Sunday, December 30, 2018


In 1961 I began teaching on the Blackfeet reservation -- high school English.  I was still hoping to write and had signed up for the Famous Writers Course which returned my efforts with such mockery and cruelty that I soon dropped out, which is what they counted on.  Eventually they were sued for it.  This treatment made me vow to be kinder to my own students.  I kept hoping that some of them would be writers.

Some of them were, the ones who read books.  Dramatic, multi-syllabic, somewhere between rapping and raving, they were just barely touching the edges of political criticism.  They were often from the same cluster of families who had produced thoughtful young men for the half-century after the collapse of traditional Blackfeet life at the end of the 19th century.  Peace chiefs rather than warriors.  Which, of course, meant that like Heavyrunner they got massacred, but their children were adopted and raised by the scouts, who married women who could read.

Some students were tall and grave, a few were Napis, full of mischief, but they weren’t very productive.  They didn’t show their writing -- you had to wheedle it out of them -- but then there would be pages of careful handwriting with multisyllabic words that didn’t quite mean what the dictionary defined, but somehow -- poetically -- almost did.  It was like reading English as a second language, and I guess it was.

I stopped teaching, came back, stopped, came back.  Every time I came back I asked about these writing boys.  Sometimes I was told they were in cities. Then by the early Nineties I began to be told, in a small voice, turning away, “Oh, he’s dead.”  How did he die?  Vague answer.  Until someone who trusted me said, AIDS.  If they’d been on the rez, they’d probably have died in a car crash.  Or alcohol.

I never saw drug tracks on arms. I often smelled marijuana, esp. on those who were around colleges, esp. the humanities people who were likely to be progressive and have a special fondness for Indians, or who they thought were what Indians were like.  These mentors also had the idea that they might inspire writers -- or write about Indians.  Their moral principles were very strict except about drugs.

Later I was circuit-riding clergy.  I often went home late at night even when home was a hundred miles away.  Late at night with my Walkman blasting (if the heater was working well enough for the batteries to produce enough juice to play the cassettes) I was often enough passed by other vans, black with mirrored windows.  This was the Eighties.  Some of them had 38 plates, meaning they were from the rez.  When I asked friends, they looked at each other and laughed.  Some of them were at last prosperous.  I thought it was Indian preference hiring.

When I was in Saskatoon in the mid-eighties, I was on the board of the Friendship Centre which tried to help Indians.  I talked to the police.  They said there was a new mystery drug that was showing up at parties and that there were many deaths from people beating each other violently with no motives and not even weapons, though the service station I used was giving out as a premium slender screwdrivers long enough to reach a heart in a chest.  The police said they were really frustrated because no one was clear-headed enough to even tell what had happened.  The carnage was too random to interpret.  It must have been meth.

The last time I taught, at the beginning of the Nineties, some of the people in remote places had acquired the huge satellite dishes that would pick up porn stations.  The junior high boys knew how to operate them if no one were home, but no one cared much anyway except the women who didn’t like their soap operas messed with.  

One boy was emotional, resistant, and always sliding around on the floor behind the furniture, taking care to keep his butt against the wall.  He would tell me nothing.  I turned him in as a victim of sexual abuse.  He had a lot of therapy and I was not rehired.  

Rez health statistics are kept separate from Montana stats.  The Indian Health Service is federal.  State laws don’t necessarily apply to people on reservations.  Until this year, whites couldn’t even be arrested and charged, even if they had just beaten a woman near to death. We are just now realizing how many women "disappear".

Maybe you’ve joked about “butt cracks” that are exposed by mechanics bending over car engines or plumbers kneeling under sinks.  I got to wondering whether there were a Latin medical term and looked it up.  The formal term is “Intergluteal cleft.”  Reservations have “intergluteal clefts” everywhere there are fundamental divisions.  I looked up “fundament.”

1. The natural features of a land surface unaltered by humans. 
2. A foundation, as of a building. 
3. An underlying theoretical basis or principle  
4.  (humorous)  a person's buttocks.

You can learn so much from a dictionary, even if you don’t get the definition quite right.  Like, “crack” is more than anatomy.  See above:  land, foundation, principle.  But where are my tall, serious, boys who wrote poetry?  Of course, they weren’t “mine” anyway.

There are two Blackfeet words I used to know: one was the word for the butt and the other was the word for death.  Those boys would be men about seventy years old by now.  They were only a little younger than me.  The more I think about it, the more I remember.  “Oosie” is what you sit on.  I think the word for death might be “inim” but the word is inflected to respond to circumstances.  It’s easier to use sign language: hold your right elbow in your left hand with your right forearm and hand standing up straight like a person.  Then let the “person” fall to the left.

So many have fallen down.  What's the Blackfeet word for Birth?

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