Sunday, December 18, 2005

Sweetgrass Hills

The artifact in this story is the rattle. The person? Oh, my! So many! I borrowed Becky Cooper's name.

1961-81 Historical Time-Line

1961: National Indian Youth Council, first all-Indian Youth protest group formed in New Mexico. Empowerment
1964: Devastating flood of the reservation, caused by three poorly maintained federal dams breaking, interrupts Centennial celebrations.
1968: Congressional investigation of Indian education finds "national disgrace." In July AIM organized by Dennis Banks and George Mitchell in Minneapolis.
1969: In November "Indians of All Tribes", a San Francisco activist group, seizes Alcatraz.
1970: On July 8, Nixon disowns termination and relocation. In November, Russell Means captures the Mayflower II on Thanksgiving.
1971: AIM holds prayer vigil on top of Mt. Rushmore. Alcatraz campers evicted. On Sept. 22 Russell and Ted Means storm the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Crow. In fall and winter the Onondago stop traffic on Route 81 just outside Syracuse, N.Y. In Browning, the Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop begins operation.
1972: Means and Banks capture Gordon, Nebraska, to protest the death of Raymond Yellow Thunder. In April the AIM leadership fragments over the use of guns at Cass Lake, Minnesota. On Nov. 1-8 AIM establishes the Trail of Broken Treaties, which becomes the capture of the BIA. They leave with files and $66,500 cash from the White House.
1973: On Feb. 6 Means and Banks are at Custer, South Dakota, to protest the killing of Wesley Bad Heart Bull. The incident becomes a riot. Feb. 27 is the capture of Wounded Knee.
1977: Jan. 2 consultative status to the United Nations is awarded to the International Treaty Council of the Western Hemisphere.
1978: Earl Old Person is made Chief of the Blackfeet Nation.
1979: Blackfeet Community College received candidate status for accreditation in Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges. One of its roots is the Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop.


Even when ol’ Jess Saint John (pronounced “Sin Jin”) was running the S-Fishhook, he always kept a few rodeo stock broncs. Some extra income, he said, but his wife, Deeny, thought he just liked big old rough horses. Jess’ son, Jay-Jay, added some good quarter-horses and competed in steer-wrestling. No one could decide whether his prothesis for a missing foot gave him a handicap or an unfair advantage. He didn’t really score high enough for anyone to make an issue of it, but he clearly loved competing, so no one minded. It just wasn’t an issue. Except people called him “Rubberfoot.”

The Indian ponies were the idea of Jay-Jay’s teenaged son Jeeter. He’d been named James, but some old cowboy couldn’t remember his proper name and called him Jeeter, which stuck. In fact, some people called him Jeeter-bug when he was little, but he made them stop when he began to grow up. He was just on the edge of grownup now.

A few years after Jay-Jay and Jeeter had accumulated a nice little remuda of buckskins, paints and pintos, a movie company rented them. They looked great on film. As soon as the location scouts had come through, Jeeter had begun growing his hair out long and practicing bareback riding so he could be a stunt extra. (Jay-Jay’s braids had gotten kinda thin, so he’d gone to a grey pony tail. Jess and his brother-in-law Ev Goes-On-Through had never given up their military buzzcuts, because the last remaining barber was part of their social lives and because by now those haircuts had been part of their identity for a long time.) The location the movie scouts really liked was the part of their ranch where the Sweetgrass Hills were in the background.

An anthropologist from Canada, a man who was partly Blackfoot (The Canadians translated “Siksika” in the singular and the Americans translated it plural.) was hired to be advisor for the movie company. People were very concerned about authenticity these days. He passed on as much information as he could to any listeners so long as he had a cup of coffee in his hand -- maybe a little something in it. Since the coffee pot was always hot at the S-Fishhook kitchen, the anthro stopped in often. He and Deenie were trying to decide whether they were related some way since she had relatives up north.

The anthro said the Sweetgrass Hills were really supposed to be the Sweetpine hills. Another bad translation. Of course, they were also supposed to be Blackfeet reservation until gold was discovered on one of the three buttes. The anthro said they were volcanic intrusions that had pushed up through the sedimentary bottom of an ancient sea. What Jeeter knew was that the first thing every morning he and every other family member found some excuse to go out on the porch to take a look. They said they were checking the weather, but it was more complicated than that.

Jeeter loved being in the movie. When people said it was corny or criticized this or that as not being accurate, he got mad and wanted to fight them. If someone asked him to explain what it meant to him, he said, “So many bad things happened to my people. I wish I’d been there to fight alongside them.”

“What’s one teenaged kid in the face of a greedy bunch of whites from back east?”

“Well, maybe I couldn’t have stopped them, but I would have been part of the resistance.”

“Maybe you’re still part of the resistance.” Jeeter knew what his critic meant. The cyanide-heap-leach-pond gold reclaimers wanted to grind up Gold Butte -- the whole thing -- to get what the hard rock mine had left behind as too expensive to recover with pick and shovel. The Sweetgrass Hills were water-makers, collecting rain and snow and filtering it through the ground to the area wells. Cyanide leach ponds -- manmade ponds with supposedly impervious linings where gold-bearing ore could be soaked in cyanide solution to draw out the precious metal -- always eventually leaked into the water table, poisoning the wells.

But testifying in hearings or even marching in a demonstration wasn’t as much fun as riding a good horse bareback, your face striped and dotted in a makeup woman’s idea of authentic warpaint, tearing around a replica fort and actually getting to burn it down!

The film company was there for two months and then one morning they were gone -- like a circus moving on to the next location. The horses went back to lounging around their field, though a few still had traces of paint. The square of the “fort” stayed black for a while. What Jeeter missed most was the anthropologist. “Why don’t you go to the library?” asked Jay-Jay. “Or even the county historical society? What about the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning?” But they didn’t have an anthropologist anymore.

Finally his great-uncle Ev Goes-On-Through gave him the name of an even older man than Ev who lived near Heart Butte. This old man was not an anthropologist -- he was an informant, the one the anthropologists learned from. Ev told Jeeter how to be polite and patient -- and leave a few bills under the sugarbowl before he went home.

After four visits (The sacred number for Blackfeet is four, not the Christian three, because sacredness for Plains Indians is a matter of the land and there are four compass points.) the old man began to talk about long ago. Jeeter didn’t repeat to anyone what he said. Nearly blind, the old timer sat by his wood stove all day. Without being asked, Jeeter began to bring stove-length wood along with him to stack by the door and to tend the stove while he was there. The old man ate very little, but he loved the heat. All through the winter, Jeeter did his chores at home, got through school, and made a bee line for his old man friend.

In spring, when the green grass came, the old man left on the “Wolf Trail” to the Sand Hills to join the shadows of others he knew better than the living. Jeeter was devastated and spent a lot of time alone. Jay-Jay said to his wife, Jeeter’s mother, “What is it that makes us “Sin Jins” get so sad so easy?” She didn’t know, except that there was a lot to be sad about on a reservation. She did know it was a good reason to avoid drinking.

In June when school was out and the rains finally stopped, Jeeter announced that he was going on a vision-quest to the top of the Sweetgrass Hills. The anthropologist and the old man had both told him about vision-beds of rock, walls of the sedimentary rock plates either stacked or propped on edge, to be wind shelters while a boy coming of age fasted, prayed, and waited to be contacted by his totem animal. He was sure he could find one of these, maybe a bear, though none had been seen up there for a long time.

Ev was the only one who didn’t think it was a crazy idea. He helped Jeeter make four little flags of different colors, coded for the four directions, but told him NOT to stare into the sun as old-timers did. Too many old-timers went blind. He agreed to drive Jeeter up the ranch roads until he was close to where the vision-beds were supposed to be and then come looking for him on the fourth day. He made the boy take along some bottled water, another change from the old days.

At the last minute he produced a old worn red-brown leather rattle. It wasn’t a loud sound, more of a whispery rice-falling noise. “What’s in there?” asked Jeeter.


“Where did you get it?”

“Bought it off a drunk.”

“Is it ceremonial?”

“He was too drunk to tell me.”

“How could someone like that have a terrific rattle like this?” Jeeter turned it over and over in his hands, the contents sliding softly along the inside.

“He wasn’t always a drunk. Once he was a kid like you.”

It was hard work finding a vision bed. Low to the ground, maybe a couple of feet high, oriented west-to-east, with a long view of the Rockies, in an area with a lot of loose rock and alpine fir, sweet-smelling. Rock so old it was encrusted with lichen. He had brought a bedroll over his shoulder and when he found a vision bed, the size and shape of a rowboat, he threw the blankets out on the center. Stripped to his gym shorts, he lay down with his head to the east, the pointed end. Then he remembered the four flags and planted them in the corners before he lay back down.

He felt silly. His heart rate and temp were still high from climbing up. Sitting up cross-legged, he began to scan the view, letting the distance and the atmosphere seep into him. Pretty soon he thought of his rattle and began a rhythm, at first fast and fancy, then just an ordinary heart pulse. He concentrated on keeping it steady and wished he knew songs, Indian songs, sacred songs. If this were a movie, there’d be an Indian flute and the cry of hawks.

Hawks were cruising the skies, but they either weren’t screaming or weren’t coming close enough to be heard. In the firs not far away, some kind of thrush was singing. He wondered what time it was -- lunchtime, judging by his stomach. He hadn’t brought a watch, obviously. But watching the sun cross the sky didn’t seem all that helpful. It traveled awfully slow. He lay back and dozed for a while.

When the sun got low, the coolness woke him up, so he sat up and started his rattle again, kept it going a long time into the dark, wondered if it would be cheating to pull a blanket over his shoulders but didn’t do it until shivering interrupted his rattle. It would be great to have a campfire on this rocky shale -- easy to shelter it from the wind and screened so people couldn’t see it from the flats. But in the old days would there have been a fire? He decided not. He was really hungry.

By the afternoon of the second day he was famished. He hadn’t understood hunger earlier. On the third day he wasn’t hungry anymore, but he’d taken water now and then. His body felt so light -- his mind was floating, too . The small creatures who lived around him were showing themselves, used to him now. Some came close but few paid any attention to him.

Which would be his life-guide, his totem animal? He hoped not a chipmunk, then thought, “Why not a chipmunk? Why be so proud about wanting a big noble animal? Wasn’t life itself powerful enough that even a beetle could bring a message?” It seemed to him that his mind was entering everything he saw, but especially the living things, fitting together in this spreading ecological symphony.

“Don’t get fancy,” he said to himself. But that’s the way it felt, a powerful music in which they were not just musicians, not just instruments, but the chords themselves, the entwining vibrations, the...

A shadow fell over him. His first thought was that it was his messenger animal. His second thought was that his Uncle Ev had come on horseback to check on him. His third thought was outrage.

Beck’s folks had left her alone at the ranch while they went on a business trip. It wasn’t the first time. She was a new high school grad and since she’d grown up on that ranch, she was as competent as any adult who lived there. Her plan was to spend a lot of time on her new quarterhorse gelding, see if she could make a barrel-racer of it. The horse was nearly cherry-red with the space of two men’s hands side-by-side across its chest and a rump so muscled it looked like a big apple. A square horse, like a piece of fine furniture, and she spent a lot of time rubbing its coat to a high polish. “I’m going to call you Candy Apple,” she said to the horse, and looked around just in time to see it reaching with its mouth open to take a big bite out of HER! Didn’t seem to be bonding. Maybe a good long uphill ride would make this horse pay attention to business.

There was a vague trail of sorts she pushed the horse up, until it was sweating.

She was so totally unprepared when a boy reared up out of the rocks that she nearly lost her seat on the dancing horse. “What on EARTH are you doing?” she demanded.

“What are YOU doing?” he demanded right back.

“I’m just taking a ride like any normal person!”

“Well, I’m on a vision quest. I don’t suppose you know what that is.”

“Don’t be silly. Of course I’ve read about it.”

“That’s not the same as doing it. Get out of here.”

“I don’t have to -- this is our family’s land.”

“No one can own the Sweetgrass Hills. They’re sacred.”

“The government extinguished your claim with a huge wad of money, years ago.” They glared at each other. Then she reined herself in. “I know what you mean about sacred. It’s sacred to me, too.”

The sudden alarming thought crossed Jeeter’s reeling mind that she might demand to participate in his fasting -- whites were always horning in on Indian ceremonies, trying to be noble or something. “Women can’t have vision quests.”

“Of course they can. Think of Running Eagle, the woman warrior.”

He was disconcerted. “Whites can’t do it. Whites just come around and spoil every damn thing. Kill us, take our land, now even spoil our prayers.”

She started to reply, realized this was insoluble, and wheeled her horse away, traveling downhill. She was shaken and angry and those emotions went right into the horse. Just as she was out of sight of the vision bed, the horse crow-hopped, threw her and ran off, carefully holding its reins off to the side so as not to step on them. This was an experienced bad-acting horse.

She was unconscious for a while, then semi-conscious on the sharp-edged tiles of rock. When she tried to move, her ankle hurt -- a lot. When she could bear it, she sat up, pulled off her boot -- wincing -- and saw how swollen the ankle was. By inching over a bit, she could prop her foot up on a larger rock, but that was about all she could think of to do for it at the moment.

She was close enough to the boy to yell for help. In fact, if she were still enough that the loose rock didn’t scrape together under her, she could hear the shush-shush-shush of his rattle, like a heart valve heard through a stethoscope. She didn’t want to interfere with him. He had a right to do his searching. She had always sympathized with Indians, but more than that, she could see how sincere he was.

The sun was slipping down towards night, making the sun rays slantwise. Turning her head towards a tall ridge, she saw a petroglyph. She’d seen plenty before at Writing-on-Stone, just to the north, but this was the first one that she felt she’d discovered. What was it? A person with a dog? She thought so. Thought she had to remember where this was. Then she dozed.

After dark it was chilly in spite of the rocks holding heat, and she began to think about hypothermia. Maybe she should ask that boy for a blanket. She couldn’t walk around to keep warm.

Just when she began to feel serious about it, a big white shape came out of the firs: a dog. It was the kind of dog that people raise with their sheep herds to keep wolves away and that were sometimes trained for rescue dogs, European mountain dogs that find the injured and lie down against them to keep them warm. She’d read about them (her father thought she read too much) and how the breeds had been doing this so long that they did it by instinct now -- it was in their genes.

The dog snurfled her all over, beginning with her face and going down to the ankle, which it licked for a while. Then it heaved a big sigh and stretched out against her back. It stunk but it was warm. Feeling protected, Becky slipped back into a dream. Her last thought was, “No keg of brandy under this dog’s chin.” And then ”I’d rather have hot Ovaltine anyway.”

No dog came to visit the boy in his vision bed. He lay looking at the stars, seeing some of them streak across the sky, some of them dancing with each other, the Big Dipper and Little Dipper turning through the sky. Hey. No white man stuff. He should be thinking of them as bears. He slept.

He woke in the darkest part of the night, shaking in his blanket. Awareness suddenly grew that creatures were with him. He could hear breathing and shifting in a circle around him. Maybe a herd of deer or elk, not grazing but bedding. He smelled skunk or maybe fox, but also grassy scents and funky stuff. He thought, “Must be dreaming.”

“Nope,” came into his mind. He stared into the dark and saw animal shapes: antlers, big shoulders, tails, ears. The glint of eyes in pairs, all sizes. The rocks shifted under the animals, sounding like crockery. Maybe he could feel them. Something stretched out to meet his reaching hand. “Ouch!” A small animal had bitten him. “Pay attention.” Not words, just the thought.

“Vision animals aren’t supposed to bite people!”

“Don’t tell us what to do. We’ve been doing this a long time.”

Tears came to his eyes, not because he hurt but because this was funny, almost like a cartoon, and yet somehow it was transcendent -- beyond anything he’d thought of. All the live things... all his relations... an arching grace of forgiveness and inclusion coming to him in waves from this circle.

They stayed with him for quite a while -- maybe an hour -- not really doing or saying anything very much, just being there in harmony -- sharing vibes, you might say. When the sky began to lighten, they weren’t there anymore. Jeeter started his rattle again but this time he knew a song to sing with it, his own song.

Becky woke just in time to see the Kuvasc -- or Great Pyrenees or whatever breed the dog was -- disappearing off into the trees. Maybe its leaving was what woke her. Seemed like it knew where it was going, so she didn’t call it. Then she heard the song and rattle pulsing just over the ridge. Pretty soon it stopped and the boy’s footsteps came crashing down through the scree. She tried not to look pitiful but she was very relieved.

“Damn! Were you here all night?”

“Is that big white dog yours? He stayed with me.”

“No dog. Why didn’t you yell?”

“A vision quest is a lot more important than a sprained ankle. I’ll heal up but you... did you have the vision?”

He nodded, unable to speak. She didn’t press him, knowing that things of that intensity are private. He sat down beside her and they looked out over the hazy flatland to the rose alpenglow spread over the Rockies on the West. Nothing to say, just eyes drinking up the long distances.

A hawk flew over, “Kreeee, kreeeee!” Jeeter laughed. “Just like the movies.”

“Only better.” The sweet morning updraft lifted their hair. “How did you know I was here?”


Higher and redder went the sun, then pale. After a while they saw something moving up the butte towards them. A man on a horse, leading two other horses, one of which had an ass like a candy apple. “My Uncle Ev,” explained Jeeter.

“He found my rotten horse!” said Becky, though she didn’t feel angry about the renegade. Somehow the night had not been such an ordeal even though her ankle still throbbed. There was so MUCH to life!

Later Jeeter said to his Uncle Ev, “You know, when I was surrounded by those creatures, I thought I knew the true meaning of life, but I can’t remember what they said it was.”

“Write this down,” said Ev. “The meaning of life is to get out there and live it, no matter what the cost.” After a pause he said, “And have a care for the other guy.”

Jeeter didn’t write it down, but he DID remember it.

Becky never found out where that big white dog came from, though she asked a lot of people.

1 comment:

Richard S. Wheeler said...

I loved the tender intermingling of modern, ancient, mythic, and historic. The story helps me know the Blackfeet people of today. It is sensitively and sweetly written