Sunday, June 26, 2005

Sam the Worm Man in the Sweet Grass Hills

When a teenaged boy likes something, he says “sweeeeet,” and that’s close to what the “sweet” in “Sweet Grass Hills” means! No, that’s too frivolous. The Sweet Grass Hills strike everyone as special to the point of sacredness. On Friday Sam James, a professor and worm expert from the University of Kansas, and I went up there with a shovel to look for worms. It was a gorgeous day with a long horizon, a little hazy, a blessing of a breeze. The grass was up to our knees. Sam, who is from Kansas, dug divots and turned rocks (always replacing them) until we did indeed find worms.

The trouble is that exotic worms -- imported somehow from Europe in potted plants or ship ballast -- have invaded Montana just like every other place on the North American continent. The worms follow the example of the people. We were looking for worms that might have been saved from the glaciers of ten thousand years ago because the Sweet Grass Hills were tall enough that they were not entirely engulfed by ice. Plants and animals were able to survive on the peaks. But every worm we found was European and so was every person we talked to. Sam went back today to look some more.

The name of the Sweet Grass Hills is a misnomer: the original Blackfeet word means Sweet Pine, which is balsam fir. The sweetness of both is from coumadin which many of us know as a blood thinner. Holterman gives this: 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 odorata. Katoyis (accent on the “i”) is also the name of Bloodclot Boy or Monster Slayer. Did the old-timers know the uses of coumadin?

Gold (that monster metal) was discovered on the center butte in 1884 when they were still surrounded by the Blackft reservation, and almost instantly there were a hundred reasons why the Blackft 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. The next threat to them (How often do the ranchers follow 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 (still full of value after the buffalo and gold are gone) is the watershed for wells for many miles around -- 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.

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 he sees there.

Spanish Basque sheepherders also lost their hearts to the Hills when they pastured bands of sheep there. They built tall stone cairns from the morainie 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 Blackft 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. I don’t know where they are. I’ve seen photos. They are for vision-fasting.

Part of the reason, in my opinion, that Native peoples were hit so hard by alcohol and continue to be so clobbered by drugs is that they were a people who had learned how to tune their own spirits to control consciousness in exquisite calibrations through the use of solitude, meditation, and fasting. Alcohol and drugs are cyanide to such spirits. Vision quests, often coming-of-age ordeals, were dangerous enough that those who did it asked a friend to check on them to make sure that they didn’t slip over the edge into death. There is a story about a man who was supposed to guard his son, but out of pride let the boy fast too long. The boy changed into a small bird and disappeared.

In his former life, before being a worm biologist, Sam taught Transcendental Meditation for a decade. When he got back last night, I asked him what he thought about this idea. “TM was developed by the kind of Indian in India,” he said. “I have no idea about people here.” He wanted to talk about what a guide book said: the Sweet Grass Hills were formed by volcanic intrusions that came up from the core of the earth and “blistered” between layers of earth. Though they were hot enough to transform some of the rock around them, they could not be seen at the surface until erosion wore the earth away. Great metaphor for contemplation.

My hostess gift was a beautiful blue ceramic jam jar that Joy, Sam’s wife, made herself. The handle for the lid is a looped-up angleworm. Sweeeeeeet!

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