On Tuesday it’s the turn of my side of town to water. Normally I get up about 4AM, do Internet stuff for an hour while the sun comes up (I can see it from the computer-side window), read the paper, and go back to bed until 9AM when the church next door begins bonging its way through the day. But we have to stop watering between 10AM and 6PM, so on watering day I stay up to move the sprinkler around the yard until 10AM. Otherwise, something has to go dry. Right now I have peonies (pre-existing), geraniums (big blood-red ones I brought from Portland), daisies (which just mysteriously appeared) and blue cranesbill geraniums (likewise). The tomatoes in the bathtubs are doing well. But this schedule makes me groggy. I figured I’d sneak in a nap.
Instead, one of my former students called to see if he and a friend could stop by. This not just any former student: this is Leland Ground, descendant of Mary Ground, one of the true matriarchs of the tribe though she had blue eyes. I taught Leland and a couple of his brothers. One brother was a classroom aide while I was teaching in Heart Butte. One student was considered uncontrollable -- he would occasionally rise up and become violent-- so Roger was supposed to sit with him and keep him under control. Lots of times I’d be talking about something and realize that Roger was the only person in the room who was really interested! The thing is that Ground guys are smart. Their sister, Mary Ellen LaFromboise, is one of the smartest and most progressive people on the reservation. I hope I don’t get her into trouble by saying so. (Praise can make a person a target around here.)
In 1961 Leland was in the first class I ever taught after student teaching. In those days they “tracked” kids and we had four tracks in Browning. I taught the bottom of the eighth grade and the top of the seventh grade. Leland was in the top of the seventh. He was little in those days, with big bashful eyes like an antelope, and a gentle manner, a desire to be friends with everyone. But you could see the wheels turning in his head all the time, sparks flying up as the fires in there burned, maybe hear an occasional zap as the electricity made contact.
So now he’s a grandpa and he’s ready to begin writing. Not about candy or Hawaii the way he used to, but real stuff. To show he remembers his lessons, he recites “be, am, is, are, was, were, been...” , the verbs of being, the same way that I learned in the eighth grade from Agnes Carter in Portland, Oregon, and taught my classes. My whole grade school class, which reconvenes every month in Portland to have dinner out together (this is the Vernon Grade School Class of 1953 which overlaps with the Jefferson High School Class of 1957) can recite the verbs of being in their sleep. So can my brother. It’s one of those culture meme things and it persists because it works. If you memorize some of these things (verbs of being, linking verbs, prepositions, the alphabet) it makes a lot of stuff much simpler.
Leland and I have both been a helluva lot of places since then. I started really writing at his present age. Since I have no physical children, my former students mean a lot to me -- or maybe all teachers feel as fierce and possessive about their students. When I make contact with Richard Stern, my ferocious and famous writing teacher at the University of Chicago, he certainly recognizes me and seems to have warm feelings. This chain of learning feels to me very significant, at the heart of being human and civilized. I don’t know how anyone could argue with that.
These big Blackfeet men -- Leland brought Glenn Calf Looking along to ride shotgun -- have shared ceremonial experience with me. Leland’s family, like the Kipp family, is involved in Medicine Pipe Bundle Openings and, as well, Leland has a long history with Pentecostal Christian groups which share some characteristics with my Unitarian Universalist congregations, though they'd be startled to think so. He was raised Catholic and still accepts that. Blackfeet feel the more religions the better. I'm inclined to agree. So these tall bulky men sat in my precarious wicker chairs, balancing the porcelain mugs I gave them and sipping politely though I was so preoccupied I didn’t even offer them cream and sugar, while we discussed points of theory about this or that. (I had no little cakes or cookies to offer them -- a bad side affect of being diabetic. I should freeze some, I guess.)
Both Leland and I have gone white-headed now. I thought he might have braids and he did, but his mother died last December and he cut them off to grieve. Like many others, he remembers my curly red hair. While we shared memories, Glenn patiently looked through my Blackfeet picture books.
We took a look at my Bundle Transfer dress, which has stains on the front. They recommended Woolite. When one has a Bundle Transferred, the previous owner takes off their clothes and the new owner puts them on, so that the Power of the Bundle will know to follow that person. It’s polite to make a new set of clothes, which is what Margaret Many Guns and Richard Little Dog did for Bob and me, but Margaret didn’t have a lot of money and wasn’t really that much in favor of transferring to a napi-yahki (white woman) anyway so she didn’t go all out. It’s a peach colored cotton dress with purple and emerald ribbon sewed on by machine. I want to add beads and some other things in case we ever find our Bundle. (Lorraine, Bob’s fourth wife, didn’t want me to have it and it disappeared when he died.)
We talked about the significance of the animal skins in the Bundle and how important it is to know the iconography and feelings they represent before one can properly dance with them in the ceremony. My big yellow cat came at that time and stood on my lap. (She thinks she’s an icon.) She looked the men over pretty sharply as we rarely get company. Her tortoiseshell sister came later when they were gone and took detailed notes on where the men had sat.
Since then, I’ve spent an hour looking through my slides for one I took of Leland in the 7th grade. He’s standing by another teacher’s big German Shepherd dog, a friend. This dog bit some kids but not Leland. He’s a peacemaker, a weaver-together, a teller of tales. I’m so proud of him! And you know where he lives? In the house where Bob Scriver grew up. In fact, Leland’s bedroom is the room where Bob Scriver was born in 1914. Synchronicity.
Just now I was delighted to find bees guzzling in the peonies. I’ll look for that slide some more.