The popular notion of “medicine men” or gurus or whatever you want to call them is that they are ascetic, wise, and circumspect. That was NOT Curly Bear Wagner. He was more along the lines of Russell Banks: belligerent, excessive, and colorful. The boy in my high school English class in 1962 who showed up in my roll book as Clarence, was the same as the man who died yesterday, aged 63. Integrity he had. He was what he was. If you want nice manners and power, look for Earl Old Person. If you want a Harvard education and thoughtful achievement, see where Darrell Kipp is hiding out. If you want shrewd thinking and sharp writing, check out Woody Kipp. If you want excitement and challenge, you could have found Curly Bear.
You can find Curly Bear’s public image at his website: http://www.curlybear.org/ I suspect it was white women who crafted this persuasive material. Curly Bear has been photographed and interviewed everywhere and was selling a video of himself on the website that is worth getting. You should buy one while they’re still around. The website will persist for a while. It was good enough that I called Curly Bear and told him I admired his work over the years. I knew he was wrestling with cancer, but I thought it had been vanquished. I’m not sure what the immediate cause of death was -- the “cure” of cancer can be almost as damaging as the original affliction.
My earliest memory of him was a play he was almost in. In those days we often thought up plays and wrote them as a group, creating characters for everyone who wanted to be in it. This one had Curly Bear in it, but when it was time to rehearse, he didn’t show up. “We’ll go get him,” declared his cast mates. “We know where he went fishing.” Pretty soon they brought him in, soaked to the knees, trailing creek water and protesting. That got to be pretty time-consuming, so we just “killed” his character.
But his strongest memory of me, which I didn’t remember, popped up when we were on the same panel at the Montana Festival of the Book. A writer who specializes in children’s books about animals had wanted to write a book about the white buffalo called “Good Medicine” which Bob Scriver mounted for the Montana Historical Society. Either she or her publisher realized that this would be controversial, considered a case of a white person making a profit off of sacred Indian material, so they were smart enough to bring Curly Bear on board as “advisor.” The Montana Humanities people are scared of Indians, except for Jackie Parsons, head of the Montana Arts Council, an enrolled Blackfeet and a long-term Blackfeet tribal judge, and whomever she considers worthy. I was on the panel because I wrote an aid to Blackfeet history that I called “Twelve Blackfeet Stories.” (Available on Amazon, naturally.)
So Curly Bear played his high card right off the bat. I had required the class to read “Macbeth,” as prescribed in the Montana curriculum for seniors. He had objected on grounds that it had nothing to do with his culture and that he would never use Shakespeare in his whole life. He made enough of a fuss that I sent him to the office. Our principal was Roy Buffalo, an enrolled Native American, one of the earliest. He didn’t get there by making a big fuss. He counseled Curly Bear to follow his example and sent him back to class.
On the panel I laughed and teased and didn’t really take Curly Bear very seriously. In fact, I rather derailed the white lady author which was my real motive. The audience didn’t know what to think since they were mostly white, middle-class, idealistic students. To them I think Curly Bear was out of a movie, not a real person. At that same festival Adolf Hungry Wolf presented his extraordinary four-volume “Blackfeet museum in a box.” The audience might have attacked him except that his half-Blackfeet children were there. Curly Bear didn’t attend.
At a high school reunion up in Babb at the Cattleman’s Club, Curly Bear appeared with his wrapped braids attached to a whole otter skin on each side. He looked quite splendid and I teased him again, but he never knew how to react. On the one hand he’d have liked to put me down as not giving him proper status, but on the other hand he still had respect for school teachers. In fact, when I came back from Portland one summer and attended his presentation at the big hotel, he was amazed to see me and announced to the audience, “That’s my teacher!”
On another visit Bob Scriver was sitting with his fourth wife and some white guys in the Red Crow Cafe, growling and scowling at the “AIMster” guys glowering and muttering on the other side of the cafe. When I came in, I walked over to Bob’s group and said hello, just to bug them, and then crossed over to the Red Rhetoric group, just to bug the whites more and also to flummox my former students, including Curly Bear. It would have been more fun if the FBI hadn’t been so willing to fan the flames into something much more damaging.
In the 1907-08 census book it’s hard to find much about Curly Bear’s family because they were mostly on the Canadian side, coming down into the American rez because they moved into the St. Mary’s valley bisected by the 49th parallel. I think there is a relationship to Jack Gladstone, the award-winning musician. What I find is this:
John (Jack) Wagner was 31 at the time and considered 3/4 Piegan, the American sub-group of Blackfeet. His father was William Russell and his mother was Pipe Woman, married to Frank Harrison. (Pipe Woman is a major name carrying a lot of power.) Pipe Woman’s father was Crow Bull but her mother was unknown. William Russell’s parents were unknown, probably way back east if not in Europe.
Jack’s wife was Mary, a Blood Indian married to him 13 years earlier at Belly River, Canada, by the priest. Her father was Red Crow. (I don’t know whether the cafe was named for him.) Her mother was Water Bird, whose mother was Sin-ah-ko. Red Crow’s aunt was Small Woman, who was the mother of the original Curly Bear. A second aunt was Mink Woman, widow of Running Rabbit, another prominent chief. These people are recent enough to have been photographed.
Mary had previously been married to John McDougall, half Scots. This appears to be a fur trading family in the Hudson’s Bay tradition. Mary’s daughter with McDougall, Maggie, married Monroe Arnoux, a Metis name, and was living with him at St. Mary’s Lake at the sawmill. St. Mary and Babb were about to become tourist destinations and today remain tourist towns at the edge of Glacier National Park.
Getting back to Jack Wagner, his father’s sister was Louise Higgins, wife of John Higgins. His own half-sibs included William Wagner, Annie Cobell (wife of Pete), Frank Harrison, and George Harrison, all with the same mother but different fathers. These sur-names would be recognized on the rez as families who included achievers.
William Wagner married Edna Wagner, born in Fort Macleod and wedded at age 21 on November 4, 1907 at Stand Off by a priest. They lived with Peter Cobell on Milk River.
If there is a church service for Curly Bear, I will attend. If there is a Blackfeet ceremony, I will not. It will not be meant for me. I’ll smudge a little sweetgrass and say my prayer in Blackfeet.