Wednesday, May 11, 2016


The huge parabolic structure that is the rebuilt Swift Dam stands as far up in the Rockies as I can see.  It is on Birch Creek, which is the southern boundary of the Blackfeet Reservation.  The temporary buildings used by the rebuild crew are in my backyard, trucked in when they were no longer needed up in the mountains.  They are proving how temporary they are.  Across the alley from me live some of the survivors, those who escaped most narrowly.  They don’t want to talk about it.

But the stories persist and will last for centuries, possibly longer than this second dam, because all dams are temporary.  They silt up, their materials decay, the reason for their existence disappears.  The reason for this one is to provide water for irrigation farming, both grain and livestock.  It feeds a long webwork of ditches and the reservoir we think of as Lake Francis, next to Valier.  It is key to the value and productivity of this area.

Books, in the sense of paper and print, have taken on this subject repeatedly, each in its own way.  One of the earliest was the lead story in an anthology called “The Flood of ’64” by David Long, a Missoula student.  He was over on the Flathead during the event.  I can’t find my copy of the book, which got a scathing review — it was an early book by a man who followed Doig’s example by going to Tacoma in 1999 where he has steadily improved, until his latest book, “Inhabited World,” is highly praised.  (1999 is the year I moved back here.)  He’s a decade younger than me and we’ve never met.  The reviews say his story about the flood was set in Glacier Park and was a mystery novel.  He would have been sixteen at the time of the flood, still back East.

Aaron Parrett’s journalist/historian/academic version of the flood was published as an article in the Montana Historical Society’s magazine called, “Montana, the Magazine of Western History.”  In fact, he has published several versions in various venues.  PDF’s at his website:  There are photos.  The material draws on official accounts and his theme is that the Blackfeet were hit harder than accounts implied because whites didn’t pay attention.  Though he has this usual liberal academic concern for justice, he doesn’t follow up with the consequences and reparations.

Ivan Doig, who had lived in Dupuyer and gone to school in Valier, had moved away before the flood.  He wrote historically about Swift Dam’s building in “The Whistling Season.”  Though researched as usual, this story is one of his “pinafore epics” about the times as focused on youngsters.  He knows the area well and is quite aware of how Valier formed from the building of this dam, and — in fact, — how dams have had as much to do with the industrial development of the West as have railroads.

Pamela Porter is a Canadian writer.    She grew up in the American South where she developed a strong sense of racial injustice.  Her connection to Montana was from acquiring an MFA at the U of Montana and also through her husband’s family, who were Westerners on both sides of the Canadian border.  Her book about the flood was published in 2004 by Groundwood Books in in Toronto.  Our dynamic Valier librarian, Kathy, put me onto this child’s book.  It is the memoir of a local woman as told by Porter, and has a strong bias against prejudice as well as a focus on rescuing animals, and recovering from tragedy.  She was awarded the Candadian Governor General’s Award in Children’s Literature for “The Crazy Man” which was similar in theme.

This very small book included accounts of Native Americans not receiving help after the flood and the heroine being punished unjustly by a white teacher.  It made the book locally controversial and they vigorously contested the accuracy of the accusations.  I have no doubt these incidents or others like them happened and still happen.  Anyway, the story is presented as fiction.  But one aspect that is probably not considered is that this child was not Blackfeet, but rather Cree/Chippewa/Metis, many of whom came south to escape the consequences of the Riel Rebellion when this group tried to form an independent country.  The Salois extended family name is common (and respected) on the Blackfeet rez and some settled close to Heart Butte on Birch Creek. 

To an outsider, these people are not easily distinguished from officially enrolled Blackfeet.  They don’t qualify for help as Blackfeet nor do they have access to ordinary Euro citizen resources, so they often slip down into the poverty-driven “half-breed” shiftless appearance so resented but often presented as jolly “Stay Away, Joe” and John Tatsey stories.  As they have intermarried and finally prospered, the Cree/Chippewa/Metis have self-identified as the White Shell Tribe and are now focused on achieving official status as a tribe.  It’s a long slog.

In Porter’s story, Curlybear Wagner comes when the little girl’s Paw Paw dies, and Curlybear explains the family history.  Curlybear was a student in my high school English classes in the early Sixties and became a historian and a kind of minister to his people, often praying and acting as a ceremonialist.  He is related to Jack Gladstone, the musician, who fills a similar role with his guitar and the poetic lyrics of his songs.  I don’t know whether Jack has addressed the flood.  Curlybear is gone now.

Many governmental and scientific materials have been developed from the research on this enormous event.  For instance, “To mark the 50-year anniversary of the great flood, the Daily Inter Lake and Hungry Horse News have produced a hard-cover book, “Torrents of Rain, Miles of Misery: The Flood of ’64.”  The tale of the epic Flood of ’64 is told through 46 individual stories and more than 200 photos, including many from the priceless photo collection of the late Mel Ruder, the Hungry Horse News editor who won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the flood and its aftermath.”  Ruder always had a special fondness and appreciation of Blackfeet rez people of all sorts.

Because the emotional load of the anecdotes are so strong, most of the materials miss some crucial factors.  One is that the passage through the Rockies called “Marias Pass” was completely destroyed, both railroad and highway.  The army temporary bridge meant for possible nuclear attack on the West Coast turned out not to fit.  Similar problems were not exactly publicized.  

A.B. Guthrie Jr. felt that the discovery of Marias Pass, which the local indigenous people had kept secret as a war trail and which made possible the building of the Great Northern railroad, was another of those “beginning of the end” incidents included in his novels.  Rebuilding after the flood raised awareness enough that the Blackfeet suddenly realized it was another asset that had not really been exploited and probably related to the Two Med/Badger ambiguous status as well as the creation of Glacier National Park out of the side of the rez.

Most interesting has been a lawsuit by the Curry family intended to protect their access to irrigation waters.  It included the history of the building of the original Swift Dam through the collusion of the Blackfeet Agent, commemorated in a mountain near Heart Butte called “Major Steele’s Backbone.”  It has quite a sag in it.  Steele, a morphine addict, was married to a Blackfeet woman and it was her allotment that was at the mouth of the cleft where Swift Dam was built.  At the time the government was trying to boost land occupancy and success and there was money if a dam were used for an irrigation system.  Steele and his compatriots, including the original Kipp, got the dam built on the reservation without paperwork.  Oral declaration that they had grown crops was enough to get the money and a certain amount of grandfathering went on.  This continues to be a hot topic.

In the immediate situation, Browning and the rez didn’t get much news out to the larger world because it was cut off.  The pass was wiped out, bridges to Cut Bank and to the south were swept away, and all resupply for businesses had to come by helicopter.  Power lines, telephone lines (there were no cell phones at that time), and water systems were damaged.  We’d have been more comfortable back in the old times, which were fairly recent anyway.  Much of the suffering and blame emerged when one family qualified for a new “flood home” (not that they were fancy) or not, or when the state got around to fixing one bridge and not another, and naturally the usual grifters set about draining whatever money and assets they could.  

No one told about the small things, how the laundromats were overwhelmed with people trying to recover their clothes from the rotting silt damage, family keepsakes and documents lost, animals lying dead in the mud, and a swarm of rumors trying to understand it all.  This was supposed to be a safe place.  In summer income was largely based on tourist trade but there would be no income from that this summer.  The farmers took some things into their own hands and used their farm machinery to improvise bridges or at least fords in the normally low water.  Next door the Museum of the Plains Indian had serious damage to its foundation and lost materials stored in the basement vaults.  This has never been acknowledged.

Our only loss was the furnace in the crawl space.  As soon as we could travel east, we locked the door on the Scriver Museum of Montana Animals and went to Minneapolis for a week to learn to patine bronze.  The railroad was still operating as far as Shelby.

There is much more to tell.  I’ll come back.  No one has ever asked me about all this, except for Sid Gustafson.  The next post will be about his new book, “Swift Dam,” which is a tour d’force.  I’ll tell you why.

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