Sunday, October 23, 2016


A friend in Calgary, Ray Djuff, sent me the url to an article in the Missoulian because we are both part of the scattered “whitepeople” community with some kind of connection to the Blackfeet and specifically Heart Butte.  Ray and I are both writers and I taught in Heart Butte ’89-’91.  I live in Valier, the closest white town, and have connections to the reservation going back to 1961, plus a thick background of reading about the area.  Ray’s interest is anchored by Chief Two Guns Whitecalf whose profile might be on the buffalo nickel or ought to have been.

Kim Briggeman is a reporter with a skew to historian and a history of journalism all around Montana.  Missoula has always had tied to Heart Butte because of the outstanding Native American program.  Some say also darker trading related to the underculture.

What follows is a kind of bibliography for Heart Butte, the second largest agency service center on the rez (a clinic, several churches including a large Catholic presence, a school complex, a post office, a mercantile store and so on).  When I first visited there in the Sixties, it was a small cluster of cabins, a “round house” for ceremonies, and a log Catholic church.  The school only went to eighth grade and had high windows, because electricity was undependable, and a long extended arm of teacherages, sort of motel style.  In wet weather the road in and out of Heart Butte was impassible because the soil is largely the volcanic dust from the Pacific Northwest Cascade peaks in the paleo-past which becomes gumbo, a sticky slippery mud.

This was transformed by the flood of “64”.  The crucial novel is about the breaking of Swift Dam, Sid Gustafson’s novel from the “white” side, which is called simply “Swift Dam,” a landscape as much emotional as engineered.  David Long, on the West side of the Rockies, also has a book entitled “The Flood of ’64” which is short stories.  Heart Butte was nearly obliterated, but then rebuilt with paved roads in and out so that it suddenly became possible to work in Browning and live in Heart Butte.  Over the next half century many housing project clusters were built in Heart Butte and by now the population has been able to reinstitute the satellite Indian Days in August.

John Tatsey, who for many years was “the law” in Heart Butte, wrote a column for the weekly Browning paper that was packed with local color and inside jokes.  It was very popular and gathered into a book called “Black Moccasin.”  Percy Bullchild wrote a less local book featuring the mythology and early days of the tribe:  “The Sun Comes Down.”  

My own book about Heart Butte is called “Heartbreak Butte” and is online at  (Also pirated PDF’s are on Google — help yourself, no guilt.)  Many untold tales still remain: the Sanderville brothers; the denominational split that created “Swims Under” where Mike Swims Under lived as one of the very last traditional ceremonialists; the story of the Crawford family on whose allotments the schools and churches are built; the dubious, secretive and temporary community of white gay poets who were around for a few years; the several Vietnam vets who found a home there but brought intense political energy; and so on.  “Starvation Ridge” is mentioned in histories of the rez, but hasn’t been connected to Heart Butte specifically until this Missoulian story.

I wrote a history of the Blackfeet in short stories — “Twelve Blackfeet Stories” — which are published at  As I wrote them I published them on my blog:  The one about the Starvation Winter is called “Whiteout” (1883 to 1900).  A whiteout is when a blizzard white sky meets a snow-covered landscape so that all horizons and landmarks are invisible.  The story includes the big “buffalo boulder” along the highway out to Heart Butte.

Each story is about a specific twenty-year period.  "Whiteout" is the grimmest tale, but also contains mystical hope for the future.  It’s about a full-blood woman and her school-aged daughter.  The woman is “with” a degenerate old white man, a wolfer (one who hunts wolves by poisoning them) who has a contract to carry the dead up to the top of Starvation Ridge.  

In reality, the bodies laid together were responding to the old way of leaving them as high as possible, preferably in a tree, but there were certainly not enough trees for this many dead.  They were not “sky-burials” in the Tibetan way, but a kind of “ridge burial.”  The wind blew in dust which eventually was thick enough for seeds to grow, and then there was a line of brush up there.

Benton Juneau used to drive the ambulance for the Indian Health Service in Browning.  One day he was taking Viney Chattin down to the Great Falls hospital, but the indomitable old scarlet-haired woman refused to lie down in the back as she was supposed to, so she rode sitting by Benton, a kind and trustworthy man.  When they came by Starvation Ridge, she told him that her father, who had been the agent, had finally responded to complaints about the bodies, now desiccated and overgrown, by sending a crew up to burn the bones and wrappings and then bury the ashes.  Few climb up there to see what remains.

Only recently have historians began to digest the papers of the Blackfeet supervisors and management.  One of the earliest accounts of this winter is online at   Helen West was the wife of our family doctor in Cut Bank.  

But now the proof comes out that it wasn’t just the general killing-off of buffalo on the prairie nor even the failure of government commodities to reach the rez (a chronic problem because of corruption, white citizen needs intercepting the goods, and risky travel on the steamboats coming up the Missouri) but that there WERE buffalo on the traditional hunting grounds — a location by then not on the shrunken rez — a small group but still enough to have fed the people, but the hunters were actively prevented from going.  They were threatened with military attack if they left the rez.  This was imposed to satisfy the wishes of ranchers who insisted that Indian hunters killed their cows and who interpreted the rez as a confinement.

Starvation is the oldest and most effective killer on the planet.  It is a war strategy, controlling armies through their families.  It is a political weapon, displacing and trafficking whole populations.  Swift Dam was built to support the irrigated grain crops that gave the Golden Triangle its name.  Now this wheat is industrialized by huge machines and conglomerates that own the land.  Shipped to the coast, it is loaded on ships that carry America’s power to feed its client nations.

Irrigation systems were never developed on the reservation side as much as on the “white” side which was carefully documented by the “Foley Report”, a commissioned study that was never formally published but circulated as xeroxes.  It is not just water that is being re-allocated but also thinking, not just about the past, but also about the future.

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