Saturday, July 11, 2009


In honor of North American Indians Days Bob Tailfeathers, who is a great cartoonist and always onto something, drew a cartoon for the Glacier Reporter. I wish I could send the drawing.

This time it’s a convenience store, which is advertising “Buy two, get one free essence of pine needles purfume” [sic] The clerk, who has a pony tail, an earring, and a ball-cap on backwards, is at the cash register which announces “SALE, NAID items, 50% off.” [NAID stands for North American Indian Days.)

So this is now and Indian Days started today and two old ladies have come to prepare for the events. The clerk says, “Let’s see. . . Native Women Body Splash, Vicks, Deep Heat Rub, massage oil, and eye liner. . . Must be snaggin this weekend, eh?”

And the girls -- plainly past their sell-by date -- say, “Just a little.” (Blush, blush.)

Oh, my! They’re remembering their good old tipi creepin’ days when everyone really DID camp out in tipis and there was still prairie out there beyond the campgrounds where a person could find a little privacy. Now it’s all RV’s and everyone sits in there watching TV’s. You’d have to walk two miles to get away from housing. But there’s no expiration date on flirting.

I went yesterday, cool and clear. It took some energy to get me out the door to Browning. I'm very comfortable with thinking about Browning when I'm not there, because it's always the Browning that used to be -- but it's scary to go there and see what it is now. Mostly no one knows me, things are quietly different, stuff has changed without asking me if it could. I don't get on the phone and see where everyone is because it wouldn't make any difference anyway. They just don't relate to me anymore. I'm invisible. Which can be an advantage if you’re a watcher and writer-downer (or writer-upper).

The campgrounds had quite a few tipis and lots of RV's and camp trailers, but the grounds were COVERED with backpack tents like round-topped mushrooms with barely enough room in between to walk on. It must mean that the people are young now and don't mind crawling around. The old traditional circle with allotted places is all mixed up. I couldn't figure out where anyone was.

The carnies were there but I couldn't hear the stick game -- it was lunch time and there was a free feed, so maybe they stopped for a while. There was a small ferris wheel, one of those octopus things, a tall slide but not too tall and the Buffalo Jump, which is a big inflatable walled room where you can bounce on the floor. A row of stalls selling small stuff. Had a chat with a guy selling jewelry who was reading up on diabetes diets. He says he still eats fry bread, but only small pieces. He’s from the SW desert, says it hasn’t changed in the last thousand years. He looked fine so his diet is working.

The dancing now is professional level and beyond. The costumes are extraordinary. The dancers are on astroturf so there’s not much dust and the seating is more or less permanent with a nice little roof for shade. People do long elaborate giveaways and honoring grand entries, which they ask be treated the way patriotic Americans in the Fifties treated the flag, and there are more journalists than anthros. Scientology was not there, but I was surprised by the number of small mission tents. De la Salle School, the Catholic elementary school, fed everyone breakfast all morning.

I remember that series of years when politics ruled and intense clench-jawed youngsters lectured everyone they could corner. Now those people are old and getting a little tiresome. In that period flirting was pretty hard because people were already full of themselves. Maybe we’re past that now. I think we’ve been into the Age of Prosperity, when everyone has a new crewcab F-350 pickup. Maybe that’s over now, too. The decades flip like those time-lapse calendars in movies. In the past Indian Days belonged to the old people and young people just thought the camp was too much work. But now there’s a hunger for the past and many want to dance, to speak the language, to learn the old ways.

I’m seeing thoughtful faces now on both genders. They carry mobile phones, maybe even Blackberries, and generally have iPod earbuds in place. Music surrounds them like an aura, barely audible but always there. Some of them speak Blackfeet. More all the time have graduate degrees.

They’re not the ones who are invisible. I’m the one who’s invisible now. Most of the people I’ve known here are “gone on ahead.” I’ve lost count of how many years it’s been since NAID was started, but that’s sort of bogus anyway. There has been a June encampment in that same place long before there was a town and even before there were white people and before horses. It springs up like the grass for a few days and then disappears again until the next year.

The race track grounds were packed. There have been horse races since the first horses showed up and foot races long before that. But I don’t think there’s a camp crier early in the morning now. There isn’t as much cottonwood smoke drifting among the lodges, and a lot of the gambling has moved over to the big casino built in the middle of the complex. But the sound of drums, the heartbeat, never changes. You just need to feel that drum on a chilly night with the drummers singing falsetto under a zillion stars and the old ways are still there.

Fifty years ago Bob and I had a terrible fight and I didn't know what to do. It was the middle of winter and I went out into a roaring blizzard across the empty campgrounds and walked and walked, bawling and bellowing and feeling ever so sorry for myself, and sat on a pump platform, a cement well-head just the right height to sit on and about six feet square, and howled and raged and turned inside out while the world did about the same thing all around me. Today I saw that cement platform in among the tents and tipis, still sitting there in the same place, a little chipped and worn. Otherwise, unchanged. I laughed. I thought of Napi’s many encounters with boulders.

The landscape is gently iridescent with pale sky and still-green land, slightly bronzed with grass seeds waving. First cut of hay is starting, both purple alfalfa and that bright pink French alfalfa, and then mustard/canola. White clouds like whipped cream in spaced blobs sit on an imaginary sheet of glass and all across the land their shadows are gliding up and down the slopes. The mountains are purple silhouettes.

The world goes on with or without us. Our anguish wears itself out. We dare to smile again.


Julie said...

Thanks for taking me to Indian Days, Mary.

Lance Michael Foster said...

Yeah, great post, Mary!