Friday, December 14, 2018


Even in August the East Slope of the Rockies on the Blackfeet rez is chilly in the morning.  It was very early but I was on my way back and happy to be traveling up 89, counting the bridges the way we used to with the kids: Birch, Badger, Marias.  I was just wondering whether I dared roll down the window to put my elbow out, which is my favorite way to drive, but even with a sweater it still seemed ill-advised.  

At this altitude in Montana before harvest and field burning, the air is crystalline.  The Rocky Mountains to the left were intricately detailed with no shadows on the rising land.  By afternoon the sun would have heated the earth enough to raise towering cumulus clouds, but this early there wasn't even enough humidity in the land to create fog.

A few years earlier there were always small ruined animals -- gophers, skunks, porcupines, even foxes and domestic cats -- on the road miles apart.  That meant when cars approached, there was a burst into the air of hawks and ravens, winged predators living off the night scavengers.  Even by the time of this event, the wheat ranchers had poisoned and plowed out most of both.  The times were changing, becoming less complex.

Then a person was on the road, way up ahead.  I couldn't make out gender or much movement until I got closer.  On Sundays I watched for car accidents left from Saturday night, even human victims of violence still unfound, but this person was upright and moving.  In fact, she -- it was a SHE! -- had her arm out, her thumb up.  A strange time and place for a hitchhiker.   I hadn't passed an abandoned car but she had been walking north, the way I was going.

I had a no-exceptions rule against hitchhikers to protect me from myself, since I'm soft-hearted and want to give rides unless the person were carrying an ax.  I actually knew people who had been murdered by hitchhikers.  I drove a small pickup and piled up stuff on the seat beside me to provide an excuse against people who wanted to tag along, even little old ladies from the congregations I served.  In the old days we had been generous about people riding in the open bed of the pickup until they flat-palmed the top of the cab to signal they were where they wanted to go.  But I had a topper on my pickup bed.  It took a few minutes to move my stuff to the back.

I didn't know this young woman but she was definitely Blackfeet, tall and broad-shouldered, wearing a flimsy cotton playsuit with shorts and flipflops.  She looked like a very big pre-schooler.  Her hair was in braids.  When I had gotten closer and curved left to pass her by, she had moved out to stay in front of me, insisting that I stop.  I didn't want to, didn't want to be involved.  I slowed way down.  I didn't want to kill or even hurt her.  She had run alongside, rapping on my window, clearly desperate.  I wondered whether SHE was running from a bad deed.  But I stopped.

My guess was close.  But she was the victim and the only wounds were bruises from being pushed out of a car.  She had gone out for a well-earned night of fun with her brother, thinking that would be safe.  Instead, as they both got drunker and her brother was more intensely teased for having his sister along instead of a date, he had picked a fight and she had not backed off.  The fight continued in the car between destinations and in the middle of nowhere, he had pushed her out of the car and left her sprawled on the highway.  He had been so drunk that he probably would not even remember that he'd done it or where he had left her.

Another brother had been in a drunk driving crash and was in a wheelchair at home.  The parents were dead.  She was the sole caregiver since their grandmother had to be put in the nursing home.  She had left him in bed, but there was no one to get him up until she got back.  Most of the time she had to stay right there.  It was expected of her as an unmarried female with no children.  So in solidarity I just about had to get her home.  Otherwise, it was an hour's walk and no way to predict who else might offer a ride, maybe for a bad purpose.

"Who are your grandmothers?" I demanded.  I thought as long as I had her trapped, the same way my mother used to trap me for a scolding, I would take advantage.  She told me.  Two of the bravest, toughest old women on the rez -- in fact, her great-grandmothers.  I knew them.  I named them to this young woman and demanded what she thought they would tell her at this moment.  She was crying and helpless.

I asked how she could waste a double-heritage of courage, raw determination, and willingness to control thoughtless men by going off for a night of boozing with a no-good brother.  What kind of "fun" did she think her disabled brother was having flat on his back developing bed sores?  Where was the rest of her family?  I was neither merciful or fair.

In the early Sixties when I got to Browning, Moccasin Flats was along the south edge of the town, originally built as log-cabins for old people still living in tents -- it was early in the century.  As time went on, the cabins acquired a hodgepodge of lean-tos, sheds, towed-in small buildings, and old trailers.  Then came JFK and housing projects so most of the jumble was bull-dozed.  But families loved the cabins where they had grown up and, if they could, they saved the old places, even the ones made of creosote-soaked railroad ties that sometimes burned fast and hot.  The people built on ramps for the wheelchairs.  This was the kind of place where the young woman lived with her brothers.

When we got to her house, she hopped out, but first she said, "I'm so grateful.  I want to give you a gift."  She said a short blessing in Blackfeet and tucked a muslin bag over the sun visor.  "It's drymeat.  I made it myself."  Then she hustled up the ramp.

The sun was up now and the rez dogs were stretching and roaming after their post-dawn naps.  Smoke was rising and doors were opening and slamming, so there might be scraps.  I went on my way up towards East Glacier, still thinking about the young woman's ancestors.  Old as they were, they didn't remember buffalo days but their fathers did.  After the disastrous killer flood of 1965, Agnes' log cabin took a long time to dry out, but when it did she moved back in, ignoring the emergency "flood home" the family had been given.  It is human to resist change.

I thought about a summer afternoon when we had sat with her on her front steps while she with her gnarled old hands had shelled peas into a wash pan.  The river had gone peacefully on its way.  There had been a lot of bird song and bug noises.  I'll spare you the clichés, but they wouldn't be clichés if they weren't mostly true.  At least as I far as I can remember.

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