Wednesday, August 25, 2010


My readers, having accumulated out of many times, places and circumstances, are a various bunch. I sometimes wonder what they think of a piece I write for someone totally unlike them. Like maybe the gentle academic Indian woman who hissed out her hatred for James Willard Schultz coming across something in sympathy with Sid Gustafson who carefully tends the old reprobate’s grave since it’s on his family’s ranch, in spite of Schultz insisting he wanted nothing to with white men’s graves and Hart, his son, feeling the same way and hating his father. But then one of my dignified granny librarian friends discovered I was listening to “The Outlander” on the iPod my cousin’s husband sent and said, approvingly, “Oh, I just loved the sex!” Well mixed with violent beatings, I might add. So I’ll just pay no attention and write what I write.

But sometimes I can’t resist explaining the lay of the land, esp. to the kind of people who show up on the rez during summer because they so love “Indians,” by which they mean people in the 19th century who went around on horseback wearing feathers. Darrell says they come to ask him where they can find some “ceremonialists,” picturing in their minds the sort of wizened old wise man in a loincloth they’ve seen in the movies. When Darrell points out big healthy young men like Joe Bremner or five or six others in the room, quite equivalent, the questioner feels he is being fooled somehow. Yet Darrell has just in the last weeks of summer been “sitting holy” with Joe and others while they worked their way through traditional ceremonies they’ve been doing for decades, luckily having learned the songs while George and Molly Kicking Woman and old Swims Under were still alive.

These things go in waves and accumulate in pockets. For instance, a contingent always comes from Fort Benton, a pocket community along the Missouri River that was once as far north as a person could go by steamboat and therefore a spot where history pooled deep enough to drown the first Montana Governor -- no one knows whether by foul play or ordinary drunken misstep. As it happens, someone had just challenged me over a used book store there, wanting to know why the proprietor said he couldn’t get a copy of “Bronze Inside and Out” and every museum bookstore in town (three? four?) agreed that no copies were to be found, which was a shame since Bob Scriver was represented by so much monumental sculpture there.

So I called Fort Benton and was told there was no bookstore in town, just some guy who had a kind of junkshop with a few old ragged books. This was a young woman talking who had only recently moved to town but she assured me she knew all about bookstores and what they looked like. Chains, right? I zeroed in on the Fort Benton contingent at the seminar, and they had quite a different story. “An EXCELLENT bookstore!: they said. “Wonderful treasures! Thousands of volumes!” I called the right place but the proprietor was too busy selling books to talk to me. He has no email and no website -- at least none that works. So I’ll just go down there and take a look.

In the meantime, I turned to the handsome young man seated next to me, who is attending Yale and planning a thesis about those wonderful feathered horsemen of the prairies. And he hinted he wouldn’t mind meeting a few. Sigh. Like thousands of other young men, he had read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and been entirely captured by it. “But the prairie clearances are over,” I said. “And the Indians are busy with other things entirely now -- like taking business courses.” At lunch I tried to explain how those Indian wars were romanticized and flipped-over versions of the triumphalist manifesto of the Civil War era and made my pitch for a 20th century history of the Blackfeet. After all, we’re ten years into the 21st century -- it’s time. Every white person at the table looked balky and every Indian laughed.

Later I tried to explain how the Western history and Western lit departments of universities had gathered around the frontier West and then jumped to the Nouveau Riche West of today while barely nodding at the women, the blacks, the Chinese, and the Indians. So the Indian contingent went off on its own and has developed whole parallel disciplines. Not only is there no interaction -- the white branch has no awareness of the existence of the other.

Darrell agreed with me. Our focus was the Baker Massacre, which is now reframed as the Massacre on the Marias in the postcolonial movement to get rid of the names of the alcoholic killers who sometimes became army officers. Someone wanted to know where it was exactly. When Jim Welch wrote “Killing Custer,” some clues suggested a particular place so ceremonies were held there.

The rancher wanted to sell out and, seeing interest in that patch, offered to sell a permanent right-of-way to the tribe. They declined. By this time the “four years of remembrance” had been observed and the intensity of interest was easing. Denied access to the original spot, the commemorating group simply moved along the river a mile. But this was what Darrell called “soft history:” tradition, oral stories (which were given major importance during the empowerment of indigenous ways), certain landmarks and notes in journals. Now the mode of investigation has turned to “hard history,” which looks for material evidence. A man got on a horse and actually rode through what was probably the march route, timing it while allowing for snow and sub-zero temperatures. Someone got access to one of those huge map-making printers and likely GPS points were marked on a paper the size of a tablecloth. These are INDIAN researchers. Scientists. A repository is accumulating at the tribal college, not the federal museum.

Two of my blog readers who grew up here were amazed. One is my age and the other is younger. They had never heard of the Baker Massacre by any name at all. What should they read? “Fools Crow,” I said. “And ‘Death, Too, to the Heavyrunner.’” And when they wanted to know whether Darrell were related to the original Kipp, who was a scout for Baker (along with the Cobell, the sailor who came up to Fort Benton on a riverboat), I began to tell them the story of the children who escaped and how Kipp and Cobell came back the next day to find them and adopt them and how Darrell is actually a Heavyrunner . . . And then there was the other man who wanted to know where he could read about those children, but it’s only soft history so far -- tales told at seminars.

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