Thursday, August 05, 2010

RAMONA GOSS DAVIS: A Contributing Life

We forget that history doesn’t just happen a hundred years ago. It’s happening right now and has been happening all along. Ramona Goss Davis is an important part of the story in two ways. One is that in the future the 20th century will be seen as a crucial time for the Blackfeet people as they struggled to hold their ground against an onslaught of change. (Just like everyone else.) And the other is that the story of human communities in history books is often told only in terms of the men, but sometimes it is the women who know best what happened because so much of it happened to them.

Maggie Goss was 56 in 1907, which means she was born at about the time the major prairie Indian tribes signed the first treaties in the Midwest. Her father was Bill Kaiser or Kizer and her mother was a full Piegan, Comes by Mistake. She married Francis S. Goss in 1873. He was white and the marriage was performed by a priest.

Her siblings were William, Leonard, Lomie, George and Elvira; Ellen Cowan, Susan Bell and Louisa Rodderville.

At the time of the census of 1907-08 there were twelve children: Albert, 35, married; William, 30, married; Lomie, 29, married; Caroline, no age given, married to Johnny Merchant; Susie, 21, single; Nathan 21, single; Nellie G. married to George Paisley, 20; Abbott, 14, single; Francis 12, single; Vena, 8, single.

Albert, the oldest of the children, was married to Mary Jane Wren who was a quarter Piegan. Her mother had been Malenda Wren, daughter of Charley and Rosalie (or Rosa Lee) Chouquette, sometimes pronounced “Shoo Cat” by the old-timers. Malenda’s photo is on page 29 in Bill Farr’s book of photos: “The Reservation Blackfeet, 1882-1945.” Along with Susie Williams and Isabel Coe, daughter of Joe Cobell, Malenda was a principal interpreter at Old Agency. In her picture her hair is parted in the center and smoothed down. Her silk dress is covered over the shoulders with a sparkling sequined cape and a gold watch on a chain. She is entirely elegant and more than a little bit French.

Her daughter was Mamie Goss, born in 1899, a matron at the Cut Bank Boarding School, and buried from the Browning Methodist church. Ramona Goss Davis was Mamie’s daughter, baptized in this church, a life-long teacher. When I came to Browning to teach a half-century ago, I had the classroom next to Ramona Goss Davis. In those days we wore skirts and heels to teach. Ramona wore fitted suits with beautiful blouses. Though she was a ranch wife, her hands were always manicured and her hair was always permed and just so. Her classroom was organized and calm. No one gave her any lip. But it was not a cold place and students didn’t sleep.

Through Lomie Goss, Ramona was tied into the families of Horace Clarke, Margaret and William Spanish, and John Clarke. If you follow these names through the record books, you will learn a great deal about the Blackfeet. When I first came, these names were still coming up in conversation. They were powerful, colorful, significant players in the development of the tribe.

One theme to this story is that of interpreter -- Malenda Wren was evidently sent back east for education as were Malcolm Clarke’s daughters. (Helen Clarke became the first superintendent of schools in Montana and owned the first piano.) Mamie was a matron at the Cut Bank Boarding School in the days when attending there could literally save a child’s life. It seemed clear that the children must learn to be modern. (Nora Lukin raised my consciousness about boarding schools soon after I arrived.) Mamie was much loved. It was only natural that Ramona would become a teacher. In her later years she worked once again to bridge the cultures, this time carrying the past back to enrolled children who no longer knew the old ways. This is what the women do: feminists say their backs are bridges, connecting worlds. I remember well how straight Ramona’s back was when she walked proudly beside Clair Davis, that handsome man, and the two fine children.

It is often said about religious congregations that there are really three congregations: one that wants to go back to the past, one that is content to just continue as things are, and one that goes ahead to meet the future. These women were all part of the group that went to meet the future. It will be up to Shelley to continue that path.

Ramona was a summer baby, born on June 29, 1929, and attended the Browning schools, clear through to the high school class of 1947. In 1951 she received her teaching certificate at Montana Normal School in Dillon and in 1961 graduated from Western Montana College (which had also graduated from being a normal school by that time). She taught at Pontrasina, one of the dozen little one-room school houses that dotted the reservation and at Whitlash, near the Canadian border, nestled up against the east butte of the Sweetgrass Hills. She was in Browning from 1953 to 1962, in Libby, Pablo, and from 1969 to 1970 in Butte. After moving to Columbia Falls, she taught at Hungry Horse, and West Glacier, where she was also a ranger for Glacier National Park and a Remit Officer. Clair passed away on September 3, 1976.

Ramona moved to Ronan in 1987, was a teacher’s aide at Dixon, then an English teacher at Two Eagle River, and substituted in Ronan. She tutored at Upward Bound throughout the Mission Valley. She worked at Kicking Horse Job Corp for many years as a supervisor/counselor and at Jore’s in Ronan as a tool assembler. Once she told me proudly that all these people just didn’t seem to want to let her retire. I don’t think she really wanted to anyway.

When Ramona was a teacher, it was a true profession and she was a member of the Montana Education Association before it was considered a labor union. She was honored and proud to be the Montana representative to the National Education Association with the Minority Caucus. She was a member of Delta Kappa Gamma, an honor society of over 150,000 women educators in 14 countries that promotes professional and personal growth of women educators. Her dog’s name, Baby, tells a story.

She is survived by Shelley and Shelley’s husband Kevin McKee of Butte, and her son Robert Davis of Mission Valley. She’ll be placed in the Columbarium in Whitefish, a resting place for ashes, next to her only husband, Clair Davis.

The world has seen a lot of changes since Ramona was born in 1929 and yet more than a few people suggest that we’ve just lived through a repetition of the Roaring Twenties and the following Depression, which probably suggests we didn’t learn the lesson the first time. From “Comes by Mistake” through Maggie Goss through Rosa Lee Chouquette and Mary Jane Wren and Malenda Wren, to Ramona Goss Davis, these women kept their faith in the power of learning and the effectiveness of personal discipline.

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