Joseph R. “Gizmo Joe” Old Chief Sr.
Joseph Robert “Gizmo Joe” Old Chief Sr., 91, a laborer for the Great Northern Railway who enjoyed pow wows and was proud of the traditional ways of the Blackfeet, died of natural causes Friday, Nov. 18, at a Browning hospital.
A wake is in progress at Glacier Home Center, with prayer services there nightly at 7 pm. His funeral is 11 AM Friday at Church on the Rock with burial in St. Michael Cemetery. Pondera Funeral Home is handling arrangements.
Survivors, all of Browning, include his children Loretta Old Chief, Darlene Old Chief-Tatsey, Marlene Old Chief, Geraldine Old Chief, Rose Mary Old Chief-Calf Robe, Joseph Lee “Dusty” Old Chief, Wyonna “Lulu” Old Chief, Paul “Windy” Old Chief, Joanne Old Chief, Frederick Old Chief and Debra Old Chief-Hairy Bull, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Theola “Cupie” Cut Finger Old Chief and sons Baby Joe Old Chief and Marvin Old Chief.
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Joe Old Chief was born in 1921, long after there were no more buffalo, and yet he knew all the old ceremonial songs and is one of the drummers portrayed in Bob Scriver’s “Opening of the Medicine Bundle” because he WAS one of the drummers in the Sixties. If you knew Joe, you would recognize him -- the people are actual portraits. If you met him on the street, he would certainly look Indian to you, but he would be dressed like any other Browning cowboy. People were long and lean in those days. Joe was always cheerful, maybe with a little chemical help but not pills -- more liquid. He was a Blackfeet speaker and had Blackfeet manners, which means a bit of 19th century formality. I liked him.
When I was the study hall supervisor at the Browning Junior High School in 1988, having burned out as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I met Joe’s grandson, JoJo, who was half-Haitian. (Maybe he was a great-grandson.) His parents must have met in the city. President Eisenhower had made an effort to solve the “reservation problem” by moving a lot of people -- always the solution that came to hand when armies were dealing with Indians -- off the reservation to the city, thus presumably forcing them to modernize and get jobs. Since, also as usual, not enough planning or money was provided to make a transition from deep rural to high urban, the newly moved Indians were dumped into the usual ghettos until they could figure out a way to get back to the reservation. Out of this phenomenon came the Red Empowerment movement -- with a little help from Black Empowerment -- and then a very mixed result when they returned, toughened and mouthy.
When Jojo was being “good,” meaning obedient, one of the teachers tried to endorse that by telling him he was being “Haitian” but if Jojo was bad, this teacher told him he was just another nigger. (He didn’t use the forbidden word -- he said Negro or black -- but he MEANT nigger.) When Jojo was in study hall, he was not Haitian. I don’t think he really had any idea at all what “Haitian” meant. Neither do I, really, except that I very much like the blog called “The Rawness: human nature and sexual politics” http://therawness.com/ which is a sophisticated approach to life written by a half-Haitian man in NYC, with occasional forays back to the island. Even if it had existed in 1988, I don’t think Jojo could have read well enough to have enjoyed it but if someone read and explained it to him, he might have benefited quite a lot. We’ll never know. I’m told he was killed in a car accident some years ago. I’m also told he took tender care of Joe Old Chief.
The contrast between the two lives is stark. Old Joe (I never heard him called “Gizmo Joe,” but the nickname doesn’t surprise me -- such nicks are a sign of affection and familiarity.) didn’t live in the buffalo days, but the 1907-08 commodity census published as “Blackfeet Heritage” shows “Old Chief,” 57 years old -- a grandson of White Calf, son of Big Painted Lodge -- and his son, “John Old Chief,” 24 years old, who was on the modern side of the timeline when people had two names. That could have been Joe’s father.
They lived along Willow Creek, which is the stream that bisects the two parts of Browning. There are no white people in the family line-up to this point. John Old Chief’s wife, Ada, was a Morning Gun raised by Double Runner who thought that was her real family, and when she died, John married her sister, Annie Morning Gun. I do not know the relationship to the Morning Gun who owned the land where one of the biggest and earliest oil strikes on the reservation was later made. “Gizmo Joe” was not a rich man. A trickle of lease and investment money might have made it through the bureaucracy to him.
Joe always wore dark glasses because of eye trouble. I never knew what it was, but it may have been the result of trachoma which causes eyelids to swell up and turn the lashes towards the cornea so scraping makes the tissue opaque. Trachoma is fairly easy to cure but the consequences persist. When Bob’s fourth wife was in the hospital for some surgery, I happened to be back in Browning on vacation and shadowed them without being welcomed. Bob was frail and from the way they talked, I thought Lorraine might die, leaving him to cope with no support. The nurses interpreted me as a daughter and shoved me into the situation. In the surgery waiting room there was no chair but Joe Old Chief’s wife was there, waiting for him to come out from eye repair -- probably a corneal transplant. Recognizing us, she gave her chair to Bob. He may have been her teacher once. It was a simple and generous act, very characteristic.
Joe and his wife lived on the edge of a penumbra cast into the future by a potent, functioning system of beliefs and practices. The best equivalent they could find may have been the local Pentecostal church. When Jojo and others demanded to know why I came back to Browning, I said it was because I loved them. Jojo said, “Eeeuugh, I don’t want no sex with an old fat white woman!” I explained that I meant religious love. At the time I was serving the local Methodist church as an interim.
Jojo refused to believe that was possible. “Let’s hear you preach!” he demanded, because his idea of a minister was Pentecostal, someone who could speak so powerfully and magically that they could send people into trances and make them speak in tongues, maybe even handle snakes. With my theatre background, I was tempted to let loose upon them my best version of a religiously possessed preacher, but I didn’t. Maybe I should have. I also should have attended old Joe Old Chief’s funeral, but I wasn’t sure I’d be as accepted at the service as I once was in the circle of Bundle Keepers. I smudge sweetgrass for Joe to honor him.