The mysterious century-old story of Spopee, the Blackfeet man who ended up mute in St. Elizabeth’s Insane Asylum in Washington, D.C. for more than thirty years, has now been carefully documented by William E. Farr in his book “Blackfoot Redemption, A Blood Indian’s Story of Murder, Confinement, and Imperfect Justice.” Versions of the story have always floated around the rez, losing and gaining details according to the motives of the tale-teller. I even imagined a version of my own in “Twelve Blackfeet Stories.” (www.lulu.com/prairiemary)
Spopee means turtle. There have been several men in Blackfeet history who were called “Turtle” for one reason or another. There are two kinds of Blackfeet faces: round faces and blade faces. The Spopee that this review is about had a round face, because he lived in a showcase institution in Washington, D.C., and ate very well. The blade faced man stayed on the Blackfeet rez where the Canadian/US border draws a line through the territory of the People. He was much younger, never hunted buffalo, but his image fits the romantic expectations of the world. Winold Reiss and Clare Sheridan, among others, recorded his likeness in the Thirties.
The murder committed by the Spopee in this book occurred in 1879. I have a useful chart of history reminding me that in Europe as well as North America in those days empire-building was the name of the game. The Siege of Paris, in which 6,000 people starved to death, was in 1870. The Red River Rebellion had just been put down and RC Mounted Police just founded. Manitoba had newly formed in Canada, which itself had been established as a country in 1869. Colorado and Nebraska were just becoming states. The consciousness in Washington, D.C. of European opinion of American treatment of its native peoples is the only stone left unturned by Bill Farr, though he reminds us repeatedly of the shifting reputation of Indians from blood-thirsty monsters to a split between pitiful remnants and noble embodiments of the New World. He carefully explains the pre-cursors to the Starvation Winter of 1893-84 when 600 Blackfeet people starved to death because they were confined to the reservation where there were no more buffalo. Sympathizers in the East were outraged and made no secret of it. It might explain how Spopee got to St. Elizabeth’s.
The sources of this careful study (Farr is an Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Montana) are exhaustive and useful, even in such a “cold case,” not least because they are part of a recent general movement to search primary sources. There are enough of these books now to begin to weave together. Two referenced by Farr are “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912-1954” by Paul C. Rosier and “Firewater, The Impact of the Whisky Trade on the Blackfoot Nation,” by Hugh A. Dempsey. One begins to recognize names and see relationships. Two books now being written, one about the Malcolm Clark family and one about the White Calf family, will add to this trove. These refute the declaration of a Montana librarian who told me “Indians” have no history here.
When I read these books, real people -- only a generation or two descended from Spopee -- rise in my mind’s eye. Modern stories are not so different. In the Nineties in Portland the police arrested a “Mexican drunk,” who didn’t speak either English or Spanish and remained mute until his buddy, facing up to consequences, came to explain that he was from far up in the Mexican mountains where people only spoke the local tribal language. When I was teaching in Heart Butte, a pesky drunk went on a binge in a small nearby town. He was pounding on the locked door of a local bar when the new owner, an old man who didn’t know Indians, came around the outside, propped his rifle on the board fence and shot the drunk dead. The usual public “law firm,” Rumor, Malign & Obfuscation took over from there. A tire iron materialized and the charge shifted from murder to self-defense.
The same forces didn’t help Spopee and his buddy, Good Rider, two young guys in a hungry time who came down from Canada and hitched a ride with a white man leaving for the States to become a wolfer, the oil field opportunity of the time. What happened among the three, as far as the primitive CSI could ascertain, was that the wolfer (Walmsley, by name) ended up with a bullet in the back and a bashed-in skull. Which of the near-teens did the deed, how much they collaborated in the ensuing cover-up, whether Walmsley had already attacked one of them with a shovel, and even on which side of the border the murder was committed, remained confused. In the final act Good Rider became a state’s witness and Spopee was convicted, shuffled around, and ended up at St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, D.C., the beneficiary of the wonderful belief that life in what were near-resort-quality buildings with good food, plenty of air and sunlight, would cure anything. It certainly didn’t hurt Spopee, except that when he died a year and a half after being released and sent home -- now a dignified gent with a brush cut, a splendid mustache, and a three-piece suit. His autopsy showed fatty heart, damaged liver, and nephritis. Bad diet, no exercise. The hospital docs had said he was in excellent health. They had no reason to testify otherwise.
Actually, Spopee did occasionally say a few words, sort of in the spirit of the boy who never spoke until at the age of five he announced that there were lumps in his oatmeal. When asked why he never spoke earlier, he said that everything had been fine until then. At the time of Spopee’s conviction, another man escaped punishment by claiming he was crazy and Spopee took note. When asked how he was, he said, “Crazy.”
There are two intriguing elements that Farr uncovered. One was that when Spopee worked in the tailoring shop, he started a little side-business of repairing old clothes and selling them. The other was his fascination with money, mostly in the form of checks. When I first came to Browning in 1961, “counter-checks” were still viable -- that is, if one didn’t have personal checks, there was a pad of generic check forms on the counter. So Spopee, understanding how important money is in Washington, D.C., simply made himself some money. Someone gave him a little set of rubber movable type, plus he skillfully drew his own presidents, and then signed his name, “Purify Spopee,” which he understood as meaning “clean-hearted.” His handwriting was elegant. He could not understand why others didn’t think it was just as viable as the government’s version, so he repeated the practice over and over. No one would cash them. Anyone who could locate those hand-drawn bills now would find them FAR more valuable than the amounts written on them, which were only a few dollars.
Regarded quite dispassionately, the story of Spopee fits with books about Blackfeet caught in the forces of a changing culture. Jim Welch’s “The Heartsong of Charging Elk,” (2000) about the fate of a man left behind in France by the Buffalo Bill Wild West show who gradually becomes a Frenchman; or “Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian” by George Devereaux (1951) in which the psychotherapist helps a “Wolf” Indian (who was a Blackfeet known by his Indian name here) recover from PTSD.
In a peculiar contemporary reverse of Spopee’s case, Ronald A Smith, a Canadian white man hitchhiking through the reservation, is currently trying to get his capital sentence commuted. He murdered Blackfeet men Harvey Mad Man Jr., 24, and Thomas Running Rabbit III, 20, shooting them in the backs of their heads, and has been in jail for 25 years while the political forces struggle with the issues. He is not mute. He does not draw currency. There is no book. So far.
One more list of ironies: The woman who sang the lullaby that wakened Spopee (Ella Clark) was Malcolm Clark’s daughter-in-law. Her father was a lively character named Robert Hamilton who spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C. (See Rosier.) Malcolm Clark Sr. owned what is now the Baucus ranch and was murdered there by his wife’s Blackfeet relatives. In retaliation, Baker was sent out to strike Mountain Chief’s band but massacred Heavy Runner’s band by mistake. One version is that Spopee’s mother was killed in the attack and Spopee himself was “shot through the hips.” Other accounts claim his mother escaped and Spopee was among the absent men, who were hunting. Spopee was a relative of Natawista, the celebrated wife of Culbertson.