Saturday, June 24, 2006

Out to Lunch

“I will be in Montana in August, videoing /researching on Thomas Francis Meagher -- including Meagher's policies and interactions with the Blackfeet. I expect to be at Heart Butte/ Browning around 10th August. Please advise if you could advise/ suggest contacts.”

This is the entire content of an email I received last week. I have no idea who the person is who sent it -- I will leave his name off so it won’t affect his job prospects or tenure. Doubtless he took my name from a Google search and assumes that anyone who writes a blog must be at his service. My Google of HIS name revealed nothing of interest or relevance. This sort of message comes in to all of us here who have a public face -- people everywhere on the planet assuming that we’d be delighted to do their research, make their contacts, usher them around their opportunities, drop all our own work, and so on. All for the honor of it.

It’s nothing new -- in the Sixties there were plenty of cruisers who plagued us at Scriver Studio. Once in a while there would be someone useful, like the zoo veterinarian who gave us a quick education about our bobcats that we really needed. (Wild cats need a different kind of distemper shot than domestic cats.) In many ways, Bob’s art education came to him through visiting artists whom he helped to find habitat and gave pointers on anatomy. But there were also spongers and loafers, some of them near-criminal.

Even my own friends could be ugly tourists. One threw a fit in a local restaurant because the waitress couldn’t supply the wine he wanted. She was a student of mine and didn’t deserve abuse, nor did I deserve to feel ashamed for my friend. The worst practice of the “ugly tourist” is talking about us in front of us, as though we were a prairie dog village with interesting characteristics. In the Sixties more innocent drifters came through, both male and female youngsters with little money, ancient vehicles, and no game plan. They expected help and got it: then we never saw them again. Until we saw them on book jackets.

So again this year, just about the time we locals are beginning to relax and enjoy the post-rain weather, along come a horde of writers/researchers/academics/videojocks/anthropologists/education experts in a chilling spray of questions no one could answer even if they wanted to. Like “what does the Tribe really think?” (God knows, though the Devil often seems to get his/her hand in.) As for the relationship between Blackfeet and Francis Meagher, the hot-headed Irishman who was lost overboard from a boat anchored at Fort Benton before he could function as the first governor of Montana, my guess is that the Blackfeet warned him about “water monsters” and he ignored the warning.

Maybe I should warn some of these info-cruisers about little old ladies who seem obedient and unknowing. (Like me.) This email was from someone who was not identified except for a name I didn’t recognize; gave no reference to an intermediary; offered no credentials, compensation, or community relationship. It’s one way among many that back-East folks prey on the West, treating information as just another form of industrial extraction. As they used to say about taking land away from Indians, “Well, they weren’t using for anything anyway -- just let those bison roam around on it.” These jokers say, “Well, you guys never get anything published about the West anyway.” Maybe because the heavyweight publishers are in the East and one must buy them martinis to get their attention.

But one of the rules I always try to observe is that of reversal. What about the point of view of the poor wage slave in the East who is trying to get in touch with the West: maybe family roots or an admiration for Western values. (We’ll put aside as unworthy the yearning to have an adventure in a nice resort area.) How are they ever supposed to make a connection if we all see them coming, put a “gone fishin’” sign on the door, and then lock it so we can get some work done -- since our work goes on all year long?

One suggestion might be to use a professional guide, like Sun Tours in East Glacier. Put out a little money instead of trying to get it free. Go to a Jack Gladstone concert. Use the public library. Do a little research while still back east.

These days the grandmothers are the high school kids I taught in the Sixties -- now they are senators, bank presidents, school superintendents. Yet outsiders come in here assuming they are still living in lodges, cooking over smoky fires, wearing -- um, can’t say sq**w dresses -- Mother Hubbards with big belts, and wielding sharp knives. Grateful for a little attention from big shots. The outsiders decide to buy something “Indian” here in Blackfeet country, so they go to the Museum of the Plains Indian or the Blackfeet Heritage Center and buy a silver and turquoise squash blossom necklace. (If I have to tell you that’s not Blackfeet, get off this blog!)

We get a little testy.

Curley Bear Wagner is supposed to be the official Blackfeet historian. Call him up. He’s in the phone book.

And as for this guy who wants to know about Meagher, what makes him think any Blackfeet keeps records on white guys?


Martha said...

This is hilarious. Thanks for sharing.

martha said...

I will tell you who I am, rather than just leaving a comment. I was born in Anaconda in 1952 and have lived in Helena since 1970. I found your site from Sarpy Sam's Thoughts from the Middle of Nowhere. My Dad had a Napi book when he was young and read us stories from it. It's great to see these. Thanks! :)

critter said...

Great post. I'm from East Coast and labored in the "academic industry" for many decades. The geographic snobbery here is outrageous. Happy you set things straight. Fall is coming and they'll be leaving you in peace soon.

prairie mary said...

But critter! It's just barely getting to be summer!!

Poor academics -- their market is shrinking faster than they seem to realize. Or maybe they do, but where can they go?

Thanks, Martha. I know some Marthas in Helena and they are all great folks!

Prairie Mary

Richard S. Wheeler said...

This is a gem, and you are on to something. Researchers swarm the West like locusts each summer, and produce dubious literature or documentaries, usually from a preordained point of view, or most likely, nothing at all, after harassing the locals. What they really do is try to confirm the notions they entertained before arriving here.

Meagher's critics say he trumped up an Indian scare, i.e., Blackfoot depredations, to consolidate his political power. There were indeed a few clashes, and these made a good excuse to form a militia and howl for aid from Washington. Meagher was in Fort Benton awaiting the arrival of rifles when he vanished. His militia marched and hunted, but nary a Blackfoot did they find.

prairie mary said...

Richard, since your novel "The Exile" is one of the best and most recent bios of Meagher, I believe what you say about him.

Prairie Mary

Cowtown Pattie said...

Much the way we native Texans feel in the winter when the "snowbirds" flock upon our doorsteps.

If they really were serious about learning of Texas culture, they would venture all the way out to Terlingua or Big Bend in July.

Fat chance...

sevenindians said...

haha! This is great, and very well put. I'm really enjoying your blog, Mary. Thanks for writing.