Thursday, August 01, 2019


The Heart Butte town dogs were unknown to me, but the teacherage dogs had distinct personalities. When I first came, Shunka, which is Sioux for "dog," felt he was the alpha-male. A husky mix, he ran loose, making puppies and chasing off intruding males. Two other vaguely shepherd dogs were kept in their yards. One small cringing female, a black dog with brown eyebrows, attached herself to Mrs. Marlboro, who got her spayed and named her "Kiki." (I called her "Keeka," meaning "wait now" in Blackfeet, which annoyed Mrs. M.) A female blue kelpie, valuable for working cattle, raised a batch of pups under Mr. Z's trailer. The Lederhosens soon brought in a foolish female shepherd mix. At first the dogs didn't make as much trouble in my life as a big yellow tomcat who came visiting, unwanted by me or my spayed calico cat. But pretty soon the tomcat mysteriously died. 
Then a big white dog appeared. Maybe he had a little blood from the huge white Kuvasc dogs sometimes used around there to guard sheep from wolves. To get rid of him, he was given to Augie, a student who lived down in the village and unwisely remarked it would be nice to have a dog. But the big male, now named "Augie," refused to stay in town. Churchill, the athletic director, took a liking to him and began feeding him the scraps from the mail-order Omaha frozen steaks he favored. Churchill called the dog "King." 
One day King and Shunka engaged in an archetypal battle for dominance. All day they alternated between slashing at each other and taking short rests. Once they fought their way into and then back out of one of the garages, leaving long spatters of dog blood on the walls. Their snouts were bloodied and their sides were streaked. No one tried to intervene and anyway nothing short of shooting one of the dogs would have worked. We all, teachers and students, kept track of what was happening but didn't stand around watching. In the end King crunched Shunka's foot hard enough to break the bones. The loser went crying off with his foot held up. The kids were glad because Shunka was known to bite them. The men were secretly proud of the shining white King. The women were glad that Shunka would be staying home for a while because they liked to walk over the grassy hills and Shunka always insisted on coming, but chased cows which made the teachers unwelcome. 
I was fond of King, too. But when the Lederhosen's moved to the single teacherage next door to me with their female, now with a puppy by King, the three dogs covered the yard with droppings and leapt into my car trunk to steal groceries unless I closed it after each trip to my door. King got into the habit of sleeping on my doormat leaning against the storm door, so that I had to heave him to his feet to get in or out. I began to be annoyed. My disposition was not improved by Mr. Lederhosen's attachment to loud musical instruments on which he never played whole melodies, but only intermittent snatches as the mood struck him. I was beginning to get cabin fever-- shack batty. A familiar malady in those parts, but mine came from wanting to be even more alone. 
The Lederhosens gave birth to a baby. Their first goat, fond of riding around on the front seat of the pickup next to Mr. Lederhosen, was once transported in the back of the vehicle, where it found a bag of dry rice and foundered during the ride. Their second goat, a sweet little angora nanny, was tethered to her goathouse alongside the teacherage. Mrs. Lederhosen was standing next to the goat, holding her baby, when King came out of nowhere and tore the throat out of the goat, killing it on the spot and traumatizing the gentle mother. Later, calves began to be killed and King was shot on the scene of slaughter by one of the students whose family owned the calves. 
Probably nothing divided the outsiders from the insiders so clearly as their reaction to the death of the King. Country people hardly paused to notice King was gone. More dogs were always coming. City people thought that if someone just tried enough, they could find some way to end violence, prevent bloodshed, and stop the dominance of alpha-animals. These dogs are my metaphor for the conduct of administration in Heart Butte. Likewise, the community would make attacks on the administrators, one after another, believing the supply of new superintendents was endless. The teachers believed that reform was possible and tried to organize committees, write letters, and make plans. This got them fired. 
The cynical conviction that underlay much of the Heart Butte political scene was, as Churchill put it, "Big dogs eat first." The administration and the community families were pitted in a battle for dominance as surely as Shunka and King. The goal was economic security, which only the school could provide in this tiny reservation hamlet. This dynamic was so strong that everything else became scenery and every kind of strategy became legitimate. White educators off the reservation, and even Browning administrators, watched with interest but had no desire to intervene. They also intended to be Big Dogs and to Eat First. But Heart Butte wasn't their pack. 
Strategies included hiring weak teachers, making sure they never got tenure, keeping facts -- especially about funding-- secret, doing business in a fractured and unrecorded way, buying off enemies, and -- if necessary-- bluffing. Few administrators or school board members, if any, ever took any interest at all in teaching methods or content unless the community questioned them. Government overseers, both state and federal, were too far away to know what was going on. 
The biggest advantage the Heart Butte administration had was simply racism, both the racism of the local white community and the racism of the elitist half-breed community. Secretly, both groups believed that Heart Butte did not deserve help. They thought nothing could be done to improve the situation and would freely say so in bars -- though not in official contexts. In short, the local citizenry was so busy fighting each other, they were easily shunted aside from saving themselves. 
In the actual matter of killer dogs, the Supe issued a memo, which I quote exactly: 
RE: Dogs 
There has been a lot of dogs in the neighborhood that have not been under control, fenced, leashed, or kept in. The problem needs addressed immediately. 
All dogs who are not kept under control by a leash, fence, or kept in, and is allowed to run, will be subject to removal by the authority of the Heart Butte School District. 

No real action was ever taken. The Supe knew that if he really did anything, people would be angry. In short, the Heart Butte School District would claim no authority. Let sleeping dogs lie. 

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