Tuesday, March 28, 2006

NORTHFORK, a Silvery Prairie Movie

We know about Rorschach inkblots where a set of intricate but accidental sprawls of ink squished by folding paper are presented to a person who is expected to “see” or imagine by being reminded of various figures. These are presumed to have bubbled up from one’s subconscious, revealing one’s inner life. If you see all rabbits, fine -- but what does it mean? If you see all foxes, also fine -- but what does it mean? It’s more art than science -- more party game than analysis.

Northfork” might be a film that is as interpretable as an inkblot, but I think it was filmed here on the east slope of the Rockies in what had to be spring or fall -- probably fall -- because at that time the land here is the opposite of an inkblot. Rather it is a silver screen on which one can cast not shadows but light shows: gleams, dusty rays, prism refractions, haloes, shafts of light, skies silvered with cloud, heads backlit by sun.

Briefly, in case you never heard of this movie, it was done by the Polish brothers (that’s their name rather than their nationality and I don’t know how “polished” they are) who are notorious for making cryptic, pretentious movies. In this case the occasion is the building of Hungry Horse Dam, which stands for all dams and for all huge Corps of Engineers industrial projects that change the face of the land and destroy human community in the name of progress.

I understand dams. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, downstream from major dam projects built in my childhood, most notably Bonneville. I remember when it was finished that my family went on the tour, descending down into that massive concrete structure and standing by the turbines, thrumming with unearthly power. And we watched the lady who sits at a window by the fish ladder with a little clicker to count the salmon. This replaces, of course, an ancient culture of Indian people who stood on flimsy little scaffolds that looked like diving boards, netting the huge salmon as they innumerably leapt upward through rapids toward the headwaters to spawn, then die to feed the bears and eagles, the offal replacing the nutrients constantly washed downstream by the Columbia River.

Hungry Horse Dam is on the west side of the Rockies where there is enough water to make a really big dam effective, but the movie was shot on the east side. Hungry Horse was the source of many impressive black and white publicity photos that provide the title backgrounds and recurrent images in this stripped down, nearly black-and-white movie. But outside the photos, the shots are all of the land at its most “bleak,” severe and unflowered, just dry grass for the hairy cows and young fenced buffalo (raised for food), and mountains on the horizon. The latter are white with snow, pretty much, and snow comes lightly during the story. Only at the end is the land seen as beautiful with closeups of sleeping waterfowl and exploded cattails in the potholes left by the ancient glaciers.

The feeling is very much like Ingmar Bergman's movies, the measured and meditative use of scene: what Paul Tillich might call the “ground of being.” Clearly there is meant to be religion, stalwartly represented by Nick Nolte with long hair and a cassock. (He’s looking a little rough these days, though he’s two years younger than me!) He tenderly cares for the pivot point of the narrative who is a little boy, grievously ill and claiming to be an angel.

Do you remember the Christmas story, “The Littlest Angel?” Or maybe some of the little boys in Maurice Sendak’s phantasms. That’s the kind of little boy this is. Like the little boy in “Who Has Seen the Wind?” who goes to the church to ask for answers from God, whom he assumes lives there. Maybe “The Little Prince.” Bergman never uses a little boy -- he often uses a troubled woman as his central personality. There is at least one echoing scene -- the little boy and one of the “angels” go silhouetted along the horizon in the same way as the characters in “The Seventh Seal.”

There are four “angels”: A Johnny Deppish young man with artificial hands and an array of jeweler’s loupes and spectacle lenses to help him read scripture. His name is Happy. There is a hollow-eyed cowboy (who looked to me to be wearing a Bob Scriver buffalo skull bolo tie) who never says anything -- he’s “God.” He turns out to be a skypilot. God never tells you anything. You have to get Happy (rabbi?) to read scripture. And there is an English gent, complete with accent, feather boa, and either a tea cozy or mob cap on his head. He perennially sips tea, which he is willing to share, and clearly is one of those church ritual and circumstance people.

The most angelic and only female angel is Darryl Hannah in a sort of Elizabethan shirt. She is admonished, “Don’t let your maternal nature unman you.” She is nurturing, concerned, grieving, joyous, aching, protective, and all the parental qualities. Pretty much like the actress, who once played a mermaid in a different movie and who visited a Great Falls motel where there is a swimming pool with a bar built into the side and put on a mermaid suit to divert the drinkers for a while. (Normally there are several athletic young local women who do the honors.)

Over against this angel crew, who have evidently come to witness the death of the community, most vividly represented by the flooding of the graveyard, is a set of Kafka-esque bureaucrats -- all men of roughly the same appearance, all dressed as men were in the Fifties in long coats and fedoras. (We call ‘em “stingy brims” here.) Each black hat has a white feather tucked into the band, like the white spot in the black half of a yin-yang swirl. Basically human and decent, they are charged with the terrible task of clearing out the balky remnants in homes. It’s interesting that in two of the other angel movies I have (“Michael” and “City of Angels”) the angels are John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, both wearing the long black coats but not the hats. In fact, both are all TOO human, which is the plot point. Interesting that they are also tall, dark males. In "Northfork" Hannah is the only blonde female and she wears a black wig -- like an Orthodox Jewish woman.

These bureaucrats walk through the damn’s [sic] guts, stopping to pat the bump where one of the workers was accidentally entombed. (Famous references to real cases and well-known short story here. "The price of progress.") They constantly gripe and wisecrack, just the way real bureaucrats do. (“Stop screwing around,” they admonish one young couple who is doing just that.) One pair of them (they work in pairs like Mormon missionaries) is a father-son team with a mother in that cemetary, unclaimed.

I can’t think of anyone else who has used this prairie this way. Normally it is photographed as a panorama of deep romanticism, a Charlie Russell land of sunset hues and colorful characters. This movie uses grassland the way Bergman uses the sea, the stony beach. Dwellers here are aware that this used to be the floor of an ancient sea and is saturated with salt and alkali. But there are no Lot’s wife’s stories in the movie, unless she is in the coffin the father and son finally retrieve.

Much to think about. The movie is rated PG-13 (because of that young couple “screwing around”) but I think it should be rated “mature audiences only.” Or maybe to be brutally honest, “pretentious adult audiences only,” though one really doesn’t need a tea cozy on one’s head. On the other hand, if you are against symbolic ideas, progress as calamity, and Ingmar Bergman, go see those other angel movies.

I’m pretty sure those other two are rated “R” because in both a cherubic blonde young woman (one of them Meg Ryan) doesn’t just get “touched” but “screwed” by an angel. This is more Greek than Judeo-Christian and if you want to speculate on the children who result, that’s a whole different set of movies.

"HOOKING UP" Not "Snagging"

By “hooking up” I don’t mean what is called, here on the rez, “snagging.” (Finding a partner for -- ahem -- affection.) Any snagger looking for help from me would be in deep trouble. What I’m talking about is how one thing attaches to another -- the metaphor rather than the Saturday night dilemma.

I once saw a cell’s surface -- probably an animation. I’d always thought of a cell as being rather like a pingpong ball -- a smooth round object albeit very small. (Of course, I knew about amoebas, but I figured their boundaries just came loose.) The animation showed that the surface of a cell -- round or not -- is bumped, indented, pierced, and flourescing with teeny structures. Ion pumps stick through the cell wall so they can move molecules in and out. There are small “docks” where antibodies attach -- or maybe viruses. And so on. Surprisingly mechanical appurtenances. Little hooks that meet little loops. Some meds are designed to have loops that occupy the hooks that would otherwise be snagged by viruses. The loops and hooks -- docks -- are shaped to accept only certain molecules.

On thought, I realize that a cell is a middling-large structure of the flesh -- underlying it is the structure of the molecule, which is atoms stuck to each other with electromagnetic force. (I don’t know how cells stick together to make organs and muscles -- Velcro? We know that chromosomes are connected to their partners by tiny zippers.) Actually, most molecules are assemblages of other molecules with certain characteristics that make them form chains or balls or jungle gyms.

It wasn’t until prions came along that we learned that molecules had to “fold” a certain way, which arises from the subtle forces among the atoms. Since atoms come in different isotopes, depending on THEIR components (protons, neutons and the circling electrons), the kind of atom used to build a molecule can put the electromagnetic forces -- the glue and dotted lines -- in the wrong places to fold properly. The result, as in Mad Cow Disease, can be fatal to the entity created by the supposed proper coherence of all these little parts. They just don’t do what they’re supposed to do.

Now that I’ve established my metaphorical pattern, let’s move to talking about the creature that is Society or -- with a little indulgence from you -- to a Tribe. The fish I’m after is white people who try to “hook up” with a whole tribe, whether for business or as reporters or just because they want a relationship with “Indians.” My point is that they usually can find no point of attachment that is really helpful to either.

The most common “hook up” is not unlike snagging. A young male writer or adventurer comes to a rez town and goes to get a beer. While looking around, he spots what looks like an Indian who soon joins him to help him drink beer. This becomes the point of attachment and, of course, “our” young man from then on is treated to a beer-joint view of the rez. He hears a lot of jail gossip, violent opinions about the tribal council, and speeches about the need for law and order. Drunks are always in favor of law and order, even as they describe the most ghastly of offenses which they claim to know are overrunning everything.

Or maybe it’s an anthropologist or sociologist who comes and he or she asks around in stores for wise old people who know about the past. Pretty soon they’re bumping around in the country and find someone who looks pretty old who tells them lots of stuff. When the anthro (who is the fiftieth that summer) leaves with a notebook full of colorful information, the “old person” goes to the trunk in the back bedroom to peek in their copy of “The Old North Trail” to see whether they got it right. Hopefully, the anthro left some bucks on the table.

A modern phenomenon is the group “hook-up.” Some church or other service organization decides it would be great to bring a group of teenagers to the rez to do good. So someone local has to make a list of needed “goods” and arrange for accommodations for a bunch of teens who virtually live in the shower. With luck they bring their own supervisors.

In the business context the Tribal Council has finally created a port in its fort, so to speak, by presenting Siyeh (a wholly-owned subsidiary) as their ion pump, the entity that is ready to receive and interpret proposals and even initiate some of their own. These are people with the knowledge and skills to sit down in a conference room and address both the sales pitch and the paperwork that follows. Not everyone will want to use this opportunity, feeling that they should be more entrepreneurial by cultivating their own gatekeeper. More shortcuts.

In the past visiting academicians often had to rely on a friendly white person to get access to personal stories or photos. For one thing, academics rarely have enough money to make a long trip or stay in motels long enough to make contacts. Since the Blackfeet Community College was founded, this has become another way to make contact, but they don’t seem to have any person designated to field stray explorers, anthros, or academics. Instead, such persons come to sit in the Commons and what follows is rather like the beer-drinker’s bond except that it is politically centered. The lingerers -- who are not always teachers -- love politics. These are the people who’ve been sitting together to talk since paleolithic times. Now they often use French theory though they’ve never read the original texts. Deconstruction, post-colonial, the “Other.” That sort of thing.

Now and then a person who is not attached to any rez group will become a focus of inquiry. Sometimes such persons really are historians and ritualists. Maybe promising athletes. White inquirers often fall in love with them and idealize them in books, so that the inquirer -- as opposed to the tribal member -- will seem specially gifted and lucky to have been honored with this person’s attention. Once a person -- often presented as very old -- is the star of one book, soon he or she attracts other authors.

Most of these points of access are meant to fend off curious outsiders, isolate them somewhere so they won’t meddle, and keep their ideas away from the children. They are defensive structures rather than nourishing. Nourishment is brought in by tribal members who go out to conferences, much as hunters once went out to bring back meat. Sometimes -- esp. when dealing with schools -- it’s hard to figure out what happens to that food when it gets back to the tribe. Is it quickly eaten? Is it discarded as unpalatable? Does someone hoard it?

One of my shortcomings (which for ego reasons I maintain are generally misplaced virtues) is that I often let metaphors run away with me, so let me bring this back to reality. Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve clearly allowed Google and Blogger to become hooks and loops of my cell skin, so people who are trying to find out about artifacts, ancestors, and other matters make contact with me.

I’m not a Blackfeet. I try to figure out which people or offices inquiries ought to reach and to guide them there. This is both so that I won’t be accused by the Blackfeet of trying to act like one and horn in on their world, and so the inquirer can go ahead and explore if they are tactful and energetic enough to follow up.

But I love hearing about it. Once in a while there is even something about my own past, like the message from Mildred Colbert’s grand-niece. Miss Colbert, a Chinook Indian, was my fourth grade teacher and the grand-niece sent me a photo of Miss Colbert’s grandmother. I forwarded it to one of my “tribes” -- the Vernon Grade School Class of 1953 -- and they put it in their “medicine bundle,” their scrapbook. None of us is Indian but we claim Mildred Colbert in a way I doubt she ever thought about. We’re hooked up.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


The glycemic index is supposed to score foods according to how quickly they are digested into the blood. Foods that practically go straight into the blood stream (making glucose levels go up quickly and abruptly) are “high” glycemic and those that take a while to go into the blood stream are “low” glycemic. The benchmark (reference point) might be glucose itself (100) or white bread (100). The score of the food is not obviously related to whether it’s carbohydrate, fat or protein -- it’s IN ADDITION to the other characteristics of the food.

In general, foods that soft, sweet, fluffy or processed (mixed with chemicals or puffed or reconstituted) tend to have HIGH scores and those that are compact, fibrous, chewy, and plain -- think roots -- are low scorers.

The idea is to eat foods with low scores. Just look on the list when you’re deciding on a veggie or fruit and pick one low. And the preparation can make a difference as well: noodles that are al dente are low, but as they cook longer and get mushier, they go up the list. Some kinds of rice are high and others are low. Wild rice is low, but it’s not even a rice -- it’s grass seeds. A big old baking potato is high (it’s been sitting there converting into sugar) but a small new potato is low (it still thinks it’s a root).

Of course, you need to eat what’s low fat and not load up with protein (hard on the kidneys). And now pesticides can be a worry or “germs” when foods are coming from undeveloped countries. I’m not even going to mention politics.

So these are my principles. (Subject to change):

1. Eat more or less the way Weight Watchers’ recommends. Most of us have done the drill so many times (we always lose before we gain again) we’ve got it down pretty well. Units and all that. If you feel left out, go find a group to join. If you feel insecure, buy one of those dishes with three sections: one big (meat) and two littles (starch & veggie). But remember a bowl on the side for your salad.

2. Forget government recommendations. It’s all puppetry with the hand of big ag inside anyway. Forget any recommendation from a “name” doctor and greet the American Diabetes Association with scepticism as well. (Major corporations pulling strings there as well. Most of the glycemic theory is developed in Australia. I can imagine some promo guy at General Foods screaming, “Curse those Aussies and their kangaroo Internet!”)

3. Boiled grain of some kind is a good breakfast. (I have a Scots bias to oatmeal, but don’t eat the “quick” stuff.) I was raised on cracked wheat mush every morning, just like Laura Ingalls Wilder. I never did put cream and sugar on it. Now I don’t put jam and butter on it anymore. Cut dried fruit into it or frozen berries, but not the kind frozen or canned in syrup -- the unsweetened kind from bags. Or fresh! Throw in nuts. Wheat germ. Flax seeds. (Steady there. Watch the calories and -- ahem -- effects.)

4. Panini presses for sandwiches are great because they convert oaty, nutty, seedy bread into a compact, slow to digest mass that tastes good. My formula for the sandwich is meat, cheese, green stuff, and then use your imagination: tomato, green pepper, marinated stuff like red sweet pepper, onion, olives, sauerkraut, pickles, peanut butter, radishes, etc. and then some kind of sauce with zip to it: horseradish, honey-mustard, hot ketchup -- I’m about to try chipotle mayonnaise to see what that’s like. If the sandwich doesn’t have some zing, it might not register that you ate.

5. Rule of thumb: for every ounce of red meat, an equal ounce of green leaves, like bagged spinach or other salad. I’m trying to wean myself off of creamy dressings. I still miss Green Goddess. We had a horse that loved it, and I did, too.

6. Supper is meat the size of a pack of cards or the palm of my hand. A starch. A salad. Veggies. Maybe a fruit. I’m exploring foreign starch staples like cous-cous. Throw beans into everything: big red ones, little black ones, garbanzos, green.

7. When you just canNOT stand it any longer, a supply of non-fat, non-sugar pudding mix made with skim milk. Don’t just get chocolate -- try pistachio, butterscotch, etc. If you have an ice cream machine, try freezing it. Or get low-fat fruit-flavored yoghurt and run that through the machine.

8. High quality strong coffee. Alfalfa tea. Regular tea chilled and mixed with skim milk, when I need reviving. NO POP. NEVER. NO BOOZE. NEVER. I haven’t messed around with hot chocolate, having quickly given it all away as soon as I was diagnosed.

9. Curiously there are two common substances that really do bring down one’s blood sugar: cinnamon (one teaspoon in one’s morning mush is good) and vinegar (all those marinated veggies and salad dressing). But there’re a lot of phony claims for this and that, too.

10. Food is attached to exercise. You MUST exercise. You cannot eat a stringent enough diet to lose weight and still get enough nutrition to be healthy. Walking or whatever movement one does MUST be done consciously and diligently or the dieting means little. This is the hardest part for me. I just don’t like to move around, though it’s easier now that my weight is twenty pounds less. Now that my blood sugar is controlled enough for my eyes to work properly, I end up reading again -- which is great but sedentary. If only it used more calories. It’s NOT that I watch TV. My TV antenna fell down years ago and I don’t have cable or satellite. (I do watch one movie at a time on video or DVD.) I do hunch over the computer hour after hour. I should set a timer.

11. Glucose/insulin is highly psychoactive. Now that I’m monitoring all the time, I see that one of my best indicators of sugar overload is a down-trending mood and up-trending fatigue. If the stats are good, I feel cheerful and energetic. Of course, it helps to feel like a success.

12. One of the hard things was getting past feeling defective. Over the years I’ve been “accused” of being diabetic though tests always said I wasn’t. Older females loved to play the game of “what’s the matter with Mary?” (My mother decided it was lupus. I have no lupus symptoms.) So it was a temptation not to tell anyone about my diagnosis.

But I felt that I was in solidarity with the Blackfeet tribe, which is facing and battling diabetes even as it steals their sight and their feet and their longevity. So I tell everyone, esp. store keeps who haven’t realized they’re missing a marketing opportunity by not stocking plain food. The upshot is that I find a remarkable number of other people have diabetes. Some have had it for years and I never suspected.

Diabetes is often presented as hereditary and inescapable, but there is a small minority that considers the possibility that a virus, a mutation, a pollution, might be out there. Studies show that diabetes, or at least glucose metabolism, is hitched to just about everything else in the body from emotion to liver function to breathing to athlete’s foot. The key to the problem might not even be in the Isles of Langerhans after all -- might be cortisol levels, corn sugar, cleaning sprays.

At least I can be fairly certain that I’m not going to die of tuberculosis like Thoreau or arsenic poisoning like Louisa May Alcott. Every age has its perils -- this is the one that intersects with me. So I’ll handle it! With my glycemic index at hand!

Sunday, March 19, 2006

STEVE POLLOCK: Homeboy Superintendent


Steven Pollock’s family is honoring him today with a ceremony at 10 AM on the campus of the Blackfeet Community College in Browning.

Pollock made Blackfeet history when he was appointed in mid-February as superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the Blackfeet Reservation.

“This is a historical moment because Steven is the first Blackfeet tribal member to hold this position of superintendent,” said Betty Cooper, a tribal council member and Pollock’s aunt.

Keith Beartusk, regional director for the Rocky Mountain Region of the BIA, said Pollock is not the first Native American to return to his home as a BIA superintendent, but this is a first for the Blackfeet.

“I would agree that this is a historical moment,” Beartusk said Monday. “Other tribes, even within this region, have had this, but this is a first for the Blackfeet.”

As superintendent, Pollock is in charge of all tribal programs except for law enforcement and education, according to Beartusk. He manages 60 full-time employees and that will double during the summer, Beartusk said.

Pollock is a civil engineer, and in that capacity he worked for the Blackfeet years ago. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service and most recently served as a dam safety officer for the Rocky Mountain Regional Office within the BIA.

Pollock’s appointment took effect Feb. 19.


Here are Pollock’s own words as quoted by the “Glacier Reporter” in the March 16 issue: “This is beyond my imagination and beyond my expectations. I thought about the job. Is it meant for me to take on responsibility and try to help our tribe as it grows and becomes a sovereign nation? I believe very strongly this is where I was meant to be.

“We are here to assist at the will of the Tribe. No longer is the BIA the paternal father of the Tribe. The Tribe stands on its own now. It’s up to the Tribe to determine its own destiny, now and forever... so I pledge on behalf of the BIA that I will cooperate. I will assist, I will endeavor to see our Tribe succeed.

“This is really important to me. On my first day, driving to Browning to go to work, I saw children waiting for the bus, and I thought, what is their world? What is Browning to them? Is it a world of hope and promise?... I hope so. It’s our responsibility as leaders to provide that for our children.”


Comment by myself
: I remember Steve Pollock as a high school English student. He was conscientious, intelligent, and easy-going. In a climate where political tumult prompts people to dredge up old grudges and complaints, I don’t hear any about Steve Pollock.

The first Indian agents were mostly the winners of political spoils and the dregs of Civil War survivors. The idea of “faith-based” management meant that the Blackfeet were assigned a Methodist minister as superintendent in spite of early contact with Jesuit Missions, thus touching off yet another source of division in a climate already divided. Then the Indian superintendent started a war with the school superintendent, driving another wedge. Division has been the Devil afflicting the tribe ever since.

Every time I hear the phrase “Brokeback Mountain,” I don’t think of Annie Proulx’s story but rather of the actual mountain up behind Heart Butte named “Major Steele’s Back.” If it ain’t broke, it sure is sagging. The real Major Steele was agent in the James Willard Schultz days and both of them had back problems. Schultz found that “l’herbe” (today we’d say “grass”) helped relax his own back but Steele resorted to morphine. To disguise his zonked-out state, he did business through a little closeable hole in his office door, rather like a speakeasy door or maybe the doors of the early trading forts. Finally the reservation doctor blew the whistle on him.

We’ve come a long way since then. Bill Grissom, agent in the Sixties, was a earnest and intelligent man who was a genuine hero during the 1964 Flood, operating heavy equipment himself as well as organizing search and rescue operations 24/7, following up with emergency measures to house survivors, and then planning years of rebuilding. (Too bad they didn’t have someone like him in charge in New Orleans.)

There have been Indian BIA superintendents in Browning already, but none who were “homeboys.” Pollock joins many other quiet achievers. People who drive through Browning and say, “Oh, it’s so depressing,” cannot see the real changes. No one invited them to the Honor Ceremonies and there’s no reason why they should have been. This is a matter of deep satisfaction for the Amskapi Pikuni, something neither Schultz nor Steele ever imagined.

Friday, March 17, 2006

"REALIST VISION" by Peter Brooks

"Realist Vision" by Peter Brooks. ISBN 0-300-10680-7
His website:
Also see Yale University Press (yalebooks.com)

There’s an old joke about an anthro who goes to darkest Africa and meets a chief. The chief likes him and wants to give him a wife, but the anthro says he already has a wife and pulls out a photograph to show the chief. The chief looks closely and says, “She’s very small and flat, isn’t she?”

The point is that we forget that the only true version of reality is another set of reality exactly like the first -- even a photo is a selection, a redaction, a virtual indicator. Though important artists at the first part of the 20th century took a long leave from depictions of reality in order to explore and argue about what might be “realer than real” through cubism and so on, the at least recognizable rendering of reality some way or other has persisted for both artists and writers. This book by Peter Brooks is a collection of essays about that. The first essay begins: “I think we have a thirst for reality.”

What that means in the age of photography, reality television, psychoanalysis and deconstruction (to get at our “real” motives), is what Brooks sets out to explore. His second sentence is “Which is curious, since we have too much reality, more than we can bear... We thirst for a reality that we can see, hold up to inspection, understand.” Like that anthro’s portable wife. An intimacy with the life of another.

The writers considered are Balzac, Dickens, Flaubert, George Eliot, Zola, Gissing, Henry James, Joyce, Proust, Woolf. One has to remark that they’ve been considered before and probably will be again, which suggests that they are preserving something important to us. This reconsideration reveals new layers.

A few of the artists are shocking, though the cover art, a 19th century gent on a Paris balcony, is charmingly impressionistic and the “key” engraving from Alain-RenĂ© Le Sage, which shows a man being tempted by the devil to look into houses with their roofs removed, is conventional in engraved style.

Then comes the unsettling work of Lucian Freud, not just the nudes but also urban buildings. Courbet, Millet, Ford Madox Brown, Ingres, Marville and Braquehais (both photographers), Delaroche, Monet, Manet, more Caillebotte, Degas, Tissot, Estes, Duane Hanson, John DeAndrea and back to a portrait of Lucian Freud’s huge male model, exposed and seemingly dumped on a pile of rags. Some of these are quite charming -- even TOO charming -- and some are, like DeAndrea’s polyvinyl nudes,so disconcertingly real that even an African chief would think they might take a breath. It's hard to think about them because the scramble of the senses in trying to assimilate them. It's beyond apologizing to Duane Hanson's janitor because one thinks he's real, because it puts us smack between reacting and intellectualizing.

Brooks patiently teases out why these works were considered shocking at the time, why some of them have become wallpaper now, and what there is to understand in them yet -- no matter that we are too sophisticated to remark on nudes or even stare if anyone is looking. In the process of considering Brooks’ thoughts we “see again” and our reality is deepened. He writes gently, humanely, and with a huge breadth of background. The discussion is often intimate, about the nudes or even genitals (Nana’s “sexe” as a symbol in Zola), and yet he neither veers into eroticism nor into medical dispassion. He is mature in a world that seems never to value maturity. I have no idea how he got that way, but I intend to use him as a role model.

I was trying to think of a contemporary writer I would consider as writing this quality of fiction -- true but penetrating -- and came up with Ursula LeGuin. I would love to read what Brooks thought about a sci-fi and fantasy author who is more realistic than most New Yorker or Atlantic short story writers. I’ll bet you ten dollars she knows that story about the anthro's small flat wife and has reflected on it. I wonder if she reads Peter Brooks.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Some years come onto the east slope of the Rockies with a great softening of rain and warmth, so that the leaves unfold with gratitude and the grass leaps up to meet the new calves. This one (2006) is so dry and still so cold that it keeps the ground stony and the chlorophyll unkindled. Maybe it’s better for the births of calves to have plain earth so long as the rancher provides plenty of feed and bedding -- even shelter. One rancher explained how he trucked a length of 4-foot-in-diameter culvert pipe out to the field and heaped it up with manure on both sides, then filled the bottom with straw. He says the calves crowd into it gratefully.

I’m sure it’s warmer than this house when the temps get really low, but in fact we’re teetering back and forth over freezing -- ice, puddle, ice, puddle, ice -- depending on where the sun is shining. When I sit reading, I don’t realize I’m getting hypothermic until I stand up and find myself stiff, a bit confused, surprised when I look for my big thick fleece shirt only to find that I have it on but remain chilled. The cats go out in the stiff dun grass and sit right at the edge of a shadow of a building, as though either the cold were a carpet or the sunshine were a blonde and polished wooden floor, too slick to sit on. I have more rugs than usual on the floor indoors, in case of mud, and they sit on the rugs, but at the edge or, even better, one corner.

That is, Squibbie (the self-appointed sentinel tortoiseshell) moves all day between one edge and another, hoping to be disguised as she scans the long alley to the east, the short (but more trafficked) alley that runs north and south parallel to the lot line. (This lot is at the meeting of a T.) Crackers, the big blonde broad-butted cat with a sinus problem as bad as mine (sometimes I have to stop and listen to figure out who is making that terrible snoring: the cat or me), sleeps all day with her face pressed into the warm electrified bed. She’s more truly crepuscular -- active at dawn and twilight.

We’re having a leash law problem so at every hour I’ll be quietly reading when a cat shoots by and either dives under the bed (Crackers) or leaps to the top of the etagere (Squibbs) with tail expanded but trailing -- not held upright as usual. When I go to look for the intruder, I might find someone’s big fat lab or it might be Caspar, the cat from across the street. Caspar has tended to leave us alone after his winter adventure. He was napping on top of the family’s sporty yellow car, nicely arranged on the sunwarm metal, when the Mom came out and drove to work several blocks away. She wondered what all the laughing and pointing was about -- surely, she had remembered to comb her hair. When she parked, Caspar launched into space and went off like a bottle rocket. Everyone figured the cat was heading home. But it was two weeks before he got there. It was evidently a sobering experience, though some argue that a kind but tyrannous old lady pulled him into her household. If so, she never gave him anything to drink, for his first act on coming home was to rush to the bathroom for his customary source of water.

Aside from cat adventures, this spring is memorable for me in two ways: after a lifetime of being accused of having diabetes, always exonerated when the blood tests showed otherwise, I finally DO have diabetes. Somewhere I had read that when a person reaches the tipping point in their life, they can -- by following all the good health rules -- move back physiologically by ten years. I’m embarked on this and have lost between fifteen and twenty pounds besides slowly gaining stamina by walking. In fact, my body “snapped back” so easily that I can only attribute it to having done all the right things at the same time that I indulged in the wrong things. I ate my cracked wheat mush and THEN scarfed chocolate. Up until my dog-catching years (the Seventies) and the ministry, I was really pretty healthy.

My mother was a farm girl who -- between the Depression and her father’s mismanagement of their prune orchard -- grew up on home fresh eggs, chicken, garden vegetables and -- through the winter rainy winter -- homemade bread with applesauce on it. She thought this was a normal way to eat. Combined with the nutrition lessons promoted by the government during WWII, her standards made her insistent about balanced meals -- NOT hamburgers and milk shakes except when we were traveling.

I have no doubt that this diabetes can be managed, though it seems to take a lot of time and thought.

The other factor this spring is having sold my biography of Bob Scriver. The University of Calgary Press board has voted unanimously to publish “Bronze, Inside and Out.” I’d thought I wouldn’t talk about it until I had signed a letter of agreement, which is what they do instead of a contract, but neither side is waiting around. We’re both at work on the long series of tasks that will produce -- NEXT spring -- an actual book one can put on the shelf. I’m very glad that it’s this particular press and proud that my editor really loves the book for its own sake -- not because she is impressed by Bob Scriver.

But fiscal restraint is the call of the day -- there won’t be money for either of us until the sales begin to roll in. I have no doubt they will, even if by then Bush has brought the world crashing down on our heads. It’s a funny book, a love story in several ways, and a tale of success against all odds. But editing, proofing, and getting permissions is harder than writing.

Truly, this spring is hard. We’re realizing that drought is no longer a matter of a set of bad years from which there is recovery, but is a constant state. Almost everyone by now knows someone who has been killed in Iraq and we are not sure what for. We’re advised to “cowboy up,” but some are becoming a little too armored against loss and disappointment. Old age creeps among my friends and former students, now and then taking one of them off in cold jaws. The Blackfeet obits often attribute the death to diabetes. I yearn for a wood stove, but anyway there’s not a lot to burn on the prairie.

I bought this house almost exactly seven years ago, on the way home from the C.M. Russell Museum Benefit Auction. It was the most reckless and the best thing I ever did. (All gratitude, again, to my mother whose estate made it possible.) It’s the reason I could get the book written, the way I reconnected with the best parts of myself as well as my best friends, and one of the ways I beat off diabetes as long as I did.

It’s a hard spring but the cats and I survive here in slightly more elegant fashion than the calves in their culvert. Quite independent of the temperature, the days are getting longer and the poplars, in spite of twenty-below-zero temps a few weeks ago, are extruding those sexy little purple pollen tassels. Crackers and I will sneeze but then we’ll smile. Squibbie,in the meantime, is watching the geese (who are already pairing up) and thinking about our location on a major migratory flyway. Cats are killed by "bird flu."

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


From the Billings Gazette Sunday Magazine for March 20, 1966
by Mary Strachan Scriver

First -- the Hawken rifle and the Bowie knife... Then the shadow of a massive, red-bearded man... Mysterious, but just coincidence? Or -- is he Montana’s famed mountain man, Liver-Eatin’ Johnson, reincarnated for the sculptor?

A huge shadow darkened the reception desk at Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife. I looked up and screamed. Bob Scriver came out of the workshop, stopped dead in his tracks, staring. “My God!” Scriver’s voice was hoarse. “It’s Liver-Eatin’ Johnson.”

The shadow’s maker -- a massive man with blood-red beard -- stared back. “I just wanted an admission to the museum,” he said softly, almost apologetically. “I’m Bob Swinford from Cascade, CO. I truck cars across the country and...”

“Yes, but---” Scriver put in, “You look like the Liver-Eater.”

Scriver knows the looks of the Liver-Eater. Siince the winter night Hubert Bartlett, Browning gun dealer, showed him the Hawken rifle and Bowie knife the Liver-Eater carried, Scriver has been digging for every bit of information possible about this fmous Montana mountain man.

Johnson, named John Johnston, who’s figured in plenty of blood-curdling tales, came into Montana after a hitch in the Civil War. He fought Indians, hunted, trapped, cut wood for steamboats on the Upper Missouri, was a deputy sheriff at Coulson in the early 1880’s, a lawman at Red Lodge. he died in Los Angeles in 1899.

He got his nickname in the spring of ‘70 at Fort Hawley on the Musselshell. Sioux shot a white woman and a nephew picking berries near the fort. The fort’s men took after the Indians, killed 24, scalped the corpses and cut up the bodies. Johnston, a wood cutter at the fort, held out a Sioux liver stuck to the tip of his scalping knife. “Any you boys take yore liver rare?” The “boys” stared at Johnston’s blood-smeared beard. From then on John Johnston was “Liver-Eatin’ Johnson.”

Facts and fantasy surrounding Johnson fascinated Scriver. He wanted to sculpt this huge mountain man. When Swinford cast his shadow across the museum desk, it was almost as if the Liver-Eater had been reincarnated for the sculptor.

All this was explained to Swinford, who agreed to stay for supper, be measured, photographed, posed and reposed. Being a model for a statue of a mountain man fit right in with Swinford’s leisure interests. He’s explored, hunted treasure, fired a Hawken rifle, trapped on snowshoes.

Based on Swinford, the clay model of Liver-Eatin’ Johnson practially leapt to life iin Scriver’s hands. It now stands in Scriver’s studio and will be cast in bronze and put in the art gallery of Museum of Montana Wildlife or in galleries in New York, Tucson or Dallas where Scriver’s work has been shown.

Sculpting the Liver-Eater is another step along the way of life Scriver decided was to be his. Ten years ago friend persuaded him to submit an entry in the Montana Historical Society contest for a statue of Charles M. Russell to be placed in the Hall of Fame. Scriver’s entry did not win, but the experience made him decide he was meant to be a sculptor.

He was born in Browning, son of Thaddeus E. and Ellison Scriver. Thaddeus founded Browning Mercantile Co. in 1909. Son Bob was fascinated by the oldtimer’s tales of Indians, rustlers, stagecoaches and wagon trains. He roamed the countryside after school hours, sketching animals, cowboys, Indians, and modeling with clay dug from river banks.

After high school he went to Dickinson State College in North Dakota, played in the college and city bands, and then studied at Vandercook School of Music in Chicago whee he was graduated with a bachelor of arts degree.

Bob returned to Browning High School as a teacher. Soon the band was winning superior ratings in state competitions. In his spare time, Bob hunted with Indian friends and built a kayak. In summer he lived in a tipi at St. Mary’s with his wife and small daughter while he built a more permanent summer cabin. Later he taught in Malta.

Then came World War II. Bob served as a sergeant and was first chair cornet in the U.S. Army Air Force Band, Alaskan Division. When the war was over, he had a bursted blood vessel in his head, which made him unable to bear the pressure necessary to produce high notes, his little family had broken up, he had lost the thread of his former career.

For several years he was an ice-cutter, a professional musician, a mink rancher, a photographer and a common laborer. Then he went back to teaching music, but the life no longer satisfied him. His hobby of taxidermy began to grow into a business. As a sideline he modeled a set of small animals and sold them to tourists.

So -- in 1956, encouraged by his friends who’d seen his Russell entry, Scriver made the start in a career of sculpting. With two empty lots, $500 and an old red truck, he build Scriver Taxidermy and Art Studio.

Buying two old warehouses with the $500, he demolished them, board by board with a nail puller and hauled the lumber to his lots. He constructed a building of his own design, put in the wiring and plumbing.

In 1959 business growth justified addition of the Museum of Montana Wildlife -- a main hall of full mounts of each major mammal in the state, a diorama room, featuring miniature game animals in realistic settiings, and an art gallery containing a complete collection of his sculpture.

The taxidermy business paid for the sculpture, but sculpture has begun to attract attention. With suport of Kennedy Galleries in New York and Rosequist Galleries in Tucson, Scriver will give sculpture his full time when present taxidermy obligations are fulfilled.

His sculpture ranges from cowboys and Indian and the Liver-Eater to character studies and portraits.

Leisure-time activities are quiet moments of sketching and painting in the outdoors, a slab of venison and homemade bread in his saddlebags, or playing with his pets. His grounds, home and workshop are full of animals -- horses, eagle, fox.

After years of hunting, Scriver believes all animals should be protected except those that are destructive or needed for food.

His aim is to keep what remains of the West from vanishing and to preserve the vanished West in bronze.

Reprinted at the request of Dorman Nelson, who is writing about Liver-Eatin’ Johnson.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Diabetes and the Cosmos

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the puzzle of how it is that each of us is who we are. Because my basic college education was in theatre, I’ve taken a humanities approach to a person: the inner thought, the cultural influences, and so on. This has been pretty much an advantage, since it gave me a sympathy and viewpoint that didn’t mean being patronizing or controlling. To the more scientific or mechanistic types, I was often unexpected. One of the basic assumptions of the humanities -- that humans are unendingly complex and surprising -- kept me from being too dogmatic or too worried about being self-disclosing, since by the time people read and understood what I said about who I was -- I was already gone on to something else.

And so it has been as I explore diabetes. This metabolic disorder is not part of me, it IS me. It is the power of my thought, the limits of my endurance, and maybe the length of my life. Therefore, it’s a pretty fascinating subject.

What’s more, it connects me to the whole Blackfeet tribe as they struggle with this phenomenon, but it separates me from all those who still eat in a way that produces diabetes, and it raises political issues about why corporations are allowed to treat diabetes as a marketing opportunity by preventing change in both food and medicine. Their idea is to invent medicines that will keep us eating things that are bad for us in the first place, instead of just returning to older habits.

Doing the things I need to do to stay healthy also puts me out of sync with many social patterns. My friends like to eat late, go to bed with full stomachs (I have acid reflux, which means I’ll soon wake up miserable), drink wine, and eat wonderful desserts. On the occasions when they are doing this, they talk about exactly the sort of fabulous humanist ideas that I love most. I hate sitting at the table with celery and club soda, yawning, just so I can share the talk. This is another way the Internet has enriched me -- the conversation at the computer table goes on in print all the time.

This, of course, connects me to genetics and the amazing ideas coming out of the study of humans in the paleolithic and after. We’re not just talking about the American obsession with monocropped corn, we’re talking about the original conflict between Cain, the animal guy, and Abel, the plantsman: Abel being the one that developed when the glaciers withdrew, evoking agricultural and cities. Jacob and Esau, a reiteration, as I see it. (Even today, the Jadaweed herdsmen swoop down on the villages who depend on small gardens.)

And that, in turn, engages me in reading about proteomics, the study of the proteins that genes make, turning them on and off, using what elements are at hand, creating a human from a little egg and sperm and then operating it like a spaceship: turning the burners on and off, shaping the hull and engines, allowing hitch-hikers whether benign, co-dependent, or hostile, guiding the “ship” through the world with greater or lesser success.

That’s all very fancy. Let’s look at the “concrete.” I am my own research project, sticking my finger and testing blood four times a day. (Most people do twice.) The tips of my fingers are looking like colanders, but finger sticks are not as bad as I thought, mostly due to the invention of a little spring-loaded instrument that only makes a hole the right size to get a bead of blood that fits on the little tab that goes into the machine. This is FAR better than the old diabetes test, which was a stick to hold in the urine stream like today’s pregnancy test. This modern method is pretty accurate and only takes a minute -- 45 seconds after the blood is put on the little tab.

The harder part is getting a handle on what the scores mean. Some say that 80 to 120 is “normal” but all the literature says that one’s doctor must define one’s own ideal range of scores. My own doctor just said to call her if I go over 300 for several readings in a row. I’ve barely gone over 200 a few times. Mostly I score somewhere around 130 with dips as far as 80. (Oddly, that’s my most usual blood pressure as well. What can THAT mean?) I can’t predict -- times I think I’ve eaten all the right things don’t correlate, but exercise always brings the score down. I figure a quick jaunt around the nearby park drops the score between ten to twenty points.

Other things are very subtle. The ghost of my menstrual cycle (I’m 66 years old) is there: at the time PMS would have been, my scores are high. Is this one of the contributors to PMS? Or is there something in the hormone predominant at that time that resists insulin? If I have strong emotion -- anger, fatigue, excitement -- it affects my scores. (The happier I am, the “normaller” they are. Or is it the blood sugar level that is tripping the emotion?) I have not craved sugar or chocolate. I HAVE craved fats. (I’m losing weight on purpose. Close to 20# so far.)

The literature is full of amazing things. One is that insulin is secreted in the brain as well as the pancreas. (Diabetes makes you dumb?) The brain is one of the big glucose-users, so I guess it makes sense. If you have more or less insulin in your brain, are you a better or worse thinker? Does your thinking ability go up and down according to brain insulin, independent of the pancreas and general digestion? It seems that low brain insulin is related to Alzheimer’s -- but which causes which?

Diabetes is actually not just a shortage of diabetes but also the inability of a cell to accept and use it. Some meds kick up the Isles of Langerhans so you make more insulin (some argue that this is not a good thing because you can “wear out” the Isles) and other meds (Metformin) encourage the cells to receive the insulin. I started out taking both kinds of med, which dropped my blood sugar down so low I was incoherent. Now I’m not taking any diabetes med, but I’m taking blood pressure medicine.

It seems clear that blood pressure is somehow related to diabetes, but no one knows quite how it works. I had been taking spirolactone as my blood pressure med, but it works by being a diuretic, wringing out water from the body so there is a smaller volume of blood circulating. But if I went on a high old chocolate binge (been known to do that) it would be very possible that I could increase the sugar content of this reduced-volume blood so far that it became thick as syrup and wouldn’t circulate properly anymore. What really brought this home to me was the Mayo.com website which said that if the above pertains, “get to a doctor as fast as possible. Get someone else to drive as you will soon not be able.”

I guess a lot of people know that there are two types of diabetes: I and II, but now -- rather like hepatitis -- there are beginning to be third types, though there is not agreement on what the third category means. One version is that Diabetes III is when you’ve had Type I, or “juvenile,” for long enough, the many doses of insulin (esp. if the person feels free to eat almost anything so long as it’s balanced with the proper amount of insulin) will cause that person to develop Type II diabetes, producing what they call “Type III.” But others refer to Type III as the type produced when a brain stops making insulin. (They don’t say how this differs in symptoms or how they can tell if the pancreas is still functioning.)

I was surprised that the ADA was so resistant to low-glycemic diets until I realized that it meant that the corporations who produced “ADA approved” foods that look like beloved but high glycemic foods would withdraw their support unless this view were maintained. Thanks to the Internet, I go right over their heads to Austrailian websites, which admire low glycemic theory. My handyman lost a lot of weight by making a list of everything he ate, looking up their calorie content, and crossing off the five highest foods. (He said potato chips were at the head of the list.) One can do something equally effective by making the same list and then looking up their glycemic values -- and crossing off the five highest foods!

Some frame the problem of Type II diabetes/weight loss and so on as a premature aging problem: the idea is that we either have clinkers in our systems (these are the anti-oxidant theorists) or that we simply aren’t getting the nutrients we need (the supplement theorists). Diabetes is linked with high cholesteral as well as high blood pressure as well as just being fat. When you get into this area, plenty of people have miracle meds to offer, all the way from familiar vitamins to substances that are Germanic in their multisyllabalism and impossible to sort out in terms of interactions and efficacy. Most are untested -- just theoretical.

And no one wants to think about environmental contamination, whether something in the air, the water, the food, the cleaning materials, or the teflon on our pans.

Another interesting suggestion is that getting the proper amount of sleep correlates with the incidence of diabetes -- it has to be enough but not too much, it’s highly individual, and no one knows whether sleeplessness makes you diabetic or sleep knits up the raveled sleeve of glucose metabolism.

I’m just thrilled that I can lose weight, read (again -- oh, blessed eyes!), walk and eat at least some things that I like. Or is it that I like them because I can eat them with no bad effects? So long as it’s not late at night and I’m not also drinking wine.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


This is rather a risky blog topic, but maybe a necessary one. An online eZine takes as its focus all the dark underclass phenomena, third world contexts, places where people are poor, addicted, enraged, and -- for most folks -- “other.” Reservations are candidates for this intepretation.

The eZine begins by interviewing some legitimate people, then throws in drunks and bartenders, and picks up enough entry points for the responding anonymous commentators to express scorn, contempt, solidarity, incredulity, or whatever -- all in bad language and from mostly cynical points of view. As one onlooker remarked, the comments all sound the same no matter what supposed location is under scrutiny.

There is a genre of modern Native American story that is close enough to this to become confused with it -- maybe two genres. One is like Ian Fraser’s “On the Rez” where some adventurous white guy buddies up with a needy drunk and tours the underside of the local scene in the belief that he’s getting the “real truth” about Indians and that this makes him privileged in some way, like some cavalryman in the old Fifties movies who cozies up to Iron Eyes Cody and is told he’s “heap brave.”

The other is more like “Pow-Wow Highway” in which David Seals (who may or may not be Indian) takes the reader through a series of picaresque adventures, violent and ludicrous at once with moments of tenderness and mysticism tucked in here and there. This is really meant more for the NA reader but can be for whites, like “Stay Away, Joe.” Many people come to believe this is “really” what Indians are like.

Oddly, many whites find this sort of story attractive. I used to know a rancher who took a week off once a year and went to stay on skidrow in a major city, observing the down-and-out wrecks there. He couldn’t explain it. Was he trying to motivate himself to succeed on the ranch? Was he tempted to give up the battle and join the street people? Was he trying to reassure himself that even these failures were human? I asked, but he couldn’t say.

Clearly movies like “City of God” (a ferociously violent movie about gangs in a South American slum) and books like the recent “A Million Little Pieces,” which fell apart when it turned out the author grossly exaggerated his own wickedness, have a hold on us strong enough to evade our BS detectors. They’re hailed as “true” or “brave” or “real” as though getting up and going to work and school every day was just an illusion, not real. As though it didn’t take guts to answer that alarm clock every day. Maybe a lot of people feel in the “daily grind” as though nothing is really happening. Because tales of addiction, pain and crime are outside of what most of us know, we have no way of judging them. And we grossly underestimate the pain to ourselves and others.

Nasdijj is one of the more recently unmasked writers of this type. His blog was SO outrageous that it was too incredible not to believe -- how could anyone make such stuff up? He was writing about trying to help young mixed race boys overcome AIDS, abuse, starvation, and maltreatment by the health system. I read “The Boy and his Dog Are Sleeping,” his book about helping a boy die. It won prizes. But also the same man (under his real name) won prizes as a gay porn writer -- the same gift for the vivid detail, the stunning scene, the pathetic combined with heroism, served him well in both contexts. He mixed reality with fantasy. Even trained therapists have a hard time sorting such stuff out (one’s own reactions being so strong as to fuzz up judgment) so how is an ordinary reader supposed to manage?

This eZine doesn’t go as far as Nasdijj, but it does stir up enough mud for anonymous people to vent a lot of misspelled and scurrilous nonsense. As soon as a sort of critical mass is achieved, the bottom feeders begin to snap and snarl at each other, creating a verbal barroom brawl. The Zine, all this while, can claim innocence.

I suppose one might worry that outsiders would think this is really what Indians and reservations are like. I think only foolish outsiders would be deceived. In fact, the most damage is done on the reservation, esp. among youngsters trying to get a sense of who they are and what their role in the world might be. They are most susceptible to this poison. They might begin to think that meth addiction or alcoholism is normal, that all adults are violent, and that these problems are inescapable when, in fact, that misery CAN be resisted, escaped, thrown aside.

I’m not unaware. Take the little know-it-all description of the reservation bar scene. There are far fewer of them than there ever have been in the past. The worst in the modern past (Napi, Minyards) have been gone a long time. The worst in the historic past was in Robaire, next to the Catholic mission which had also been pushed off the rez by the Methodist agent. The last trace of Robaire was washed away in the 1964 flood. One summer I lived in a house that had been empty so long that drunks had gotten in the habit of drinking in the yard. Rather than run them off, I listened to them. They were pitiful.

I’m not saying there aren’t wicked forces on the rez. But I AM saying that just like anyplace else, the forces for good are also there and growing stronger. In the meantime, I’m glad there are so many people who sound as though they’ve spent too much time with a beer in their hand, yelling at the TV set, who have now set down the beer and taken to the keyboard. I just wish they would be a little more reflective and analytical. Maybe they have something good to say under all the cussin’ and frothin’.

Friday, March 03, 2006


Though I’ve never run a business, except as second-banana for Bob Scriver, even that small role plus shoptalk about the Browning Mercantile got me interested in the how-to’s. How does one figure out what business will be successful? Where does financing come from? How does one learn how to plug into the distribution chains and so on.

The Blackfeet have owned a grocery store in the past. It was a co-op, which failed because of charges never paid and a psychology of “it’s ours -- we can do what we want.” That, plus a far worse economy than now, doomed the enterprise. The business was bought by Buttreys; then they closed out as well. For decades now, especially since the Browning Mercantile closed down in the late 1980’s, the only grocery store has been Teeple’s IGA. As a monopoly, it is a money-maker for the owner and a payroll for the community. Employees are local. Many of the shoppers don’t have wheels. In fact, when I arrived in 1961 to teach, I was totally broke for the first month (never did have either a car or a telephone) and had to beg for credit from Dolly Teeple. She was a little reluctant but saved me from starvation. It is her son-in-law who has built a chain of successful IGA stores around Montana.

But people grumble about having only one choice and there is a impulse for the tribe to start another grocery store. This time it will be very different. The key is demographic algorhythms. When news of interest reached a Utah-based company, they sat down at the computer and began reviewing public data, applying algorhythms that predict success. The first thing that struck them was that the population on the reservation is growing by leaps and bounds. Just OFF the reservation the population is aging and shrinking for many reasons: drought, CRP, out-of-state college, and so on. What this told them was that basics like food and soap are going to be needed whether or not the economy allows for extras. These are not luxury items but necessities. In fact, by using computer data, the company was able to tell exactly what the people were buying, at what prices and in what amounts.

The second thing that interested them was whether the Tribe, through Siyeh, would accept a package deal in which the company supplied all the know-how in return for being the sole wholesaler. The company would build the store, but would dictate everything right down to where the electrical plugs were. They would teach the staff how to run this business, according to the practices this company has determined will lead to success. NO credit, NO warehouses full of food, strict accounting, and so on.

In the past the tribe’s pride has been hurt by such offers. “We can do it our ownselves” was the cry through the Sixties, “And we’ll do it our own way.” Or even, "What? You think we're too dumb to sell stuff??" At one point the Blackfeet refused the offer of free buffalo because they came with some strings, like not eating any of them for a given period of time. (Since then, agreement has been reached and the buffs are on the rez.) Now the time of counterdependence has passed, and people are more willing to say, “Okay. Teach us.”

What’s in it for the company? This is like the people who will give you a printer for your computer because they make no money off the machine -- they make all their money selling paper and toner. Judging from the prices of toner, the stuff must have a 200% markup and the cassettes are small enough to avoid high shipping costs. I don't know about you, but I buy them by the boxful. So the company gets the business running smoothly and then they keep the groceries coming, making their own deals with the primary sources. The more stores they supply, the better deals they can make with those sources and the better their profits look. With modern Internet connections, supervision is far closer and more detailed than it was when someone had to drive out in a blizzard to see what was happening.

What‘s in it for the tribe? The most obvious is creating competition which even George Bush would approve. The next most obvious is training people in an accepted mainstream kind of setting that is all over America -- a good grocery store clerk, bookkeeper, or manager can find a job. And surely it can’t be that different from running other businesses.

I tried brainstorming for glitches. Might the Utah-based company stock foods and supplies that the people don’t like? Might they refuse to stock local products? Might they be bad bosses? There are probably answers to all this. This is not inventing the wheel. Probably the biggest obstacle will be opposition from the local stores, including the Cut Bank stores who sell to many rez dwellers. There are lots of legal strategies for them to pursue, but the Blackfeet are a lot more hip about such paper skirmishes now.

It will be fascinating to watch how this goes, and to look for other consequences of demographic algorhythms.

The Sixtieth Wedding Anniversary of Robert and Rita Bremner

From the Great Falls Tribune:

Robert and Rita Bremner

A celebration with family and friends marked the 60th wedding anniversary of Robert and Rita Bremner of Browning.

Rita Louise Buckman and Robert Charles Bremner were married on February 25, 1946, in Cut Bank.

Robert Bremner worked for the Montana Department of Transportation for 37 1/2 years. Rita Bremner worked for School District 9 for 18 years and raised 12 chlidren, as well as one adopted daughter. Their daughter Verna Bremner Ernst, was killed by a drunk driver in a car accident and they raised her son, Josh.

Robert Bremner is a deacon in the Catholic Church, serving in that role for 23 years at the Little Flower Parish and areas around Browning. Rita served with him, working 23 years in such areas as the St. Vincent de Paul store and emergency services.

Now legally blind, Robert is less involved in his work as a deacon and she retired from St. Vincent de Paul.

He served on the Browning Public School board of trustees for seven years.

The Bremners enjoy time spent with their family. They live with their daughter, Mary Jo Bremner, a teacher at Browning High School.

They are proud that all of their 12 children graduated from high school at Browning and all attended some kind of post-secondary schooling. They have a wall in their home that honors all the high school graduates, children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Their children are Zita R. Bremner of Browning, Lockley C. and Tracy Bremner of St. Ignatius, Dawn C. Bremner of Browning, Mabel and Harold Davis of Seattle, Mary Jo Bremner of Browning, Joan and Robby Wellman of Valier, Robert L. and Katie Bremner of Browning, William M. and Jackie Bremner of Browning, Barbara L. and Martin Connelly of Browning, Stacy Renee Bremner of Browning, June and Vance Matt of Browning, and Peggy and Ken Carmack of Portland, OR. There are 23 grandchldren, 19 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.


When the Sunday paper comes, I check the weddings with a sense of alarm and worry, even though I hardly ever know who the couples are. I fear for their futures in a world where half of marriages fail. Their jobs don’t seem quite adequate and I worry about the brides when they begin to have babies, if they haven’t already given birth several times.

So I turn to the anniversaries for comfort, for these are the veterans -- the ones who made it through all the challenges. Often their “now” photos are far more appealing than their “then” photos, because their “now” faces are full of memories and laugh lines. Consider SIXTY years of marriage!

Robert Bremner is what I consider a prototype true Blackfeet man: a family man, a religious man, a faithful man with a stalwart wife, and a man who serves his community without enriching himself or claiming advantages for his kids. He was BIG when he was on the school board that hired me in 1961. So was Merle Magee, on the same board. I had to tip my head back to talk to them if I were standing closeby. So far as I know, neither was ever on the Tribal Council but both were hard-working, respected and achieving. One of their main achievements was their kids, always among the better students. I think about a third of them passed through my English classes.

I look at the “then” photo: Robert, a soldier still in uniform. Rita, so young with her permed bangs. (She still wears a curly perm, but with glasses now.) They look entirely different in the two photos, and yet they look the same. One of the keys to their success has been a kind of stability and consistency that people don’t usually attribute to Indians. The movies don’t generally feature this kind of person -- not exciting enough. Yet this is the kind of person who steadied a family-based band as they met the challenges of weather, enemies, surprises on the plains. They weren’t invented yesterday. When the first European adventurers got here, they said this is what the people were like: calm, steady, hard-working, religious, and joke-loving. And BIG. Far more than the shrieking teenagers in bad wigs who rode pintos in decades of movies.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

More RATTLESNAKE Anyone? With seafood sauce?

One of the very nice things about the Blackfeet Reservation is that there are no rattlesnakes. However, there are lots of them to the east and south, so in case you happen to acquire one, here are some suggestions of what to do with them. I mean, obviously you’ll want to eat them, but do you have any recipes handy?

(Remove head before cooking to remove venom.)
Place snake in container large enough to hold the snake. Boil gently with water mixed with a generous amount of lemon juice and mixed spices. (Place spices in cheesecloth or in a tea ball.)

Simmer approximately 90 minutes. Remove meat and let it cool. Remove from the bones. Can use in any recipe using cooked meat or dip meat in a seafood sauce.

3 lbs. dry kidney or pinto beans, cooked, OR 64 oz. canned beans
30 oz. stewed tomatoes, undrained
4 oz canned diced jalapenos, more or less to taste
1 large red onion, cut in large chunks
1 dash salt
1 garlic clove, smashed
1/2 lb rattlesnake meat in bite-sized pieces, browned
Broken tortilla chips (optional)

Put cooked beans into large pot, add tomatoes, jalapenos, onion, salt, garlic, and rattlesnake meat. Simmer 10 minutes to heat thoroughly. For chili pie, put some broken tortilla chips in bottom of bowl and spoon beans over chips.

1 medium rattlesnake, cut up
2 bay leaves
2 cloves garlic
1 Tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
2 Tablespoons sherry
1/2 stalk celery, finely diced
4 boiled eggs, diced
1/2 onion, finely diced
1/2 cup sweet pickles, chopped
1 cup mayonnaise
Combine first five ingredients and boil until tender. Chop meat finely and mix well with remaining ingredients. Serve on sandwiches or over quartered tomatoes and lettuce.