Wednesday, June 19, 2019


In 1961 my first teaching job was at Browning High School.  I was just graduated from Northwestern University and returning to Portland, OR, to where I grew up.  My parents were bringing me (and my books in a trailer).  All along the way my mother asked if there were any teaching jobs and in Browning at the little store in the Museum of the Plains Indian we were told there was.  This exactly suited me, so I asked how to apply.

The shop manager took me to the window.  "See that man out there wading in Willow Creek, catching bait?  That's the principal."  So I rolled up my jeans, went out through the tall grass, and got the job.  As the years have gone by, this story has become more apocryphal, but it's half a century old and basically true.  Sometimes I add the blue heron that often flew up from Willow Creek, but that happened much later.

My mother, an elementary teacher, lectured me, "You must stay there at least two years or it will look bad on your resume."  In 1973 I left, ever so reluctantly.  In between I was madly in love with Bob Scriver which distracted me from the idea of teaching.  Some people remember me as a good teacher, but I don't think that's accurate.  Teaching and schools per se were quite different then and I had only been socialized to fit the expectations -- mostly.  

I wasn't just in love with Bob, but also his work as a sculptor and even more than that, the land itself.  Because he was born in 1914 right there at home, and prowled the whole rez on horseback, by pickup, and on foot -- sometimes in Glacier National Park -- I learned things a casual journalist or even a conventional teacher would never find out.  The locations of murders and terrible accidents (he was the JP, City Magistrate and backup coroner), which people trapped and hunted (He was a fur buyer), ancient places like Red Blanket Hill and Willow Circles, where you could always spot elk, and the best swimming holes.

When I have company now, they don't care about that stuff.  All my geology and rez history bores them stiff.  They want to buy something and they have the money to do it.  Bob and I never had money.  (He obsessed about me taking all his money and running away, encouraged by his mother who had been traumatized by the manager of a bank TE Scriver briefly owned who did exactly that)   After he divorced me, he did have money.  That's when he sold the big rodeo series up to Calgary, enough to buy the Flatiron Ranch after he cashed in the little ranch on Two Med where I stayed the winter after the divorce.  Later he sold what he called "The Scriver Collection of Blackfeet Artifacts", a very confused story no one ever gets straight because someone mentioned a million dollars and everyone's eyes turned into dollar signs.  Money is always political and the story played into everyone's romantic notions.  You can buy the book with all the artifacts beautifully presented:  "The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains."

Becoming Bundle Owners in the Sixties was not the same thing at all.  (Some of the so-called sacred bundles turned out to be something else, like the collection of surgeon's hemostats -- gizmos like scissors except with flat lockable noses -- that turned out to be a kit for porcupine quilling buckskin.)  We tried to do it the ancient way with the people in their eighties, born in 1880's.  They're gone now, of course.  None of the people I knew from teaching, students and teachers alike, had any idea such a practice still existed.  The town drunks knew.  They knew a lot. We were acquainted with them because Bob tried the previous day's offenders every morning.  The cops brought them to the shop and I was the bailiff.  ("Stand over there.  Keep your hands in your pockets.")

The shop, just then making the transition between taxidermy and sculpture, was also a stopping point for other artists, hunters, cruisers, a certain number of closeted gays, art wheeler-dealers, border patrolmen, and innocents.  Now and then rich people would appear and get our hopes up and sometimes we made a good sale.

Bob thought I could do anything he wanted done and I tried my best.  Part of it was print stories, since none of the visiting journalists ever got anything right.  They saw only what they wanted to see and they had very opinionated ideas about what was worth telling.  This was all before computers and the internet.  

Bob's way of managing the books was legal-sized custom bound books, original plus three carbons (no copy machines), two sets for Scriver Studio -- one for sculpture and one for taxidermy -- and one set for city magistrate.  He filed the fine payments in his shirt pockets.  One side for court and the other side for his smokes.  One of my contributions was that I didn't smoke, so he stopped because I never even mentioned it.  I thought smoking was very sexy, but a man-thing as in the movies.  

He was the JP because Renshaw was the other one and he was known to be in the pocket of the highway patrol.  He had once responded as an officer when Bob was at Malmstrom during WWII and slapped his first wife across the face.  She divorced him shortly afterward.  He never slapped his second wife because she threw things in self-defense and once knocked him cold by hitting his forehead dead center with a big old-fashioned alarm clock.  He never hit me, but sure wanted to.  I don't know about wife number four, who hated my guts.  I didn't bother to hate her back, though she punished Bob in his last years.

This morning I spent a half-hour trying to make contact with the remarkable English teacher at Browning High School.  Didn't succeed.  It's vacation. In the past few weeks I've had unexpected phone calls from a black sheep colleague from seminary, from Adolf Hungry Wolf, and from Greg Hirst, a Blackfeet educator now retired. The past is knocking.

What started out as the romantic adventure of my life ended up a sordid story of what I considered failure.  It was only the beginning. The key is not humans, individually or collectively, but rather the land as it presents the particulate, historical, dynamic surging and converting of whatever this thing is that time pushed us through.  

When my mother died, I explain, her estate let me retire (what a misnomer) early to a little town alongside Browning, which has also died -- well, technically.  It's about the same but the state definition of a town was removed.  The land is the same.  The blue heron still flies up from Willow Creek.

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