Monday, June 05, 2006


To get to Dupuyer from Valier, travel south along 89 (the modern approximation of the Old North Trail.) To get to the cemetery turn right at the southern boundary street, the road that heads towards the Rockies. You’ll see a sign for the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch. (Bob Scriver made them a sculpture of Teddy on his horse.) The road forks: take the left. Now you should be able to see a small hill on the left with the white squares of grave markers. A two-track road takes off to the left, looping to avoid a small lake. Be glad if it’s dry weather, because otherwise your vehicle will be slewing around in gumbo.

When I got there early, as is my custom, I was preceded only by a member of the Veteran Honor Guard, Buckley the Auctioneer from Conrad. To occupy the time and as is the duty of an elder, he told me the story of his Grandma Kittson and how she escaped the Baker Massacre, but only barely. There were many sub-plots and explanations. And he told me that this cemetery included many Metis who had taken refuge from the Riel Rebellion in Canada and made homes in the southern part of the Blackfeet reservation. But neither one of us was sure why Jimmie Welch Senior was to be buried here.

Burns the mortician showed up and Buckley helped him fold the U.S. flag properly. Buckley said, “I’m proud to be a soldier for the US of A, but those soldiers of Baker’s were nothing but murderers.” I agreed and tried to relate it to today’s Iraq, but he was having none of that. Burns stayed out of it.

Jim’s two surviving sons, Mike and Timothy, arrived and Jamie, the young one, a girl who arrived when Jim was 72 and newly married to a second woman named Rose -- Rosetta instead of Rosella. Then came Gladys Cantrell with whom he lived for the last decade or so. James Phillip Welch, Jr., the much missed darling of Missoula literati, is not missing here -- his spirit stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his brothers. Joyce Clarke Turvey, daughter of John Clarke, was there and Debbie Magee Scherer, daughter of Merle Magee, Jim’s hunting partner and Bob Scriver’s, too. I mistook Debbie for her older sister, Diane, which bugged her, but then she mistook a couple of others and forgave me. More people, mostly local and Blackfeet, came along, fewer than fifty altogether.

The honor guard numbered seven and fired off three rounds. Taps were sounded on that new-fangled electronic gadget, while the wind snapped the Stars and Stripes overhead and Heart Butte stood out clear as a bell in the background. The Rockies were backed by purple clouds, a storm for the next day. The priest was young and blonde and when we turned down our eyes to pray, I saw that we were standing on wild strawberries.

When a few years ago I found out that Jim Welch Sr. was in Great Falls, I made a pilgrimage, equipped with xeroxed pages of the Browning High School yearbook for the Thirties which Lila Evans had managed to nab for me. We sat for several hours in his and Gladys Cantrell’s cozy apartment, remembering the old days, though I don’t think Jim ever did figure out exactly who I was.

Jim said that when he and Bob were playmates, they were in trouble together so often that every time something happened around the school, Doug Gold, the superintendent, would say to the secretary, “Get Jim and Robert in here. They must have had something to do with this.” One of their better tricks was taking off the grille on the air duct from the furnace and putting some foul mess from chemistry class in there before carefully screwing the grille back on. Gold went up and down the hall, unsuccessfully trying to figure out where the terrible smell was coming from.

An early scheme backfired. They’d been reading about pirate treasure and decided to hide some money. Between them they had thirty-seven cents, which they buried on “Kindergarten Hill” behind the school. Though they carefully noted landmarks, when they needed their thirty-seven cents again, they discovered the hole was disguised all too well. So far as anyone knows, the treasure might still be up there except that Kindergarten Hill has been bulldozed.

When the boys were teenagers, each was sent out to work on a ranch for the summer. Bob was chore boy, hay hand and wood cutter for the Stones, but Jim went to a ranch where he was the remuda cowboy. At the crack of dawn when the bull cook got up to start the fires and put the bread to baking, he woke Jim by lifting up the foot of his bed and tipping him out. Jim’s job was to find the grazing horses and bring them in by the time breakfast was over. Then he went into the kitchen for his own breakfast -- he assured me the female cook took special care of him -- and put a lunch in his saddlebacks for his day work, which was riding fencelines to keep them prepared.

Bob and Jim shared their belief that women were the source of all good things -- stand by the cook! They also combined brains with manual work, so Jim was both an administrator and a welder. But he was what some call a “fiddlefoot.” He often made good money, but then moved on to some new opportunity. This is where he differed from Bob, who anchored in Browning.

Just before I arrived with the yearbook copies, Jim had begun to wander again. He’d leave the house with the little dog and not return for so long that searchers would begin to sweep the streets of Great Falls. Several times they found the two wanderers exhausted and dehydrated, the little dog’s tongue hanging out and Jim declaring he knew where he was, though he didn’t. Pretty soon it was clear that Gladys, who has her own health issues and who is a very active advocate for Native American art, was going to have to give him up. He spent the last few years in the Browning nursing home.

He said that when he was a boy the old-timers -- real buffalo warriors -- would sit on the benches in front of the Sherburne Merc (not the more recent one but the one that was where the bowling alley is now) and tell about raids and hunting. The sidewalk in front of the store was wooden and several feet off the ground, so Jim -- to eavesdrop -- would sit hidden just over the edge while he listened. The old men would pretend they didn’t know he was there, but then they would forget anyway and go on talking in Blackfeet. “Remember the time we went to Crow Country? You were there, and you... and you!”

He said that when it was winter, these old men -- who were massive in the old Blackfeet way -- would put on their capotes made from Hudson’s Bay blankets, and when they walked down the board sidewalks, everyone got out of the way and stared at them in awe when they went by.

Born in 1914, Jim was part of a family woven through history in Heart Butte, Browning, Fort Belknap, and back into the Carolinas along a Cherokee thread. He wanted to be buried in Dupuyer so he could rest between his mother and his grandmother. I expect he was hoping to see his wives again, both named Rose and both “gone ahead.” But Gladys Cantrell says she will stay here until she’s a hundred years old and he can just wait for her.

1 comment:

Joan Eldridge Ridell said...

I have stumbled upon your blog and have been fascinated.
My first time to Montana, and Browning in particular, was in July of 1997. I have been wanting to go since my childhood where I listened at my father's knee about growing up there. My dad died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1970 and we never did get to Montana. We had tried in 1964 but the flood kept us away and he never did return.
I was widowed and turning 50 in a few months and decided that I better begin to do the things that mattered to me, including making my long hoped for trip to Montana.
I had my dad's Browning High School yearbook from 1929 and hisleather-bound autograph book with beautiful drawings in it by his friend and cousin, Al Racine.
I took all the back roads from Illinois because I had read a book I never forgot called Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon.
I had been searching for my dad's family since he died in 1970. He was abandoned by his family in about 1920 and raised by a foster family, the Kells. Doc Kell was the doctor on the reservation and also worked for the Great Nothern Railroad. I knew Dad's real father's name (Harry Schildt) and that was about all.
While in the museum I saw the book by Bob Scriver and while reading about him I dedeuced that he had gone to school with my father. I went next door to find him feeding a bottle to an antelope fawn.
I showed him the yearbook and asked him if he remembered it. He said he sure did and, in fact, had done all of the drawings in the book. I then asked him if he remembered Jimmy Eldridge and he exclaimed that he had played trumpet in the band with Bob. That was the first time I learned that my father had even played a musical instrument.
Bob wanted to buy the yearbook from me but I declined. I did, however, copy it when I returned to Illinois and sent that to him. I also had a book by Doug Gold (who had been one of my dad's teachers) and he wanted that too. I had seen the book in a used book store in Livington on my way out and we called the store then and there and he ordered it.
I have since learned that the log cabin on Bob's ranch out on Highway 89 was originally built by my great grandfather, Andrew Schildt. There is another cabin he built on my cousin's property north of Kiowa Junction but it is not restored and is slowly returning to the earth.
Since finding all of my dad's family (both on the reservation and off) I begun relationships with them all.
I have even built a home in the Flathead Valley and plan to move there permanently in about 3 years. I'd love to hear your whole story and I love reading your blog.