Someone who actually reads this blog was surprised that I shrugged off an over-romantic and misattributed quote. They had the impression that I was interested in historical accuracy and theoretical correctness and all that stuff. Well, I am, but that’s not all that Indians are to me. Blackft, at least, are to me real people. I’ll see if I can dramatize that for you.
At this major Native American conference in Great Falls this weekend, famous Indians abounded. I recognized George Horse Capture and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell easily, though they seemed smaller than in their photos. I think that’s because I’m used to massive Blackft men. In fact, that’s why I was down there -- not for the symposium, which I will acquire and read carefully -- but because Robey Clark was lucky at poker and offered to take Darrell Kipp, his wife Roberta, his niece Kelly Dee, and myself out to dinner.
So there we were at Tony Roma’s Ribs. Roberta’s administration job with the Browning Junior High had just ended the day before. Robey had flown in from another conference in Albuquerque and was aching to get home to Portland. Darrell had just done his spiel for the Immersion School Panel. I was barely getting back to normal after the Big Worm Safari in the Sweet Grass Hills. Kelly had just graduated from the sixth grade. We were a very tired bunch.
Consider Robey and Darrell. I don’t think love is too strong a word for my feelings about them, but they’ll get teased if I use that word, so let’s just say I’ve known them forty years and am very fond of them.
Robey was my student in the Sixties. I had the idea of rewriting “The Taming of the Shrew” so it was all in Western lingo, which turned out to be quite easy, and Robey played Petruccio’s sidekick. I’m sure he was wearing a bowler hat, but I don’t know where we got it. He had (and still has) a kind of droll, bemused presence that was exactly right. We took our production to the State Thespian Festival and performed it in the old Brewery Theatre in Helena to great acclaim.
When I was trapped in Portland, working for the city, I could see Robey’s office window from my window. We went out for lunch. He has worked for Northwest Education Labs for decades and is a master of the kind of education theory that depends upon closely reasoned stats and graphics. He claims I betrayed him by never teaching him how to study, which is true, and I tell him that no one ever taught me how to study either. It appears that both we childs were left behind. But we’ve managed somehow. His son is just finishing up a Master’s in computer science.
Darrell’s son (both men have a lone son) was slaving away on the rez with an all-female camera crew. I doubt he was sorry to miss the dinner party, though Robey had won enough to feed them all. He’s a VERY good poker player.
Darrell himself was my teacher in the Seventies. (He was a senior in high school during my first year of teaching in Browning at the Junior High School.) I was newly divorced, stunned and gasping, and back at the school district trying to remember how to teach. The school board had just decided that all teachers would have to learn “Blackft History” and tapped Darrell to teach it in the evenings.
The subject was highly controversial because everyone was convinced that the history was incendiary. A terrible massacre ended Blackft resistance, the Baker Massacre, which one dared hardly even name at that time. Baker had been sent to retaliate for the murder of Malcolm Clarke, but his two scouts took him to the wrong camp where at first light the company killed the peace chief, Heavy Runner, and then many people of the camp, which was mostly full of smallpox victims, women and old people. To speak of it was to bring back all that emotion. But it was time and Darrell did it. Some nights we teacher/students went out of the evening class with wet eyes. Other times Darrell got us laughing so much our sides hurt. He gave us lots of room to tell stories and be ourselves, some Indian and some not.
Then Darrell was on the tribal committee that oversaw the first Tribal School, “The Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop,” run by a wild character named Bill Haw, who is now in a nursing home near Kalispell. They actually took an old school bus and headed south in their own version of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, but Darrell didn’t go along. He would have loved to, I’m sure.
Now he’s just winding up a twenty year experiment with the Nitzipuwahsin Immersion Blackft School. It was scary. There were casualties. Then it began to work. What surprised everyone was that the students at this school, whether or not they learned to speak Blackft, were top achievers when they went back into the public mainstream. Narcisse Blood, who has been working with immersion schools on the Alberta side, says you can look over a gymnasium of kids in bleachers and pick out the ones who have been in immersion schools. They glow with energy, they pay attention, they behave, they care, they’re ON.
So there we sat, well-known to each other, going over memories and plans for retirement and the latest rez scandals about the Tribal Council or the Tribal College. Then someone mentioned a recent car accident: two fine men in their mid-forties suddenly snuffed out. That night they’d been celebrating a bit because of an achievement but they weren’t big drinkers. Handsome, strong, intelligent, funny, they were among the stunt men who ride horseback with their long hair flying in a dozen Westerns. When they aren’t working on a movie, they grow Metis mustaches.
All of us were quiet. “It should never have happened,” we said. “It was wrong to lose men like that.” The accident victims were just a little younger than Kipp and Cobell, Baker’s two scouts, had been at the massacre. Darrell and Robey are just a little older, more the age of Chief Heavy Runner, just a few years away from retirement which they interpret as shifting to work they really want to do. One of their achievements is simply staying alive.
The eighty-mile drive back to Valier went by in a hurry. The summer landscape sank into muted green and mauve as the sun lowered behind the Rockies. The sky was full of chalk-white marks, swirls and lines made by jet pilots from the airbase. Very young they are, both male and female.
It occurred to me that Robey Clark is a descendant of one of the scouts with Baker, the Italian sailor named Cobell who came up the Missouri to Fort Benton on a paddle steamer. Darrell Kipp carries the other scout’s name. He has a bit of Kipp blood, but he’s more directly descended from Heavy Runner, the peace chief who was shot while he waved his protective paper.
It’s been about 150 years since then. Not the 200 years that we’ve had in mind while re-tracing and marking Lewis & Clark. Those two opened the door to tragedy. Kipp & Clark (no relation) have been doing their best to change that tragedy into opportunity. They’ve been spending about a third of every year on the road or in the air, not looking for a route across the continent, but rather a pathway into the future for their people.
We’ve got to hurry. Kelly Dee and her classmates will need that path soon. You can see the urgency on the faces of George Horse Capture and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell. But at this conference there are many young faces as well. Even Kipp & Clark can’t go on forever, no matter who loves them.