Monday, July 22, 2019


Prizes are useful for getting people to read what they ought to and also for encouraging good writers to do their best.  But the work itself must be published.  Montana, The Magazine of Western History, published by the Montana Historical Society, had two award winning essays in the Spring, 2018 issue.  One was by Peter H. Hassrich, a traditional writer about Western art, discussing the classic artist Albert Bierstadt.  The other was by Rodger C. Henderson, Associate Professor of History Emeritus at Penn State University, about what we used to call the Baker Massacre of a Blackfeet band in 1870.  I'm not entirely sure what the politically correct name of it is now.

When I came to Browning in 1961, I was walking into decades of centennial anniversaries of Blackfeet tragedies.  1884-1885 was the Starvation Winter.  In those years I was back in Montana as a Unitarian minister, but not on the Blackfeet Rez only in touch as a Unitarian Universalist graduate of seminary confronting morality.  In the Sixties people were barely beginning to speak of the massacre -- by the Eighties people could talk about the 600 people who starved to death at the hands of the Agency.  It was like reliving everything that happened in waves of sorrow and rage. and I was only white.  People remembered their elders talking about what they had witnessed.  We had known people who were born in 1870 and 1880.  Henderson's essay about the massacre does an efficient job of describing the circumstances, so far as they can be known, despite confused accounts and deliberate lies to save careers.

Bob Scriver was born in Brownng in 1914 and raised there, an early part of the Western art cowboys and Indians period.  He grew up accepting as natural the white man's supremacy.  "We killed the Indians," he said wryly, "But they refused to fall down."  His friends were all "Indians." (Jimmy Welch's father was his best childhood friend.)  Gradually and emotionally he moved over to the Blackfeet side, in spite of having friends who belonged to the ultra-right John Birch Society. I shared this shift with him as well as watching my students gradually realize that no longer did they need to feel either powerless victims or guilty of letting tragedies happen.  By now they began to see a future.  The work is not finished. Even in the apocalpyse much survived.

I'm interested in Hassrick's essay, which is also a book with the same name and other presentations using the same material. and a series of Youtube Lectures, exhibits and lectures.  

Hassrick's VITA:  
Now at "Lone Star Ranch".  
Summers, 1960-63:  Elizabeth, CO, rancher and assistant foreman,
1963-67:  high school teacher of history, Spanish, and art history, Steamboat Springs, CO
1969-75: Amon Carter MuseumFort Worth, TX, curator of collections, 
1976-96: Whitney Gallery of Western Art, Cody, WY, curator and director of Buffalo Bill Historical Center, 
1996-97:  Georgia O'Keeffe MuseumSanta Fe, NM, director, 
1998—.    University of Oklahoma, Norman, Charles Marion Russell Professor of Art History and director of Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West,(This last is a sinecure funded by the estate of the widow of Charlie Russell.)

Consider the sources of these opinions.  Born in 1951 in Philadelphia, Hassrick is clearly an authentic member of the academic/museum community that circulates around the nation from one major establishment to another.  These institutions rely on population density in cities.  For comparison, consider Scriver was 27 years older than Hassrick and even I am two years older.  Scriver was a man of the West, a white "rez boy", as close to the bone as it's possible to get unless genetically indigenous.  What qualifies me to comment on this essay is my education at the U of Chicago Div School and years as clergy in the West, reflecting on the sacrality of the land.

Bierstadt (1830-1903) was born in Prussia and brought to the US aged one.  He studied painting in Germany in 1853.  His view of life is much influenced by the German  Romantic school of nature philosophy. . His works of art are physically large, theatrical in their vistas, and religious in their claims for what is grand and adventurous.  He lived the life that Charlie Russell (1864 - 1936) and James Willard Schultz (1859 - 1947) wished they had lived, pretended they had, but really only imagined, arriving in Montana too late. 

The usefulness of these two essays is that they stake out the miserable and still undigested treatment of the original people of this land at one end, while at the other end Hassrick uses his essay to help Bierstadt mythologize and elevate the land itself.  Both are popular points of view -- neither is the whole truth nor entirely honorable.  Rich white men loom over both points of view, the kind of men who found major museums memorializing the looting of natural resources that made their fortunes.

The aspect of the natural world, as found by whites, is illustrated in their treatment of Indians.  The governmental military pictured them as devils, inhuman, to be eliminated.  But Bierstadt took the romantic German view.  Hassrick says that "in the painting called "Wolf River, Kansas" Bierstadt pictured a Kansa encampment enveloped in glorious suffused light, with the grand cottonwoods serving as the divine sanctuary of nature's fondest embrace."

I was disconcerted recently to read somewhere that Joe Campbell (1904-1987), revered author of "Hero with a Thousand Faces", was now outdated.  The idea of the superior and mystical adventure of climbing a mountain is no longer a valid metaphor.  Certainly the tourists in the national parks still consider them God's natural cathedrals and proof of national grandeur.  They stand on the cement path, leaning on the railing protecting them, gazing at the vistas and muttering, "Oh, how beautiful!"  They have become interested in Bierstadt and his cohort with their aesthetic position and still support, even recover, the art.  

But the locus of the mysterium tremendum outlook has moved to outer space.  The consequence has been the death of God and a moral sense of the consequences of the rich moguls who made their money by looting the planet and now try to redeem themselves with art institutions.  What we share most with Bierstadt is the sense of loss of the 19th century, verging on despair.  We can take a little refuge in his vision.

Sunday, July 21, 2019


When I found the article linked below, I thought it was about the Birch Creek that separates the Blackfeet reservation from the state of Montana,  But this "Birch Creek" was in Idaho.  It turns out that there are hundreds of "Birch Creeks," "Willow Creeks," "Deer Creeks," and the like, all named for what was found there.  In this case, the Birch Creek that I know is the southern boundary of the rez.  It turns out that the Birch Creek in the title is from the "Intermountain West," which is the area on the west side of the Rockies as far as the Cascades, but some of the study is in the Dakotas and Nebraska.  The study is not based on living dogs but on fossils.

The study merely refers to the whole canid family.  "The biological family Canidae /ˈkænɪdiː/ (from Latin, canis, “dog”) is a lineage of carnivorans that includes domestic dogs, wolves, coyotes, foxes, jackals, dingoes, and many other extant and extinct dog-like mammals."  (wiki)  Most of us easily think of dogs, wolves, coyotes and foxes, the best known canids of our continent, but don't know as well the jackals, dingoes, and various canids evolved to fit their location, like fennecs or singing dogs.

The scientists who studied these fossils were looking to find out how much weight they could carry.  Pulling a travois seemed to max out at about the dog's weight (approaching a hundred pounds) while the weight of carried paniers, backpacks, were about thirty pounds if much distance was involved.  Their assumption was that dogs come from wolves, which has been challenged in recent times.

No one, so far as I know, has identified the characteristic of plastic genes in domestic dogs that allows them to look so different in size, kind of coat, and even temperament.  If one defines "species" as the ability to interbreed, all domestic dogs seem to be fertile with each other in spite of attempts at control by humans, and also with related animals like coyotes, wolves, and foxes.  Coy-dogs and wolf-dogs exist.  Fox dogs may be possible but sometimes fertility is prevented by things like size or habits.  That is, a fox may have such different habits, ranges and diurnal timing that mating is impossible or unlikely.  A wolf cannot fall in love with a fox and follow it down its hole.  (Good material for a mythic story.)

Controversy about what happened to make dogs domestic and from which basic canids is unresolved.  It appears that some genomic change is powered by the discovery of a new means of subsistence -- attaching to humans and living their lives with them.  This may have happened repeatedly to several sub-species in paleo-times.  Wolves are popular candidates.  Domesticity is somehow linked to the plastic genes.  Some domestic dogs revert to being wild, feral, and that behavior is always present just under the surface, potentially a danger or perhaps attached to other dogs rather than humans.  They seem naturally to be group animals, which are the only kind I know of that become domesticated like horses, cows or sheep, including humans.

Scientists were startled to realize that domestic dogs actually share molecular genes with humans.  We hadn't known that genes could cross from one entity to another.  The Blackfeet, who knew nothing about genes, thought of dogs as a separate tribe that chose to join the human tribe, not as dependents but as separately cooperating beings who chose to share the fates of people, becoming attached, intimately involved, and empathic.  

Robert Hall's seminal video essay about rez dogs evokes this conviction from the idlers hanging around an alley next to a source of alcohol and drugs, which they wait for the same way a dog watches for a dropped hot dog.  The drunks go so far as to say that the dogs were once vulnerable disreputables like themselves, but after dying these guys missed the group so much that they came back as dogs and now hang around with them in that form.  Mishaps and suffering are so common among the these people that it forms a solidarity with the dogs' bad luck.

The video shows how the dogs have plans for their dog-lives as they travel among homes, and sometimes form packs to kill livestock or breed.  Of course, if they are a danger to livestock, they are shot.  Dogs that are bred to guard homes and are therefore inclined to bite are more tolerated in a place where human law and order must cover too wide an area to be effective.  Humans on the rez learn to be respectful of this.  Arriving at an unknown household by car, it is wise to stay in the vehicle and honk the horn until the owner comes out.

Many of these dogs seem to have genes like those of "molosser" dogs  "Molosser is a category of solidly built, large dog breeds that all descend from the same common ancestor. The name derives from Molossia, an area of ancient Epirus, where the large shepherd dog was known as a Molossus."  These big sturdy dogs don't hesitate to bite, but can be trained to pull or carry loads.  Pit bulls, bred to fight, are in this category.  Also, in rez dogs there seem to be genes of shepherd dogs, like collies or Australian heelers.  The biggest versions are those white dogs who are raised with sheep as one of them capable of fighting off predators.  However different from each other domestic dogs seem to be -- poodles, retrievers, Boston Bull -- when they escape from attachment to humans and join the rez dogs, it only takes a few generations for them to look like generic rez dogs: big to medium-sized, shaggy, alert, and always busy when awake.

Stories about beloved dogs becoming human, the way beloved toys can do, show how little appearance counts when an attachment forms.  Other stories are about guardian dogs who fight off bears and murderers.  But the wild dog underneath can lead to attacks and even murder by dogs.  As an animal control officer I took many reports of damage usually, in the case of toddlers, mutilation to the face and in that of infants, death.  Dogs have been used by criminals to hurt their victims, so that the courts classify them as "dangerous weapons."  Others have become support to police by finding lost people or even bringing down escaping lawbreakers.  Some dogs are purported to write stories!

When I write a story about indigenous people on the rez, I always try to get a dog into it somehow, partly because that's just realistic and partly because it always enriches the dimensions of the tale.  There are good reasons for keeping dogs in fenced yards, but I always sort of regret the fences and leashes of "civilization."

Saturday, July 20, 2019


If I wrote a biography today, no matter who it was about, it would be entirely different from what I wrote about Bob Scriver.  At that time I structured the book by using the steps of the creation of a bronze sculpture, not what to do so much as how the materials feel, what they can become.  I included a lot of local anecdotes and the history of the Scrivers, how they got to the Blackfeet reservation at the beginning of the 19th century.  I didn't talk much about being a racial minority in an autochthonous place, but he would be a good example of wearing another creature's skin, since he tried to be tribal.  Bob didn't make it to the 20th century, dying in 1999.  In short, his life story fit the century, various as it was.  But place held him.  Dusty little Browning with Willow Creek running through it, the village was an anchor point on the vast East Slope Ecotone created by the Rockies.

In mythology there are stories about trying to capture someone but ending up only holding their skin.  Selkies, the marine people who sometimes take human form, are a good example.  Bob's mom and Selkies were Scots.  Of course, the stories are metaphors for human beings who are captured but finally must escape to exist, because they don't belong to the world of the capturer, no matter how much love is involved on either side.  

In a world this various and mobile, in times so confusing and places so changed, the "donkey skins" are still in existence.  This is a clip from the old fairy tale, as captured in a 1970 French film.

Here's an American version --TRULY American, not European.  This is Laura Grizzly Paws.

When a writer takes on a persona through whom to tell a story, they are wearing the skin of that being, which may not be human, but be inhabited by a human.  For instance, here's Chewbacca and the actor who wore his skin.  I don't know how a wookie dances, but Peter Mayhew (the actor who wore his skin) would.  He's part of an invented world that seems very real to us, particularly now that we're trying to capture more than the skin of the Empire that has been striking back at us.

Most of us who live a long time are still wearing the skin of the times and places where we grew up, whether France or Browning, and we think we know what the world is like, but as these stories attest, there are always stories within stories, some of them quite unknown.  Some are more "grim" than any fairy tale.  Yet we cling to our notion of what we thought they were like.  

For instance, Bob Scriver was a portrayer of worlds that he thought he knew in his youth, the cowboy and Indian mythology that overlay what was really a raw struggle to survive in a world where the land-fitting way of life was being destroyed by an empire from across the sea, not even just a Brit empire, but one dominated by a department store called Hudson's Bay, a pattern much diminished into the Browning Mercantile.  Scriver Studio and the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife were Bob's own expression of the 19th century anthropology, collecting, and labeling Brit way of understanding.  As soon as he died, it was dismantled, reduced to more mercantilism.

Then the bronzes of the even more imaginary world portrayed in bronzes was housed in a recreation of Fort Benton, because now that time has become myth and is admired, considered real.  It was only a few generations in the past.  The tribal people still dance, but the costumes are a flurry of modern flourescent colors mixed with echoes of deer tails and eagle feathers.  The tribes are PanIndians.  The dancing is as authentic a portrait of first contact dancing as bull-riding is an authentic version of moving cattle.

Above is just local observation.  Looked at world-wide, new phenomena have appeared, like crime-based systems that stash "money" or records of money on islands that have never been pulled into the Empire and therefore can stay hidden.  They have very little idea of what to do with that money, except hide its origin in swindles, predation, death, and competing families.  Not just a phenomenon of Sicily, it is a fungus that blooms wherever the conditions are right.  A corporation LLC is the hide they wear.

Some of the most interesting developments in the deteriorating Empire world are triggered by sex and gender, because the basic function of reproduction and nurturing have been badly damaged by war and poverty.  Examples of what modern technology has made possible include birth control, the empowerment of women (which is related), fluid sexual identity from enforced binary to situational, the relaxation of protecting children (esp, those stigmatized), and the reorganization of men in society according to their sexual gender preference.

Once suppressed by social criminalization and driven underground in various ways, this is not the same as modern medical intervention to change one gender into another.  But gender roles and morality have shaped a phenomenon that was once secret into a Empire-outlook. a hierarchical demographic that was once unified but now becomes many chambered and sometimes in opposition to itself.  Ostentation gets into it.  What was once disguised in the skin of the conventional is now wearing everything from tuxedos to speedos.

At first the permission to relate sexually in any way was the central key and the nature and expression of sexuality, freed from obligatory reproduction in the same way that birth control freed women.  It was a joyous celebration of sex-positive as an unalloyed good.  Of course, the same unlikeable nerds went without partners.  Soon AIDS brought death and crippling dependence on drugs.  Real life was again forced into performance, passing. 

We have not quite grasped that HIV affects every kind of person and is not connected to same-sex preference at all.  We have not quite grasped that jungle-born HIV, Chinese swine flu, and prairie herbivore wasting disease are, like ebola, merely waiting for a chance to strip our skins.  Whatever social category is vulnerable this time -- whether insulated by the religious belief that one should not eat pork or in danger because of subsistence hunting -- the gradual realization may or may not change us before the climate eliminates us as we know ourselves.  Maybe climate change will kill the cities rather than individuals, who already live on the sidewalks and may now die there, before they have a chance to dance.  What skin will they wear?  Or does death flay us all.

Friday, July 19, 2019


1.  Over incarceration.
"In a 2016 report, the Brennan Center found that nearly 40 percent of the U.S. prison population is incarcerated without a compelling public safety rationale. Over-incarceration harms incarcerated people and their communities and also imposes enormous financial costs to the general public. One solution is to consider alternatives to prison, such as probation, treatment, or community service."

2.  Gaming the rule of law. How do we persuade a generation that grew up on cyber-gaming that the point of being a lawyer is not finding loopholes, but maintaining the original goal?

3.  Planetary monitoring of "money" in any form, uber-bookkeeping.  Include the management of alternatives to money like precious substances, art, real estate, sex, and "owning" people through devices.

4.  Mandatory high school level courses, year long, one on citizenship and the other on money management.  Certification required for teaching these courses.

5.  International strategies for managing massive demographic change and movement compelled by politics, climate, famine, and disease.  

6.  Universal enrolment for voting when graduating from high school, getting a driver's license. 

7.  Rethinking the strategies of copyright and trademarks, intellectual property in general, particularly in regard to technology and esp. medicines.

8.  Mental competence tests for all those seeking office, particularly at the national level.

9.  Ethical rules tightened in regard to lawyers, including the laws regarding their handling of estates.  These laws should be written by experts who are NOT lawyers to keep them from creating more self-serving laws.

10.  The United States divided into ecological regions with laws and economics related to the resources and climate of that area.  If necessary, state boundaries should be altered to fit and state law should give the region priority.

11.  Rethink election security.  Ideas at:  Do not let it rest on technology requiring wealth, like voting by computer.

12.  Encourage the reading of sci-fi that bases speculation on various ways of organizing society instead of old Brit empire books or New England grim scolding.  Do some serious and public thinking about the plethora of crime and frontier media tales that feed an appetite for ever more extreme violence.

13.  Inquiry into food production, distribution, and consumption as an element of the economy.  Goals should be stability and minimum maintenance for individuals, but esp families, not necessarily genetically related to each other.  Stakeholders must include farmers, the poor, and those who monitor foods that are harmful for some people, like peanuts or gluten.

14.  Support and protect those who organize into small (less than a hundred people?) groups modeled on monasticism, not necessarily religious, who wish to attach to each other and help others.  Some may organize around tasks, like the protection of children or cooking or various gardening techniques.

15. Health insurance for all.  Rethinking the medical provisions we have now, which are often profit-based, and depend upon a secondary layer of people called "physician assistant"  and the like, often insufficiently educated and over-utilized for the convenience of doctors.

This is an open list.  Add more at will. 

Trump and his "lawyers" have already found many "land mines" that damage whole categories of people.

Thursday, July 18, 2019


Human beings and their culture are created by the land on which they live, which present the conditions under which they must shelter, eat and tell their stories. Forces that shaped this planet and the continents floating on its surface are still having impact on lives today. As one drives through the reservation, the traces that record millenia long gone can still be seen. 
The east side of the Rockies are a long gradual incline from east to west and the reservation also goes from the foothills of the Rockies (5,000 feet and more) to the flats (3,500 feet or less). This means that the area is an “ecotone,” shading from one ecology to another. The high side next to the mountains is good for grazing in summer and supports evergreen timber as well as aspen groves. The low side is flat, though dotted with prairie potholes in some places, and suitable for grasses such as small grains. The high side has access to cold swift snowmelt and the low side is mostly dry. Ranchers and farmers here, sometimes unable to drill a well, must sometimes depend upon underground cisterns for domestic use to which they haul water from town systems. Crops are dependent on rainfall or irrigation canals. 
The consequence of this difference is that when the old-time Blackfeet were forced to stay on a reservation, they preferred to be close to the mountains where there was still game and summers were more pleasant. Winters were even survivable so long as Chinook winds, warmed by their compression to get over the mountains, blew fairly often. The young Blackfeet were willing and able to go down to the flats and learn to deal with a bank or other lender in order to get and operate machinery. They tended to be of mixed blood, so this intensified the political differences of the two sub-groups of the reservation. When the original Dawes Act allotments were made, some people had split entitlements with homesteads on the hillsides or in the river valleys, but another acreage on the flats which turned out to be impractical. 
Inland Seas 
At one point the whole interior of the continent was slightly below sea level so that it formed a shallow sea full of marine life of various kinds. When the water drained and evaporated entirely, the land was bitter with alkali, colored with copper and iron concentrated by colonies of sea vegetation, and seeded with “buffalo stones,” the remains of little creatures rather like octopi or squids whose bodies were tucked into spirals (ammonites) or cornets (baculites) of shell. When the petrified sediments inside the cornets erode and separate into segments, they look uncannily like small buffalo in graduated sizes. This attracted the attention of the early Blackfeet who always felt that there was a connection between things that seemed similar, and who told a story about how these small stones, if protected and rubbed with fat, might “call” real buffalo to eat. Today it’s possible to buy baculite and ammonite remains in rock shops, such as the Trexler shop in the old church in Bynum, but the historically owned ones are protected as Native American artifacts.  Removing found examples from the reservation is illegal. 
Other more local seas formed when the glaciers intruded onto the land and trapped melt water along their southern edge. Lake Great Falls put the present location of the city underwater by 600 feet, though today’s city is built on the crest of the Sweetgrass Arch, a formation of rock bowed slightly upward. These lakes rivaled today’s Great Lakes. Icebergs broke off from the edges of the glaciers and floated out onto the water. Since they had rocks -- sometimes huge boulders -- embedded in them, when they melted they dropped the rocks in piles or singly. When the lakes dried up, these boulders became welcome scratching surfaces for itchy bison and perches for hawks who encrusted the top with their droppings. The circling bison wore small trenches which became moats when it rained. Small mammals dug their burrows under the the rocks, especially appreciating the jumbled piles of smaller rocks. Pretty soon each erratic boulder was a mini-ecology. 
A farmer once stood at a place bull-dozed away for road construction. It clearly showed three layers left by three glaciers: one was fertile and clear of stones, one was packed with stones, and one was mixed. Of course, the most stony one was on top! The prairie is full of stones about the size of melons, often rounded by tumbling and grinding as the glaciers moved them. A few of these stones were originally meteorites, which can be found with a metal detector since they are largely iron. Rather than sweep the entire prairie, meteorite-hunters check the stone piles in the corners of plowed fields where the plowing farmers stack up the stones that come to the surface. 
Early Blackfeet took advantage of the many “cobbles” of stones by using them to hold down the edges of their lodges, thus creating “tipi rings.” But also, seeing the patterns on the land these circles formed, they would outline a person where they were found killed in battle (see Hugh Dempsey’s The Amazing Death of Calf Shirtwhich includes a photo of such an effigy). Tom Kehoe was puzzled by tipi rings that had radiating lines at various compass points and of varying lengths. He suggested that they were meant to record trips taken by the occupant of the lodge. 
Under the surface of the land, whereever there were gravel beds and limestone with watercourses worn through, exist aquifers. These underground lakes, which wells try to tap, move water -- over thousands of years and miles -- from mountains to lakes. Most of the water under Montana seems to be moving from the southwest corner of the state to the northeast corner and on up across Manitoba to the major lakes up there. That is, regardless of what the surface water is doing, the drainage of the state is generally towards Hudson’s Bay. 
Giant Springs is a place where the ground is broken up enough that the aquifer underneath breaks through to the surface. In early days people had no concept of the limitations on underground water and if they punched a hole in the surface, they let the results flow freely or even, in the case of artesian rise in a fountain, whether they needed it or not. Today we are exquisitely aware that this water can be exhausted and projects have sought to find and cap the many wells now unused. 
On the surface the Blackfeet Reservation has three drainages which meet in Glacier Park at Triple Divide Mountain. One drainage goes north to Hudson’s Bay, one goes east to the Mississippi River and one goes west to the Columbia River. It is the southern edge of the Hudson’s Bay drainage, largely determined by the southern edge of the glaciers, that determined the northern boundary of the United States when Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase. 
Marine Sediments 
Huge limestone deposits, that accumulated from the skeletons of many small shelly creatures when the land was covered with sea, are white and when eroded can take fantastic shapes. Lewis & Clark as well as modern boaters are always impressed by the “White City” castles and battlements along the Missouri River where limestone is exposed and fantastically eroded. 
Marine fossils of many kinds can be found throughout the state where ever the land is eroded enough to expose the layers of the land that were once underwater. Dinosaurs, though not necessarily marine, also emerge through the action of erosion. 
Volcanic Sediments 
Even when Mt. St. Helens exploded in 1980, the fine silvery dust sifted down in Montana. When the Cascades were catastrophically erupting as volcanoes, the results must have clouded the skies. This is the origin of “gumbo,” a sticky expanding and contracting soil that makes wheels useless. Sometimes called “caleche” or “bentonite,” some of it is pure enough to be valuable as a saleable commodity if one could get it to market cheaply. It is often used to block wells -- rolled into dry balls and dropped down the well shaft -- because when it gets wet, it expands greatly and plugs up the space efficiently. 
Wet, the stuff is extremely slippery and slimy. Some have suggested that the way the pyramids were built was by using caleche as a lubricant to slide the huge blocks of stone up inclines. Sometimes it’s hard to stand up in gumbo. Even harder is walking, since it is as sticky as it is slick, and in a few steps one’s feet weigh fifty pounds each -- whether or not one’s footgear stays on. 
The practical consequence of gumbo is that the village of Heart Butte was for many years only accessible when the weather was dry in summer or frozen in winter. The roads were impassible when the the gumbo was wet. Since the small settlement tended to be traditional old-timers, their children were not anxious to attend school past Heart Butte grade school graduation when they could legally quit, but if they did want to attend high school, they would either constantly be making up absences or would have to attend a boarding school somewhere -- maybe far away. 
When the road to Heart Butte was paved after the Flood of 1964, which nearly erased the small cluster of houses -- some of them log cabins -- and forced many residents out, people were suddenly able to return home while still commuting to jobs and school in Browning. Heart Butte became a housing center in the Nineties but since its infrastructure didn’t keep up, times were chaotic. Now it is somewhat defined as a “satellite agency” with a medical clinic. 
Aeolian Sediments 
People visiting the Blackfeet are always impressed by the wind and the amount of dust it carries. Some of the dust has been traced to its origins as far away as China, and it comes high enough and in large enough amounts to affect the climate by screening sunlight. 
In the millennial geologic times when the east side of the Rockies has been so dry that nothing could grow, wind has removed all small particles and left only a stony pavement, which has become the gravel beds that carry today’s underground water. When rain allows vegetation to return, the silts and particles once more built up into topsoil. 
More recently, plowed soil can create brown-outs so complete that traffic must stop; roads are closed. Since the terrible Dust Bowl of the Thirties in the midwest, people have become more cautious and take steps, like strip plowing and no-plow seeding, that prevent so much dust from blowing. When one looks at these strips, the green planted crops are obvious and so are the brown plowed strips. Gold strips are those left fallow with grain stubble and silver strips are those being “chemical fallowed,” which means that the vegetation has been killed to prevent weeds. It remains to be seen whether dust or herbicide is worse. 
The "Eruction" of the Rockies 
Underneath the continents, floating in huge plates or islands of the sixty- mile thick lithosphere, are mammoth sections that carry the continents like froth as they move around the planet. At one time the west edge of the Rockies was the coast of North America and was underlaid by a crack between plates. Then the crack, which earlier had pulled China and Mongolia away from Montana so that land once continuous and still similar was separated by the Pacific Ocean, reversed itself.  Then it was pushed under the edge of the land that became the Rockies. Where layers of sediment had quietly built up, the land was now forced on edge and even into somersaults, clearly visible now in the various colors of the sedimentary rock. 
The raising up of these mountains, which stretch all the way from Canada down through both North and South America, had profound consequences. “The Backbone of the Continent” formed a palisade against which the Blackfeet could take their stand against the rising tide of cultural change that trapped them there. It was the height of the Rockies that created the “catabatic” warm winds. They provided a refuge for game. In the years when there was good snowpack, they fed the streams that cross the reservation from west to east. 
Cretaceous Swamps: fuel and fossils 
All along the edges of the huge lakes and small waterways left by the inland seas and glacial melts, were swamps, The depositor of today’s fuels and dinosaur fossils. Dead animals and especially vegetation lived and died along those fertile places and added their carboniferous remains to the land in lodes of peat which became coal and then gas and oil. Gas and oil will ooze upwards, since they are lighter than stone, and accumulate where they are trapped in places like the Sweetgrass Arch
Discovery of oil and gas along the higher grounds of the reservation greatly increased the value of the land as well as the corruption and dissension that always follows big money. Early on, the effect of the wealth split the reservation population again between those who wanted to make quick money and those who wanted to learn how to manage their own assets. More recently the split has been between those who see the land as sacred and inviolable and those who want to aggressively explore. The first wave of exploitation has ended but there is always the hope that there are other reservoirs of wealth. 
A certain kind of story among the Blackfeet comes from the discovery of dinosaur fossils, which did not escape their reflections and which they recognized as bones. The general gist of the stories is that “water bulls” and “terrible birds” had catastrophic quarrels and that they probably lived under the water of lakes, since they were never seen, but occasionally their bones washed up. 
Glaciation: The Old North Trail 
At various times when the glaciers withdrew or formed, they left a passage down the east slope that was not covered by ice for long periods of time. These grasslands became covered with a kind of braided trail that people and animals have used ever since. Traces of the dragging Blackfeet travois are still visible in some places. Highway 89 vaguely parallels this extremely ancient way.  A travois skid would work where no wheel could go.
Roughly perpendicular there must have been another east/west trail along the melting edge of the glacier where it stopped advancing. Since that edge withdrew and advanced according to the vicissitudes of climate, no visible path is worn in the land. But there must have been vegetation along that edge, which would attract grazers, which would attract predators -- including human beings. Thus the Blackfeet Reservation is at the cross-point of two major pre-historical passages. 
Watercourses and Aquifers: 
Run-Off Country 
Modern topography shapes a system wherein snow piled up in the mountains becomes streams feeding the prairies. The reservation is defined by rivers running west to east: the farthest north (Milk) and the farthest south (Birch) are shared by non-tribal irrigators and create political problems of international dimensions as water diversions age and tribal people become more willing and able to develop irrigation. The Winters Case has now determined that when the US Government creates some kind of land category -- whether it is a nature preserve, a bombing range, or an Indian reservation -- the legal presumption is that whatever its water needs are will take precedence over all state laws. But how does one determine those water needs when the population of the reservation has grown and has changed its practices so that now it needs far more water? This is a source of much anger and worry. 
The Blackfeet Reservation is greatly gifted because it lies across the eastern drainages of the Rocky Mountains. Since state water law is based on who was using the water earliest and who is farthest upstream, even without Winters the Blackfeet tribe is rich in water, one of the most basic necessities of life. At one time, the reservation included the Rocky Mountains, but at the turn of the 19th century when many people were starving to death on the reservation, the tribe was offered a million dollars to give it up. They asked for three million dollars, but in the end, in order to survive, they agreed on one-and-a-half million, thus creating Glacier National Park. 
When the lines were drawn, a little piece just south of the Park boundaries ended up with ambiguous status. Today it is often referred to as the Ceded Strip, and its ownership is contested because of the possibility of oil or natural gas in that area.) This is the location of the proposed Badger-Two Medicine drilling site that has been vigorously opposed.  Though the original treaty describes the east/west interface between the Park and the Reservation as going from peak to peak of the mountains, if you are looking at an ordinary road map, the boundary goes roughly from the Canadian line to Babb to St. Mary, to East Glacier to Heart Butte. 
Drainages formed when the overland glaciers withdrew to the north and the mountain glaciers melted back into the high country. A mighty valley like Two Medicine was formed by huge quantities of water which spread floodplains and carved cliffs that Blackfeet soon learned to use for piskuns (bluffs backed by flat land where bison could be stampeded over the drop-off, killing them, before there were any horses -- carbon dating shows that the oldest ones are the same age as the Egyptian pyramids) and winter campgrounds. Today there is still “run-off” from the Rockies, though the glaciers which are the remnants of the original sheets of ice, are much diminished and may disappear. Now this water irrigates crops and supplies the settlements. 
Hudson’s Bay Divide separates water in the St. Marys River, destined to eventually join Hudson’s Bay, from the Milk River complex (several forks combine) which drains east along the Canadian border, takes a loop into Alberta, and then -- returning to Montana east of the reservation-- finally rejoins what becomes the Missouri. Milk River country is broad and grassy, the location of many an old-time ranch and not a few outlaw hideouts. This has become a politically charged area when it was realized that though the branches of the Milk River arise on the Blackfeet Reservation, the treaty that addresses the water rights is only between Canada and the United States. Long ago an elaborate canal and siphon system was built that carries water far along the High Line to the east where communities have become dependent on it, but delayed maintenance.  Now it is on the edge of catastrophic collapse but no one has the millions of dollars needed for repair. Though the original treaty included the Blackfeet Tribe, there has been no practical benefit for them in the past, but they are determined to remedy that. 
In the central part of the reservation, Cut Bank Creek begins in forks coming out of Glacier Park. The south fork passes Kiowa Camp, a tourist facility on Highway 89. The northern fork goes east past Starr School, a little town originally populated by old-timers and anchored by the Starr School School [sic], and then passes the more recent Government Boarding School. Eventually Cut Bank Creek, before it reaches the Glacier County seat of Cut Bank truly IS flowing through cut banks. 
Browning, the biggest town and the capital of the Blackfeet Reservation, is on Willow Creek, which is ironically one of the least suitable drainages for supporting a large population. Willow Creek is a modest stream which continues east through Blackfoot before it eventually joins Cut Bank Creek and then drains into the Marias. In part, Cut Bank Creek marks the eastern boundary of the reservation. 
Still crossing the reservation from west to east, but farther south, there are three major rivers, each paralleled by a road. One of the most powerful and various is Two Medicine, which begins in southern Glacier National Park in the Two Medicine Lakes, continues in spectacular fashion below Looking Glass Pass through the town of East Glacier, and then curves through foothills and into ranch country. By the time it crosses the southern reservation, it has carved a broad valley with bluffs for piskuns (buffalo jumps) on one side and cottonwood stands along the water. This is where the Holy Family Mission complex stood -- a little east of Highway 89 -- and grew good crops in the fertile flood plain. Only the small church remains. The river continues on until it joins the Marias
Badger Creek runs roughly parallel to Two Medicine but a little farther south. At one time it was the Old Agency where it meets Highway 89. Further on, where it joins the Two Medicine River, is the corner where eastern Glacier and Pondera Counties meet. A section of the reservation here and another piece to the west around Heart Butte are both in Pondera County. All the rest of the reservation is in Glacier County. 
Birch Creek is the southern boundary of the reservation, beginning at Swift Dam. In June, 1964, there was a terrific flood during which Swift Dam failed and sent a wall of water downstream that killed whole families, more than thirty individuals. Birch and Badger also turned into killer torrents and the St. Mary drainage was devastated. Two Medicine and Sherburne dams in Glacier Park also collapsed. These three dams were federal but had not been inspected or maintained. All Highways in every direction were washed out. Decades later some of the rafted flood debris is still easy to identify, but the brush has grown back. 
Another smaller stream, Blacktail Creek is just a little north of Birch Creek. It’s headwaters are just east of Heart Butte. Eloise Pepion Cobell, a descendant of trapper Polite Pepion and herself a banker who dared to take on the United States government to demand that they straighten out the mess they had made of Indian Trust Funds, grew up in a modest ranch house on this creek. 
Heart Butte is the farthest upstream community on Birch Creek and is quickly growing into a secondary agency. 
Considerably downstream on Birch Creek is Willow Rounds, circles of meadows where the people camped, leaving another kind of circles -- tipi rings -- that are the remnants of old Blackfeet campsites. It was the location of an early trading fort, and even more downstream is “Rock City” where Two Medicine and Birch Creek merge into the Marias, a main branch of the Missouri/Mississippi complex that was an important “highway system” in the exploration and development of the prairie West.  The name refers to the erosion carving of the banks, "hoodoos" which seem like buildings.
Fire, thunderstorms, grass and bison 
The key to an ecology is the way the most basic forces balance each other, creating a constantly renewed source of energy that ultimately draws on the sun. Once the prairie was established as a sheet of grass, it was able to sustain huge herds of bison, which grazed intensively in one spot and then moved on. The kinds of grass evolved in response to this occasional “mowing and fertilization.” Thunderstorms played into this in two ways: the electrical charges of lightning created substances in the land that contributed to fertility and the fires the lightning set acted in somewhat the same way as the bison, removing old dead grass while carbonizing it so that plants could use the ash. 
Volcanic Blisters 
Not every volcanic upwelling from deep in the earth results in what we think of as a “volcano” with a top that spews lava and ash. Some magma extrusions never break through the overlying rock, but form blisters that raise the earth high into landmark “mountains,” which are navigational aids, storage for snowpack that feeds springs and wells, and -- in the time of the major glaciers -- “refugia” from the grinding ice. Even now they offer a welcome respite in hot weather and popular hunting locations. The Sweet Grass Hills strike everyone as special to the point of sacredness. 
The name of the Sweet Grass Hills is a misnomer: the original Blackfeet word means Sweet Pine, which is balsam fir. Not much sweetgrass grows in the hills, but sweet pine abounds. The sweetness of both is from coumadin which many of us know as a blood thinner. 
Holterman's glossary gives katoyisix (accent on the first “i”) as an animate (living) plural for sweet pines. McClintock used katoya to translate balsam fir, sweet pine or abies lasiocarpa. But he calls sweetgrass sipazimot(i) and says it is Vanilla Grass or sevastana odorataKatoyis (accent on the “i”) is also the name of Bloodclot Boy or Monster Slayer. Old timers call the same formations “the Bloodclot Hills.” The forms of the complex of three major hills are about the same shapes a blob of clotted blood from a bison carcass might take. 
These volcanic upwellings, depending on a number of variables, might carry valuable mineral deposits to the surface or even precious stones like the famous Montana sapphires. Gold (that monster creator) was discovered on the center butte in 1884 and almost instantly whites thought of a hundred reasons why the Blackfeet would have to give up those hills. The government didn’t care that it was the last holdout of the buffalo, who liked to calve in the sheltering folds of the coulees. Title changed hands in February, 1887, but it was not until late in the twentieth century that the compensatory “Big Claim” payout arrived in the hands of the tribe. 
There was a little ghost town around the gold mine, but the local ranchers got tired of animals getting trapped in the buildings and prowlers coming to pry in the remains, so they bulldozed the place flat. Today’s threat to local people (How often do the ranchers get pushed down the same paths as the Indians before them!) was the invention of cyanide heap leach mining: If one makes a lake, lines it with “impermeable” membrane, heaps up gold ore in the middle and pours cyanide over it, one can recover tiny traces of gold. Of course, there is NO membrane that doesn’t leak, and the Sweet Grass Hills is the watershed for wells for many miles around, still full of value after the buffalo and gold are gone -- cyanide would poison them all. Even worse, by the time the whole butte is chewed up and “leached,” there would no longer be anything to which one can lift one’s eyes when in need of spiritual renewal. 
A search engine such as Google is exceptionally rewarding if you look for “Sweet Grass Hills.” For one thing, there is excellent photography so that you can see for yourself the “signature” horizon line of these volcanic peaks. For another, one can make contact with the organization that works to block any more moves towards cyanide leach pads. Not least, students at Chester High School have posted essays about what the Hills mean to them. And John Holt, Montana writer, has written about the blue fire he claims to see there. Peter Bowen, in his Gabriel Du Pre mystery series, dealt with heap leach mining in the novel “Long Son.” I wrote a story about the hills myself in “Twelve Blackfeet Stories.” 
Spanish Basque sheepherders also lost their hearts to the Hills when they pastured bands of sheep there. They built tall stone cairns from the moraine stones that abound. But there are far more ancient and mysterious structures. 

The U.S. Government, in the course of the Big Claim, tried to refute the claim of the Blackfeet that the place was sacred by saying that there was no church there, no altar or Stonehenge to prove that anyone ever worshipped there. This is a false notion, since to the Native American peoples all land and life was sacred. Still, a place so distinguished was a “power center,” a place a little more holy than others. And the “proof” turned out to be low stone walls just about the right outline for a man to lie down in and just about high enough to make a bit of shelter from the wind. They are for Vision-Fasting.