Monday, July 12, 2010


The roots of North American Indian Days go back into the mists of the millenia as an annual gathering of Blackfeet gens (what you might call bands, usually clustered around a patriarch’s family) who followed roughly the same seasonal rounds of the prairie. At this gathering news was exchanged, the young people courted, and ceremonials of hope and repentance tried to protect everyone from lightning strikes and hail poundings.

For the last years since I came back, I haven’t gone. I’m not Blackfeet -- they remind me over and over -- or even Indian. But the real reason is that now it’s like a fair in Indiana: midway, 4-H, horse races, rodeo, night time stage shows, parade. It was a little like that in 1962, my first, but there was plenty of the old time left around. It was an affair of wood, canvas and dust with regalia half-saved, half-invented out of what was at hand. It’s dumb to be nostalgic about it, because there was much poverty and people came as much for the feed as for the performance. The anthros were all very serious in their khaki clothes, still believing they were doing culture rescue. Tourists were solemn and a little scared, and indeed there was violence down along the creek where there were groves of trees -- also quite a bit of sex. They called it “tipi creeping” but most was “leafy rolling.”

In those days there was a competition to see who had the most authentic lodge and Bob was the judge. Everyone knew everyone. I was young. Everyone was Blackfeet except the whites. No regal White Earth girls with baskets on their heads. No Meso-Americans or Hopi. It was the key to our tourist season. We put on extra help, the Museum was swarmed, and in our backyard, recently a horse corral, I set up a table and served formal meals with centerpieces I picked along the roadsides. In the following six weeks we either made enough money to carry through the winter, or we didn’t.

I haven’t made a secret of my -- well, not disgust or disdain or anything like that -- but my lack of connection with today’s Indian Days. This year I thought maybe I should relent and go make a new effort. So I did, going early in the day yesterday which I knew would be a winding-down day because it was Sunday. Highway 89 is rebuilt, easy passage after a year of dynamite and tremendous earth moving where the highway crosses Two Medicine. The weather was glorious, cleared by a big thunderstorm the midnight before in Valier.

In Browning it had come after supper and included hard winds and walnut-sized hail. It had soaked and bruised everything. By Sunday noon bedding and buffalo robes were draped everywhere to dry. For decades the number of lodges dwindled, but this year there were a double-dozen plus house-shaped tents between rails plus small trailers and campers, and hordes of nylon pop-up camp tents everywhere. Some outfits had leafy arcades or tarp flies strung for shade. There were few people around, just enough to make a Grand Entry in the expensive finery they had sheltered in cars. They looked a little stunned.

Ordinarily there would be a sea of mud but over the years the grassy field that had been the campground has been hardened: asphalt roads, a concrete food court with concrete picnic tables and benches, the dance floor has been a permanent structure with astroturf for years. Stick game is in a huge pavilion with a concrete floor with a white plastic wedding marquee over it. The players sat in folding chairs instead of on the ground and there were hand drums instead of two logs for pounding. One drummer had a little terrier-mix pup on his lap. The sticks and “bones” looked new.

The blackjack card games are in a permanent motel-like line of rooms they share with law enforcement offices at the end. A huge BIA trailer for the processing of drunks stood alongside. (Alcohol sales are banned during NAID.) Two large Indian Health Service trailers were also present, I presume for medical emergencies but maybe with some kind of testing service like for diabetes, etc. The oil leasing company was giving out booty bags. “Helpers” and guides were everywhere in dayglo “pennies” (pinafores), smiling and pointing. No admission to the grounds but filtering at the entrance: “any alcohol, guns?” No, no, no. For lunch I had a foot-long corn dog.

Stopping at the Blackfeet Heritage Center, which used to be the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, I used a bathroom as elegant and scrubbed as any public bathroom anywhere. I can only guess where the plumbing goes. In my day our totally substandard little toilet enclosure in the basement was only slightly better than a hole. On the display floor, which used to be our shop encrusted with plaster and paint, I noted the work of Valentina LaPier, Francis Wall, and Terrance Guardipee, all of it sophisticated and beautiful abstract-mixed-with-figurative far beyond most of the work at the Russell Auctions. Some of the sculpture is, as one might say, “after” the work of Bob Scriver. That is, groups like his “Opening of the Thunder Pipe Bundle” and close-to-copies of individual figures. Gordon Monroe is very good at it. But the only trace of Bob is the heroic-sized fiberglass version of “An Honest Try,” the bucking bull competition. I said to the clerk, “That’s Bill Cochran on the bull, you know.”

A lady just down the counter lit up. It was Diane Magee, a member of that first seventh grade class I taught in 1961. She’s been a nurse in Salem, OR, for decades. Her father, Merle, was on the school board that hired me. He used to be a hunting pard of Bob’s. Diane is as intelligent, reliable, and far-seeing as anyone could be. Blackfeet, yes of course. Her son is big, rather like Merle. Her mom is ninety now, and the daughteres are taking turns month-by-month to keep her in her house. I’ll go back to visit her. Soon. No time to waste.

Encouraged by all this, I went around to the back to the little house I helped Bob build and ended up living in with him for four years. The museum is pretty well maintained. The little house is coming apart and tagged with graffiti. I had thought the high board fence would come down but the same gate was there. I went through and greeted a big orange and white cat. Eegie’s cage still the same, Foxie’s cage still the same, the screen porch was enclosed in plywood, and here was a big Indian man with a broom. I thought he was sweeping.

“How dare you intrude into this private space!” he said. Not shouting, but in that calm but charged voice of someone confronting danger. “Leave immediately. You are not wanted!” I tried to explain but he was having none of it. The broom was a weapon. I left. The gate was hanging by one hinge. He said that was none of my concern.

I thought about it all as I drove home through the idyllic fields of blooming camelina and windrowed hay. I wasn’t grieving for the house -- I never had a lot of attachment to it. I know I have no privileged entitlement to my fifty-years’ memories because they can’t match the Blackfeet people’s memories of themselves. The destruction of Bob’s world began early and nothing was as destructive as the dispersal auctions of his estate by his worst enemies. People keep asking, “Where did everything go?” They don’t believe the answers.

It wasn’t until bedtime that I got it. I was looking at the future. The innocent campgrounds of a nomadic people have been replaced by the technology of refugee management. Bob’s fortress, once built to protect him from the threats of AIM, meant to protect his accumulation of valuable art (his furnishings were from Hardware Hank), is now a refuge for another embattled and impoverished man with only a broom for a weapon. In the Sixties Hubert Bartlett, who belonged to groups expecting WWIII and who resisted the government (the Minutemen, Posse Commitatus), used to tell us he had buried battle-ready long guns, greased and sealed in plastic. I wonder if they’re still there. It’s not about Indians. Lightning and hail are the least of it.

No comments: