Wednesday, October 12, 2016


Russell Rowland

When I first returned to Montana in 1999, accepting risk and poverty in order to write, I attended a reading of Russell Rowland’s  “In Open Spaces,” feeling optimistic, curious, and confident that he understood the publishing biz.  Not.  He describes his evolution and rueful de-mythifying of the situation in the piece linked below. 

This post is my reply.  I DO think he is a solidly mid-list writer and an honest, earnest writer, well worth the time and attention of a serious reader.  Not long ago he actually took the trouble to swing by our little Valier library,  we felt as much to see what we were all about as to promote his latest book.  We liked him.  (We were all female.)  We didn’t fall in love or go crazy, nor did we declare “oh, he’s just like me!”  We’ve read a whole lotta Montana frontier stories about authors' families, and we like them.  But we’d rather borrow them from the library than buy them because our resources are limited.

Bronze Inside and Out: a Biographical Memoir of Bob Scriver

My story is a little different than Rowland's.  I had to do political push-back in order to preserve my bio of Bob Scriver, “Bronze Inside and Out.”  Bob had been part of the cowboy art movement and powerful people controlled the way the stories were told, ways that compelled reality to conform to their sales angles.  For one thing, Bob kissed a whole lot more women than horses.  For another, he had a peculiar contradictory attitude towards power figures.  For instance, Harold McCracken almost owned his soul and Bob didn’t get upset even when McCracken butted in on our quiet Bundle Transfer where he wasn't really welcome and then produced a little booklet about it that was strictly horse pucky.  On the other hand, he hated Van Kirke Nelson, a powerful art speculator who was always trying to control people and using his physicians’ income to stockpile people like Ace Powell instead of promoting them.  And so on.  Those factors meant my book included a certain amount of whistle-blowing.  Even pay-back.

But this book was not meant to “sell” as a way of increasing value in a dead artist’s work.  It was meant to record a period when “cowboy art” was just blooming, building on the reputation of Charlie Russell and paying attention to business practices as much as aesthetics.  After a period of development in the SW, esp. for the Taos Seven, by the Sixties the genre had finally reached the far north and even crossed the border as far as the Calgary Stampede.  Beyond that, the book was meant to be a resource for anyone who wanted to study the work and life of Bob Scriver or the Blackfeet Reservation where he lived all his life.  It was organized around the process of bronze casting.

And then there was the pathos and hilarity of living with the Blackfeet in a harsh place with Bob at the center of the alcoholism hurricane because of being the City Magistrate.  "Drunk again?"  
"Yup, your honor."  
"Three days sentence." 
"But I stayed dry for two weeks, your honor!"
"Reduced to two days."

Early in his life WWII was a force of fate.  Rodeo was a great stroke of theatre.  In the end he and his fourth wife were pushed aside from the climax of cowboy art just before it suddenly shrank, out of fashion. But everyone was sure Bob did have millions and they were interested to find out how he "made himself famous."

In particular the Blackfeet believed that.  They were the other headwind, reacting to Bob’s sale of the Scriver family artifact collection for what was rumored to be millions.  When the old people Bob grew up with began to die, the next generation stayed powerful through politics, flame wars, for several decades.  If there is a sequel to this biography, I don’t know what it would be about except the Blackfeet individuals, especially the Cree Medicine family, who were a vital part of it.  The white men in Helena who took custody of a thousand bronzes and all the Scriver papers have neither the resources or insights to do much about it.  Fort Benton stepped up to care for the Blackfeet portraits.

Charismatic people who write fiction for money, which is the cultural stereotype of writers, are in a different situation.  But there are idealistic things to do.  I wrote “Twelve Blackfeet Stories” (actually there are 13 in the series now) as an exercise, a self-assigned project to parallel a best-selling book called “Generations: The History of America's Future”  because they never think about how Native Americans change through the generations.  

Each story is based on an artifact from Bob’s visual record of his collection in a book he wrote, paid the photographer to record, and printed through a "vanity press."  That was “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains.”  It’s a fairly expensive book, much valued by those who study material culture, sometimes in order to make “artifakes”.  He did two other "self-published" books, one for the rodeo bronzes, "An Honest Try" and one for the Blackfeet bronzes, "No More Buffalo".  Few Blackfeet could afford the books, but the libraries could.  There was little publicity.  I can only remember one review.

My self-published “Twelve Blackfeet Stories” has been pirated, as have all the other books I sent to, the print-on-demand supplier.  I don’t know whether the pirates do as nice a job of printing since I don't buy from them.  But I’m happy for the stories to be out floating around.  I tried to write them so that they were easy to remember and tell others, and so they were funny.  They had neither agent nor editor nor publisher nor promoter nor distributor other than Amazon.

At the moment I’m consolidating a three-volume work that I doubt will ever see formal print, but might exist as an ebook or as a PDF.  It's scattered blog posts now.  People are welcome to print it out, bind it, illustrate it or whatever -- eventually I'll get it organized into one place instead of the occasional blog post.  It is the thought stream about "religious" event design that I began in 1978 as an intended D.Min thesis, "The Poetics of Liturgy," now called "The Bone Chalice".  Over the years since then, the seminary program has collapsed.  I took the MDiv, which was the professional standard anyway, and my MA from the U of Chicago Divinity School, and ran for the high prairie, spending the next three years riding circuit across Montana in an F150 van.  Since then the denomination I was serving, Unitarian Universalist, has changed as much as my seminary did.  But so has "religion" as a category.

Even my undergrad alma mater, Northwestern University, has changed drastically.  What was the School of Speech is now “Communication Arts”, as techie and transcultural as imaginable.  I can't grasp some of the disciplines since they are highly specialized and philosophical.  Now that “queer studies” have been invented, I look back and realize that I was an anomaly in the theatre department — not Jewish, not rich, and not gay.  So now I’m curious about all my male gay best friends from that time and why so few of them have died of HIV.  Writing about it is tough because they were and are a culture of secrecy.  I never participated in it, because I was their disguise.  Gay genre novels and films are not a big help, though some of the most famous ones were created by my classmates.  These guys are sweetly indulgent, but tell me nothing.  Yet, it seems important to write about them and do it well.  I read amazing GLBTX stuff across a wide wide spectrum.

The years working for Multnomah County and later working for the City of Portland, gave me a “nose” for a lot of governmental things, but I’m not sure anyone is calm enough to listen, so I just try to take notes about Valier shrinking and the Rez growing, both in a lot of pain.  I think the situation deserves more than a colorful novel, but that seems to be the way to go.  The youngsters who even care about such issues do not have a background that would let them understand events the way I see them.  They aren't taught civics or history anymore, not even the contemporary “people’s history” and “deep time” books I find absolutely riveting.  

Maybe I only have a few more years of writing in me — not to make money but to pass on something worth anyone paying attention to or thinking about.  In terms of "Montana writing," Sid Gustafson's "Swift Dam," shows the way for books.  It may be that someone like Tony Bynum tells a strong story via video instead of print.  We're long past the days of Grinnell, Schultz, and McClintock.  Darrell Kipp died before he could write the book we all expected, so maybe Jim Welch remains the Blackfeet writer in a world with no full-bloods.

In the Sixties Bob and I were so idealistic that we felt no price was too high.  We would exhaust ourselves, injure ourselves, deny ourselves, to do whatever it took to cast and promote the bronzes.  Was it worth it?  In terms of money the works sell for about the same as they did then.  No one pays a lot of attention.  Many artists are as good or better and the high-grade casting we did means nothing to anyone. I always remember the old ranch wife who said, "He was famous, but not THAT famous."  Meaning he didn't meet the vague idea she had about Charlie Russell, which was that he was better than Picasso.

But, OH, what a blast we had!  What memories, what passions, what 3AM cosmic insights!  The last of the buffalo people.  The first of a new breed of indigenous scientists.  And all the cultural snatch-and-grab characters of the times, as colorful as fur-traders.  (Bob WAS a fur buyer.) The recovery of old ways mixed with the devisement of new ways.  The cowboys, the rodeos, the bulls, and the bullshit.  I don’t want to dilute and shred my several lifetimes for the sake of the profit machinery of what passes for publishing.  I make enough money to keep eating, though that might not last a whole lot longer. 

Self-published, ambiguous copyright.

I don’t want some naive or avaricious editor meddling with what I write.  I remember Bob's indignation when the female city girl who digitized "The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains" for printing and who -- for the sake of the format -- substituted the short name of a tree for the much longer name of the actual tree used.  She couldn't understand why he would be angry -- a tree is a tree.  I find that often a techie gives appearance priority over content, without any awareness that it's wrong.  Audible and blogs get around that.

But even practical techie support for blog platforms is eroding under the pressure of gimmicks and shock content.  So I’m unloading what I value most onto paper, knowing very well that many writers over the millennia have done exactly the same and that it will probably go to the landfill.  They don’t let you burn it all in bonfires anymore.

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