North American Indian Days during the second weekend in July used to be the hinge of the year for us in the Sixties. This is me about 1962 with some kids who will be grandparents now -- maybe great-grandparents. I never knew their names. My father took the photo and insisted on calling them “papooses” though I tried to advise him otherwise. They were cute and agreeable and loved their puppy. Just about exactly fifty years have passed since then. Everything has changed and yet everything is the same.
This was just before a great social leap forward. People were still living in the cabins and shanties of Moccasin Flats where the morning and evenings were wreathed in wood smoke. JFK had just begun planning for new housing. It was miserable concrete stuff, cold and ugly, but it was a step towards the far more comfortable split-levels that the tribe owns and manages today. Likewise, the schools were sort of unconscious, just before Headstart kicked in. There were cafes and bars and three grocery stores. I sang in the Methodist choir and the church was packed on Sunday, because whites were Protestant and there was no Indian Preference for government jobs yet. There were no mercy flight airlifts for the gravest cases of trauma or disease. A lot of young people limped because of polio in the Fifties. The fairgrounds were in ruins, but there was a picture show and a little bus to Great Falls. The main drug was just plain old aching alcohol. The AA programs had not come to town.
I had never been so happy as I was in those days, hadn’t known what it was like, whether it would change me, whether I could cope. In college I took theatre and religion classes, exasperating my advisor who was trying to make me into a certified teacher of high school English and dramatics. The Peace Corps was starting, but Browning was just as good in terms of adventures and culture-cruising. Oh, and doing good.
The place, much hated by some, seized me and changed me. The world was a huge transparent sapphire geode where the sky was a constant light show and the mountains seems to be on railroad tracks that brought them forwards some days and pushed them far away on others. It seemed things in that place had ever been different than they were at that moment. Nor did anyone think change would come. Most of us didn’t have television and the radio just wailed country. Crime was theft and drunkenness and if there was a fire, the siren blared and we all ran over to put it out.
Some things need to be recorded in fiction rather than confession, but I can say that my emotional age was about ten years old and so was Bob’s though he was technically more than twice my age. We were a good match. The horses were more assorted. Mine was an old relay racer, a very cautious horse. Bob’s became famous. “Gunsmoke,” broke for bull-dogging, had two speeds -- go like hell and stop. Bob was born there. We were both not just white but Scots. Bob’s theory was that all Indians considered all white people crazy and therefore not to be reproached -- just waved on by. It seemed to work for a while.
During Indian Days Scriver Studio was -- even more than usual -- a sort of rendezvous where people left messages, met up for a sortie, sought information. At dawn I was up cleaning the museum -- Bob’s rules included immaculate glass and dust-free exhibits, except in his workshop just through the Dutch door, which was a terrifying mess. Out front we counted the customers (how many in the front door, what percentage bought admission), made change, answered silly questions, alerted Bob if high rollers or low operators came in. We had no foundry -- sold hydrocal castings. There were no breaks for meals. With luck, someone would bring a hamburger. After midnight we’d still be hunkered over a picnic campfire on Cut Bank Creek, dozing while we listened to stories from friends, not wanting to end the day but working at the edges of our endurance. We never went in Glacier National Park. Never wanted to.
When the craze for Montana was on, wannabe writers migrated to Montana towns. (They’re in Portland, OR, now -- the oil boom has ended the romance of Montana anyway.) Once they had a room in Missoula or Butte, they’d come looking for action in Browning. In those days if they weren’t smart enough to stay out of the bars and to resist tipi creeping, their bones might be found in spring. Otherwise, it was, “What ever happened to that guy, you know, the one with the . . .” These days the locals know what to do with them -- feed them stories and pose for the photos. Figure out how to make them pay. Share their weed.
In those days there were fewer writers -- some outdoor illustrators though, whose work now shows up at expensive art auctions. (John Clymer, Bob Lougheed, Ralph Crosby Smith.) The middle-aged painters of today were in high school then. The cowboy art veterans (Charlie Beil, Ace Powell) might stop by. Some were already dead, not just Charlie Russell but also Sharp and Fery.
Way back then I didn’t pay much attention to humans, even those in town, except for Bob and the students who were studying me carefully, but not for the right reasons. It was the landscape that seized me and put me into relationship with those who truly write about it well, some of them unknown authors. You can see a long way on the prairie and most of what you see is sky. Pay attention or it will kill you. To live at that pitch of alertness and adrenaline is what a lot of people miss today.
The North American Indian Days in the early Sixties was dirt-level in the most literal way. The people who put up their lodges and tents had done it always. No one had invented RV’s yet. No concrete had been poured. There was only one well, pumped by hand. I can’t remember any porta-potties but there must have been SOMETHING. I hope. The dust rose above the dancers, smoke drifted everywhere, and the drums went on like heartbeats as well as the rattling pound of the stick game. The dancers still sang falsetto, and no women sang.