Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Heart Butte (Moskizipahp-istuki)

In the Sixties, both Midnight Mass at the Catholic church in Browning and Christmas pow-wow dancing at Starr School were classic Blackfeet experiences.   In those days the roundhouse, an octagonal log-cabin, was still in use in the little village of Starr School, where the school ought properly to be called "Starr School School."  Homemade steel-drum stoves glowed dangerously cherry-red.  Inside the roundhouse the temperature was like a sauna.  Drums and leg-bells pounded, driving rhythm heart-deep.  Outside, it was far below zero and people were wrapped in vapor from their overheated  bodies and from the tobacco in their hands.  The drunks were quiet and overhead the stars were thick as avalanche lilies. 

In Heart Butte in 1990 their round house had been closed down, dangerously decrepit, and no Indian dancing was scheduled.  But there would be a Midnight Mass at the little church and I resolved to go.  The Methodist Church was having no service and I wanted to share this holy, starry, frozen night with a congregation.
Heart Butte roundhouse

Melting snow had frozen when the sun went down, so that the church on its side-hill slope was like a castle on a glass hill in a fairytale where the hero needs a horse with spiked shoes.  I was struggling to sidle from one clump of sticking-out weeds to another, when suddenly two hands planted themselves firmly on my butt and propelled me right on up to the door.  I turned around to find Angie Howe and her mother, Donna, the home ec teacher, laughing and panting beside me.  It was Angie who had decided I needed help.  We went in the door pink-cheeked and wreathed in good will.

The Catholic church in Heart Butte was an old one for this part of the country.  It was stuccoed concrete over logs, with buttresses to keep the walls from bowing outward, and had an emerald green door which peeled  between repaintings.  It was a mission church, which had been maintained by devoted Jesuit priests and Ursuline nuns.  I chose a corner seat over to the right rear, mostly because that is always my tendency, but also because the two other times I had come to this church-- once for Mass and once for a funeral -- I had sat in that place and human beings are creatures of habit.  

The new St. Anne's church

Bob Scriver had worked on the statue of Virgin Mary in the adjacent graveyard.  I felt that gave me some legitimacy.  I knew Father Dan Powers would not object to my presence.  Recently I had attended his Mass at Holy Family Mission and afterwards shook hands with Carl Cree Medicine, who used to work for us.  Tonight, as near as I could tell, the only white people present were myself, the priest (who has grown braids as a sign of joining the people) and Sister Edna, who is also a blood sister to Bishop Hunthausen, known as the Peace Bishop.  Donna Howe is Blackfeet, married to a Crow.

The funeral I had attended here was for Carl Cree Medicine's son, Butch.  When I had last seen the young man he had been a toddler clutching Carl's long leg.  Barely adult, Butch was killed by a young white drifter, high on drugs which they may have been sharing.  The killer, at the wheel of Butch's pickup, shot the Blackfeet boy as he sat on the passenger side.  When a Highway Patrol officer named Mary Pat pulled the weaving pickup over, expecting a drunk, she also was shot point blank but survived.  The case got a lot of attention, mostly focussed on Mary Pat.   Father Dan had begun the funeral by sprinkling us all with Holy Water from a twig of sweet pine.

This Christmas Midnight Mass began, as usual, a little late.  (One of the first cultural differences whites generally notice is often called "Indian Time," which means things are done when all is ready -- not according to a clock.)  The sanctuary was painted peach and the windows were merely frosted, not stained glass.  But the Stations of the Cross hung in place.  In the front at the right was a kind of grotto for the créche, formed of Christmas tree and branches.  On the left was a pastel plaster statue of the Virgin Mary.  

In back was a country music band around an electric piano.  Someone played the flute and someone else the fiddle, while the piano player sang softly into a microphone.  Father came in and out the door at the back of a partitioned corner at the right which led across the path to his house.  Another partitioning on the left was only storage.  When the crowd began to gather in earnest, Father gathered his vestments out of that corner, and calmly put them on in our plain view.  The chasuble was a brilliant red with the Latin for "kairos" (the transcendent moment which contrasts with "chronos" or ordinary time), in a gilt pattern on the front.

Father Dan Powers

People came in breathless, dipped fingertips in water, crossed themselves, chose a pew, genuflected before entering and knelt to pray quietly-- the pattern is old and natural.  It was I who seemed stiff and resistant, just sitting in my Protestant way.  I began to be aware that my fancy lined boots smelled of mothballs.  Gradually more people came until the room was full and we were praying and singing together, melded into a real congregation.  

Father's sermon was just a story but a true one, he said.  It was about a little boy and girl, Blackfeet, who had lived not many miles away.  Their parents were drinking and careless: there was no food or fuel in their house.  They had been ill and though the boy, who was older, tried hard to take good care of his sister, on Christmas Eve they felt they could stay alone no longer and resolved to go to the neighbors.  Reservation neighbors will always take you in.  There was no phone and the nearest neighbor was five miles away.  It was very cold and the snow was deep.  But they wrapped up and set out together.  

The little girl, who had been the most ill, began to falter after a couple of miles, but the boy urged her on.  At last she said she could not go farther.  He tried to carry her, but could not make much headway in the snow.  Then she died there in his arms on that cold snowy night.

Years later this boy had still not recovered.  Now it was he who drank too much and could not stop.  But it gave him no comfort, for he was always haunted.  He behaved badly.  Somehow on a Christmas Eve he found himself back near the same place where his sister had died.  He was drunk and he fell in the snow.

Instead of dying, he had a vision.  His sister came to speak to him.  She was standing with Jesus and she told him she was happy and wanted him to be happy, too.  She told him to go from house to house until he found a home where there was a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.  He was to stay with that family and to get well, to stop drinking, to make something of himself.  The vision faded and the young man hitch-hiked back to town.  He did go door-to-door and he found the family, who welcomed him.  And he did stop drinking.  Now he is married and has babies of his own.  If anyone comes to him wanting to stop their bad ways, he lets them stay and helps them.

Father named the man and we all knew him-- or so we felt.  The story seemed true.  Two years later, Father confessed to me that he had made it all up, but that he had been divinely inspired, not knowing what he was going to say next, just working to stay open to it.  It didn't matter.  The story pointed the way to salvation.

Heart Butte during Indian Days encampment

It was time for Communion and people went forward reverently.  Two women and one man, a tall and dignified Indian rancher, offered the wine and blessed wafers.  One of the women was the Indian clerk of the school district.  I sat quietly abstaining, praying, half-dreaming.  The band sang softly, both Christmas carols and the usual country gospel church ballads.

When it was time to go back out over the threshold, the men stood spaced out and handed us along across the ice.  Ungloved, I went from one large, dry, strong hand to another.  People paused to wish each other Merry Christmas.  The stars were great wreaths and swirls of sarvisberry blossoms across a black velvet sky.  There was no wind to make the pines swish, but their smell enveloped us.  

Heart Butte often stands out of the clouds.

I had parked away from the church, down by the cemetery, so that I wouldn't be trapped in the crowd leaving the mass.  From a little distance the small church on the hill was archetypal: it could have been anywhere, maybe in Poland or China or Paraguay .  The voices of the people rang and echoed like bells.  Human experience united us.

(This post is part of a book called "Heartbreak Butte," which is posted online as a blog, 

with each chapter as a post.

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