My current project -- okay, one of my current projects -- is getting a guide to the Blackfeet Reservation into print. I’ve blogged about the three resort towns on the border of Glacier National Park (East Glacier, St. Mary and Babb), the main capital (Browning), and now I’m looking at the two “old-timer” communities where people held onto the old ways a little longer. Heart Butte is a favorite, of course, because I lived there for a couple of years when I helped start the first high school. Both they and I have come a long ways since then.
But I thought I’d be practical and run a mileage on check-points of interest. (Don’t forget to get gas in Valier or Dupuyer -- there’s no gas station in Heart Butte.) Starting at the intersection of Highway 44 (E/W) with Highway 89 (N/S), it took .7 miles to get to the historic marker dedicated to Meriweather Lewis, whose sub-group side-expedition on the way home killed two young men not far from this spot. There is also a memorial marker for those killed in the Flood of 1964, a terrifying event that forever changed Heart Butte. The little hamlet was nearly wiped out and many residents moved to Browning.
1.1 Crossing Birch Creek. This is the southern boundary of the reservation. The flood roared down this small river in a thirty-foot-high wall because Swift Dam had gone out. It was an old dam built by one of the Conrad brothers, notorious profiteers who were determined to irrigate the “Birch flats” on the white side. In the process they created Lake Francis and Valier. Only now are the Blackfeet claiming the water necessary to irrigate alfalfa on the north side of the river.
1.2 On the left side of the highway is the turn-off to Heart Butte. It is well marked by shop-class signs for the school. No one wants the suppliers of milk and lunch food to go astray! Let alone a busload of basketball players! Up on the hill on the right just after turning is Webb Pepion’s ranch and studio. He’s “gone on ahead” now but this is his family’s Hayes Act allotment so they are still there. Every time I go by, I remember once when the whole family was out flying kites -- not kid’s kites, but big serious amazing ones! Usually it’s too windy!
1.3 Jay Laber’s “Guardians of the Reservation” reclaim old car parts in a sculpture of two warriors wearing authentic Blackfeet “straight-up” bonnets. There are four sets of these riders, one at each compass point of the reservation.
As you drive along, just north of Birch Creek, you’ll see tangles of silvery wood that are remnants of the Flood of 1964. Today, I saw a fellow out “windrowing” an alfalfa field -- not rowing the wind, but rather cutting the plants so they fall in a line or “row” or “windrow.” When they’ve dried a bit, they’ll be baled.
9.5 A buffalo rock on the right -- that is, an erratic boulder carried down from far away by the glaciers ten-thousand years ago and left when the ice melted. This one has no lichen or weathering because it was under the ground and only exposed when the road was built when Heart Butte began to recover from the flood by tribal paving of the access roads. Nevertheless, the People remember the importance of such huge stones in their past as landmarks and characters in stories, so if you walked over you might find small offerings. Don’t take any (you’d be courting bad luck), but you’re welcome to leave something. There are other, smaller erratic boulders along the road as you go, but none so much like a buffalo as this one.
12.2 Eloise England’s ranch. Her name is up on the gate with one of those fabulous laser-cut silhouettes of cowboys.
13.7 A T in the roadway. Turn to the right. There is a sign pointing to Heart Butte. The left turn goes to Dupuyer. If the road turns to gravel, you cross a stream (Birch Creek), you’re driving through bull pines instead of prairie, then you’ve gone the wrong way This road can be pretty rough but at night when it’s clear and no moon, you’ll never see more stars. It’s just very important to make sure you have a spare tire. Only a few ranchers live out that way.
16.1 A bridge over a much smaller stream than Birch Creek.
19.3 The turnoff to the left goes to the school complex. It is a sort of village by itself. The land came from the Crawford ranch. The first building, the elementary school, was built into the top of the hill, which was supposed to save heating money. There were no windows. Later, when the high school was proposed, the architects asked what main things people wanted. FIRST, WINDOWS! That even came before the gym, which is rather amazing in size and amenities. Some would suggest that the high school is a gym with some adjunct classrooms. Others would say, “What’s wrong with that?”
Most of the teachers live onsite in row housing or trailers. This can be good or bad, depending on how you look at it. On the one hand, it’s relatively safe and people have a lot in common. On the other hand, they are removed from the lives of their students and can get into each other’s hair.
20.4 Another small bridge and then you’re in the town. Note the turquoise water tanks up on the hill. The school water tank is underneath the outdoor basketball court -- if you stand next to it on a quiet night, you can hear sloshing and gurgling.
When you get into town, on the left you’ll see a very large and modern church, St. Anne’s Catholic Church with a hot tub for a baptismal font. The priest and nuns live right nearby. When I was there, the church was far more modest and historic, almost a century old, but much beloved. Alongside is the graveyard (a graveyard is attached to a church while a cemetary is a free-standing bit of land.) which is often covered with a fleece of white baby’s breath which the wind had planted from the many bouquets. Sometimes the wind plays games with the plastic flowers as well. A statue of Mary stands in a little grotto shell.
Just up the hill is a quonset hut which is the Methodist church. The minister who brought it in was fulfilling a promise to restore the Swims Under church, which was a picturesque log cabin on Badger Creek destroyed by the Flood. Most people feel he rather overshot the mark, but the building does service for summer school, clothing giveaways, funerals and the like.
A little farther along the road on the left is the newest church, Whitetail Baptist. I know very little about it. Across the street from it is nearly the oldest spiritual building: the old round house where Indian dances were held in the old days. The round house and the building just past it, the Marge Kennedy Center which was the original Heart Butte school house, are vestiges of the little “government square” that has mostly been removed now, due to dilapidation.
But then comes the infrastructure that Heart Butte needed for a long time in the interval between the paving of the highways and the return of many people (for whom housing projects had been built). An imposing brick building with unique architecture is the hospital or clinic, which has its own Blackfeet doctor -- much needed in a community with so many oldsters, so many alcoholics, so much diabetes. There is a fire hall for the volunteer firemen -- they used to have to come all the way from Browning.
Across the main Heart Butte road is the post office and next to it the Thompson home and the store Tommy ran there for a while.
Just across the side road from the hospital, next to the Boys and Girls Club and the Diabetes Center is a key structure, the Heart Butte Trading Post. Janet and Merlin Running Crane, experienced hard-workers for school and post office, launched this much needed community service in a building once meant to be a sewing machine cooperative. It was a good idea, but the contractors had a hard time finding jobs that weren’t too much or too little (things like tank air-filters) and it ended. There is a website: www.heartbuttetradingpost.net/spash.asp. They have an ATM, phone cards, friendly faces, a place to sit and have coffee, and old-time photos on display.
When I was there today, Eloise Cobell (unafraid to make war on the United States government!) and some banking development ladies were there, one from Manhattan -- yeah, that Indian island in New York State. I wanted to give Janet some comp copies of my Lulu.com books so she could talk them up and maybe decide to sell them there, and Eloise bought “Twelve Blackfeet Stories!” In came Merlin with familiar local banter. “Howdy, stranger. Are you lost?” he asked me. (That means, Geez, I haven’t seen you for a long time!) My comeback is always, “Heck, no, I finally came home.” Happy laughter all around.
In came straggling packs of kids and dogs. Along comes Father Dan -- it’s mid-afternoon, snack time. “Hello, Father Dan! Hello, Father Dan! Hello, Father Dan!”
“Hey, no doubt about who you are!” I exclaim to Father Dan.
“Then why do I still get mail addressed to Occupant all the time?”
“Why, that’s your dog’s name! Haven’t you been reading him his mail? He’s been wondering why that cute poodle never writes!” More laughter.
Old Phillip Dog Taking Gun comes in, now towing an oxygen cylinder. The kids around him are watching him closely to help in case he falls. He leans on the counter, barely able to catch his breath. I go close to him. “Phillip, I’m Mary Scriver.” He nods. He was the janitor when I taught. He’s a notorious character in the on-going soap opera John Tatsey used to write about Heart Butte. A few years ago his granddaughter, whom I taught, was beaten to death by bad friends who thought she talked to much. Her favorite movie was “Pretty Woman.” Someone who saw her in the hospital said they had shaved her head to get at the fractures.
“Phillip, I just want you to know that I’m still upset about Glenda.” He nods, still unable to get his breath. "It shouldn't have turned out that way." I’m horrified to find I’m crying and leave quickly. Behind me, Phillip nods.
In mid-June along the East Front there’s still a bit of moisture in the air and the small cumulus clouds go in procession above the land. The whole near-infinite vista feels transparent -- blued and thinned, green grass echoing sky, shadows drawing pale purple shapes along the waterways and long hills. It’s watercolor rather than oil paint, mystical, a world of light. But it can be cruel.
I saw a heron flying, trailing its long legs. Not a Running Crane.