Wednesday, October 29, 2014


From Sid's blog

The Gustafson family is very well-known here, not least because Rib -- the patriarch -- has been a veterinarian and force for good over decades.  Two of his sons are vets and one of the vets (Sid Gustafson, a race horse vet) is a writer.  You can find this story at  It’s called simply “Smallpox.”  This time Sid has done nothing less than invent a new genre:  poetic history.

The facts on which this story is based are well-known to me, since I was married to the taxidermist -- not the one in the story, but the one that Sid knew who suggested "Stuf."  This year would have been Bob Scriver’s hundredth birthday.  The historical society baked a cake and put up a temporary exhibit.  

I know this place, Browning, MT, I know the massacre tale (several versions), and I know small lost boys -- I write short stories about them myself.  This one is plainly Sid, but also an idealized version, a mystical imaginary figure, and yet a possibility.  Both Sid and Bob were boys who longed to be Blackfeet somehow, maybe only through soul-affinity.  The writing here is like a lot of sci-fi/fantasy poetry, ennobling “plain” history and plot line with grand sweeps of poetry as strong as Browning wind.

Let’s be clear.  Malcolm Clark’s death was not alleged but actual and his daughters were nothing like the ones in this story, though I love the idea of one of them having a walrus tusk for a pegleg.  There are real families named “Bird” and “Butterfly,” but it’s risky to use real names, even Sherburne.  Still, I’d have liked to see Sid use Frank Sherburne in his story, since that was the son who sort of “went native.”  Most of this history seems to be based on oral tales rather than library research, but that’s okay so long as the two aren’t confused.  Probably he knows the people whose names he’s borrowed, so they will only laugh.

This is a universal classic plot line: a found strange boy who turns out to be the savior everyone has longed for.  (Yah, maybe Xian -- so?)  People with this story in their hearts turn up on every reservation by the dozens, meaning well, escaping from crushing civilization whether military, academic, medical or family.  They come, sit on the "barren porch" and wait to be recognized.  (I love that Sid put in a dog.  I always try to put a dog in every story about Indians.  Sid and I know that Bob often kept a badger for a pet and treated it like a dog.)  

Most of the time no one notices, so the would-be hero sighs and goes on.  Once in a while someone fits in, with deep commitment, and becomes a member of the community.  (Sid and I are peripheral, but we pay attention.)  The girls often get distracted by the romance of it all and end up leaving, pregnant and crying.  Some of the others get high on drugs or politics.  But that’s not what this story is about.  It’s about potential -- what might happen, a beginning.

Strong Blackfeet Women

This story addresses another pattern which is older women, opinionated and forceful, who take hold of situations and try to resolve them.  (Not me.  I just sit here and think.)  But most recently this has been especially strong in the actual dynamics of the rez, even expressing itself in the new organization called Issksiniip which is a group of emergency responders that come to families in crisis of some kind.   Betty Cooper and Theda New Breast, mother and daughter, are part of this turnaround, this rebound, this renewal.  Here’s the link to a video called “Why the Women in my Family Don’t Drink Whiskey”  that Theda made:  Just google to find a mountain of material.

Sid’s short story, “Smallpox” is a different approach to the same idea.  He’s a major fan of “Jimmie” Schultz, otherwise known as James Willard Schultz, who wrote those beguiling adventure tales (“Why Gone Those Times?”) and lived on the rez with a Blackfeet wife and her mother, whom he loved also.  His grave is above the Gustafson ranch, on a ridge overlooking the river, and Sid goes up now and then to clear away weeds and whatever debris has collected.  This story, like Schultz’s imaginings, is romantic and unrealistic, but also at a different level, quite true -- MORE than true.

Part of the magic is relating to the compass points, which are why Blackfeet stories and songs and so on are based on FOUR rather than THREE, and the star patterns, which are given their European constellation names by Stuf.  The 19th century details also help, but it is the beginning of the 20th that is his designated time (“manifest” as in “manifest destiny”).  “Stuf stared starward.  Maybe it was too early in the night.  The medicine man Many White Horses had told him to watch the sky; that a comet approached.  There, a wisp off Cassiopeia’s chair.  He looked harder, wishing for new spectacles.  The faraway galaxy Andromeda twinkled in the wetness of his eyes.  Andromeda and not a comet.  The woman sighed.”

Sid has a difficulty to overcome when he invokes the mounted animals in Stuf’s shop.  The practice of re-animating dead animals by gluing hides onto paper maché sculptured shells and adding glass eyes was once admired (still is in some circles).  But my dentist was just ordered to remove all his mounted heads from his office because they were “creepy” and maybe contagious in some way.  Sid and his dad often came to the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife and Sid as a child responded to the magic illusion innocently.  They tell me that taxidermy is coming back, but as a sort of Victorian sentimental joke -- small animals in human clothes doing human things.  I consider that disrespectful and demeaning of the animals.  In fact, Bob felt that bronze sculptures were MORE realistic than the taxidermy.

The Blackfeet Bundles (in fact, all the prairie tribe Bundles) were based on tobacco-smoking pipes, but beyond that they contained a sort of “hymnal” of animal skins, not recreations of the animals but mnemonic devices for the qualities and powers of the creatures themselves.  Each, wrapped like a baby in calico, is called with a dance and song.  In the old-time people this would open memories of encounters with the real animals.

This is a story of reconciliation after great tragedy.  Small devices like the personal “handgame” with the Medicine Man that ends up with “Buffalo Heart” disclosing one hand holding a black and a white buffalo together is inspired.  But it’s clear that Sid hasn’t seen a Beaver Bundle: they are massive, so much so that one needs a horse to carry them.  Such a Bundle couldn’t have been transported easily in the Dog Days before the horses came.  For Buffalo Heart to die after his vision is a bit over-the-top, a distraction.

Towards the end of the story Sid introduces a little song:

“What will become of a boy as light as he?
As light as me,
A boy as white and alone as me
Arrived here from the land of the Cree.”

I hope someone gives it a tune and appends it as an mp3 to this multidimensional story so that it is multi-media.  Sid’s brother is “Fingers” Ray, a musician.

Times of change are lethal for boys.  A friend of mine tries to pull boys from the streets back to life.  His short story would be called “AIDS.”   Anyway, he makes videos as Theda does but far more phantasmagorical and transgressive and it is the boys who write the poems.

I would like to see this story as a stand-alone book that a boy could carry and study, whether or not he was indigenous.  Sid has his fingers on a pulse and hears the hearts of boys as well as those of horses.

Sid Gustafson feels the pulse in the throat of a horse.

1 comment:

Sid Gustafson said...

Sweet review, Mary. I am at work on the novel that begins with this story, entitled Unvanquished.
Best wishes, Sid