Friday, July 17, 2009


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: 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.


Dona Stebbins said...

I had the honor of meeting Curl Bear Wagner. He was a most impressive man.

Anonymous said...

Dear Miss Mary,
I encourage you and any of your readers, who'd like a direct experience of Curly Bear Wagner through the archival media of his presentations at Cody's BBHC annual Plains Indian Seminars.

I invite any of you, who choose to visit the BBHC's McCracken Library for this purpose to ask the staff to contact Su. I'd enjoy joining you. Experiencing his steady development of recognition amongst his colleagues is evident in these annual sessions. Curly Bear's development of his own style of presentation is also clearly recognizable.
And don't expect to see GTTSI disappear. I anticipate will develop into a major hub for assisting advocates for Indian Education for All.

Lance Michael Foster said...

It is so Indian to always go into genealogical and relationship detail :-)

I am saddened he is gone on. People like him, free enough to really be themselves and are more about what they care about, than about what people think (their own people or outside people) are always sacred. Aside from any status as "medicine" people, their freedom to be themselves and sincerely themselves, is sacred.

It is like that story you just wrote. Curly Bear is in that story too, you know that.

I knew Curly Bear a little bit from various encounters. It was enough we always recognized each other and said hi.

His work to save the Badger-Two Medicine was his great public achievement. His work to be himself was equally great.

What is it with white people who make "projects" and "icons" of Indian individuals? The sad thing is that eventually most buy into their cult status and get weird. Curly Bear mostly resisted that stuff. He was cool like that. He was always curious and interested and not full of his own gravitas like so many eventually become. He was funny and goofy and real.

I know he is amazed with whatever he is seeing and learning now.

Anonymous said...

Happened across this "blog". My thoughts are; where are the rest of the "Curly Bears"? We need more like him....not less. We need people like Curly Bear and Woody. Not less of them.

Gina Zapinski said...

I heard there was an Indian talking to the schools in my district. I went to listen to him thinking for sure he would disappoint me, probably a wannabe.
He addressed me and my son as sister and nephew and from that day on we were friends. I brought him back a few times to Michigan for speaking engagements and ceremonies. I traveled to see him in Montana where he gave me the grand tour of the place he loved best. I loved him and I miss him. I send my prayers to his loved ones.

Jan Starnes said...

Curly Bear was one of the most interesting people I have ever met. He was funny, caring, and had a mission in life to teach people about his heritage. He accepted and respected everyone he met. I am a teacher from Illinois, and Curly Bear came and spoke to my classes and also gave a whole school assembly program. That was over 10 years ago, and the students who heard him speak, still talk about the influence he had on their lives. His respect for life and nature was evident, giving everyone he encountered a new perspective on what most people took for granted. I will never forget this man and the impact he has had on my life and the lives of my students as I spread his words every year in my classes. I am feeling his loss, and I'm sure anyone who knew him also feels the loss. I know his spirit will live through me in my teaching and everyday living.

Francesca Diano said...

I'm sorry I saw this post only now. I am Italian and live in Italy. I met Curly Bear in 1992, when he came to Padova University to give a speech about his people and heritage. I was going through a very hard moment at that time, but something he said during his speech changed my life. He was talking about the initiation rites of his people and at a certain point he said: "greatest are the trials the Spirits have in store for you, greatest will be the rewards. They just want to know if you deserve them." That came like a flash of light into my heart! It was like as if I had gone there because I knew I had to... it came like a great teaching, right when I needed. We exchanged some words after his lecture, and there was something great in this unique man. I will never forget what he meant to me and in fact I put him in my novel. With great love, Curly Bear, from Francesca

Cecilia said...

Though the news of Your departure came to me a whole year later, I still hope your journey was safe and good and I am sure You are still busy at whatever place You went to.
So honoured to have met You. All the roads of Wyoming ,Montana ,Idaho and Washington we travelled with You. All the stories we listened to.
There is no way we´ll forget.
Especially one occasion was memorable at the great log hotel in East Glacier. You shared stories with a great audience there. Having heard them many times before I did not listen to You. Instead I watched the faces of the audience. How they lit up, how You were able to make them enthusiastic, all their smiles and laughter.
Although not being of indian blood myself the feeling that came into mind was pride. Proud of having met You, proud of Your ability to share and give experience to us all.
So if they ever cut us up they will find we all have red hearts.
We will not forget You brother.

prairie mary said...

For those who read too quickly, Cecilia is not talking to me but using me as a channel to Curly Bear.

You got that, Clarence? (Curly Bear)

Prairie Mary

Terese4 said...

I stumbled upon this blog and other websites for today for some crazy reason I am missing him more than ever. His birthday is coming up I guess and it being a day I think to remember all Native Americans. I dated Curly Bear, and I can say he was one great love of my life and I know he would say the same. I met him and immediately fell in love with him. I lived in LA and he in Montana. Are relationship as a couple ended but we remained friends. I had shared the most magical times with him and he will remain in my heart through eternity. I miss you Bear and still carry the poem you wrote to me in my wallet. Love you Terese.