Saturday, May 28, 2016


The first year (1989) of the new high school in remote Heart Butte revealed a lot of kids who were returning to school after years of confusion, transferring, non-attendance and not passing.  Some of them had enrolled in but had not passed two or three “years” of English, which is meant to be a cumulative skill subject as well as teaching the canon of literature.  Students always distribute over a continuum of mastery, but the problem was complicated because they DID pass or at least attend parts of the normal curriculum, which added boredom from repetition to the lack of motivation in the first place.  Some kids were taking freshman, sophomore, and junior English in the same day, but I was the only English teacher.

In order to keep us all from going crazy, I decided to “theme” the four high school years.  Juniors conventionally do American lit; Seniors do world and British lit.  That was fine.  Then, Freshman would do "Lovers", and Sophomores would do "Bears".

I built a bear bibliography, buying as many as I could afford myself since the school had no high school library books and no budget for such a “frill.”  I read “When the Legends Die” aloud, a little bit daily.  (It’s about an orphaned boy barely surviving, mostly through rage, who partners with a bear.  There’s a lot of rodeo in it and there was a movie version.)  I looked for photos of bears to post — calendars were good.  We told each other true bear stories, some of them about the bears around the place that very day.  I told Chuck Jonkel, the bear researcher in Missoula, about all this and he sent a box of videos, including one about meerkats that was so seductive that everyone forgot all about bears for a while.  

Humans tend to take for granted anything common.  This was complicated by being a small reservation town whose culture was sneered at by the larger “civilization.”  There was no decent TV reception except for the few who could afford the big parabolic dishes and the movies presented either prosperous middle-class places, much intensified and glamorous, or the most sordid and decayed side of cities, equally distorted and glamorous.  

To the kids, their home village was a “nothing town.”  To them, being late to school because there was a bear in the yard (such as the yard was) was nothing — even a welcome excuse — but it interfered with the friendships that interacted before school and it kept them away from the school-provided breakfast.  They knew the difference between black bears and grizzlies but they didn’t give a rip.

They knew very little about the biology of bears but that Feds were best avoided by hiding bear shootings, which weren’t that rare.  They knew nothing at all about the world’s bear mythology or even what a symbol might be, except that they knew Napi stories about bears.  What they shared with the rest of the world was that they split bears in that either/or way that humans do: bears were looming shadows of destruction that carried enormous power as in a Blackfeet Bear Knife Bundle or a ripped apart carcass of a horse.  Or else bears were teddy bears, soft, pastel, nurture-fragments of plush and stuffing, child-substitutes.  But you had to buy them, they were white merchanizing culture, and somehow they were connected with death in the same way as flowers in white culture.

I made a silhouette with the dimensions of the biggest grizzly and fastened it to the wall alongside the door.  The boys, all basketball-obsessed, leapt to slap the top of every doorway they passed through, but the bear was bigger than the doorway so they slid their eyes sideways at my bear when they went by.  

One of the boys stood considering me one day.  “I sure don’t know where you got this thing about bears, Mrs. Scriver.”  Some of the constant criticism from the community included an accusation that I was white and therefore had no right to tell Blackfeet things about bears.  I was revealing proprietary knowledge.  I should observe their taboos.

The Bear Knife Bundle was something I had held, part of the Scriver artifact collection.  It is a large wide metal blade decorated with a cluster of brass falconry bells and other signifying small objects as pendants.  Scary enough in itself, the way of “transferring” it to a new keeper was to throw it at his head.  If he caught it, then he was legitimate.  If he didn’t, well . . .   I wrote a story about it for “Twelve Blackfeet Stories.” 

A person has to get pretty deep into anthro lit to find out about this Bundle because the community resisted telling about it and the anthros tried to respect taboos, but collectors had no such qualms, which meant that the value of such a thing was high, and indigenous people would sell them in an emergency.  Or, rendered defiant by missionaries who defied taboos, some stole the Sacred objects from their ancient relatives and sold them for whatever they could get.  Possibly thousands of dollars if you met the right German.

The actual parts of grizzly bears carry enough of an aura that their skulls are worth hundreds of dollars.  And yet the hobby hunters who brought in their kill to be made into a rug never grasped that the hide was glued onto a papier maché form with plastic teeth and a rubber tongue.  The skull would have made the rug impossibly heavy and the actual teeth were not attractive.  Bears have terrible teeth: worn, stained, broken, abscessed.  They are more designed for crushing than penetration.  Bob had a laundry basket of skulls sitting in a dark corner of the basement.  I’d bet they didn’t show up on the inventory of his estate.  

If you go looking online for a source of bear skulls, claws, hides and so on, you will find the search complicated by the popularity of “grizzly” or “bear” as brand names for everything from foods to machinery parts.  If one buys from an underground source, which is much more exciting, the problem will be the legality of such objects in terms of Federal, State, and Tribal laws.  If you try to take them through customs, they may be impounded.  Of course, underground folks are not sticklers for authenticity, so you may not get what you pay for.

A country road connects Heart Butte to East Glacier if the spring rains didn’t wash it out.  At the East Glacier end many small cabins have been built for recreation.  When the epic movie “Heaven’s Gate“  was filmed nearby, many of the crew rented the little cabins for the duration of the shoot.  When one production staff guy didn’t show up for work one morning, he was called:  “Gitcher butt down here!”  

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“There’s a bear on the front porch!”

“Well, go out the window and just get in your pickup.  It won’t bother you.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“There’s another bear in the pickup.”  No bears hurt anyone during the making of this movie.

I bought a class-sized supply of McClintock’s “The Old North Trail” and made every kid read it or at least look at the many  old photos.  They covertly endowed every horse with a giant phallus.  One of the bear stories was about a guardian warrior who went with a raiding party across the Rockies on a war trail that began up by Looking Glass Pass and went across to the Flathead.  It was a high and narrow trail.  A party of Flathead Indians made a counter-attack and pushed the Blackfeet hard.  The heroic warrior took a stand in a narrow place to let the rest of his party escape.  Single-handedly he turned the enemy back, but in the end he was killed.

At that point he morphed into a giant grizzly boar and reared onto his full height, still guarding the pass.  The enemy fled.  When that bear finally died, it transformed into a giant dead tree.  In the Sixties people pointed out the very tree, but Bob said that in his lifetime there had been several of those big stark bear-trees because of a forest fire going through.   The reaching branches that were left did indeed look like a rearing bear.  Even so does reality become mantled by story.

When I told the story in class, I did my best bear imitation.  The kids didn’t do that very much.  Old people cautioned them that it might actually CALL a grizzly.  But, anyway, to them basketball mattered more.

No comments: