Sunday, January 06, 2019


An environmental speaker pointed out that we always love and want to preserve whatever landscape we know when we first met it.  We were in the midst of a war on weeds, for instance, spotted knapweed which has the ability to kill every other plant around it.  No one wants to eat it.  But this woman, who came from back East, said that when she first arrived in Montana, the knapweed was in bloom and the landscape was misted with its lavendar flowers.  It was very beautiful, she thought, and she misses it in the places where people have gone out to yank it up by hand.

When I came to the Blackfeet rez in 1961, the first "Indian" I met was Jimmy Fisher, the school engineer who came in his black-and-red pickup (school colors) to bring my trunk and books from the train.  Since the books were packed in whiskey boxes, just the right size to carry, he shook his head and remarked I sure was a heavy drinker for a schoolteacher.  He was the most "Indian" and the first rez Indian I ever met.   Therefore, once I realized that he WAS Indian, my idea of an Indian was a well-built, middle-aged male who knew how things went together and could tell jokes.  If you need some credentials, consult Pepion, Donald D., "Ethnography Of One Family On A 1939 Blackfeet Indian Reservation Farm Project In Montana" (2013). Great Plains Quarterly. 2512.   The least technical part is at the end.

I met my second Blackfeet Indian the next morning.  I was going to try to find the center of town, which couldn't be far -- the whole town was half-a-dozen blocks across.  I headed down a path that went kitty-corner among the tall scratchy weeds, which was perilous as I had dressed for town in a skirt, wearing nylons.  (I used to wear NYLONS!)  When I was too far along to turn back, a tall Indian in a wide cowboy hat and a silk neckerchief was coming towards me on the path.  Gallantly he stepped off into the weeds, swept off his hat and said, "Mornin', Teacher!"  Evidently I also had a certain "look."  But that was my second idea of what a rez Indian looked like.  Male.

Growing up in Portland, OR, my fourth grade teacher was a Chinook elder named Mildred Colbert who walked us through the material culture of her people at the Portland Art Museum and wrote a book called "Kutkos, Chinook Tyee".  The old man on the back of the block was an anthropologist who gave us all a taste of pemmican.  My mother (we were white) told about the strawberry festival in Roseburg, OR, when she was a girl and served as a"princess" by offering strawberries and cream at a table among tables of competing girls.  The person who had the most "takers" won a contest for queen.  At her table she was very excited that the chief of the local tribe -- and I've shamefully forgotten the name of the tribe -- came to her table for his bowl.  She said that the wild strawberries were so thick that if a white horse lay down to roll, it stood up covered with red dots.  

I mean, I never thought of "Indians" as a sequestered "other" group of people.  But I know the more Machiavellian among white authorities figured the "Indians" would simply dissolve.  They already wore bobby socks and pincurls.  They were down to 450 or so (Piegans) when my father-in-law came in 1903.  Half were children.  Surely they would all grow up speaking English and loving cheeseburgers.  When I got there, the "Indians" sort of thought that, too.  Then somehow in the '70's and '80's, they all started coming back the other way!  They grew braids and married other Indians which screwed up all the quantum stuff, esp. since many of the marriageable Blackfeet were Canadian.

One of the books I use often when doing research was not originally a book at all, but a card file used to keep track of rez people who were members entitled to get commodities.  (1907-1908)  There was no blood test, no DNA, but the quantum idea was already there.  It was word of mouth, based on who one's parents were and basically a matter of provenance, that is," inheritance line" when people didn't necessarily keep track of that -- maybe knew and maybe didn't.  The first time around, the people lined up and some unlucky clerk made a list.  Sometimes the people in the line, especially the old ladies, would contest whether someone was misrepresenting his claims.  I invented a little short story.

The ideas of "bastard" and "illegitimate" were as new as the missionaries.  A baby was a baby and everyone took care of it.  At treaty time, 1850 or so, polygamy was still working, mothers shared children and sometimes sent them to older people so the elders would have help.  The first half-white children were born nine months after the first Euros came ashore.  By the time commodity lists were made, "white" and even "black" were threaded through the plains tribes.  Fur trade, civil war, and malcontents brought new members which most clans valued as new blood and knowledge.  By the 1900's there were generations of them.

The Sixties on the rez of both the 19th and the 20th centuries had a lot of echo.  I was happy to have skipped the coastal urban '60's of the 20th century excesses and assassinations.  We got word of news as though it were coming from far away.  Vietnam WAS far away.  Only one name of a student from Browning is on the Memorial Wall.  Mike Doane.  

The oldest Blackfeet man I knew was Chewing Black Bone.  I didn't really know him but I met him.  He was blind and kept the old ways in his old age.  He was ninety or more, so he was born in 1870 or so, when there were still a few buffalo.  He was a good friend of James Willard Schultz, a white writer who married a Blackfeet woman and who kept a little office near the Browning Merc.   In the 1960's the centennial anniversaries of many tragedies were on our minds, but also many fine times out on the vast grasslands under the humming skies.  Those were the first things I learned about rez "Indians."  I write them down, not because I'm Indian, but because I remember.  And I loved everything.

No comments: