Friday, November 27, 2015


Darrell Robes Kipp

The phenomenon of the reading Indian is one I’ve never seen described.  Usually the readers are women, mixed blood or cross tribal, the product of parents who did well at Haskell or American Indian Art Institute (AIAI).  Sometimes they are male gays who have somehow managed to escape from the macho-styled booze and swagger micro-culture version of the mainstream.  Earlier they were veterans who were exposed to the paperback practice of reading-while-waiting.  And then there were the political movers-and-shakers who flew back and forth across the continent, trying to bring change but in the end mostly reinforcing status quo. There was plenty of time to read.

Poverty discourages reading, both because libraries in poor places are poorly stocked and usually run by overprotective white women and because no families can afford to buy books.  Once when I was relatively affluent, I sent books by the Native American Renaissance writers (most of whom began as readers) to the library of a rez school.  That summer I came by to say hello and the librarian thanked me.  I didn’t see the books on the shelf.  She had locked them up because “they’ll only steal them anyway.”  Darrell Kipp’s response was, “Wonderful!  They WANT them!  Let’s give each kid a whole shelf of books!”)

When I had taught there, I posted big maps of the rez and kept out on a counter a very large atlas of the world.  There was almost always a kid trailing his or her finger along the names and lines.  That was reading.  We composed a story about ourselves, “One Windy Day,” and everyone read it.  The ones who couldn’t read got someone to read it to them.  I ordered enough copies of “The Old North Trail” for a class to read together and gave them time to do it.  Each chapter had a puzzle question sheet asking for details to be written inside circles or as lists or under little sketches.  The girls and the readers did it easily, but some had to ask for them to tell the answers.  They did and I didn’t prevent that, because the non-readers remembered the answers, which was the point.

All persons' circle

Darrell Kipp was a reading Indian and the conventional expectation was that he would write a book, but the only one that got “published” was a small stapled book that a benefactor created out of his talks.  She paid to have boxes of them made but didn’t market them.  Darrell gave them away to people who appreciated them.  You could download most of it at this url.  Rather than books, Piegan Institute created videos.  This one was an opera with a libretto by Darrell and music by Rob Kapilow.

Darrell wrote all the time, long impeccably-typed letters about his doin’s that he mailed from around the country.  (There was no Internet.)  He was known as a poet, but I don’t remember seeing any poems.  He sent the beginnings of a novel once but it was ambiguous and a little menacing -- not about Indians at all, very different from the letters.  I didn’t know what to say.

Shirlee Crowshoe

When Darrell died -- all of a sudden and without a diagnosis for a long time though he faithfully attended the “man clinic” at the Indian Hospital -- I searched for his letters and mag clips and put them into red 3-ring binders along with the bits I’d written about him and his work, which includes Cuts Wood School, Piegan Institute, a summer series of August lectures.  He did not work alone but with a loose assemblage of changing people.  Dorothy Still Smoking was the original impetus, Ed Little Plume was the Blackfeet language expert (not just knowing the words but pronouncing them beautifully), and Bill Grant, an architect from back east with roots here, designed buildings both classic and functional.  Rosalyn LaPier brought in academic skills.  Shirley Crowshoe was an endless and dependable supply of information. There were many more whom I can’t name, and a cloud of kids who included some who stand out in every crowd.  I’m confident that they will be productive, maybe not by writing.

The problem now is what to do with these binders.  Darrell’s family will have a huge body of documents to deal with.  They are college-educated and worldly, but they have political and confidentiality issues to deal with.  He had kept journals since high school, by the end enough of them to fill a suitcase.  I never saw them, but he told me about them and I pressed him hard to find an institutional final home for them so that scholars could use them, but I’m no longer confident about ANY institutions being safe protectors.

I could just hoard my dozen binders.  I could try to publish parts, but that would raise copyright issues.  Publishing is dead.  Anyway, how arrogant is it for a white woman to come along and just capture a Blackfeet man’s work, even believing it’s for his benefit and the benefit of others?  I have no degree in Indian Studies.  Aren’t only Indians supposed to write about Indians?

Darrell’s mom was part of a little circle of Blackfeet women who had done well in school and became officer workers employed by various Indian-based governmental offices and agencies.  They had a steady income and shared resources in emergencies.  His father worked for the railroad.  His best friend at graduation was Joe Fisher.  I never did know why the Fisher brothers had educations beyond the norm.  Probably they were trained in WWII.  They were engineers working locally.  Jim Fisher was the Browning school system engineer. I don’t quite know what Emerson did.  

After military service in Korea, Darrell and his friend got the idea they should go to college and to them that meant Eastern Montana in Billings.  They simply presented themselves and in those days all high school graduates could go to college.  They had no idea where they would live or how they would pay their way, but the college was up to the problem and got them located and employed.

At the first summer vacation Darrell planned to hitchhike home -- this was the mid-Sixties -- but his roommate, son of a Great Falls lawyer, offered him a ride to his home.  This was his first taste of upper middle-class affluence and he never forgot.  Instead of having to thumb his way north to the rez, the roommate’s mother bought him a bus ticket.  (In those days there WAS a bus to Browning.)  The family remained his good friends.  This was the beginning of his interfacing between the poorest on the rez with the well-to-do in the cities.  Eventually he earned a degree from Harvard and also an MFA from Goddard.

I don’t want to just dump these red binders.  I might have time to condense them into something chronological or organized by topic.  But what if I don’t?  Who can I trust?  Who would benefit?  Should I put them in with the archives of Piegan Institute?  Do they belong to an account of Blackfeet insight and progress, or ought they to be part of mainstream dialogue?

How he loved to joke!

Dialogue was the real connection between Darrell and me.  Sometimes he got a letter from me, but more likely I stopped by or ran into him on the street and we talked and talked and talked.  Blackfeet is an oral culture, meant to be face-to-face.  I’ll write about the Blackfeet language revival later.  Is culture meant to adapt, to be personal, to begin on the street, to be full of intimacy and challenge?  Is it meant to die bit by bit as tribes do, so as to make room for the future?  In the beginning the People were afraid to learn their own language because their conquerers punished them for it.  It took courage to shake that off, to stop expecting a blow to the head.   Now they INSIST on learning the language.  Even white people know a few words. It's romantic and politically correct.

But the real recovery has been the ideas under the words.  They are stored in the land, pushing up like grass through the old lumber of the past.  That’s great.  Now what do I do with these red binders?

On this blog I wrote about Darrell on November 23, 2013.

1 comment:

northern nick said...

Thanks, Prairie Mary. Last night I was at a dinner where conversation of the Sweet Grass Hills came up. It reminded me of the time I camped there with Darrell and Curly Bear. We were making sure that mining the butte-tops would never happen. We sweat, roasted venison back-strap, had ceremony. I woke up with this yet on my mind. And then here, your writing! It's good to remember this friendship. Thank you.