Wednesday, February 26, 2014


The rez in winter is both glorious and terrifying -- and boring as hell, as in hell frozen over.  No place to go worth getting stuck in the snow or going into the ditch.   Exhibit A comes from Tony Bynum’s photo array of his hometown, East Glacier, where I lived for a couple of years (1971-73) in a big wrecked house.  Corky’s dad rescued me from hypothermia by daring a blizzard to install a wall furnace.  My van disappeared into a snow bank.  In April I paid a backhoe to dig it out.  Tony is a professional photographer of scenery and wildlife, used to trekking around in snowshoes in the high country.

The town looks about the same as it used to except that signs are a little fancier, buildings are more painted up.  I don’t know where all those short-haired dogs come from.  Usually they’re more like huskies.  Must be indoor dogs.  The railroad bisects town and they say that in the old days by spring all the wives had either swapped partners or run off with salesmen.  East Glacier is at the east end of Marias Pass which is the only practical place to cross the Rockies at this latitude.  Even in winter there is a thin stream of travelers which is how the Little Diner survives, beyond the hardy locals.

“Where God Likes to Be”  is a summer film.     They say:  “Where God Likes To Be" portrays what it means to be Native American today – taking a personal, cinematic and lyrical journey into the heart of the Blackfeet Indian reservation. The film follows three young protagonists, Andi Running Wolf, Edward Tailfeathers and Douglas Fitzgerald over the course of one summer. "Where God Likes To Be" breaks down stereotypes and transforms conventional views of the reservation showing it as the spectacular home of a great and openhearted group of people who do their best to survive in and identify with a country that has tried to strip them of their identity.”  (Actually, I thought that WAS the stereotype.)

The Blackfeet men who went to be in the Shirley Temple movie in 1939.

Here they are again with Shirley, wearing their ceremonial parade suits

The usual outsider’s assumption is that Andi, Edward and Douglas have somehow suffered from attempts to strip them of their identity.  I taught their grandparents fifty years ago and these kids aren’t that different.  But the people who were 80 in 1961 were entirely different.  Those folks were “Indians” when Shirley Temple came to make a movie in 1939, the year I was born.  They still looked like this and dressed like the top photo in 1961.  I knew some of them.  We got along fine in public, working in the shop, and so on.  I walked the streets -- even at night -- with no worry.  I wasn't invited over for dinner.  We shared a lot of coffee and "long johns" (maple bars) at Greco's bakery.

Nicholas Husak is a little elusive about the town he grew up in where he was warned of the dangers of the rez.  He appears to be a Flathead citizen in Kalispell, but his whole attitude is very Missoula: arty, arch, willing to drag God into it by the scruff of His neck.  (If God loves it so much on the rez, why doesn’t he stop alcoholism and do something about the weather?)  The photography itself is gorgeous.  The dialogue on the trailer is underlaid with what AA calls “the pity pot.”  (Oh, woe.  An old theme.)   
In the movie clip, these three youngsters are way out in front but don’t seem to know it.  They COULD stay and make a living, but television and computers have taught them it just isn’t done.  Not if they want to live like the mainstream and they DO.  They think sit coms are normal.  They have no mental image of the reality of the United States -- the poverty, the immigrants, the claustrophobia and wage slavery.  

Five years later at the premiere of the movie, they are no longer so full of dread and pessimism.  Now they know they can cope with the off-rez world at least as far as they’ve gone.  The truth is that there are parts of all three of these rez communities that look a helluva lot better than what was filmed.  (Yes, counting Heart Butte.)
Darnell and Smokey Doore with Camee, granddaughter.

In the clip of the Film Festival at the Wilma Theatre in Missoula the lineup shows far to the left both Smokey and Darnell Rides at the Door, people who have spent their lifetimes “learnin’” kids what they know about the Old People.  Smokey has been on the Browning School Board for years and Darnell produced a regular television series that interviewed old timers and discussed issues.  I apologize for not being able to bring up the name of the older woman between them.
Doug could not have gotten his AA in teaching language before the Blackfeet Tribal College was founded and accredited or before the Piegan Institute showed the way.  To these young ‘uns those institutions have always been there.  Doug is the one who dresses in “citizen’s clothes” (braids, vest, scarf), the one who has stayed on the rez and the one who brings up the REAL issue, which is how to make a smooth transition into modern management by the Tribal Council, now that Eloise Cobell has fought the US government and won; now that frakking has opened a new and perilous horizon on oil profits. The issue is survival, not folkways.
I’m always divided when these idealistic cinematographer couples (often half-German, usually the female half, but not always) come around making movies.  (They used to write books.)  They present seeing aerial photography of the Rockies as though it were a great gift instead of a tourist staple.  Tourism has been a good source of income, esp. with the casino. Tony Bynum's photos of the oil well rigs against a backdrop of the mountain horizon probably do the tribe more good.
Theda New Breast

Narcisse Blood

But where are the issues that Narcisse Blood and Theda New Breast of Issksinipp present, speaking in their Blackfeet language.  Maybe I’m being unfair.  I haven’t seen the movie, after all, and it’s an hour long.  Of course they’re going to put the sexy familiar stuff up front -- the feathers, the "wild" horses, the flying geese.  At least we’ve come a long ways from “War Party,” that exercise in jejeune cynicism.

Winter in the Blood

“Winter in the Blood” is released now -- another Missoula product.    A new review at
"Jimmy P."

And “Jimmy P” has a trailer out.  Del Toro doesn't quite have the accent down, but it’s a valiant attempt.  I’ve had the book for a long time.  The psychotherapy in it is pretty primitive but the problem of PTSD still persists since so many Blackfeet willingly enlist in the nation’s wars.

All these beautiful images from Tony Bynum to Arnaud Desplechin are pretty easy to come up with around here.  I’ve got dozens and dozens of three-ring binders full of them, all taken with point-and-shoot cameras.  I admit that I also have icky photos of animal bones and beaver carcasses, but that’s what was also there, so I snapped ‘em.  For years I packed around a horse skull to hang on my wall.  It all mixes together in a place like this, the Montana Gothic and the sentimental hooey and the open-hearted Real People.  The enduring energy is in the reconciliation, the crossing of self-interest with transcendent insight.

When you talk to rez people here, it has not been my experience that they look down, away from you, unless they think they’re in trouble.  Some of them watch your face very carefully, and read every flicker of emotion to see what you’re really thinking.  Then they tell you what they think you want to hear, see what effect that has, and proceed accordingly.  What you will see in any movie is what the film-makers wanted to see, because they were there.  Those were the faces watched by the Blackfeet in front of the camera.  If you came here you might see something entirely different.

1 comment:

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Tony Bynum sends this postscript video, which uses many of his images.