Monday, February 19, 2018


The original impulse for this post was the front page of the Glacier Reporter, the Blackfeet Reservation weekly.  But I couldn't get the photo of the Heart Butte Warriors basketball team wearing straight-up bonnets to come away from the newspaper, so I'll just give you a link, and substitute a photo of Mouse Hall, Blackfeet rodeo patriarch.  He's related to the coach in the story.  At least I got the quote to move by re-typing it.

"Mouse" Hall

“We’ve faced adversity sometimes”,  Kellen Hall said.  “It’s been very strange as a coach and for the players.  There’s been so much trauma — we’ve dealt with deaths left and right.  I lost my mom at the beginning of the season, and three of my players have lost close relatives, too. I’m trying to balance that out and still keep discipiined and motivated.”  “The best way is to find a destination through the devastation so we can put trivial things aside.”

Kellen Hall has coached basketball for ten years in Browning, all ages from elementary to graduation, because basketball is “a combination of things, but mainly to give back to the community.  What I like best about it is seeing the kids progress and get better and emulate the lessons we teach in our lives and put them to use.” . . .”We work a lot on character.  We have Words of the Day, things to put into their everyday lives and what that means to us and to building on that philosophy.”

The “second” names of these kids (not the “last” names) are Arrowtop, DeRoche, Spoonhunter, Kipp, Main, Young Running Crane, Aimsback, Tailfeathers.  And the coach’s name, “Hall,” are all like ringing bells to me.  I taught in Heart Butte 1988-91 and was the entire English department for a while, because the high school was just starting up.  We had planned for a few dozen kids and enrolled sixty right away, partly because it was a new way to play high school basketball, the key to achievement on the rez.  

Heart Butte is up in the foothills of the Rockies.  At the moment the access road is probably impassable, as are many highways in Montana today.  A blizzard just hit and another one is due tonight.  Snow is always a problem, esp. with high winds, but the real problem for Heart Butte has been isolation due to gumbo roads, because the soil is fine volcanic dust from the Pacific Northwest volcanoes forming 5 to 7 million years ago.  Formally called caleche, it immobilizes wheels, which is why travois were preferred.

When the US government insisted on allotting formal land ownership (except that it was all “in trust” so the “owners” had no control) it was bands of old-timers who chose to be in Heart Butte, because they understood hunting and that’s where the animals were.  The names on this basketball string are tied to those days, translations to put on paper.

The history of this team doesn’t just go back to the founding of the high school or even the beginning of the community.  It doesn’t just go back to travois days, back and back and back.  The high school could be started because of the Flood of 1964 wiped out all the dirt roads and provisional bridges and in the rebuild afterwards, the roads were finally engineered and paved.  Suddenly it was possible to commute to jobs in Browning but also kids could travel.  Like for sports.

Blackfeet were considered rather Puritanical in the very old days.  Even in the Sixties when the Pentecostal preachers came through, they taught that the basketball uniforms of the time were indecent — short shorts.  They also taught that eyeglasses were against nature.  The administration whites, at the same time, taught that braids had to be cut off.  Authorities are always imposing rules that are markers.  The superintendent when I was there had a “thing” about hats.  Had to take ‘em off indoors.

That superintendent, like most in Montana, was a coach.  He didn’t know much about humanities or sciences or teaching methods.  He just wanted to put on the pressure for winning.  I’ve never quite recovered from hearing about a Montana coach who did that by telling his boys to imagine that the opposing team just raped their mother and murdered their little sister — the only way to retaliate was to win the game at any cost.

We know the cost now: twisted hearts, concussed brains, joint injuries.  That’s besides the parasitic sellers of gear, trophies, photos, buses that can travel far because they have on-board lavatories like airplanes.

The bonnets in the photo on the front page of The Glacier Reporter might or might not be “war” bonnets.  They are in the old Blackfeet “straightup” style rather than the fanned out Sioux headdresses.  There must be money somewhere to have bought the materials, but — more than that — awareness and skill to make them.  I suspect it comes from the women, the grandmothers, who wore their husband’s bonnets because if you have a prized and powerful possession, the safest place to put it is on your wife’s head.  She will be very proud.

Theda Newbreast and Betty Cooper

Interestingly, Betty Cooper and her daughter Theda Newbreast have been key renewers of the old ways in Heart Butte, wangling a tribal buffalo and helping to cut up to share a feast.  Arriving at events wearing straight-up bonnets.  Even more interestingly, there are often sets of sisters on the rez who are important, sometimes all becoming teachers and school administrators, mothers and grandmothers of achievers.  Behind these sister clusters are often fathers who supported achievement and protected their descendants, which was the origin of the band-structure of the Nitsitahpi who lived on the land in a renewable way by going to and fro according to the seasons and the food sources.

It takes sharing generations to keep focus and keep returning again and again through time for the People to persist.  Today I’m the age of the grandparents — even great-grandparents — of this basketball team.  I can’t do the cats-cradle genealogies because I’ve been away for decades and I can’t remember names anymore.  But I remember those recent ancestors and their kindness to me.  The grandmothers of a few of those students in the Sixties, had survived what is called the Bear River Massacre in 1870, more familiarly known as the Baker Massacre.  A sadness and pain, abided like that after the Big Flood.  It was an awareness of vulnerability, maybe.  

But about that time in the Sixties, things began to turn around.  The class of 1961 included Darrell Kipp and Eloise Cobell, along with idealistic others.  On their walls were photos of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and rock stars — people of possibility who transcended boundaries.  They were not hate based, though some of them were very angry.  It takes generations to find the path.

In the above story the VEVO clip is a Blackfeet story.  Valier is just over the rez boundary.  I can see Heart Butte from here.

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