Thursday, March 07, 2013


Looking north across Birch Creek.
Willow Rounds likely just out of the frame to the right.

Over the years there have been many local historians who converted local history into small chapbooks.  Especially there were women who enjoyed this work of taking stories from talk to print, small cumulative interviews about the families who settled their area.  Among them were Helen West in Cut Bank, Dorothy Floerschinger in Conrad, and Olga Monkman in Choteau.  I knew all of them slightly, but didn’t really remember Dorothy Hamaker until Paul Wheeler sent me a copy of “Napi’s Lookout: The Story of Willow Rounds,”  (1967) which is just north-east of Valier and part of the Canal Company complex history, including the Conrad brothers’ ranch empire.  Seeing her photo jogged my memory.

Maybe a dozen or more of these historians of the local would regularly stop in at Scriver Studio to swap stories, rather like early trappers hanging around a trading post.  Some of them wrote about Indians, some wanted to check out details in stories formally published by George Bird Grinnell or James Willard Schultz, some had family histories entwined with Bob’s sojourn as a band teacher and justice of the peace or with the Browning Merc, and some wanted to write histories of their towns from founding to the present.  Charlie Russell had firmly established the relationship between story and art; Ace Powell never let us forget it.  The product of the talk-to-print impulse was self-publishing, usually printed by a local newspaper plant.  I suppose they were composed on a linotype and the photos were pasted in on layout sheets.

The concept of the Axis Mundi is that the location of the individual is a sort of picket pin around which the person organizes their understanding of life, both practical and spiritual, which is why these historians were clearly located where they wrote.  Usually that point is a town or ranch.  Not so common is what we might call “the Long Town,” which is built along a stream or possibly an important thoroughfare like the Old North Trail.  “Willow Rounds” is a place along Birch Creek, the southern boundary of the Southern Blackfeet or Piegan sub-group of the Blackfeet (Siksika) nation.  The Hamakers ranched there.

In terms of the history of the US, “town” as a compact settlement was a northern way of development, but “plantation” as a long shore-tracing string of locations was southern.  The Blackfeet reservation has three “resort” towns (East Glacier, St. Marys, and Babb), two “old-timer” settlements (Heart Butte and Starr School) and one hub governmental town (Browning).  But there are also several important “Long Towns” (Badger, Two Medicine, and Birch, which is shared on the south shore with Pondera county settlers).  Because they are based on ranches along rivers, their histories include a series of floods.

Hamaker notes several major floods: 1908, 1948 and the Really Big Flood in 1964.  A 1948 aerial photo in the booklet surprised both Paul and I by vividly showing that the “rounds” that gave Hamaker’s ranch its name was not the many tipi rings that are in that valley, but rather round clearings formed by camp circles of the lodges pushing back the brush.  The ranch had a number of owners through the years and that continues to be true.  In the early days, when timber and lumber were both scarce, the practice was often to convert existing houses to new uses, which was made easier when the floods moved whole buildings along to new locations.

This part of the country is formed by ancient volcanic eruptions in the Pacific Northwest that covered the area with fine dust, a very ancient seabed made of limestone, and the scraped deposits of glaciers only ten thousand years old -- all of it eroded by the rush of  water when the glaciers melted.  Hamaker lived in an area called “Bullhead,” because it contained “soap holes,” something like quicksand, in which a bull could sink so far that only its head stuck out -- barely enough to throw a rope on to haul it out.   “In the one map reference from The USGS (United States Geological Survey) the soap holes are in a closed drainage system. The water flows in and does not flow out. This has caused the shales, sandstones and limestones under the bentonite beds to have eroded away, forming depressions in which bentonite from the surrounding area can accumulate.”

Hamaker doesn’t take an anthropological approach to Indians and uses the old-fashioned terms “buck” and “squaw” that suggest they are a different species.  Also, to her all bears are fierce and must be shot.  She came to the territory in 1910 so this is not surprising.  She sees through the lens of local life, so the berries are described in terms of recipes:  “put rhubarb in your sarvisberry pie to give it a bit of tang.”  And yet she knows the Napi stories about buffalo berries, how Napi saw their reflection in water and kept trying to pick the mirrored fruit until frustration drove him to thrash the bushes and curse them with terrible thorns, which weren’t a curse at all, since then they protected small animals, tender plants and even a calving cow with a thick skin.

She describes “Napi’s Lookout” as a high point excellent for watching or flagging signals, and speaks eloquently of an old man who arrived up there without warning, sang mourning songs all day, then slipped away at nightfall.  She says that in the early days the trees were full of burials -- which were not buried but lifted up after being sewn into hide shrouds.  I always wondered what happened to them and she says they were poked down and cut open in search of artifacts, those emotion-laden and occasionally valuable bits of material culture.  She tells us that if you are looking for someone, you should go a little north into Canada and check the “guest book” at “Writing on Stone” where there are many pecked images as illustrated in the movie called “Meek’s Cutoff”Spopee (Turtle) was there, though no one is sure which Spopee.

Hamaker’s understanding of Blackfeet religion is as a sort of child’s version of Christianity, but then her understanding of Christianity is also the simplified and sentimental version of Edwardian times.  She writes poetry infused with it, careful to rhyme and scan.  Near the end of the book is a passage that illustrates her approach so I’ll quote it:

“It was on just such a mission [looking for a calf] that I had to tether my horse and creep into a thicket.  Stooping low beneath the thorns, I discovered a bed of glorious deep-blue violets, cleverly hidden in a silvery bed of leaf-mold.  “Cold Maker” had not yet completely left the valley, and it was delightful to see something bright, alive and cheerful.  One must bow humbly and very, very low sometimes if he would perceive God’s blessings and Nature’s wonders.”

Dorothy Hamaker has many heirs today.  Oddly, most of the ones I know are male singers.  Meeting the way the early trappers used to rendezvous, Jack Gladstone, Wiley Gustafson, Ken Overcast, and all the “cowboy poets”  travel through the “long towns” across the prairie.  They form temporary axles for the wheeling universe along the Long Road of Time.  How’s that for a metaphor?

1 comment:

mscriver said...

Paul thinks that I've got this wrong: first, that the photo is looking towards Valier from the north side of the river and second, that by the time one gets to Willow Rounds, the rivers (Birch, Two Med and Marias) have converged into just being Marias. It will take someone who knows the area or a better map than I've got to resolve this.

Prairie Mary