We hear a lot about the boarding schools for Native Americans run by religions. Books have been written and the consequences have been debated. But in the Aquarian Era, roughly the end of the Sixties and first part of the Seventies, there was an entirely different kind of school happening: “free schools,” called that because they were free to do things their own way.
In Browning the Free School movement was embodied by William T. Haw, who came straight from a Rogerian MA in counselling in Detroit. Carl Rogers, in case you’ve forgotten, was part of the Third Force psychology movement, which said, “How come we keep studying people who are hurt and bent (neurotics, psychotics) when what we’re trying to achieve is people who are functioning at their best? What do we know about about happy, achieving people?” Rogers was famous for sitting down with the truly damaged and simply trying to “mind meld” until he kind of got a “vibe” or clue. This was revolutionary.
So Bill Haw showed up in Browning, where the idea had always been to power down your enemies, and his favorite case from Detroit was about a little black girl who had been seriously traumatized. He got down on the floor with this nearly pre-verbal child and they colored and drew pictures together until she let him into her world. Counselling was a success. One of his other proud moments was being arrested in Detroit for some traffic offense, but then organizing the prisoners into a soulful singalong.
At this time young people were really into power and Browning High School was highly excited by AIM and college-level revolts and occupations. They staged a revolution at BHS, freaking out just about everyone over thirty (who couldn’t be trusted anyway) but Haw went into the auditorium with them and did his Rogerian thing until the kids settled down and went back to classes as usual. The school was crowded even then, so Haw’s office was in a converted boys’ bathroom. Phone calls to him had a strange echo because of the ceramic tile. But it WAS on the corner with a good view of the Rockies.
Teachers were just beginning to live in East Glacier, for lack of housing in Browning, but the school board felt hard-line about it and told us we’d be docked if we didn’t make it to school As it turned out, the winter of 1972 was one of the worst on record and for one ten day period no one could make it through the twelve miles except on a snowmobile, a vehicle just coming into use. The effect was to bond the teachers a bit closer than usual as we snowshoed the days and sang folksongs through the evenings. Three of us big heavy ladies hitched rides to town with Bill in his van and with us situated over the back axle, we never got stuck. We called ourselves the “Three Graces.”
The Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop was housed in the old commodity warehouse, which had stood empty for years. Nowadays activists sneer at being offered such old leftovers, but Haw’s ethic was one of recycling, pioneering, inventing and pushing the limits. The students helped with the conversion necessary to create a Sandwich Shop. They were drop-outs, thrown-outs, and where-did-HE-come from kids and the faculty was also at least a little bit hippie. The idea of the Sandwich Shop was partly to feed the kids and partly to run a little business that casually brought in adults and gave the kids experience.
In the middle of winter, an old school bus was found somewhere and the whole school went south. The adventures were scary and mildly risky, but at the end everyone felt as though they’d really done something extraordinary -- no longer did they feel trapped by the rez.
I loved hanging around, but I was really an outsider except for one summer workshop held at the Cut Bank Boarding School which normally stood empty all summer. The government grant was to help Montana kindergarten teachers who were dealing with Indian kids understand what was going on with them. Bill’s basic plan was to arrange for something to happen to the fifty or so participants, and then to spend time in small groups reacting to what had happened and what they had learned.
These were all “nice” white people plus some local Indian folks. One of his first strategies was a paper and pencil test that revealed prejudice. It was always a surprise because those who were most rigid and uncompromising often considered themselves the most tolerant! Many of the Indians were far more opinionated than the whites.
But the biggest success was an afternoon when Bill divided the class into three groups for some real life experiences. One was taken out by Starr School and dumped out on foot. Their instructions were to get back however they could. A second group was sent up to Moccasin Flats on a scavenger hunt: some coffee grounds, an old newspaper, a beer bottle cap, etc. Moccasin Flats was then the oldest and scariest part of town. The third group was arrested and thrown into the notorious jail. Among their numbers was Mary Spotted Wolf, a tribal judge!
In these violent meth-driven days, I’m not sure this sort of thing should be done, and even Bill was a little worried. But the pedestrians returned in the backs of pickups with kids and dogs, the scavenger hunt got a little delayed because they kept being asked to stay for tea in the shabby but scrubbed kitchens of the old cabins where they knocked, and the jail-birds had an uproarious time with the local drunks -- all well-acquainted with Mary Spotted Wolf. The experience was a tipping-point for a lot of nice white ladies who had been forced to attend because their principals made them and they needed the education credits. They gave up their fantasies.
Bill went to Alaska where he was an administrator and then “retired” back to Kalispell where he and his second wife ran a pet store. Life was exciting as always. He told about installing a burglar alarm that called him at home if there were any unusual noises in the pet store at night. At 3AM his phone rang and he was connected with a speaker phone in the store. “Who’s there?” he asked. A short conversation later he realized he was interrogating the pet store parrot instead of a burglar.
Today Bill is not coherent and lives in a nursing home. I’m not sure who could write a formal account of his impact on the Blackfeet Reservation school system, but someone ought to do it. Maybe Terry McMasters, who taught English and learned ceramics in those turning-point years. Maybe Russ Pannoni. It seems to me important to have that model of mild and good-natured revolution in front of us.