Friday, October 12, 2007


Today I woke up with cabin fever and anyway I kept stumbling over the box of stuff I wanted to take up to the rez. So I just went out the door. Five minutes later I was back for that box. And while I was at it, picked up the grocery list for Cut Bank on the way home.

First stop, best stop. It was Heart Butte, where I taught ‘89-91. What made it so terrific was seeing the success of Janet and Merlin Running Crane at their “Heart Butte Trading Post.” Originally built as a kind of steel warehouse where a consortium of women did contract sewing (gas mask liners and other mysterious oddments), then used as a teen center (soon destroyed by outlier teens who couldn’t stand seeing anything good happen because it interfered with their conviction that the whole world was bad and that’s why everyone was mad at them), and now the Trading Post, this store is far more than just a store. It’s as close as there is to a cafe, for one thing, and right across from the Heart Butte Clinic. No pharmacy but there’s an ATM! You could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw that ATM!

Janet and Merlin, who have worked for both the school and the post office, know the importance of consistency, order, and learning how to do stuff, like on the computer: hence, a blog! A BLOG! This summer, when wildfires looked as though they might invade both Heart Butte and East Glacier, that blog was a welcome contact with the outside world, both for people not in town and for the firefighters themselves. Now that the excitement is over, Janet is posting history of the town, finding photos where she can. I’m just thrilled that someone is breaking this trail, and doing it with generosity and insight. It’s not a matter of getting rich in money, but in other ways.

I never remember that Janet grew up in Valier -- she says “on the west side of Lake Francis” which means a farm, not in town. She’s creating an elaborate scrapbook history of her own family. All I can say is that when you cross the best of the Norwegians with the best of the Blackfeet (Running Crane is the name of one of the strongest chiefs.) you’ve really got some productive, capable, determined people. We had two short but important discussions between Father Dan needing some help with his donations for Dan Boggs’ funeral (Oh, what a loss! One of the older, dependable, shrewd men we all counted on!) and a character in need of Spam and eggs for his lunch. (Janet says spam is all the rage in Heart Butte! But evidently no one fixes it the way my mom used to: baked with a crust of mustard, honey, clove, and cinnamon. They just fry a slice alongside their eggs.)

The first discussion was about privacy. Janet puts things in, then some family member calls her up and says, “If you dare say anything about such-and-such, I’ll never speak to you again!” She says usually she can’t figure out what the problem is, since what she was going to include seemed like good stuff, like the guy who’s making lots of money. But it’s a major thing around here never to let anyone know how much money you have. They might want to borrow some. They might demand that you pay back what you borrowed from THEM. The law might read about it and come looking for taxes or child support. Those outliers might come on a dark night with no one around and try to rob you. We ended up with a little list of why people around here are so often hooked on privacy:

1. They get sick of regulators always snooping around and wanting to know blood quantum, or acreage under irrigation, or a great-grandparents’ Dawes Act papers. Indians, more than any other people in America have been labeled, sorted, assigned, restricted, required, promoted, defined and redefined until they get sick of it. And, as Darrell Kipp has been saying for decades now, farmers are the new Indians.

2. People who grow up in families with alcoholism or other kinds of abuse are warned from toddlerhood never to let anyone know what happened at home. (If you could call it that.) In the absence of effective law, family members and others sometimes become enforcers. And, unreasonably, the stigma attaches to the victim as much as to the perp.

3. Secrets and the pretense of secrecy are part of the underground currency of a reservation. Mix that with sex, and you’ve got a lot of wandering electrical potential.

4. At one time the US government devoted itself to finding and killing Indians. You think they forget that? You think the FBI doesn’t obsess about it still?

The other conversation was about Janet’s indignation when a blogger called Heart Butte a “slum.” She was angry until someone pointed out that it does answer to the dictionary definition: “a squalid, dirty, overcrowded street or section of a city.” Well, maybe it does NOT! It’s certain not a city. “Squalid” means “having a dirty, neglected or poverty-stricken appearance.” Hmmm. It’s that. So we discussed possible responses to defend one’s feelings:

1. “Sure. So what are you going to do about it? Write us a check? Come help me paint my grandma’s house? Pull weeds this weekend?”

2. The humorous approach. “Sure, we have trash but with this wind at least it’s different trash every day.”

3. Putting down the outsider: “Hey, maybe it don’t look too good, but you’ll never find better friends and truer hearts. And I defy you find any spot on the planet that has more beautiful mountains and views!”

4. More of the same: “You just think that because you’ve never been in these houses, but the same buildings that the sun bleaches paint off of and the wind tears apart on the outside are cozy and bright and clean on the inside.”

I went on my way whistling just as the lunch crowd began to come. The aspens are about blown leafless now, but in a few spots there are groves that get a little more water, a little more sun, a little less wind, so that you drive around a curve and confront a big cumulus of brassy gold against the bull pines. I have favorite places I watch for: certain pole gates, little copses where horses hang out when it’s windy, Mittens Lake. A person accumulates these markers. Lingering snow on the mountains makes the geology plain to the thoughtful observer: long horizontal ledges along curtains of stone, certain peaks that have eroded with almost evenly spaced avalanches marked by white, here and there a mountain scooped out by ancient glaciers as though it were ice cream. I always have to remind myself to watch the road. Not much traffic -- lucky.

In Browning I went to the Blackfeet Community College Library to give them most of the box of books and magazines, all of them on American Indian art. I bought them long ago and always intended to read them, but now there are others who need them more. The librarian is Gordon Monroe’s daughter. Gordon was one of my excellent students back in the Sixties and I was provoked when he quit school about three months before he would have graduated so that he could go to Bible School. But plainly it was the right thing to do. When he came back, he continued with his church work as well as picking up art, which led him into being Bob Scriver’s fiberglass man. Gordie is the one who made the big fiberglass bucking bull now in front of the Blackfeet Heritage Center that used to be the Scriver Studio and museum as well as the big bucking horse that’s up in front of the Babb School. He also makes his own figures and that’s where it gets interesting, because most of his work is derivative -- that is, based on someone else’s work -- but always with his own twist on it.

The perfect example was down at the Blackfeet Heritage Center. Bob made two big sculptures of Blackfeet religious ceremonies: one of the Medicine Pipe Bundle Opening and one of the Beaver Bundle Opening. They’re quite impressive, near-dioramas. Gordie made his own ceremonial sculpture: Hand Game, a gambling game very ancient and overwhelmingly popular. It does have religious significance: isn't life a gamble? His figures sit in two lines instead of a circle but they are about the same scale, a little more rough-hewn, and quite as individual as the portraits Bob made.

No one was home in the other places I visited. Even the Cuts Wood School kids had all piled into a vehicle and gone somewhere on a picnic or a field trip. So I went on to shop, still whistling. Met another Heart Butte person on the parking lot of the grocery store and exchanged hugs and news. It was a good day.

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