April 23, 2006, and it’s a cold day on the edge of snowing on the high Montana prairie. I sit in my little house, which is drafty because I’ve been de-winterizing and chilly because I’m resisting the expense of turning on the floor furnace. The reality of what I’m reading presses on me. The book is “Montana 1911,” a translation of a diary kept by “Willy” Uhlenbeck during the summer that her husband was studying the Blackfeet language.
She is a few miles north of here, on the reservation, and though it is August, it is cold, raining, with slippery gumbo underfoot. She and her husband are dependent on the Tatsey family for their food, transportation and shelter, which is to say meals of “cow tongue, rice and apricots,” transportation by rickety “buggy,” and a tent shelter that is easily penetrated by both wind and water. Their feet are constantly cold because of being wet, so they stay in the “camp bed” as much as possible. This was the life of a prestigious German scholar in those days and most of the time it was compensation enough to know they were doing important work.
To establish another relationship for me, 1911 was the year Thad Scriver went back to Quebec to marry Wessie, the girl from the prosperous farm next door. When she saw her new home, a small two-story house in Browning, she was in despair. Wessie was my mother-in-law -- hardly a scholar, but used to a comfortable life. She would have welcomed a long chat over tea with Willy Uhlenbeck, but neither knew of the existence of the other. The Uhlenbecks traded at the Sherburne Merc where they bought endless amounts of candy to smooth their social relationships with Blackfeet of all ages and types. Candy worked a bit better than whiskey, but -- looking back -- was not much better for the people. (“Candy is dandy but likker is quicker.”) The other remedy, for themselves, is hot tea. I make a cup of hot tea to share with them in absentia as I read.
This book, “Montana 1911,” is translated and edited by Mary Eggermont-Molenaar, who lives in Calgary. The first half book is Willy’s diary, the second part is stories collected by Uhlenbeck, and there are three other essays, by Inge Genee, Alice Kehoe (who was an anthropologist here in the Fifties) and Klaas van Berkel. In addition, there are two translated essays originally by J.P.B. de Josselin de Jong and many photos, mostly by the same. Though it might appear to be a technical, hard-to-read, textbook, it is in fact as engrossing and enlightening as McClintock’s “The Old North Trail,” another of the basic documentations of the Piegan in that time period. One is quickly drawn into this world proceding on two levels, one the most basic material culture of survival on the prairie just before WWI (tents, blankets, luggage, and tin basins) and the other a highly developed verbal and philosophical pursuit still not surpassed.
Willy speaks of ordinary things: which of the children seems shy, the lives of the horses, the hot afternoons when she washes out her handkerchiefs and finds that the first is dry before she has finished sudsing the last, the sheets of flowers and the glory of the sunsets over the mountains. She is very open to salvation by scenery. And, with a photographer’s eye, she describes the physical charms of the Indian people whom she often remarks are “soft” or “gentle,” with shining eyes. She criticizes fat, dirt and slyness. Things are “nice” when they are harmonious and pleasant. The book is dedicated to Annie Tatsey, who strove daily to make life “nice” for her family and the Uhlenbecks.
Uhlenbeck himself doesn’t appreciate scenery so much. His stomach hurts, his feet are freezing, he is happy only when he is working with his little file cards. The translator, who has done research on these people in Europe, assures us that the man is a neurotic, probably a latent homosexual, and unable to sustain an ordinary teaching schedule in a university. Yet he has made this major contribution, partly through the help of devoted university students. He loves the Indian children and brings them back to Willy in the tent for candy. (It is Willy who keeps him functioning. They have no children of their own, so the professor is her child.) The happiest times are when the adults come to sit at his feet while he reads back to them the Blackfeet stories he has transcribed in their language. They can understand what he says and are amazed. If there is a problem with teaching Blackfeet as a written language, it is that there is nothing to read in Blackfeet -- but here it is: the texts to work through in the same way Dutch Willy works through “Adam Bede” to learn English better.
Things were not going well that August. The weather was tough -- but the real problem was Tatsey, who had agreed to take them in and provide them with “teaching” all summer. Indians do not confront -- they evade. Tatsey is clearly going back on his deal but he is elusive, always with an excuse, an errand that has to be done. Maybe the problem, thinks Willy, is really that his oldest daughter is dying in one of the flimsy tents. She has tuberculosis “probably,” says the agency doctor who barely glances at her. In the same miserable tent, without even a camp bed, the 95-year-old grandmother is also dying. She says that she hopes the girl dies first so that there will be someone to greet her after she dies herself. Tatsey has no way to save them and Willy quickly exhausted her small store of medicines she keeps for Uhlenbeck.
Joseph Tatsey is listed in the invaluable record of the Blackfeet census of 1907-08 as half Blood Blackfeet and one-fourth Piegan Blackfeet. On his father’s side he is related to Culbertson’s wife, the formidable Natawista. He is a go-to guy, so he doesn’t just take care of his own family but is constantly asked to counsel and assist other Indian families with difficulties -- in those days everyone of every kind has difficulties, so he is busy. John Tatsey, who was the sole police in Heart Butte for many decades and wrote a column in the paper about the local reprobates, is remembered fondly. But today it is the “Tatsey-akis,” the Tatsey female descendants, who are go-to people. They know individuals, strategies, precedents, and how to use them. Many have achieved prominence in education. They are bold and competent women.
Another “big man” of the times was Joe Kipp, whose store and boarding house occasionally became refuges of the Uhlenbecks when Tatsey broke camp, went off with their household, and disappeared temporarily. They were in residence with Kipp when David Duvall, the resourceful informant for Clark Wissler who did much of the basic anthropological work on Blackfeet, became distraught over a quarrel with his wife and shot himself to death in another room. Willy tries to know as little as possible about it.
Mary Clearman Blew once said something in conversation almost off-hand, but it has remained with me. It was concerning the importance of “first generation” witnesses to history. The Uhlenbecks, Tatsey, Kipp, Duvall -- all of them were not just witnesses but participants -- they WERE history. There is nothing here about scalping or making slaves of captives. Nothing about sex or addiction. This is about rebuilding a society.
The Uhlenbecks didn’t come for Indian Days or to write popular fiction. They weren’t wealthy dilletantes. When one of the Tatsey children brought them some pancakes and bacon in their tent because they were too sick with one of the constant colds to go over to the Tatsey camp, Willy says they ate with their fingers because she had neither fork nor knife. Yet when individuals tried to buy candy from her she was careful to protest that she was not a mere tradesman. Her sweets were gifts, given according to whom she thought deserved them.
Probably I’ll write more about this book later, but it is clear that a real library about Blackfeet must include this important -- and newly accessible thanks to Mary Eggermont-Molenaar -- collection of stories. It is VERY expensive, but well worth the cost.
“Montana 1911, A Professor and his Wife among the Blackfeet” edited by Mary Eggermont-Molenaar. 2005, University of Calgary Press, 2500 N.W. University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 2N4. www.uofcpress.com. ISBN 1-55238-114-5.