and ad hoc, composed of many sorts of people.  Many of them never speak directly to each other, but word gets around. One of us, Dorothy Still Smoking, believes the future lies with the young and has put her energy into Head Start.  Darrell Kipp loves language, any language, and has -- as an adult-- returned to speaking Blackfeet.  His wife, Roberta, is an administrator for the junior high.  His son, Darren, works in conservation and film.   Joe Fisher is a cinematographer.   Jack Holterman, in his eighties, has also loved the Blackfeet language and history since he taught on the reservation in the Thirties.  These, along with me, are what I call “Darrell’s Tribe.”  When he learned that one of the four groups of Blackfeet, the Scabby Robes, had died off earliest and most drastically because they were open to other tribes and traded with them, he took their name as his middle name so they wouldn’t be quite gone.

Bob Scriver, to whom I was married, was born on the reservation in 1914 when there were forty white men in town.  He was white, but put his love for the Blackfeet into bronze sculpture.  His father had come to the reservation in 1903.
The bronze moccasin prints in which I stood in were part of a circle of footprints commemorating the last of the sign-talkers, some of them whitemen wearing boots.  Sign language was the lingua franca of the prairie, more eloquent than pidgin versions of spoken language, and useful over more of the continent.  While the men stood in their circle, they were filmed as moving pictures for the archives of museums.  The sharp nostalgia of times passing away began almost as soon as the white men arrived and even the white men felt it.  "Why gone those times?" asked James Willard Schultz in the title of one of his heart-breaking books.

"No natural ecosystem is permanently isolated from the rest of the world or is stable against evolutionary change from within," responds Mark Ridley, zoologist at the University of Oxford.  The same is true of individuals.  In thirty-five years everything and everybody has changed.

The Blackfeet once occupied a territory mostly on the Canadian side of the border, reaching up to Edmonton and as far east as Saskatoon and Regina.  In the south, on the United States side, they pushed against the Cheyenne and Crow, while to the East were the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota.  This high prairie, called "parkland" because it is strewn with potholes left by glaciers and clusters of trees called "poplar bluffs" in Canada, was ideal for a nomadic people who followed the buffalo.  It was open enough for free travel, and yet shelter and water were everywhere.  First contacts with Europeans happened in the north through trade with the Hudson's Bay company.  When Lewis and Clark came through looking for the headwaters of the Missouri, a skirmish resulted in the death of two Blackfeet.  From then on, Blackfeet resistance was fierce until disease, starvation and massacre brought them low.

But I hardly knew this history when I came.  Walking through the Museum of the Plains Indian was my introduction to the People.  Just out of college, I had no plan for my life.  I never set out to be a teacher-- it just happened.  In those days female persons were either teachers or nurses.  My training was theatre,  but as insurance I had also taken teaching courses.    I'd never heard of Browning until that day.  It turned out to as theatrical as Broadway, not least because the Rocky Mountains stood always on the horizon.  In mid-June the high prairie was a paradise of yellow and purple flowers and the grass was high enough to dance in the wind.

All the way from Chicago where I had just graduated, I  had slumped in the back seat of the car, crowded by my own belongings, devastated by the prospect of life without my beloved theatre department, and defiantly barefoot.  Only  with my feet in the signtalk memorial in the front yard of the Museum of the Plains Indian, did I begin to come back to life.  "I'm going to stay right here," I announced dramatically.

The clerk in the Museum Craft Store said there was a home economics position open.  I thought I could teach home economics:  I had once been Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Year.   In those days I thought I could do anything. "Where do I apply?"  The clerk took me to the window and pointed out the principal, who was wading in Willow Creek trying to catch bullheads for bait.  So I rolled up my pants legs and went out across a field of wild iris to talk to him, sending up a blue heron from the creek as I went.  That's not quite how it was, but close enough.  I fell in love with the place rather than the people.  Not until later did I begin to understand how the people were indigenous, native, autochthonous-- that is, people of the land.   My Irish mother was a product of the southern Oregon valleys: a small-town, church-going person.  My Scots father was from the Canadian prairie:  politically progressive, book-worshipping.  Both deliberately migrated from rural to urban in search of opportunity, but both conveyed a nostalgic understanding of geology as destiny, geography as the shaper of life.  They spoke of Glacier National Park as though it were a temple, and indeed it seemed to be one with its ice-sculptured valleys and sharply carved peaks.

From our Many Glacier campground, I telephoned the Browning superintendent, who was in Missoula working on another degree and trying out the oldest golf course in Montana, which had only recently been built.  Once he got over his astonishment, he hired me to teach junior high school English.  In those days no one wanted to teach on a reservation, let alone young women with good degrees from Big Ten schools, girls who ought to be looking for husbands and houses in suburbia.  By mail my teaching contract followed us to Portland, Oregon.   The salary was $3450.  I spent the summer reading Isak Dinesen's, Out   of   Africa.  My Africa would be Montana.  My Masai would be Blackfeet.  I would find a Dennis Finch-Hatton.  And it all came true.

I arrived back in Browning in August.  The prairie was seared tawny and heat waves quivered over the potholes and poplar bluffs.  I had costumed myself in shirtwaist and pearls, with a straw boater.  For some silly reason, I had packed my tatty old cotton underwear in a Peck & Peck cardboard hatbox which I insisted on carrying as a prop.  Just as I stepped off the train into a blast furnace wind, the string on the hatbox broke and my unmentionables headed for the horizon -- stopped only by a barbed wire fence and many tall weeds.  The superintendent, who had come up with his wife and children to meet me, gallantly helped me collect my goods.  He tried not to laugh.  In the car his wife failed to persuade me to have supper with them.  Not much interesting happened in a small prairie town in those days.  The tow-headed kids turned round eyes on me over the back of the seat.  I know now what they were thinking:  "How long will this one last?"  But all I wanted was to see my new home.
Luckily, long before I heard of the Baroness Blixen, I had taken Anne of Green Gables to my red-headed soul.  An L. M. Montgomery moment was not going to intimidate me.  In that spirit, I looked around my tiny apartment occupying half a shack.  Newly repainted pink, furnished with a massive dark red sofa set, and dominated by a hulking gas heater, it presented a lot of scope for improvement.  The kitchen was so small that one could sit at the table while opening the refrigerator, reaching all the pots on the stove, and washing the dishes.  The whole apartment was roughly the temperature appropriate for baking bread.  My landlady had contributed a sprig of indestructible ivy in a ceramic apple that hung on the wall and more starched doilies than I had ever seen outside a county fair.

Jimmy Fisher, the school engineer, arrived with my trunk and a dozen whiskey boxes of books in his pickup.  "Looks like they hired a real boozer this time," he joked.  With a crowbar he opened my painted-shut windows and left.  Doubling back, he advised, "Better run your bathtub full of water.  Never know when the city water system will stop working."  I had just met my first Blackfeet Indian, but I didn’t know it.

With my clothes on, I fell onto the bed and fast asleep.  Next thing I knew was the air raid siren.  This was the Sixties.  I was trained for an atomic bomb drop.  When I finally sorted my thoughts out, I was clutching my radio and pillow, crowded under the kitchen sink alongside a box of mouse poison and and a drain plunger.  In a while it came to me that the siren was probably a curfew.   A small reservation town was an unlikely target for an A-bomb.  Unpacking sheets and a nightie, I went back to sleep properly.

At dawn, which comes early on the northern prairie in August, I woke chilled.  The temperature had slid to the fifties, as it might in the desert.  Past my bare feet, sticking out from where I'd failed to tuck in the sheet, I could see tall weeds sticking up past my window sill which looked out on the alley, beyond them an ancient log cabin, and beyond that a church built of stones.  Slanting sun gilded everything.  Then there was a pounding of hooves and the legs of a white horse passed by, with boots in stirrups.  That was Bob Scriver who became my Denys Finch-Hatton, but I didn't know it yet.

Pretty soon I dressed up complete with nylons and high heels and went out to find the main part of town.  There were no sidewalks but there was a path across the field where the log cabin stood.  I started along the path, cautious lest the burrs rip my stockings, but realized too late that a very tall Indian man in a wide cowboy hat was coming towards me and there was no room to pass.  At the last moment, the Indian took off his hat, made a sweeping bow, and stepped off into the weeds with his hat over his heart.  "Mawnin, Teacher!" he said.  I nodded in a dignified manner, but couldn't think of anything to say.  I thought he was my first Blackfeet Indian.  All over town people said to me, "Mawnin, Teacher!" and I wondered how in the world they knew. 

When I had gotten on the train in Portland, my mother had said,  "Now be sure to stay two years or it will look bad on your resumé!"  I stayed for more than a decade that first time and have returned many times, this last time for three years.  I would happily live there the rest of my life if I could make a living, but the only way I could earn a salary there would be to teach.  The schools will not hire me to teach on the Blackfeet Reservation.  When I have finished this book, you will understand why. Malcolm MacFee, an anthropologist from the University of Oregon, wrote his thesis about the Blackfeet about the time I first arrived in Browning.  What impressed him was that the people were split between those who identified with the old Indian ways (a few of them white) and those who chose the new assimilated ways, the way exemplified by the small town whites of Montana.  He pointed out that this had less to do with blood quantum than the people's understanding of how to survive.  He proposed the possibility of what he called “the 150% Man,” a person who could somehow reconcile both options within himself.  I assume he chose his percentage thinking that 50% of each would overlap.  The idea made enough of an impression on Darrell Kipp for him to try living the model with considerable success.

Today both the Indian people and the Montana white people are far more various than anyone could have imagined.  Now the problem for both Indian and white is not choosing which to be, or reconciling two opposing strategies, but rather finding any rallying point at all in a sprawling confusion of ways.  Hispanic, African and Asian mixed-blood strands have surfaced, partly as a result of the Fifties effort to move Indians to the cities.  Categories such as Métis have begun to claim their heritage on and near the reservation by clearing old cemetaries and creating little cabin museums.  Many of the survivors of the Red River Rebellion across the border to the north took refuge with the Blackfeet.  Tribal members have gone away to government schools where they married other tribes and brought back "pan-Indian" children, sometimes full-blood Indian but so mixed as to tribal heritage as to be unregistered with any tribe.

On the “white” side, more than ranchers and small town traders live in Montana now.  Survivors from the Hippie Era, technicians of natural resources both animal and mineral, organic farmers trying to escape over-used land, writers looking for cheap romance, crooks and smugglers doing what they always did, and rich folks chasing trends have all flocked to the Last Best Place.  

What can unify all these various people?  I say the land.  I choose the land rather than blood quantum, tribal certification, language or religion.  Others in the Talking Circle are working on those latter concepts as central and I support them, but my own reasoning begins with the land.


Vast and beautiful as the historic Blackfeet range may seem, it is a hard place to live.  The rich people, tourists, anthropologists and wealthier grain farmers only stay for the summer.  For those who live on the high prairie year-round, life can be tough in spite of insulated houses, down coats, and cars with electric plug-in heaters.  We can only imagine what courage it once took to face a Montana winter with one’s wits, a few tools, a pack of dogs, and an extended family.

The last year I taught in Browning, I lived in a two story house in East Glacier that had stood empty for several years.  The owner had grown up there and said she always liked the house because when the snow buried the first floor, you could go upstairs and still see out.  It was late in the year before I could afford a furnace and the friend who installed it barely made it home before the first major blizzard.  Even then, I sometimes only found it possible to stay warm enough reading if I dragged my old wicker armchair in front of the cookstove and rested my feet in the oven.

It was a twelve mile drive to Browning over a road full of deep cuts through hills which blew full of snow, alternating with high ridges built up through valleys where the wind could easily blow a car off since there were no side-rails.  One icy night I returned late, came over a high cut and found a herd of horses standing on the highway.  Rather than go over a twenty-foot drop, I turned off the headlights so the horses could see me, pumped the brakes (no anti-lock then), and tried to steer through the herd while they leapt out of the way.  The last horse wasn't fast enough and the left front corner of my van caught his rump, hurling him over the edge.  Eventually a vigorous cluster of well-fertilized trees grew out of his carcass.

That last winter was one of the worst on record.  I had to chain up to drive the single block out to the plowed highway, where I could usually manage with snow tires.  Over Christmas my parked van disappeared into a snowbank.  In April I hired a backhoe to dig it out.  In the meantime, we all car-pooled in Bill Haw's van, which had good traction since the three heftiest of us sat over the back axle.  Finally a storm hit that trapped the teachers at school, but luckily not the students.  For ten days the wives and children in East Glacier checked everyone's plumbing and fed everyone’s pets.  For ten days the teachers in Browning played penny poker and slept on their classroom floors.

One evening someone bold suggested we try to drift-bust our way to the new motel just outside town.  That way, we could get a proper meal and maybe see some new faces.  The evening went well, but the storm made it impossible to drive back to town.  Rather than pay for a motel room, I thought I would cross the highway to a friend's house.  When I opened the outside door and stepped out, my nose was sealed by snow, my lungs clenched shut from cold, and the wind knocked me flat on my back.  Hauled in and revived, I used my new VISA card for the first time.  In the morning when the wind stopped, people went out to try to start their cars.  When they opened their hoods, every tiny space was packed with snow.  Even after they dug the snow out, it took many extension cords to plug in the engine heaters that everyone in that country installs in their vehicles.  Even after the engines started, it was afternoon before the plow made a trail out to the motel.   Finally, the Burlington Northern railroad sent a huge locomotive-mounted rotary plow along the High-Line through East Glacier to Browning and we all went home on the train, looking like Siberian refugees.  

In the spring, the floods were major.  I tried to ford a flooded place on the highway to Cut Bank, and turned my van into a boat when the water lifted it off its wheels.  Luckily, the motor was high enough to keep operating and the turning wheels paddled to where they could touch pavement again.   A little cluster of on-lookers was trying to decide whether to try to cross and I remember their shrieks when they thought I was doomed.  A little more water running a little faster, and the van would have rolled.

Jack Holterman tells about a Thirties adventure.  Blizzards had closed his one-room school.  Desperate for civilization, he borrowed a horse from Old Man Swims Under, rode it ten miles to town, left it at the livery stable where people were startled by his ghostly white aspect, and jumped the train.  He had Christmas in Chicago.

Old-time Blackfeet simply put up their lodges in river bottoms out of the wind and close to firewood.  They stuffed the space between lodgeskin and liner with grass or leaves for insulation, and settled down for months of story-telling and sleep.  This was the time that the children learned their tribal ways.  It was a time to listen, remember and plan for the next year.  If people failed to be resourceful, to cooperate, to remember all their skills, the penalty might be death.


Gary Snyder has revived the old name of the continent:  Turtle Island.  The Blackfeet Reservation is also a Turtle Island in the sense that it is of limited extent and the people on it must protect the land or see it stripped. 
“Although it's clear that we cannot again have seamless primitive cultures, or the purity of the archaic, we can have neighborhood and community.  Communities strong in their sense of place, proud and aware of local and special qualities, creating to some extent their own cultural forms, not humble or subservient in the face of some "high cultural" over-funded art form or set of values, are in fact what one healthy side of their original American vision was about.  They are also, now, critical to "ecological survival."  No amount of well-meaning environmental legislation will halt the biological holocaust without people who live where they are and work with their neighbors, taking responsibility for their place, and seeing to it:   to be inhabitants, and to not retreat.”

...The process becomes educational, and even revolutionary, when one becomes aware of the responsiblity that goes with "rootedness" and the way the cards are stacked against it.

At first the reservation was only a remnant of the original free prairie.  Then its resources became objects of desire for those who lived around the boundary, tempting them into making repeated incursions for minerals, grazing, timber, and right-of-way.  The railroad took what it wanted with governmental blessing.  A fence was erected and laws made for the reservation only, like the law against Indians drinking.  The question was whether the reservation wasn't really a prison or a refugee camp.  Finally chopped up into family allotments, the reservation was meant to become private property.  Yet it remained an "island of jurisdiction," an ironic convenience for activities forbidden by the state.

What is the reservation today?  Some say more than fifty per cent of the land is owned by Federal lending bodies, foreclosed in the struggle to stay afloat on family ranches, some white and some Indian.  Some use it as a refuge for gambling, tobacco sales, and other state-regulated businesses.  To many it is home-- a place that can never be left.  To others it is a trap, never to be escaped.
Parents said to me,  "My boy has got to get an education.  It's the only way to get out of here."  (They rarely said that about girls.)  No one thought about what kind of education was necessary in order to stay right there successfully.  How do you educate young people in a place where there are no jobs, where the population is too thin to support businesses, and where the main talent of the youngsters seems to be playing basketball?

The kids said,  "This place is no good.  It's just dead here.  Nothing to do.  Nobody amounts to anything.  Nothing but dust and cold and dead dogs."  None ever said,  "I'm going to find a way to help this place."

But back in 1961, people took John F. Kennedy seriously when he said,  "Ask not what your country can do for you-- ask what you can do for your country."  And no one laughed when Martin Luther King, Jr. said,  "I have a dream!"  The high school students of that idealistic era when I first taught swore to each other that they would help their people.  In the 1990's they have remembered themselves and begun to act.  Darrell, Dorothy and Joe are among them.

There is a lot of work to do.  Blackfeet assets are in the hands of the government, held in legal trust, but millions of dollars have been misplaced through sloppy BIA bookkeeping.  Yet when a vote is taken, no one trusts the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council without oversight by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  The Blackfeet schools are in the hands of white administrators and “apple” Indians -- with a few exceptions.  Still today half of the students disappear between grade school and high school and roughly half of the students disappear between their freshman year and graduation.  Families are still broken.  Booze and drugs still sabotage good people.  There are not enough jobs.  The streets are full of dust and dogs.

But changes have begun.  My job now is to witness.  The way to bring about the “new paradigm” is to present the evidence that doesn’t fit the “old paradigm,” so that new explanations must be found.



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

One account of the statistics of the massacre reads thus:

Over 300 horses were taken.

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

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

8 men over 60 were killed.

35 women between 12 and 37 were killed.

55 women between 37 and 70 were killed.

50 children under 12, mostly babies, were killed.

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

46 survived as captives, finally arriving in Fort Benton.

18 were women.

19 were children under three years old.

Many were wounded.

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

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

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


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

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

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

95 could read.

150 could speak English.

42 children were educated out of 679 children.

64 of the men were polygamous.

225 homes (one-room cabins) existed.

There were in that year 34 births and 52 deaths.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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?