Saturday, November 23, 2013


Darrell Kipp’s great-grandparents were murdered in the Baker Massacre.  His name was Kipp only because the Kipp who (with Cobell) was a scout for the Cavalry -- and who accidentally led them to the wrong camp -- in remorse adopted as many orphaned children as he could.  It was that recent.  

Another of his ancient ancestors was an old lady who lived in a room at the Kipp railroad hotel in Blackfoot.  She strung ropes up across all the corners of the room, hung what amounted to a tipi liner, and treated the whole space like the interior of a lodge with no tables and chairs.  Just a stove in the middle.

He told about going to the show house in Browning carrying a flashlight because there were no streetlights.  When he went to Bulgaria as a visiting scholar, he stayed with a distinguished professor who lived in a simple stone house furnished with a one-legged bed (two sides were fixed to the wall) and a peg for the single change of clothes.  The family gave him the single egg their hen laid daily and the professor made him toast by laying the sliced bread on the top of the woodstove, just as Darrell’s grandfather had done.  Until then he had thought he knew what poverty was.  Somewhere there is a short film called "Black Foot, White Hand" that shows his walking through the villages and countryside, respectfully attending a mosque, and joking with the little kids who inevitably came to find out about him and walk with him.

Darrell’s family of cousins tended to be readers: Uphams; McKays; Clarke Wissler’s informant David Duvall, who finally committed suicide in front of the Kipp hotel.  They succeeded in whatever schooling they had, which ranged from primary school to post graduate degrees, and were early in crossing the socioeconomic barrier between the janitor and the classroom teacher.  What made Darrell unique was his sense of humor at the absurdity of it all and his determination to be dignified, forgiving, and even noble in the face of many insults and assaults.  He used to say that he had instructed his friends that if he ever ran for tribal council, they should just kill him.  Yet for many years he accepted the thankless task of serving as an appellate tribal judge, dealing with cases that were essentially unsolvable and full of rancor -- even danger.  Only very rarely did a flinch or a wince show his underlying outrage at the constant indignities of being “the Indian.” 

Resisting the idea of both “chief” and “shaman,” Darrell chose the path of the scholar and educator, which his mother proudly supported, but he also picked up a few tricks from the Kipp side of the family, whose entrepreneurial spirit was remarkable.  Thus he was on the board of Siyeh, the “wholly owned subsidiary” of the tribe that finally began to make a profit because it was insulated by its own board from privateering and meddling.  But he was not a greedy man.  Every morning he loaded a few five dollar bills into his wallet because he knew he was likely to be approached by people begging for a little help.  He never passed judgment on his friends for their drinking and violence.  When he found those sunk in despair and lying passed out in the street, he took them home and put them on his couch to sleep it off.  He had a period of despair in his own life when he realized the height and slipperiness of Indian success.  Maybe the last year or so was hard when he saw the limits of what he personally could do.  The demands on his time and energy were enormous as he crossed the country in airplanes, speaking and counseling and being on panels.

As a boy, he had gone to Eastern Montana College without any idea what it really meant.  Like many of us who made that jump, not just Indians, he discovered that his education had woefully prepared him and also found out for the first time what it meant to be upper class.  His assigned roommate was the son of a Great Falls lawyer.  At the end of the year, the roommate -- who owned a car (imagine THAT!) -- gave him a ride back across the state.  At the lawyer’s gracious home the rez boy was put to bed in the guest room (imagine THAT!)  In the morning the roommate had left for some reason but the mother fixed him a fine breakfast.  He had intended to hitchhike the hundred and thirty miles to Browning, but she was having none of it and put him on the bus, buying the ticket herself.  This was what he wanted to be like, that elegance and generosity.

Darrell’s wife, Roberta, always reminds me of Carolina Herrera, the haute couture clothing designer.  She is that elegant and composed, but with a sharper tongue.  While their son was growing up, she lived apart in Missoula so the boy could go to good schools, but he was included in Indian doin's.  In summer the family lived in a simple cabin on the shore of St. Mary’s Lake and when Darren grew up, he built his own cabin a little further along.  Many a story was told, many a scholar took notes, many a town kid took his first walk in woods there.  When any Canadian Blackfoot family failed to cross the border before it closed, they crashed at Darrell’s, rolling up in blankets on the floor in the old way.  The cabin was a cross between a think tank and a sanctuary.

One day Darrell was daydreaming and reflecting when he realized he had become almost a white man.  Moved to action, he drove north to the closest Blackfoot Nation reserve and walked into a moccasin factory where Blood women were working.  “Teach me how to be an Indian,” he said, and -- delighted! -- the women began that very moment.  They were Blackfoot speakers.  Then one day Dorothy Still Smoking drove up to his porch.  “Get in the car, Darrell,” she said.  “We’ve got work to do.”  Ed Little Plume was soon recruited as the best Blackfeet speaker on the rez.  When he died, Darrell mourned.

The first thing was to survey the People to see how they felt about learning to speak Blackfeet.  The People thought it would be a disaster.  It was a marker of backwardness, would cause a person to be punished by white people, had no use.  Taken aback, the two simply drew up a new plan.  They would start their own school on the pattern of the one-room school houses of the early rural days or, if you like, the ultra-modern idea of the charter school.  (Same thing)  In a spirit of revolution they would accept funding (and restrictions as well as meddling) from neither government nor tribe, but rather apply for grants from nonprofits like the Latham Foundation.  Eventually they had even managed to teach the newspapers to use a few Blackfeet words and the Blackfeet stunt riders in movies taught movie stars to speak Blackfeet.

The Piegan Institute would not be just an immersion language school but also a depository for scholars.  They set about finding and capturing copies of all the many studies that had been done on the rez without ever including the People themselves except as subjects.  In the Seventies School District #9 had contracted with Darrell to teach evening classes about Blackfeet history and we all made time-lines of events that proved to be consciousness-raising: so brutally lethal, so recent, so unjust, and yet the people persisted and many flourished.  They found ways to join forces, new sources of energy in things like relocation that were supposed to disperse them.

But those classes weren’t the first time I knew Darrell.  Almost the first week of school starting in 1961, the year I taught junior high school and Darrell was a senior, I was crossing the street to what was then the new high school and saw a big kid bullying a little boy.  Then Darrell in his Indian Health Service black specs came out of the building and intervened.  His reputation among the teachers was respectful.  

That entire cohort of seniors somehow found fire and became Promethean.  Elouise Cobell was one of them, Joe Fisher who became the Piegan Institute cinematographer was another.  It was fitting that Darrell died on the eve of the fifty year anniversary of JFK’s death, because they were much influenced by his example and rhetoric.  They were children of assassinations and Darrell said that in the early years when he went in and out of homes as a sociologist and activist, every house had pictures of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. on their walls.  High idealism comes easily to the young, but often gets crushed.  To resurrect those goals with mature determination is what makes people great.  Great Falls Tribune front page 11/23/2013
I’m going to post this and leave it up for a few days, adding to it as I think of things.  There will be a LOT of Darrell Robes Kipp stories.  One of them is that middle name, which is meant to perpetuate the name of the “Far Away Spotted Robes” subdivision of the Blackfoot Nation.  It was the smallest of the groups and the most open to the white people.  It was a tribe of one, but now it is extinguished.

One of Darrell’s “structural” practices, the things that kept ideas alive and functioning, was friendships, some quite public and announced on the Piegan Institute website and others almost covert, while some dated back to grade school.  They were not the people that the public noticed or who were promoted by institutions like publishers.

Rosalyn LaPier and Dave Beck, who are a married couple, are part of the Missoula complex of people interested in the Blackfeet Rez but not quite so politically oriented as, say, the Badger-Two Med activists.  It was Dave who got Darrell to Bulgaria.  What Rosalyn brought (besides friendship) was two-fold:  one was an artist’s sense and skills of presentation so that materials and the website took a jump in quality. Rosalyn’s mother, Valentina LaPier, is a prize-winning artist.

The other factor the two brought in was August seminars featuring a day of lectures by noted experts, some of them conventional white academics and other from the new category of tribally-based scholars. The whole spectrum from Narcissse Blood to Hugh Dempsey, many from Canada, explained cutting edge computer skills and ingenious investigations of the past, like using the earliest maps to locate actual places.

Jack Holterman was an historian who in his youth had taught in one of the one-room schoolhouses that used to dot the rez, the same kind where Darrell started school.  Jack fostered and adopted many Indian kids and began to build a stone cabin next to the Scriver’s cabins in St. Mary but never finished it.  He was a year younger than Bob and never married.  

Jack was brilliant and had family money so eventually he had freedom to travel and research.  Often his articles appeared in Montana, the Magazine of Western History.  One editor playfully accused him of being in love with Natawista Culbertson.  I paid high prices for his self-published books and found them worth much more, as he was always searching the small corners overlooked by everyone else.  His AB and an MA in Romance Languages were earned at Stanford and he was a Spanish speaker, who spent time in Argentina, Spain, and Mexico.  One of his most useful books was “Place Names of Waterton and Glacier Park” and he was constantly suffering the hijacking of his work by such eminences as the American Museum of Natural History.  Another reference work was “Who Was Who in Glacier Land,” which I’ve almost worn out.  He taught in Whitefish and Kalispell.  He taught Darrell much about local history as well as strategy.

When Darrell’s uncle was in the service in WWII, he sent home postcards, usually of some structure, with an arrow pointing to what he said was “my room.”  Darrell playfully followed this custom when he was on the road raising money, so I have a pile of postcards of everything from prisons to cabins to the Taj Mahal -- but usually a hotel -- with a window marked “my room.”  I was tempted to send him a “big sky” picture with “my cloud” marked on it, but it was too late and too macabre.  The last time I talked to Darrell was only weeks ago.  He looked good, spoke optimistically, full of ideas about the coming school year.  Or at least he was putting up a good front.  It was a good talk.


Like so many of us who are literate, Darrell longed to write a great book or at least get a chapbook of his poetry published, but everything he knew taught him to stay hidden and guarded.  I’m hoping that somehow a manuscript will turn up now.  I know he wrote a lot and often.  In fact, he kept journals from his high school days, suitcases of them, and when I heard about them I got VERY excited, urging him to put them in a safety deposit vault.  They’ve gone with him everywhere and would be an incredible EARNED record of what it is to be an educated man struggling to make sense of the world.  But they are NOT as valuable as the work he did with kids who are living manuscripts that will endure a long time.

Once I made a “chapbook” out of the poems I had copies of and put on the cover the huge “buffalo rock” that’s along the road out to Heart Butte.  I sent that to him and his response was that it was “scary.”

I've spent the day reading our correspondence over the years.  Most of them were from the years the Piegan Institute was beginning and I was teaching in Heart Butte.  There were many of them, immaculately typed.  I keep them in three-ring notebooks.  I don’t know what their legal status might be in terms of copyright.  They are, as I reread them now, often blowing off steam and rueful complaints -- nothing at all like his public persona.  In fact, they often sound like Tim Barrus, which explains why I so easily fell into relationship with him.  I would not have said that when Darrell was alive.  I was never in love with Darrell, but very good friends.  We loved to talk together as two writers, talk fast and smart aleck, so that some referred to us as the “two philosophers” (which tells you something about their view of philosophers).  I wish I had been more involved with his work, but the first problem was that the basic context was “being Blackfeet” which I was not and the second problem was that I kept being thrown off the reservation.  

My participation in Bundle Keeping was while he was off the rez back east in the Sixties and so was quite different than his, which rubbed him wrong.  It seemed politically incorrect for me to know the really old people, though Mike Swims Under was his guide, along with George Kicking Woman who was the youngest of the group I knew.  My experience was with older people and shared with Bob Scriver.  He was guardedly resistant to Bob, but I think he hoped that I could surrender some tips from his success.  If I could, I didn’t know it.

Here’s a sample of his advice when asked to participate in Red Ribbon Week in Heart Butte.  The context is that he was shoved down to the end to be the last speaker and all the previous speakers had followed the same pattern:  “I coulda been a contender, but I screwed up bigtime with my terrible addiction which gripped me beyond my power, but now I realize and repent and etc. so I’m in recovery.  

Here’s what Darrell said:

Marry late if at all.
Never dive into a pool without knowing the depth first.
Never crawl into a small space unless absolutely sure you can get back out.
Be clean.  Literally, like with soap.
Be careful what you wish for.
Develop the attitude of a stand-up comedian.
Hide your getaway money somewhere and never touch it unless you really need it.


Most of the letters I’ve put into binders are from the years that Piegan Institute is starting and I’m teaching at Heart Butte.  If only for that reason, they are valuable.  At first Darrell and Dorothy try to work through School District #9.  They're writing up justifications, going to seminars somewhere else and brainstorming sessions in the school system.  Then the bosses are coming around seeking reassurance and asking for more detail.  The stalling goes on and on.  

One day Darrell just gets fed up.  He goes over to Vina Chattin School, asks one of the teachers he knows pretty well if she would mind going to have coffee for a while, and takes over her class.  He teaches the kids Blackfeet by teaching them the spoken words and the sign language at the same time.  Just like that.  By the end of the hour they are not just speaking Blackfeet, they are high on it, shouting and moving.  After that kids are constantly stopping him on the street to sign and say the words they know.  

Darrell's mother died in this time frame and he says:  “We are always dying.  We should live each day with that awareness.”

Bill Grant comes to town and married into the DesRosier family, one of the key mercantile-based families like the Sherburnes and Scrivers with the difference that they intermarried with Indians.  Grant is a Boston-raised architect and at once grasps the idea of the Piegan Institute.  The two buildings he designs for the school, one modest beginning on what was Moccasin Flats and then a larger complex with a kitchen on what was once the “white” street, next door to the childhood home of Bob Scriver.  This becomes the location of “Cuts Wood School.”  At first the idea was to scatter one-room school houses around among neighborhoods, but it develops that teachers needs to be close to each other to exchange ideas and back each other up.  Bill has enough poetry in him to include touches like the Celtic cross that means a “dream moth” on the top back of a tipi which he translated into a window.

Quite aside from that, Darrell’s near military insistence on maintenance, cleanliness and order meant that the building became a pleasant venue for ceremonies and lectures that is not quite church and not quite school, but something like both.  The Moccasin Flats building was sometimes used by Grant, sometimes by the Imitah/Poos group that does spay and neuter sessions, and sometimes as a place to fort up and avoid demands from people, often far away and with no comprehension of the realities of rez life.  “Coastal” producers and writers often treat Darrell like a tour guide or an assistant.  The magic word “Harvard” generally cures them.  “Vermont” makes no impression.

When the money situation got really scary in spite of all the speaking and moderating and consulting, Darrell and the others reminded themselves that they were the owners of the property and that it was a reservoir of value they could use if it became absolutely necessary.  And now it will be where the People will gather his body and his life, so that they will remember as the work goes on.


Anonymous said...


Tony Bynum said...

The world has lost a great human. . . All across Indian Country Darrell is being remember for his unadulterated commitment to humanity. Saying you want change is common; doing something real about it is rare; making change through real leadership and dedication to the truth in order to make our lives better, was Darrell Kipp. RIP my friend, we will forever look to your past for our future . . .

northern nick said...

Niteniwa, aniwexan, aniwa.

Each moon brings us a song. Each winter moon we sing for the return of summer sun.

Each summer we sing for winter moon which reminds of death and birth and the promise of the

This is our journey.

Summer sun winter moon summer sun winter moon

. . .

The Berries Ripen and we dance slowly around the Moon and the Sun of our Journey
Our dancers move to the heartbeat of Mother Earth
Raven sings
Good old songs of his youth

-- text written by Darrell Kipp, from: Libretto – Lewis & Clark Symphony, Summer Sun, Winter Moon

northern nick said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Malcolm Campbell said...

I just now learned of Darrell's death via the Montana Historical Society Newsletter. He and I corresponded about the language many years ago, and when I was in Browning in September, I hoped to see him but heard the school was closed that day. I will miss him even though I never met him in person. I hope his work lives on just as he does in our memory.

Thanks for your post.