Friday, July 03, 2015


portraits by Bob Scriver

It’s been a long time since I came to Browning to teach high school English in 1961.  I had no idea what to expect and wasn’t really prepared to teach English, except that I had a solid grip on grammar.  I was trained in theatre and, as it turned out, that was a fine way to approach a tribe that appreciates performance:  not high test scores but more like fancy dancing.  I found the scripts as I went along.  Here’s a link to one list: they are people but they are also roles.  Many are gone now, but only in this world.

I tend to confuse students.  Over the years Greg Hirst has had to remind me again and again that he is not Mike Hirst, his brother.  I do remember who Charlie Hirst is, since that’s more recent.  He wasn’t a student -- he was the maintenance man for the Heart Butte school bus fleet until he was found dead in a flaming pickup after I left but right in front of the teacherage where I lived.  I was there 1989 to 1991.

Whichever Hirst was actually in my classes was a good student.  So was Greg.  It’s partly genetic and partly memes -- these are mild-mannered people who value learning of all kinds but are careful about how they manage it.  Greg is out at Heart Butte now, though he just retired from a long career in Wolf Point.  He has been solid and contributing for many decades.  When he finally gives it up, he owns a big house in Great Falls.  He needs space for lots of books.

Verena Rattler has been a conscientious historian.

It’s easier to think about people here in terms of family.  There are always outliers, but in the main there are shared characteristics and unless one gets into some entirely different environment that hits all the wrong keys -- which might very well be about success -- then they are doomed.  The white man’s way of keeping track by name through the father doesn’t really work for a culture so recently oral.  There needs to be a circle of old ladies who remember and sit together counting who-is-who-and-how.  For instance, Misty Upham, who belonged to the same descended-from-Heavyrunner family as the Hirsts, was driven over a rain forest pisgun, a buffalo jump.  It's a high price for fame and success.

I’ll come back to Misty later.  What I want to talk about here is the Uphams I knew personally. They are entwined with Hirsts and Kipps and other worthy cousins.

One of the things I do is to cut out all the Blackfeet obits from the GF Tribune and tape them onto cards, then alphabetize.  I don’t date them because what I’m looking for is relationships.  Eva Upham, who died at 97, was the mom for a special person, Galen Upham.  (Also, his brother Dennis, who was a little like him, and some others.)  It’s Galen I want to talk about.  I have a special attachment to Galen, but when I mention it in certain company they get mad, because they think that THEY are the special ones.  His gift was in part giving people that feeling.  He looked like a young Abraham Lincoln.  

Young Abe Lincoln

He’d pull his old rez car into the so-called driveway in my East Glacier years and honk until I came out and sat on the edge of my so-called back porch.   (I called it my "drunk-catcher" because boards were missing.)  He’d stay in the car and we’d visit for a long time.  He was famous for stealing one of the red tourist touring buses and driving it over Going-to-the-Sun road by moonlight.  He was drunk, probably, and if you know that Backbone of the World track, the miracle was not getting away with the theft, but simply staying on the road.

I wrote a script about it:  one of those Outlander time-travel things.  Galen is driving over but he wrecks and ends up in a snowbank which keeps him from being killed.  While he lies in the wreckage, an old-time young man just like him is there on a vision quest, and they talk.  If I were writing it now, I would make the ancient one a warrior -- that pass was a war trail first.

But Galen wasn’t a warrior -- or didn’t think he was.  When he got too far into the alcoholism, he’d be committed to Warm Springs.  A lot of people wanted him to kick the booze.  While he was there, he’d take his guitar over to the children’s building and play for them.  When he was stabilized, he’d be back home.

I ran into Galen and Olivia at Indian Days, walking in the dark evening, holding hands.  In those days the lights were only strung up temporarily -- the only permanent structure was the pump-head for water, a big cement cube alone out there in the grass most of the year.  The young couple was plainly very much in love, well-matched.  Olivia was remarkably beautiful.  One evening she was reading in bed and smoking, but fell asleep and that’s how she left us. There were no dragon’s eggs that hatched.  

Somehow that whole family had a bit of of mysticism in them, I think more from Eva than from “Doc,” who had been a musician in Bob’s High Line dance band in the Forties.  Once when times were good, Doc brought in a deer head to be mounted.  It wasn’t a remarkable specimen -- I think he just wanted to show off to Bob, who was skeptical about ever getting paid, with reason.  For years Doc left it, probably forgot it was there, maybe was expecting Bob to cave in and say, “Here -- just have it.”  In the end Bob needed some glass deer eyes for another mount and pried them out of the head.  After that, mutilated, it was hard to look at, so it was tossed.

I hadn’t realized Eva was a Canadian Guardipee, which is often a Metis name and maybe includes some far north “Cree medicine” genes.  Cree medicine is the love medicine that Louise Erdrich often mentions, but Louise’s white genes are German and Guardipees would probably be French.  Eva had a sense of elegance about her and a sweetness that both Galen and Dennis shared.  March had it, too, and she married Peter Sellars, part of that 8th grade bunch in my first class ever.  He was a high IQ kid, quite balanced, but he got dumped in there because, I think, he played his cards close to his vest.  Never let people know how much you know.

In 1988 when I was the Methodist minister for a year and monitored study-hall for grub money, Galen and Olivia’s son Glen turned up.  He had that same arrogance that became pride once it was backed up with accomplishment.  I had no money at that point (do I ever?) and was wearing cheap canvas slip-on shoes.  Glen looked at my feet and sneered, “Potato pickers’ shoes!”

I’d humor him and even slip him a bit of money now and then.   The kids asked,  "Are you related?"  Sort of.  I worried.  Times had changed and he was one of those who stole needles from home ec class so he could experiment with penetrating the skin on his hands.  It’s drug-related.  But twenty-five years later he’s okay, living up in East Glacier.  He’s not much like his father, maybe.  I haven't gone to look for him.

I still have a story Galen wrote.  It’s about a Blackfeet chief who kidnaps an English teacher and keeps her hostage until she will teach him to read.  Of course, a kid who read as much as Galen didn’t need to be taught even how to write.   He just did it.   Ever since then I’ve searched for what it was I ought to have taught him, the grail that could have saved him.  It’s a searing, flaming thing.  I mean both the search and the grail.

Galen was three years younger than me.  (1942 - 1987).  I was in Saskatoon in 1987.  The next year I came back to the rez, homesick.


northern nick said...

I like this kind of storytelling you do. It fills in a lot of human geography for me. Just to let you know, Louise's mother was a Gourneau. Thanks.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

"Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, the first of seven children to Ralph Erdrich, a German-American, and his wife Rita (née Gourneau), half French-American and half Ojibwe. " Those part-French girls DO get around!

What I'm trying to do is to pick up the kind of thing you know when you know the people for a long time. No journalist, no devoted academic, can do it.

Prairie Mary