Wednesday, December 10, 2008


“Surrealism: incongruous juxtaposition of unrelated elements.”

“Real: having existence or actuality as a thing or state.”

Two sad but real deaths have struck the Blackfeet this week, Stu Miller and “Ricey” Crawford. Stu, 58, was one of my original seventh grade English students in 1961-62. Ricey (78) is the grandfather of my next door neighbor. The priest at Stu’s funeral mass yesterday said, “We have been pressed hard against the reality of death.”

But there was also a “surreal” aspect to the week because a French documentary video maker who claims to have a Blackfeet grandmother was pressing me via email to help her write her continuity. All the local designated “experts” had deserted her so she was wringing material out of the Internet and came across my books. She asked permission to call me up, which I granted, then wanted permission to come visit me next summer so she could interview me, which was fine. Then she sent the part of the script about me -- in French -- which I translated with some difficulty and the help of a French/English dictionary. Next came the whole script. In French. For me to correct. No mention of fees for editing.

A quick scan without the dictionary revealed that she had the same stubborn ideas that I’d just gotten through correcting in the small section. She has been to “Browning” -- by which she means the whole reservation -- twice before. Last year she was here in February without having done enough research to know that the train station is two miles outside Browning (no taxis) or to realize that the weather is pretty dangerous at that time of year or to know that it’s not possible to rent a car in Browning. She had stayed at the Warbonnet Inn so her main informant was the manager, Bob Wellman.

But she had never figured out that Bob Wellman is assimilated, one of the wealthiest ranchers in three counties. (I base this info on a GF Tribune listing of who got the biggest government ag rebates, which were a percentage.) Wellman is a former student of mine. His mother lives across the alley from me here in Valier, next to his sister, who is an RN and was also a former student of mine. Her sons are nearly through college in Missoula. At various times the Wellman family have been neighbors and even my landlords in East Glacier. Ramona Wellman was a student of Bob Scriver (my ex). One of her nieces is a Ph.D. grad of Stanford University. This is not an under-privileged Blackfeet family.

And yet the French writer had centered everything on wind, mountains, stray dogs and the drunks hanging out in front of Ick’s. She was very interested in the Flood of ‘64 but didn’t seem to know that Ramona Wellman had nearly drowned, wading out from the Two Medicine ranch in shoulder-high swift water, desperately hanging on to two of her then-small children. Instead the writer wanted free internet photos. She could not grasp that this was not a water-gradually-rising flood, but rather three broken dams sending very fast, lethal walls of water down narrow valleys. To her the reservation was “Browning” where the usual boggy conditions became knee-deep water that June.

She wrote about tipis and about an invented ceremony she called SAD that she thought was about the flood and the Baker Massacre, which seemed in her mind to have some relationship. I think she was trying to remember NAID, North American Indian Days, which is a very ancient Blackfeet gathering, now morphed into a Pan-Indian Pow-Wow.

She didn’t seem to have entered the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning and had the idea (from Bob Wellman) that Bob Scriver made the Deborah-Butterfield-type welded sculptures by Jay Laber. She didn’t know that neither Bob nor I is now or ever has been Blackfeet, except that he was born in the famous Browning in 1914 and I came to teach in 1961. She thought that the BIA was a subsidiary of the FBI, with the goal of oppressing Indians -- and on and on. The Lewis Overthrust of the Rocky Mountains became the Lewis Mountains and Lewis & Clark, she claimed, followed highway 89 which runs north/south, rather than highway 2 which runs east/west. Anyway, Lewis & Clark were following waterways.

In short, the whole thing was a mish-mash of undigested material from a hundred years ago (even the Flood of ‘64 is almost fifty years old now) and pre-conceptions from Hollywood movies. The worst assumption is that folks here have nothing to do but teach her basics so she can make money on what purports to be authentic. The scary dimension was that in short order she had downloaded a photo of Bob and I from 1965, had identified my address and looked at my house on Google -- wanting to know whether I could see Lake Francis. I suppose it’s only scary because this strange pseudo-intimacy is still new. I mean, I have nothing to hide. It would be nice if she acquired all this information by buying MY books! She wanted the private phone number of Eloise Cobell, who is now famous because of suing the government, but I didn’t give it to her. She got it anyway from someone at the Tribal Office. It’s probably on the Internet somewhere.

All the while, two beloved men, Stu and Ricey, both of whom were major enrolled contributors to the quality of Blackfeet life, were being mourned by the people here. Stu was a businessman, a tribal and BIA employee, a “rainmaker” who brought millions of dollars to the tribe for housing, development and disaster mitigation. Ricey was a packer, a rancher, a traditionalist, and a US Army veteran. Both men excelled at being fathers and grandfathers, with deserved gift of many descendants. Steady, patient, humorous, and absolutely reliable, both of these men, rather different in style, were crucially aware of being Blackfeet. They are not famous except here.

This is because French filmmakers would rather make videos about the wind, the dogs and the drunks in front of Ick’s. (Actually, when I went up to attend Stu’s funeral yesterday, the wind was blowing so hard that the drunks had moved to the back of Ick’s.) I withdrew from the French project. We have already helped 1,493 descendants of Blackfeet grandmothers in France and that’s enough.

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