Thursday, August 12, 2010


Carl Cree Medicine’s funeral mass was in Heart Butte at St. Anne’s Catholic Church, a large and pleasant building that replaced the little 19th century church made of logs held in place by buttresses. I drove there in a transparent sunlight-suffused summer day of drifting clouds, pale mountains, and the scent of hay being cut and rolled. The road along the north side of Birch Creek, the official southern border of the reservation, was veiled at the sides with pale purple, the spotted knapweed that everyone hates regardless of how pretty it is. In fact, further along, the barrow pits turned turquoise from weed killer. The spray crew was attentively supervised by three mares standing side by side so that it was easy to compare the wide white blazes down their noses. They appeared identical to me. Their colts slept in their shadow, swept by their tails. In another place I saw two ravens on fence posts, watching for road kill. Crows go in flocks, like lions, but ravens are usually alone like leopards. This pair must have been mates. It’s cool enough for the ground squirrels to be up. Normally this time of year they would be estivating, which is the hot weather version of hibernating.

Since I taught in Heart Butte for a couple of years (1989-91), I knew where I was going, but my memories were all about Carl in the Sixties. With no warning, he died at 74. He’d fallen a few times and was using a cane or a walker, but seemed okay otherwise. “Natural causes” -- maybe heart or a clot. His coffin was a very dark blue with silver handles. The sleeve corsages of his white-shirted pall bearers were black bows, some with guitar cutouts and some with tiny hats. The musicians, solid older men with electric guitars who have been playing this lamenting evangelical cowboy music for so many decades that they barely need to speak to each other, began to play early.

Though there were pickups in the parking lot, I was the first one into the church out of necessity. Father Dan was setting up chairs and when he saw me looking around, he knew what the need was. “Just down that hall,” he said. We’re used to each other. He has lost eighty pounds under medical supervision. The bathroom was well-supplied and included a shower, nicely tiled.

Gordon Monroe and his wife were early. Gordie worked in the Scriver shop with us. He was the fiberglass man who made the giant replicas of “An Honest Try” and the PRCA bucking horse. He was also a student of mine, but went into the ministry years before I did. He’s evangelical, charitable, Bible-based. On this day his wife sang, as did a couple of other women. Gordie says he’s writing now and I promised that if he gave me a copy, I’d put it on this blog. His own sculptures are available at the Blackfeet Heritage Center and Lila Evans’ Bearpaw Gallery. He likes to do groups, like drummers or stick game, and uses a larger scale than Bob’s, with a slightly different style.

Glen Horn was also my student in Browning in the Sixties. He gave me a little art tour, beginning with the mural of the old St. Anne he painted up high in the entry. I loved it. There were other intriguing objects of devotion -- I’ll take my camera back some time. Of course, everyone is always impressed by the mural of an encampment with the line of the Rocky Mountains, “Spine of the World,” behind it. It’s the entire front wall of the sanctuary. I don’t remember whether Fern Omeaso or Clyde Heavyrunner painted it -- both of them worked for us and modeled for Bob.

There were others I knew one way or another, but I kept thinking about Carl. We were both kids, really, when we worked together in the shop. Both of us stormy, but he lasted twenty years and I only lasted ten. He never balked or flared, always could figure things out. Then his son David Cree Medicine came to work, and sometimes other members of the family. David was the trusted foreman, often the babysitter one way or another, or the chauffeur. Even the nurse. He witnessed everything and told nothing. But when Bob and I confronted each other, it was Carl who uncomfortably pretended he couldn’t hear or see. He knew about marital quarreling -- he and Carma had some dramatic moments -- but they stayed married for fifty-one years.

They had 35 grandchildren and 47 great-grandchildren. The sanctuary rang with piping voices and busy scrambling -- remarkably little crying -- and the mothers and aunties (who in the Blackfeet way of thinking are all mothers to all the children) expertly interceded, distracted, cautioned and guided. Now and then a father took charge. A little boy ahead of me with a braid as long and thick as my arm had brought a floppy plush turtle to play with but then became absorbed in his bubble gum, not to chew but to stretch and wad and twist. By the end of the service, many babies were sleeping.

A few rows up was a gaunt man with an iconic Indian face, wearing a cowboy hat with a scarf tied in back under it. I suspect he was Canadian. Not until the end did I see that the man down the row from me was wearing a bear-claw necklace with human teeth in the front. I wasn’t close enough to do more than sign that I liked it. There were no drums, no prayers in Blackfeet, or any other old-timey doin’s though Carl was an active member of the Tribal Elders Council. What propelled him into sobriety was the Catholic context, so he was a member of the Holy Family Mission Board where the old boarding school was and also the HIP Board. (I have no idea what that is.)

But his major contribution in later years was running a shelter for street people where broken alcoholics came to smoke and drink coffee, trying to gather another attempt to get organized -- or just to endure. Above his desk Carl had hung two Certificates of Appreciation from Bob Scriver. In 2009 he invited me to witness his induction into the Native American Art Hall of Fame in Great Falls during the big March events.

Two hours after we had entered on a transparent summer day, we emerged into a dark world aromatic with rain and had to scurry to our cars, lamenting sun roofs left open. Along Birch Creek the trees were black silhouettes and the skies were low, dragging opaque purple curtains of rain. But in the distance the Sweetgrass Hills stood bright, still dry. I was nearly back to Valier when the first fall flight of Canada geese went over.

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