Wednesday, January 31, 2007


My life has been centered and guided by something so corny that I hate to tell you about it, in a way. But I love to talk about it, too. I fell in love. Go ahead and groan. In my twenties in Montana I felt I was in the grip of a Grand Passion. It couldn’t continue, but I thought religious leadership might be like that.

Since I’m using the word “passion,” I looked it up in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. There are inter-related kinds of meaning: religious martyrdom (like Mel Gibson’s movie), disease or affliction, and sexual desire. What a trinity! Until Gibson reminded us, we didn’t think much about religious passion. The sense of passion as a disease seems to be dying out. But passion as sex almost overwhems us every time we key into the media. Always presented as a “good.”

Next I looked up the word in the New International Webster’s Student Dictionary of the English Language, a little paperback I keep by the computer. It defines passion thus:
1. Fervent devotion.
2. Ardent sexual feelings and desire. Love.
3. The object of such feelings.
4. A fit of intense anger, rage.
5. Any transport of excited feeling.
6. Archaic: Suffering, agony.
Pretty confusing. Looks like “passion” has become one of those slushy words used for too many things, which leads to muddled thinking even for people at seminary trying to confront such realities as sex and faith.

Seminary is for four years. Some seminarians had “affairs” while there -- lonesome, needy, pretty easy. But one expects to change. One is gone a whole summer for CPE in a hospital. One is gone for a whole year for internship in a totally different place. Then one leaves for the first church pulpit and doesn’t see anyone from seminary again until maybe the annual General Assembly. How practical is a relationship under such circumstances? It would have to be broken off in a few years at most. My rule has been not to embark on an intimacy unless the intention was to make it permanent. This rule wasn’t moral, it was self-protective. I can’t stand the pain. Sex without intimacy is unthinkable for me, but my cohort of younger people didn’t agree at all. They’re on the other side of the Sexual Revolution.

At CPE the supervisor said we were all too uptight about sex and a number of different CPE groups were gathered to watch Glide Methodist Foundation sex films. (That particular church was “farther out” than any Unitarian church of the time and place. The only church farther out was Jim Jones’.) They are simply movies of people fucking -- each with its own little theme -- some married, some not, one impossible tropical encounter which consisted of many acts of intercourse edited together so they seemed like one long event, and one showing a couple past retirement age -- augmented with a vibrator. (That was before Viagra.) There was no story or even dialogue. The supervisors were particularly interested in the reactions of one group which was mostly nuns. This was supposed to prepare us for marriage counselling. That’s not the hit I got off it.

In Portland, in the Seventies, I was thirty, newly divorced. I set out to do some exploring and joined a “peoples’ consciousness-raising group” where we boldly discussed everything. The group leaders were a conscientious, happily married, educated, young Jewish couple. Desperate for a job, the husband was selling tickets at a porn movie house. Feeling confident with him in the lobby, we saw “Behind the Green Door,” “Deep Throat,” and other porn classics. There was an erotic film festival at Portland State University where there were lesbian films but no S/M. In fact, the discussion was all against violence. (“Make peace, not war.”) One of the Glide Methodist films was shown. (The one with the young married couple who went around on motorcycles, then made love next to a swimming pool and dozed until the man threw the woman in the water without her expecting it. Feminists were VERY vehement about mixing this violence with love. The CPE supervisors had never brought up this political subject.) In all the years since, I’ve never found any of the stuff in those movies useful in marriage counseling.

At seminary a brochure came in the mail advertising a Masters and Johnson workshop. For a joke, the office mail sorter put it in my box, thinking that I was the least likely of anyone to be having sex. But I attended. It WAS useful. Even though the very tall lady next to me wearing all powder blue, including her elegant hat, acquired a dark-blue case of five o’clock shadow, she had excellent ideas.

I had read Kinsey, all the Masters and Johnson books, Freud, and Kraff-Ebing -- my father owned them and I read them too young. I would not have been too young if someone had talked to me intelligently about the material, but I wasn’t known to be reading it. Anyway, I don’t think he ever really assimilated all that stuff either.

No one at seminary talked about passion, intense emotion, overwhelming love. Not in regard to people, not in regard to issues, or even spirituality. When I first started seminary, we went to a Get Acquainted party at a faculty member’s house, and afterwards my classmates jumped all over me because I was too enthusiastic. They said I embarrassed them with my lack of cool. Didn’t I know that tipped off the faculty that I was WEAK? Excessive strong feeling seemed to cause a great deal of ambivalence in what one man exasperated with Unitarians called “God’s frozen people.” (Not his joke. It’s historical and related to the roots of the denomination in Boston.) It was hinted that I was “over-earnest.” I must find “balance.” I shouldn’t “care so much.” We were to be liberal, tolerant, and not interfere in other cultures. Sort of like “Star Trek.”

So here I am, retired, in this little village of 350 souls (Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic and Jehovah’s Witness). It’s going to be deeply subzero tonight. I haven’t talked to anyone all day since I mailed some books this morning. I don’t have TV so I listen to public radio all day. I probably won’t have enough money to pay the heating bill this month. Yet I’ve never felt so confident, so in touch with a huge network of people, so appreciative of the mountains on the horizon, so eager to write.

It’s a Great Passion, the certainty that I’m part of everything -- the lecture that just ended, the symphony that’s just beginning, the cats making their pre-bedtime rumpus, the blizzard now sweeping down over the prairie. I was always here. When I die, I will still be here. My immortality comes through participation in everything and everything may transform but it will never end. The orgy around me is Schweitzer’s “life in the midst of life, life that wishes to live.”

Fervent devotion. Yes.
Ardent sexual feelings and desire. Love. Well -- does sublimation and memory count?
The object of such feelings. I’m not concerned with objects.
A fit of intense anger, rage. Does political stuff count? It’s not my passion and it’s not sexy, but it becomes increasingly outrageous.
Any transport of excited feeling. It’s opera day, the sun is streaming over the snow, it may be that my pickup radiator survived fifty-below after all.
Archaic: suffering, agony. I won’t take this seriously for myself, but I’m acutely aware of it in this and other communities.

Maybe I should go back to seminary, now that I’ve thought all this over in the twenty-near-thirty years since. They say education is wasted on the young. These days forty seems quite young. I won’t go back -- I’ll just order books. My Grand Passion is here now. Once a parishioner’s therapist told her to ask to be part of my secret life. A little shocked (WHAT secret life?) I told her okay. But she should bring her own book. We might not be on the same page.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Serving the ER was much more exciting than going down the hallway greeting victims of chronic problems. ER is the stuff of drama, right? Be sure to wear the shirt with the reversed collar.

What if the chaplain gets traumatized? Right in front of everyone?

The town where the hospital was had a thing for lawns. People lived and died for their lawns. There was a lawn-of-the-month competition and the winner got to have a sign in the yard. It folded to stand up so that it wouldn’t be necessary to drive a stake into the grass. ER called me because of a mother who had just run over her four year old son with a riding mower. The blades mostly just chopped his foot. I walked into a room where the screaming child was being held down by his mother and the nurse while they waited for the doctor. The foot was pulped.

“Omigod,” I blurted. “Will he lose the foot?” The nurse shot eye-daggers at me. The mother said through her teeth, “We don’t know.” The child, understanding exactly what I said, fixed his eyes on mine and his screaming went an octave higher. The doctor came, a shot was given to the boy to slip him into unknowing and the nurse ORDERED me to take the mother out and get her coffee.

I did and collected myself enough to sit and talk more coherently. She began to shake and weep, now that she wasn’t on duty, and told me how she hadn’t even known her son was outside the house. She’d been backing up a few feet to make a sharp turn. The boy was determined to ride with her and ran up behind her. He’d been told a thousand times not to come near. I apologized for my tactless question. Gracefully, she said, “You only said what we were all thinking. Maybe it’s better for it to be out in the open.”

So one thing that happens when the chaplain freaks out, is that others take up the ministry.

Once I was flummoxed when I went to a farm family who had just lost the grandma. Four generations sat somberly in the “family room,” but the grandpa was laughing merrily. The others stared at the floor while I told the old man that I was sorry for his loss. “She was a good ol’ gal!” he told me, grinning. Some of the women were weeping.

I figured there was some kind of strange crossed-wires in the old man’s head. We visited about the “good ol’ gal” a little more, we prayed, and I left. I read about it. Not uncommon. Not necessarily something diagnosable like Alzheimer’s, just a startling reaction. Not really traumatic and not even a symptom of shock in this old man, though maybe he was taking shelter in unreality for a little while.

We had been told that black people, especially those from the rural south, might be very physical in their grief reaction. We should be ready for them to throw themselves against the walls or floor or furniture and to make sure they didn’t hurt themselves. A mother had just learned that her teenaged daughter, who had a heart defect she knew might kill the girl at any time, had actually died. She collapsed to the floor.

I’d seen “nurses” in white uniforms ministering to the overcome at intense evangelical rallies, especially in hot weather, so I’d brought along a damp washcloth. I knelt behind the woman with my arms around her and tried to soothe her face with the cloth. It did seem to help. For a moment I could feel in her the impulse to fling herself around so I hugged her from behind, holding her against me. Then she seemed to come to herself. “Let me up,” she said, and I did. Family members were there. In a while I left and I think she was glad to see me go. It was as though I’d prevented her from grieving properly.

Another incident was so shocking that decades later I’m still not over it. An older grandmotherly woman had come in for repair to varicose veins. Behind the nursing station was an examination room and she had been taken in there for a pelvic exam. At the time I couldn’t understand why she needed a pelvic for varicose veins and no one could tell me anything except, “It’s standard procedure.” Lately I’ve been reading articles saying that in teaching hospitals, in order to give student doctors experience, women who are unconscious for other reasons are often given pelvics without the knowledge or permission of the patient or family. Who could it hurt? Isn’t a pelvic a benign preventative strategy? After all, there was no charge for it in such cases.

The problem was that when they put the woman’s feet up in the stirrups, they dislodged a clot that killed her instantly. When I got there, this obese, late-middle-aged, white-haired woman was being given Code Blue resuscitation with all the vigor it was possible to muster. It was desperate. Her gown had been torn off and thrown to the floor, her arms were extended, her legs still in the stirrups with her private parts towards the door which stood open because there were too many people and too much equipment in the small room to shut it. There were tubes and syringes and racks of drips and the shock machine. Everyone was shouting, people ran past with samples of blood, and everyone’s face was frozen in shock. It looked more like a murder than a rescue.

I stood there with a weak smile on my face, no idea what to do, unable to understand what was going on. A ward nurse came up to me, angry. “Go to the elevator and intercept the family. DO NOT let them come here until we tell you it’s all right.” I did that successfully, though they had many questions and their impulse was to go to their mother. A short time ago they had dropped “Mother” off for what they thought was minor surgery and now they had been told that she was in extreme danger -- NOT that she was dead. A man I took to be her son was a tall, very handsome, “silver fox” rancher in cowboy hat and boots. The grown children were very quiet, almost paralyzed.

Finally word came that Mother had passed on. The family could visit. She was dressed in her own nightie, her teeth were back in her mouth, and she was peacefully arranged in a clean bed. She seemed just an old lady who had died of natural causes. The Silver Fox turned out to be her husband. He threw himself onto the woman and deeply kissed her over and over, almost like artificial resuscitation. Then, bouncing off the walls and wailing, he called, “Mommie, Mommie, Mommie” like a little child. His children stood away from him. I stood away from him.

A small black nurse, one of the most effective on that ward, came storming in the door and grabbed him in a fierce embrace. “It’s all right. She’s in Heaven with God! She’s at peace!” She rocked this poor man while over his shoulder she glared at stupid me who couldn’t think of what to say. I was still wondering if the hospital was going to lose a bundle in the lawsuit. Would I have to testify? Like that old man who giggled over the loss of his wife, I had taken flight from the real present.

But I still wonder about that man and his wife. What was the story of their relationship? Could I develop it into a novel? This is my way of dealing with my own shortcomings -- write them out, create a new set of events, invent a character who can forgive me, since it’s so hard to forgive myself. Maybe ministering to oneself is hardest of all, which is why one needs colleagues and mentors. But often they are too far away. Or it's too hard to admit one's own shortcomings.

Monday, January 29, 2007


In the beginning my idea was that this blog would be focused on this geographical area but I find I'm tempted to stray, and right now I'm going to stray more than a little bit. I've just had some essays about my experience with Clinical Pastoral Education published in The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling. I consider it a major honor and am made bold. So I'm going to publish the essays I've written on this blog and then assemble them for a blook on Eventually, I hope they'll find their way to other people going through the experience, which is meant to be a major initiation into the life of ministry and certainly is at LEAST that. But on the other hand, the hospital was at least in the Mid-West.

If you're close enough to a major library or hospital library that might carry this journal, it is pretty gripping to reat -- at least if you can handle some theology. Like animal control officers and fire or medical emergency responders, the stories really pile up and they are always surprising.

Anyway, I've got a lot things to post on my other blogs (especially which means that I'm a little short of time.


Chaplaincy, especially formal Clinical Pastoral Education, is a creature of institutions. I have no institution now. But I have a history with institutions and will reflect a bit on that. My formal beginner’s Clinical Pastoral Education was done in a large midwestern regional hospital. At that point I was in the midst of a four-year course of study at Meadville/Lombard Theological School wrapped around a Master of Arts in Religious Studies at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. All of this means written contractual standards, agreements, emoluments and so on, including theologies. A structure of daunting complexity and subtlety.

I was forty years old. I had survived a tumultuous marriage to a sculptor (white but entwined religiously with tribal people), a decade of teaching on the Blackfeet Reservation, and five years as an animal control officer. I’d faced massacre, abandonment, intimacy, sex, drugs, death and rock ‘n roll in a rough-and-ready way with little training. (One of my major contributions at animal control was developing the first primitive beginnings of training for AC officers who worked alongside the Portland Police.) I’d been suicidal, murderous, despairing and exalted -- not always on Christian terms, mostly an iconoclast.

My denominational identification was with the Unitarian Universalist Association. I suppose it still is, though I was dropped from fellowship at my request in 1988 and belong to no congregation now. UU theology is mostly defined by some general principles and an amorphous response to the specific situation.

One of my major issues was authority -- who has authority? On what is authority based? Is hierarchy effective? What if it’s corrupt? Is authority a matter of being effective? What is the authority of “The Book,” and dogma? The jewels in the crown of CPE are the stories of the people. I have no need to disguise their names, because I can’t remember the names, but I can’t remove some characteristics because that would destroy the point. They are my touchstones when I think about these issues.

In the first story, I was called to help an Hispanic woman whose baby had died inside her. Labor-inducing drugs (very unpleasant) had been given to her and in part my job was holding a bowl while she vomited into it. She had been brought in by Mercy Flight and had no relative with her. I have never been pregnant but I’m comfortable with Indians/Indios and so she was in the position of teaching me all about what was happening.

This was maybe her twelfth pregnancy, though she was about thirty. She had lost some of them. She drank quite a bit. She felt that this baby had died, not because of the drinking, but because God was angry that all her children had different fathers -- the men had come and gone without marriage. She confided that her last baby had lived but had been a monster: what she described was severe fetal alcohol syndrome, but she didn’t seem to know that’s what it was. She said she was glad the baby was a boy because his face was badly mismatched -- the two sides had not grown together properly. Because he was so “ugly” she had been afraid of becoming pregnant again and asked her priest about birth control. No. She could hardly feed the babies she had, but no.

She was pregnant again too soon and her doctor said she should have an abortion, but again the priest said no. She was very worried about what this dead baby would look like. It turned out to be a perfectly formed (on the outside) girl. The nurses, who didn’t have much use for the mother, were full of pity for the baby. The mother was given a card with a photo of the baby and a footprint. One nurse suggested baptising the baby.

This was a time period when the Catholic Church was trying to authenticate and renew their Sacraments, especially since the media had managed to convince so many people of the efficacy of baptism, practically raising people from the dead. Baptism is a sacrament for living people to indicate their determination or the support of their religious community in living a Christian life. It is meant to wash away sins and signal a new beginning. A dead baby cannot be baptised because there is no beginning at all, no need for forgiveness or washing away of sin since even dead pre-natal babies were immersed in the sacred water of amniotic fluid (okay?) until delivery. I had a Catholic girlfriend in childhood (she’s still a friend) and we spent many a summer afternoon on the front steps debating these issues and passing judgment on such arrangements as “limbo.” At that point in seminary I had no formal training about Catholic theology.

The mother became fixated on getting this baby baptised. I called her priest: no. By now the mother’s family (at least the females) had arrived and were taking care of her. I was worried about coming between this woman and her priest because I knew she was getting much needed money from him. Anyway, we were being taught to abide by the patient’s theology rather than our own. I’d have been happy to bless, to dedicate, or whatever, but the mother specified baptism.

By this time the head nurse, a good Catholic, had become emotionally involved and ripped into me. I was forcing that poor baby to stand outside on the cold marble steps of the Pearly Gates rather than opening them up with baptism! To her, this metaphor was quite real. Catholic dogma allows believing Catholics to perform as priests in the absence of any consecrated person, so in the end the nurse solved the problem by simply baptising the baby herself. The patient and her family, who had brought along an elaborate christening dress for the dead baby, were very pleased.

Just before the patient left for home, I visited to say goodbye. She beckoned me in close so she could whisper and show me an envelope in her pillowcase stuffed with money. “Baptism gifts!” she explained. “Enough money to get my tubes tied. The priest -- he don’t need to know.”

This nicely literary story must be put with another. An old Italian man died. He’d been hovering for weeks and had received the Mass for the Ill several times. Again, the Catholics were trying to guide people to this ceremony and away from Extreme Unction, which the media had made into such a melodramatic plot element that everyone felt the need for it. But the ancient wife of this old man wasn’t going to get into any dogmatic debates. She wanted her priest there and she wanted her husband to have Extreme Unction and that was all there was to it.

I went to the phone and called the local priest. It was late at night and the phone rang a long time. The priest sounded very old and clearly had been awakened. I was aware that there was a shortage of priests, that the ones serving were very old, and I felt sorry. But my duty was to the old woman. I told him that Mr. So and So had passed away and that his wife was begging for Extreme Unction. “Well, if he’s already dead, I’ll come over in the morning and bless the corpse.”

I thought quickly. “Oh, Father!” I said, “Here comes the nurse. It’s a miracle. The old man has roused and he’s calling for you!”

A silence, then reluctantly. “All right. I’m coming.”

I went to stand by the elevator to intercept the priest, who luckily dressed like a priest, so I could say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, Father! He’s slipped away again. I’ll walk you to the room.”

I got away with outwitting dogma that time, as had the Mexican woman with the dead baby, but how much of that can a chaplain do without being defined as out of control?

Priests, ministers, chaplains, and other religious leaders are supposed to be held to a higher ethical and moral standard than society at large and therefore they are allowed freedoms and exemptions beyond other people. Greater authority, not based on much beyond the capacity to make careful, conscientious, emotional decisions that might not be approved if known by society at large. These people are trained and vouched for by their own chosen institution, which in this case bowed to the wisdom of Clinical Pastoral Education. Our UU Director of ministry told me CPE was about the ONLY accurate reading they could get on the quality and stamina of ministers-to-be.

Most of the time chaplains in the hospital, I found, were expected to persuade people to conform, “be nice,” and obey medical personnel. To step outside those bounds, like a cop stepping outside the legal rules of arrest and restraint, is to risk the loss of everything, one’s justification for being, one’s employment.

Yet I found it a constant temptation to go outside the rules, to throw over the constraints. Once I was called to deal with a man who was “angry at God.” They said he was shouting and railing because his wife was to have surgery for cancer. They were keeping her away from him, but he was ranting and slamming things in a conference room. He said he hated God and God was evil. I was called because “you’re a Unitarian and you won’t mind the way he talks.”

So here was this big guy, crying, wailing and cursing. He said he was an evil man, a man who cheated on his wife, was mean to her and everyone else, and so on. God’s revenge was to force all this terrible suffering and probably death on his wife. And he pounded his head on the table. He wanted me to pray for God to have mercy on him.

So I went risky and contentious, too. It looked to me as though he were determined to stay the center of attention, very sorry for himself. Taking a brisk tone, I said, “This is what your God is like? He tortures the innocent? I’d just dump a God as stupid as that.” I figured if he wanted a human vengeful god, I could label Him, too. “I’d just refuse to have anything to do with Him. Get a REAL God!”

The man stopped short and stared at me. All the crying and storming evaporated. He started back up. I just looked at him.

Then he really stopped. “You aren’t a proper chaplain,” he said in a hard voice. “I want a real chaplain. Chaplains are supposed to be comforters.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m the only chaplain available at the moment.” He got up and stalked out, clear out of the building evidently. I never saw him again and I never heard about the woman.

Now, wasn’t I just doing what he was doing? Making a convenient little idol out of a great theological concept? Yes. I’d say so. Wicked? Well, I restored order in the ward.

The last story is about a doctor from that very hospital, a much-loved big Alpha doctor, an effective administrator, who was now dying -- probably only had a few days to go but was conscious. The two senior chaplains had known him, worked with him, loved and depended on him for decades. He was telling them that he had absolutely no faith, that he might just as well be buried in a shoebox in the backyard with no ceremony, like a cat. Nothing he had done meant anything. It was all a farce. The CHAPLAINS were weeping.

So they sent me in, on the principle that nothing would do any good anyway. I made my best pitch, he was unimpressed, but he sort of patted me on top of the head and said, “Nice try, little girl.” I came out whipped and frustrated. It has taken me until now to understand that I did provide something for him: another underling to dominate. Power: even flat on his back in bed, no one could tell him anything.

So what does it all mean? What I get out of it is that it’s better to do something. At least you’ll have something to learn from. I didn’t tell all of this stuff to my CPE group. I’m not telling YOU about my worst debacles -- mercifully I don’t remember much about them anymore except that I’ve never felt so powerless and abandoned in my life. I learned it was possible to live through it all, until it’s my turn to die.

Unitarians have an emblem: a flame in a chalice, which they enjoy interpreting in many ways. Since I have experience with bronze casting, I use the figure of molten metal in a crucible. The crucible must be equal to the task of containing the molten metal. A crucible of cold metal is of no use. A crucible that is overwhelmed by the molten metal is a killer. An institution contains -- well, the Spirit, I guess. If the institution is too rigid or shallow, it cannot hold the Spirit or might even quench it. If the institution is well matched to the fire within it, it is a protection and guide.

What is my institution? Or should the question be what’s my chalice? I have no desire to sign on as a hospital or prison chaplain. But don’t I need a context to be a chaplain in any community? Or can I just be an old retired woman in a small Montana village and still occasionally flare up?

Friday, January 26, 2007

HORSES THEY RODE by Sid Gustafson

1. Brakeman: The ride with the realbear
2. The Horse Medicine Man: Drinking with Bubbles
3. Outdoorsmen: Browning alley drinking
4. Red Man: Jesse James takes them to the ranch
5. Journeymen: Mabel and recovery
6. Studman: Rip, racehorses, and the son, Paddy
7. Grassman: Riding with Paddy
8. Other Men: Continental drift
9. Woman: Gretchen and cows
10. Wolfman: The wolf who drank with the cows
11. Lady’s Man: Making love
12. Ranch Man: Rip the boss
13. Lineman: Struck by lightning
14. Hiwayman: Driving to Spokane
15. Marathon Man: The race track
16. Legman: Doc the adulterer
17. Gentleman: Dealing with Willow
18. Newman: Wisdom from Bo
19. Milkman: Trish
20. Hiwayman: Homebound
21. Mystery Man: Nan comes aboard
22. Fireman: Back at the ranch
23. Middleman: Between wolf and dog, living in Palookaville
24. Gambling Man: Horserace
25. Mountain Man: Calling from summit
26. Weatherman: Rain and waiting
27. Horsemen: The race
28. Earthman: Burying Bubbles
29. Man: The Horse Medicine Bundle

Above is a list of the chapter titles of “Horses They Rode” by Sid Gustafson. It is immediately clear that this book is about what it is to be a MAN. It is also clear, even on the surface, that this is a Montana book. Sid grew up not far from where I’m living in Valier, the publisher is in Montana, the story happens mostly in Montana, and much of it is about Blackfeet, whom Sid can describe gracefully and honestly. So what is it REALLY about? I’d say it was about what it takes to be a mensch in a modern world that presses competition, toughness, ownership and emotional isolation as the measure of men. The final message is that real men are about nurturing: caring for those around them whether people, animals or grass. A natural conclusion for an author who is a veterinarian and a father.

One of the blurb reviews (by Neil McMahon) says that when he first began to read he was “taken aback, then disturbed.” After fifty pages he was drawn in and “humbled.” I had the same reaction, probably because the first chapter was written as a short story (much like Judy Blunt’s “Breaking Clean,” first chapter) and then the novel grew out of it. The first chapter is a picaresque, an exploit, a rather unlikely tale about a guy who jumps a freight out of Spokane in order to get back to the Blackfeet Rez and who is joined by a grizzly craving wheat residue in his boxcar. They don’t ship wheat in boxcars. Still, the grizzly, which in Blackfeet language is called a “real bear” in the same way that buffalo are “real meat,” acts like an actual bear.

The hero acts like 007 and climbs to the top of the train, then works his way back intending to get into the caboose, but this is after they stopped towing cabooses. There’s just a little digitized blinking box. The bear is “she” and Wendell’s reaction is to pray to the Virgin Mary. This discussion of “real men” is going to include relationships to the fe-male. And his daughter, rather than a lover or mother, is the key. But in the second chapter, Wendell is drinking at the Browning depot with an old Indian friend, so this is going to include red-men as well. But the Indian is not the key -- it’s the six-year-old daughter who brings the real delight and the son who brings the moral measure in that twelve-year-old straightforward way.

The plot is simple and the ending is pretty predictable, but Sid’s telling of the story, once he’s on the way, is extraordinary, laced with poetry and mythology, geology and anthropology. He’s as comfortable with image as with science. What he does NOT do is agonize over psychology. He’s hurting, he comes home, home is a place where everyone nurtures and heals each other, he finds his children, and he buries his good friend, a final kind of nurturing -- imperfect as things can be. Simple.

The language is extraordinary: lumpy, sometimes puzzling, grammar every which way, vernacular and poetry blurring into each other, medical terms when needed, fancy references (St. Wendell is the patron saint of wanderers and wolves.) It’s the sort of writing that makes some people sniff that it ought to have had a good editor -- and other people laugh that proper editing would ruin it! Sid is an original. (Montana NEEDS originals! Our supply is low.)

Nevertheless, since I’ve been in this country (off and on) almost as long as Sid’s been alive, and happen to know his family sort of from a distance, he came by all this stuff honestly, genetically and through nurturing. His sibs are equally extraordinary because the parents are larger-the-life, Vikings, massive and extravagant, and yet benign, inclusive. They don’t crush everything around them as some people in Montana certainly try to do.

But neither are the people in this book easily captured. The crushers want insurance, ownership, a sure thing. Sid’s book outlines an intimacy that is tolerant, allowing people to stay individual, keep their boundaries, make their own decisions. He’s willing to take chances. A real man meets his obligations but it appears that they center mostly on fatherhood, not good old dependable, chained-up husbandhood. There’s no husbandman on this list of chapters. Maybe he’ll explain in the next book. Sign me up in advance.

One of the key things that struck me is that though the main character is a veterinarian, there’s almost nothing here about drugs or surgery. (Sid’s practice emphasises natural medicine.) Healing is “hands-on,” rubbing, feeling, smoothing, connecting. When I was doing my hospital chaplaincy, a woman was dying. One of her symptoms was aching legs. Her husband stood by the bed hour-after-hour, patiently rubbing her legs which she said helped more than any medicine. It was about love. So is this book.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Those of you who enjoyed the wilder stories of animal control days will be pleased to know that there is a growing circle of emergency medical response teams who blog and that they enjoy the same kind of exposure to the ridiculous and the deadly as animal control officers. If you start with “,” you’ll find links to others and can lilypad your way through extraordinary tales told with pride, anguish and sometimes tongue in cheek.

I first came to this circle though because of a story “ambulance driver” told about responding to a desperate call regarding an elderly couple living out in the country who had been attacked in a deadly way. When the EMTs arrived, the old people were on the ground

I found myself kneeling on blood-soaked ground, tending an elderly woman who did not yet realize she was dead. Her husband already was, ripped from stem to stern like a victim from a slasher movie. I'll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that it appeared their assailant had wielded something like a cross between a machete and a potato masher. In dry medical prose, their injuries were Inconsistent With Life.

He goes on to describe the assailant: an irate male ostrich. When I went to interview Los Angeles Animal Control, their Special Officer, a former Marine who had intended to mark time until a police position came open but got too fascinated to leave, told me that the animal they all feared the most was an ostrich. When the theory was proposed that birds were the last of the dinosaurs, all it took was one look at the work of an ostrich to deduce that the theory was absolute fact.

This whole ostrich story is amazing, though the EMT’s missed the main action when the deputy sheriffs were surrounded and advanced upon by the ostrich, which they shot. This technique won’t work in populated areas. The LAAC guy told me they finally located someone who could use bolas, those Argentinian three balls on strings, and he gave them some lessons plus his phone number. That’s LA: you can find any talent in that town. In fact, in the early days the animal control officers -- at least in the winter --tended to be rodeo cowboys looking for work in a warm climate.

Here’s a second animal control story that isn’t about formal AC officers.

Officers Use Taser to Free Tangled Deer

CANBY, Ore. - Confronted with a deer whose antlers were tangled in a rope swing at a rural home, two officers saw no good choices. They weren't about to try to free the animal themselves. It weighed several hundred pounds and was thrashing wildly. A bullet in the skull seemed the alternative.

"They thought they were going to have to kill it out of compassion," Lt. Jim Strovink of the Clackamas County sheriff's office said Wednesday. "It was going to die a slow, agonizing death."

Then Deputy Jeff Miller thought of the stun gun, commonly called a Taser, after its maker, used to immobilize out-of-control prisoners or suspects.


The deer stopped moving. The officers, one a sheriff's deputy, the other a state trooper, untangled the rope, which was dangling from a tree limb, and freed the buck.

Not long after, the deer "took off happy as a clam," Strovink said. "That was pretty good thinking."

I’m on the list for National Animal Control Association inquiries about various techniques, equipment, and so on. The most common questions seem to be about tasers, pepper spray, and even guns. When I was an officer, we had to qualify on a rifle range, but we rarely used guns and never carried them except for some special reason. Didn’t carry spray and hadn’t heard of Tasers. In the city there was generally a police officer or deputy close enough to do any shooting necessary, but deadly force is no joke and even sprays and Tasers have the potential to turn into emergency EMT calls, maybe on behalf of the person wielding the spray or stun gun. Conditions need to be right -- the wind not blowing in one’s own face -- and one must be in total control. Anyway, there’s always the chance that when you use the Taser to stop a knothead, you might stop his or her heart forever.

Still, that worked pretty slick on the deer and it might work on an ostrich in case you’ve never had any bola lessons or don’t happen to be carrying bolas under your car seat.

The bottom line on these stories, to my mind, is that emergency responders need to be cooperators and quick thinkers, no matter what the problem is. One of Ambulance Driver’s latest posts is about an emergency in a strip club, where there was probably a lot more response than the emergency called for. I never did get a call to a strip club, but I did go pick up a dog at a massage parlor once. It was a little fluffy white poodle. The girl in the leopard print negligee told me they found it in the rain, all muddy and forlorn. The girl in the flame red babydolls said they gave it a nice bubble bath. And the girl in the black lace bra and panty set told me they blew it dry. There was a pause. Then we all laughed.

I’m not sure whether the dog was happy as a clam. I’ve always wondered how one knows when a clam is happy. When it’s escaped, I guess.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


This morning the Great Falls Tribune ran a story about the Baker Massacre, which seems to have a new name every time I see a story about it. It is the Blackfeet version of 911 -- a mistaken cavalry attack on an innocent (in fact, desperately ill) camp where old folks, women and children (the only ones there since the men had gone hunting) were slaughtered in the snow. It was meant as a reprisal for an attack by a renegade.

When I went to get gas for my monthly provisioning loop up to Shelby, over to Cut Bank, and back, Heart Butte kids were chattering at the service station and a teacher reminded me that they were going to the annual commemoration on the actual spot of the massacre-- not in a bus but in cars. They’ve been doing this for several years now -- maybe a decade.

Back home, unpacked, fed and napped, I sat down to listen to Brian Kahn’s Yellowstone Public Radio program, “Home Ground.” The subject was Indian education. There were two guests: Carol Juneau, the state representative for the Blackfeet reservation and a school bureaucrat for thirty years -- not a teacher. Her expertise is in organizing programs and getting funding for them. She has a good reputation on the reservation and she’s a “separatist” in the way that Quebec is separatist in terms of Canada. That is, the answer is ALWAYS “put us in charge of our own affairs and give us more money.”

Here’s the problem: “Last year, Indian students were more than three times more likely to drop out of school than white students, with an 8.4 percent dropout rate compared to the 2.7 percent rate among whites, according to data gathered by the state Office of Public Instruction.

Dropout rates for Indians peaked in the 10th grade, but were not limited to upper grades. Among junior high students, for example, American Indians constituted 72 percent of the dropouts and were 12 times more likely to drop out than white classmates, the figures show.

This is all Indians on all reservations. To put this in terms of my own experience, half the kids drop out as soon as they’re legally able (sixteen years old) and half of the remainder drop out before they finish high school. That’s the way it was in 1961 when I came, and that’s still the way it is.

Studies show that on average, American Indian children begin to fall behind peer groups in Montana between the ages of 22 months and five years, reflecting a lack of emphasis on reading and learning in the household, said Chris Lohse, the OPI director of policy research.

Chris Lohse, the OPI specialist and analyst, is a new voice. He does not address culture and all that, but goes directly to the poverty problem. (When clueless people used to say to Darrell Kipp, “Why are these people so poor?” he’d say, “They don’t have enough money.”) Chris sets out four criteria:

1. The place has concentrated poverty -- that is, the poor are crammed together.
2. The poverty is generational rather than situational -- it’s not a matter of temporary hard times but rather goes back and back.
3. The poor people are isolated in space, either across acres of prairie and timber or across many blocks of run-down housing. All they know about the rest of the world is from television.
4. The poverty is DEEP, defined as being less than fifty percent of the official federal poverty line and characteristic of at least a quarter of the population.

Says Chris, these four criteria are typical of inner city and also reservation schools. If one creates a category of schools that achieve at least 60% of the national levels of achievement, NO SCHOOL in any inner city or on any reservation will meet this measure. The fact that there are special federal grants for these schools doesn’t matter -- it is the individual households that count.

And this is circular: if the education achievement is low, the poverty is recreated, generation after generation. Expectations and morale sink lower and lower.

So here’s one of the more surprising things. Some reservations suddenly came upon money through casinoes. As soon as the average income level of households went up, the educational achievement also went right up. They are directly linked. No one has looked at this information in quite this way before. In short, education is an aspect of economics, pure and simple.

Brian Kahn has the idea that Indians are just like “immigrants” and ought to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Chris says flatly that it’s not the same thing. If you look at immigrant groups who meet the four criteria above, even some Asian groups (Hmong, Samoan) show the same lack of achievement.

There are a few other elements here for Indians, mostly political, and this is where I stand with the separatists. The Indians didn’t come here to seek a new life -- they were invaded. They were destroyed, their country was seized and now even the land is being destroyed. For many years white people siphoned off any profits and many assets -- it still continues. The US Government has ripped off lease money and other assets from the very beginning, probably far in excess of money spent on the tribe.

How can they help but be resentful? It was as though they were innocent Iraqi families who just happened to be in the wrong place when the fire-spouting attack helicopters came and devastated their neighborhood. (The irony is that some of those US soldiers, a high proportion, are Indian because the military is one way to escape poverty and rack up a little self-esteem.) Their only power is a refusal to cooperate, whether in the classroom or in the larger world. Even corruption is defiance, subversion.

The Baker massacre was reprisal for Yellow Owl killing Malcolm Clarke who was married to the sister of Mountain Chief, Yellow Owl’s father. Regardless of how you argue over “who started it,” the fact is that it was originally a family quarrel. That revenge murder became the justification for wholesale massacre of more than a hundred people. Malcolm’s son rode with the Cavalry. Now think about the invasion of Iraq, which some believe is retaliation for Saddam Hussein’s attempt to kill George Bush’s father. Think about the massive poverty now in Iraq: the vineyards, aqueducts, olive groves, electrical plants and (yes) oil fields destroyed since we invaded. We think it’s their problem, but it’s not. WE pick up the bill, one way or another.

Bush’s administration has done its best to roll all the money into the CEO pockets, those guys being caught red-handed all over the country, guys (very few gals) who make 400 times what their employees make and evaporate the pension fund. The middle class is disappearing. In short, Bush (whom I admit is only a pawn and a symbol) is trying to make Indians of us all. We’d better smarten up!

Education means prosperity. Prosperity means education. My Social Security automatic deposit comes in the morning. They gave me a raise -- but then confiscated more than half of it for that prescription medicine boondoggle. I don’t feel any smarter, but I’m studying on it.

Monday, January 22, 2007


This is going to be interesting. I’m going to kidnap a Letter to the Editor out of the Glacier Reporter, converting Adolf Hungry-Wolf to a guest blogger unawares. I’m judging that since he is attempting to be transparent, he won’t object to me expanding the light. But I’m not doing it for quite the same reason as he did, which you can deduce from the content of the letter. (One of the favorite games on the rez is “you do something and then I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.” Then, after you’re thoroughly insulted, the next line is “can you loan me a twenty?”) I’m just going to delete comments from dedicated AHW haters, so don’t waste your energy. You’ve said it all before and it doesn’t reflect well on you.

The real point of posting this is that many readers are interested in how to get published, what the issues and costs might be, and other practicalities. Adolf is a “just do it” guy.


Season’s greetings and heartfelt thanks to the many people of the Blackfeet community who have given me strength, encouragement and kind words regarding my new four-volume set of books called “The Blackfoot Papers.”

It was a pleasure to spend three full days at the Blackfeet Community College Christmas Bazaar, meeting friends, relatives and readers of all ages, from about age 6 to 87. After 44 years of work to assemble this project, the positive response from so many people has been my greatest reward.

Because these books are very expensive, I’ve also heard a few comments suggesting that I must be “getting very rich.” Since this is a serious concern -- and a legitimate question -- I’m writing this to explain the finances concerning these books.

First, let me point out, once again, that I spent 44 years working on these books without getting any sort of payment or financial support. No wages, grants, tribal or government funding.

I started this project when I graduated from high school in 1962, and decided to end it 40 years later in 2002, encouraged all that time by the elders who helped me.

By 2002 I had a large steamer trunk filled with photos, papers and other material, but nothing that actually resembled these finished books. To get these books where they are now, I put almost everything else in my life aside for the next four years. I spent those four years almost full time -- day and night, seven days a week -- turning that trunk full of material into these four books.

Although I need to make a living like everyone else, I still received no money whatsoever during those final four years. I can only shake my head in wonder when I hear someone suggest that I did this “to get rich.”

Now that the books are finally out, I am left -- first and foremost -- with a bill to the printer that comes to $284,299.52. That’s nearly one-third of a million dollars that I have to pay, just to get my 44 years of work printed and bound.

In addition, I need to pay back about $200,000 for the final four years of production costs. This includes the scanning of some 3,000 photos, all the text and designing work on computers, and the proofing. Out of that amount, I also want to pay myself at least a fair wage for the last four years of full-time work. May I point out that most of you would probably not have done that work unless you were being paid for it right along, never mind the previous 40 year of work for which I want no money.

Those who bought books directly from me at Blackfeet Community College in December received a discount on the regular prices. Actually, most of the books so far have been sold through the tribally-owned Blackfeet Heritage Center in Browning, which is the official distributor for sales in the United States. From these sales, I only receive 50% with which to repay my debts. It will require the sale of most of the books in my first printing before these debts are fully paid.

At the front of each book I have stated clearly that once the book has repaid its costs, profits from further sales will be used to support Blackfeet heritage and culture. Anyone in the Blackfoot Confederacy can apply can apply for such support, with further details coming at that time.

On a different note, I apologize if I have made any mistake regarding Blackfeet history or the history of your family. Because this was a one-man project, I accept whatever faults may have been made.

Contact me with your questions, corrections or additions for lataer reprintings.

The most important thing about The Blackfoot Papers is that all these rare photos, stories and history are now going to be readily available to the Blackfeet people for countless generations to come.

That I have had the honor of compiling such a work is a far greater reward than any amount of money.

Adolf Hungry Wolf, Skookumchuck, BC, Canada.

I’ll add some other things:

1. Adolf lives in a log cabin with no amenities like indoor plumbing or electricity. In short, he lives like a 19th century person, Indian or not. This means his overhead is low.

2. The standard academic pay for Canadian books is 5% of the NET profit of the press. Of course, one just hands in the manuscript and one is assumed to be making a living as a professor.

3. The reason the printer will extend such generous terms is that Adolf and his family have a history with the printer going back decades, during which many books about Blackfeet were produced. The printer only printed -- no editing, promotion, etc. But he always got paid.

4. Some institution somewhere ought to be giving serious thought to the final resting place of that steamer trunk full of photos and notes.

5. The book that Bob Scriver made to record his artifact collections (NA materials, RCMP uniforms and guns) was published by himself (he picked up the bill, hired Marshall Noice to take the photos, wrote the copy, paid for the layout and printing, and copyrighted the result -- whatever that means now that he’s dead and the Montana Historical Society -- they tell me -- cannot claim the copyright) has sold on Amazon for $800. The collection is now dispersed. It no longer exists except partially, though it was bought by the Royal Alberta Museum. The book, however, mysteriously reappears now and then.

I’ll have to send this to AHW via snail mail since he doesn’t have electricity for an Internet connection.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

CREATURES OF EMPIRE by Virginia DeJohn Anderson

The “creatures” in question are English domesticated livestock, brought to the American continent in order to replicate English lifestyles, but instead -- quite parallel to the people -- being changed by the new surroundings while alarming the indigenous American people. The animals brought new diseases in their bodies and the seeds of new plants in their dung, both with immediate impact on the indigenous lives. The colonists found it impossible to replicate English practices of herding and fencing so the animals constantly wandered off, and the Indians tried many strategies in attempts to accommodate, eliminate or finally accumulate these animals.

By now it’s almost conventional to contrast the New England colonies with their tight little communities over against the sprawling plantations of the Virginia and Chesapeake settlers who lined the riverbanks where their tobacco fields were laid out. It works well as a means of illumination and a reflection on how terrain controls customs.

The New Englanders built their houses close together, sometimes on a peninsula that could be barricaded, and pastured their animals in fields or communally on what they considered “waste” or, if there were enough space, on commons within the township. They hit upon the strategy of stranding their animals on islands where there were no predators and leaving them to cope on their own. To the minds of these uptight folks, Indians were not “using” their land and therefore should not be concerned by ownership issues. (A woman in Valier not long ago told me seriously that nineteenth century national grabs of prairie land were entirely justified by the fact that the Indians were just ignoring it. I guess she meant that they never branded their buffalo.) Ownership was a big concept for Puritans. They had the idea that if they could persuade Indians to keep cows, they would become “Christian” because they would have to keep the regular schedule that milking them demanded. Unfortunately, the Indians were lactose-intolerant and preferred to just eat the cow, which they considered a sort of deformed deer.

The Chesapeake colonists became obsessed with tobacco, so much so that livestock -- in a climate much more hospitable and among forage more suited to them -- were left to their own devices. Soon they had formed herds and “gangs” which began to devolve back to their feral forms: small, rangy, shaggy, and elusive. Tobacco and corn exhausted the soil, but instead of conserving the manure of livestock in order to restore it, the colonists imitated the Indians by using “long fallow” -- that is, simply cutting new fields out of the forest. Both the southern need for new fields and the New England need for more grazing, plus the continuing influx of people from Europe, meant that the Indians kept getting pushed back and back. Sometimes disease simply and suddenly -- if conveniently for the Europeans -- decreased the tribes by ninety per cent.

This book covers the period of animal law development that still carries over into our practices with domestic animals, though now we’re much more concerned with pets. The first “pounds” were for stray cows, horses and pigs. Pigs were the major problem of those days. They were not the little pink talking porklets that we know from the movies, but big wild savage creatures that could seriously injure if not kill old people and children. They could confront a wolf and win. The major preoccupation was who owned what -- land, animals, crops -- with the Indians not even recognizing the basic concept of “owning.” Nevertheless, their attention was focused when pigs broke into their corn fields or herds of horses trampled through their villages -- sometimes driven by vengeful whites. These were agricultural people whose women tended their fields with hoes, in contrast with the English male plowhands who used oxen to break the soil in long rows. At least they would have done that had the soil not been so stony.

In the New England communities where people lived close enough together to snoopervise each other and had the double authority of governors and churches to guide their behavior, bestiality was a problem, especially when the population was mostly young male immigrants with no partners. One unfortunate young man was convicted of molesting a sow when the community judged that her piglets looked just like him. Further south in the Chesapeake community, the pigs were too wild and mean to be trifled with and, anyway, the day’s activities were distributed out across the landscape. Anyway, they measured virtue by prosperity.

Gradually over years customs of marking animals by notching ears and painting or branding, an accumulation of fenced boundaries, and the complete rout of Indians wore practices into familiar grooves. But even today, more than three hundred years later, the issues of those early days persist, especially in terms of pets and the territoriality of homes where no agriculture exists. The marking of animals by collaring or tattooing is still controversial and incompete. Animals still go feral. People who invited the animals to be dependent in the first place fail to supply basic food and shelter, to say nothing of the guidance and encouragement that domestic animals require. Which stud bred which female is still an issue. And so on.

In an unexpected reveral of domestication, at least in Montana towns with leash laws and fenced yards, large animals have begun to re-colonize neighborhoods, notably deer and sometimes bears. The consequences are quite beyond raccoons and possoms meddling in the garbage cans. Deer and bears can inflict real damage. Coyotes have never really left cities like LA which have wilderness tracts running through them, but wolves are again preying on livestock in the way the colonists so despised and feared. Arguments inflame communities, this time between rancher and ecologist.

The great advantage of this book is that it gives us a long perspective on humans, animals, agriculture and land. Like the ground-breaking “Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England” by William Cronon, this book about animals challenges us to recognize our assumptions and face our realities.

“Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America” by Virginia DeJohn Anderson. Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-515860-1

Saturday, January 20, 2007


This is the other main character of this novel. The plot will follow along the consequences of the anthropologist long ago helping to adopt Blackfeet children to white parents far from the reservation. They are now old enough to come seeking their blood parents.

Clare’s dream was a familiar one that she often had just before waking. She was walking in a darkened hall, a very high and wide place, but she walked in an aisle formed by tall wooden cabinets, glass cases on top and drawers on the bottom. They were beautifully made but simple polished wood. Behind the glass were objects, arranged and labeled. Exotic, antique, precious things. And then she came to a skeleton -- a human articulated skeleton. It was one in a row and she walked along, reading the little brass plaques. They were the skeletons of indigenous peoples. She paused by a plaque she couldn’t read in the dream but she knew who the person had been: that Eskimo man who came with his son, accompanying an Arctic explorer as if he were a sort of human artifact -- and, indeed, when the father died he was not buried but “boiled out” and rearticulated as a skeleton. (One day his living but unaware son came upon his father’s bones by accident.) Next was Ishi, then the last of his tribe, now a skeleton.

And there was a skeleton she knew was female, with a small cat skeleton at her feet. She woke. She knew what the dream meant: she was not Indian but she had chosen to be with them. The puzzle was what “Indian” meant.

At seventy years of age, it took her a moment to rise to consciousness and understand that it was morning in her bedroom in this house on the east side of the Rockies, high prairie. The small curved backbone of Goldie the cat, fully fleshed and furred, warmed her own back. Sun and wind streamed through her open upstairs window, uncurtained. Geese went over, flying low, their yelping loud. They weren’t quite ready to move south, just milling around and putting on fat. Would it be legitimate to call the season “Indian summer?”

Quickly she drew on yesterday’s jeans and workshirt, adding a fleece jacket, scuffing into slippers, going downstairs. Her day started with filter cone coffee in her favorite mug and a woodfire in the cookstove to take the chill off. She rarely cooked on it now that electricity had reached them. Of course, lots of times the electricity failed. Routine satisfied her -- small sounds of clinking and scraping, the familiar smells of toast and pine kindling, Goldie rubbing against her ankles until she opened catfood. Then, when she was a bit more awake, the radio -- but turned down low. Living way out here was a choice, an avoidance -- just not quite a total rejection.

The first time she had come to the reservation was on an annual summer pilgrimage as the young assistant and wife of a famous anthropologist. The friendships she formed had proven durable over many years. When the Seventies turned everything upside down, she was ready for it, but the professor had felt it was nothing but betrayal. He had accused her of deserting him and, in a way, she had. But how much faithfulness can there be to a person whose refusal to change had ironically changed the relationship? Still, he had done important work, consistent with the ethic of the time, so who was she not to respect that?

By the time they had grown apart enough to justify a divorce -- though they hadn’t finally done it -- her understanding of his work had changed. He was an anthropologist in the old-fashioned way, which was to say distanced, analytical, and patronizing. But she had moved with the cultural sea-change, wanting more involvement, to see from inside. Then he had made the final break with her -- he died. When she recovered enough to reflect, she knew that if she could escape the guilt, she could return to the reservation, not as an academic but to paint. It was the physical world of the east slope that she craved. Blackfeet were only part of it -- if a vital part. The guilt had only clung enough to make her bring along the last of his unsorted papers from his office, so that they could be put in order for the archives. But not enough for her to actually get to work on his stuff instead of her own.

Sighing, she pushed aside yesterday’s mail and pulled her laptop in front of her to check the email. From her gallery agent: “Clare, I just got your last shipment of canvases from the framer and they look great! I love them. But I could sell a lot more of them if you’d put Indians in these landscapes. It couldn’t be hard, considering where you are and the contacts you have. I don’t understand your reluctance. People really WANT Indian pictures!”

She thought of sending along one of her portraits of Felix, but she knew what the response would be. “Where are the feathers? Where is the buckskin? This guy might as well be Mexican!” Nevermind that Mexicans were Indian.

The two most recent paintings were of him with the pets. In one he sat backwards on an ordinary old bow-backed straight chair in her kitchen with his dog Poke on his haunches, looking up at Felix. He was facing the open kitchen door so that the long bright horizon view was vaguely seen through it, while the kitchen was rather dark, without detail. His blue chambray shirt, a work shirt, was a bit strained over his well-made back and shoulders, and it was clear that he was wearing three braids, in the male Blackfeet style, rather than the conventional two. Also, gold earrings. But no feathers, no buckskin. His hands hung down over the chair back: strong wrists, supple fingers. To her eye, distinctively Indian hands. His face was hidden.

The other painting was Felix in the studio, on the daybed they had dragged out into the main room. Wearing the same clothes, he was napping half under the Pendleton blanket, his arms folded, on his side with Goldie curled up on his hip. A broad blade of light lay gently shining across his sleeping face. She thought of the two paintings as yin and yang, the Jungian two halves of Felix. She didn’t want to sell them anyway. She felt protective towards him -- not romantically: she was old enough to be his mother -- but as though she needed to be careful not to exploit him. He trusted her. He was a unique person and she had tried to capture that rather than what category he was in.

Back to the agent. “Have you noticed that in these last few paintings of streams and clearings, you have included a dark space? Sort of a cave in foliage? Would you consider putting an Indian in one? Or maybe a bear? Wildlife is selling well, too. Wouldn’t have to be much -- a nose, an eye, ears? Don’t get me wrong. Your work sells, but I could get a lot more money for it if you’d just include living beings. Think of the Taos Seven!”

Her agent had a thing about Taos paintings, but Clare thought the attraction was about as much about the lifestyle -- especially the food -- as it was about the art. Still, she wondered if her portraits of Felix were influenced by Couse, the guy who painted all those men crouched by orange fire. No. She was looking for this moment, not the past.

Impatient, she shut down the computer, pushed it away, slapped on her hat and loaded her painting gear into her little old pickup along with a good big canvas. The aspen groves glowed like paper lanterns, calling out for cadmium yellow straight from the tube. She sped off along one of the two-track car trails leading out of the clearing. Goldie settled down on the stoop to give her feet a good cleaning, which was not unlike honing a set of knives.

It wasn’t until Clare grew overheated enough to fling off her jacket that she realized that she was still wearing her slippers -- again.

Friday, January 19, 2007


An invaluable reference for those working with Blackfeet information is the School District #9 website. The location of the photos I used for the entry about Browning is at There are also online photos of the Babb School (same url) that show the Scriver sculptures, though in my post about Babb I used photos taken by Ray Djuff. Ray is a Calgary journalist and author who has specialized in Glacier Park and Waterton Park, but who is now working on a book about the Whitecalf family. There are photos of Whitecalf and his famous profile on the School District #9 website.

Prairie Mary


Browning, Montana, is a kind of password that can get you “in” (I once got onto an “Indians Only” listserv by simply saying, “I’m from Browning.”) or “out” (I once received harsh treatment by an unemployment counselor who also assumed if I were from there, I must be Indian.)

This is a very early photo of Browning, probably about the time Bob Scriver was a boy there. The watertower is a reliable reference point. I think the highway must be the faint trace that passes between the nearest houses. Few, if any, of these houses still exist.

I can recognize this brick building, which still stands. Originally put up as a bank, it was the jail in the Sixties. I believe that the building furthest to the right is the Browning Mercantile, though that doesn’t seem to be what the sign says. Anyway, the water tower suggests that this is the town square, just across Willow Creek from Government Square.

This maypole dance, so Edwardian with all the Indian girls in white dresses, white stockings, white shoes, is taking place on the Town Square, I think. You can about tell the period from the cars. This is looking north towards Government Square. The early white settlers of the town, quite unlike the early trappers and soldiers, were very Anglophilic, to the point of imposing English ceremonies, colonial-style. In fact, the post-colonial dogma has still not made much of a dent and even defiant insurgents can be sentimental about such frippery as this.

Though this view doesn’t look much different from the row of emporia that includes the Browning Merc and the bank, it actually is perpendicular, a continuation of the town main street that goes on up into Government Square which one can see to the right of the photo. There has to be a bridge across Willow Creek, which I think is in front of those white government buildings.

Meanwhile, out on the highway is “Scottie” Scotland’s service station. In those days a car needed all the service it could get! In fact, a lot of work was done on them “roadside.” I suspect that this may be the land where the Scriver Studio and Museum complex was built -- now the Blackfeet Heritage Center.

This romantic photo was taken by me in the Sixties at dawn. I was on the hill where the schools are lined up, looking west towards the mountains. It just about sums up my first impression of the place -- complex, intriguing, historical.

Some people drive through, not stopping, and remark that the town is “so depressing.” Others are intrigued by what they take to be poverty, suffering, drunkenness, and lawlessness -- a few of them stop and try to be part of the action, or at least take photos of some colorful Third World person. Neither observer is really seeing what is there: story upon story upon story.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Piano & the Drum

This is a little bit of a novel I'm working on.

It was a concert grand piano, in fair shape. It sounded all right but wasn’t dusted, much less polished, and would have had to be tuned for a real concert. But no more concerts for Felix since he’d broken a knuckle in a fist fight. Still, he’d known this piano since he was a baby himself, crawling around under it as though it were a house, while the music poured out over his head and his mother’s feet moved on the pedals. Once he left tooth marks on one leg, but he preferred the cold brass pedals when his gums were sore. Sometimes while his mother played, he had crawled over and lightly put his little hand on her arch, not enough to interfere, just to connect himself to the music a little more.

Now he sat down on the bench and lifted the keyboard cover, spreading his muscular hands out like flying birds, but not touching the keys, neither the ivory or the black. His hands wanted the keys. He held them up for a moment, hovering, then couldn’t resist any longer and began to try chords, then scales, though he fumbled them in places. It was a while before the pain shut him down. Even then, he went back to chords with his undamaged left hand. Too bad he’d nailed that granitehead with his right.

The Indian Health Service doctors had no idea what to do about a concert pianist’s hand. They didn’t really believe he could play that well in the first place and didn’t have either training or experience for much of anything except standard trauma. Secretly they believed he’d get in another fight anyway, so they just gave him pain-killers, which blurred out his playing even more. Not many people remembered when he was a child prodigy. They didn’t remember his mother either. They knew his famously ancient father. Hell, he was getting old himself. Fifty. Is fifty old?

He stood up to lower the lid and, reaching inside, plucked at the wires idly. Maybe he could learn the guitar, but what for? He ought to just sell the piano. Might bring enough money to pay for surgery on his hand! That made him snort. The Indian Health Service would pay for hand surgery but not the kind a concert pianist needs.

But there was more to it than that. His hands still reached out for the key board, he still felt the music -- but there was something missing. It was what had brought him and this piano back to the reservation, though the excuse of taking care of his father was persuasive, too. It was a kind of hunger of the heart, a need to be more related to this east-slope-of-the-Rockies Blackfeet world, not just the way it was now but the way it had been for at least half of his ancestors over many centuries.

He walked around the piano several times, studying it as though it had an answer. Then, turning away, he opened the old recycled door that led into a kind of storage shed at the back of the building. He had insulated and lined the log walls of the piano room, but this shed still had log walls with big nails driven into them randomly. Old jackets and hats and other jumble had accumulated there.

Idly, he swung some things to the side to see what was under them. A stiff old bridle. A broom with bristles mostly worn away. A cluster of rusty jaw traps for mink and beaver. Dimly he remembered playing with them as a child, too weak to even get the jaws open. Lifting them off their nail by the chains, he pitched them to the floor by the door. Maybe he could do something with them. The beaver were getting awful thick around here. A little money would be welcome.

There was a dirty old muslin bag with a drawstring and something round in it, about a foot across. He didn’t throw that but tucked it under his arm and took it out to the piano bench, stooping to drag the traps along. When he took the round, flat object out, it was -- as he sort of remembered -- a hand drum. He ran fingertips over the taut rawhide. It was painted and stained his fingers slightly with red ochre. There were two green lines across and something that looked like Y’s standing off the inner line. He had no idea what that might mean.

He tapped it with a forefinger. “Tunk.” Wooden. Again, “Tunk.”

The old man called from the front room. “You gotta warm it up. Take it out in the sun.” Strange that an old guy who couldn’t seem to hear half of what was said to him could hear a tap on a drum. All right, a cold drum. He took it out to the morning sun and the old man came after him, leaning on his stick in his three-legged way. They settled in the morning warmth of the abandoned car seat against the front wall of the cabin.

Felix held up the drum and pointed to the y’s of paint.

“Thunderbird tracks,” said the old man. As he often did these days, he began to softly keen an Indian song: the first phrase, then the reprise, and on into the song. Felix listened carefully to the wavering falsetto. “Was that a thunderbird song?” he asked.

“Might be.”

In a while Felix tapped the drum again. “Whuummm!” it said, resonating. He smiled and went back into the cabin to make a second pot of coffee. He left the drum propped up like a face to the sun.

The old man and the drum, long-time friends, sat by side-by-side, basking. Pretty soon the old man said to the drum, “Pretty good, init?”

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Babb is the farthest north of the three “resort” towns along the reservation/Park boundary and the least dependent on tourist traffic. The St. Mary’s valley opens to the north, draining into Hudson’s Bay (one crosses the Hudson’s Bay Divide, a high forested ridge, to get into the valley -- which is why the indigenous people called it “inside”). Babb is the last community before entering Canada and relates closely to Cardston, the Mormon community on the Alberta side. Three sorts of uniforms are seen around Babb: Park rangers, border patrol/customs, and highway patrol. One highway patrolman kept hitting on the local waitresses until they served him a specially baked cake loaded with chocolate Ex-Lax. Soon he transferred out.

Originally, around 1874, Babb was a whiskey post that attracted customers even from the Kootenay side of the Rockies. The broad flood plain by the town was sometimes a battlefield when enemies arrived at the same time. More recently, the town was famous for the Babb Bar where usually one could observe pickups, motorcycles and horses in equal numbers, all parked outside while their operators enjoyed the inside. If things got a little too rowdy, the (female) cook came out with a cast iron frying pan and restored order. Once some of the younger and more high-class clientele of the hippie era were enjoying a round-table and began discussing bars they had known and loved on several continents. Their two favorites were the No-Name Bar in Sausalito and this one, the legendary Babb Bar. Nevertheless, times change and Bobby Burns decided to upgrade, replacing the bar with a rather fabulous dinner club decorated with dream-catchers and an elegant fresco of Blackfeet history.

Now named for Cyrus C. Babb, who supervised the St. Mary Irrigation Project that diverted water to the Montana side and that is now disintegrating, endangering the futures of the towns and ranchers all along the High Line, the town was earlier called Main. Orrin S. Main married Isabel, the sister of George Starr and the daughter of Frank Pablo, influential men with Mexico in their background. In 1885 when the Riel Rebellion failed and the Red River Nation dispersed through Montana, several Metis and Chippewa families took refuge here.

In the early part of the 20th century, before the Thronsons, the Telleferos operated a branch of the Sherburne Mercantile. In those days horse-rustlers and other outlaws (notably Big Nose George) hid out near Chief Mountain, dodging back and forth over the international boundary. Mrs. Tellefero kept a shotgun leaning against the head of her bed. Mr. Tellefero told colorful stories of men down on their luck who occasionally slept on the store counters. They never stole anything. It was a strangely mixed time.

Babb supports a school, two churches (Methodist and Catholic), an Emergency Medical Team that has a key to the border gate so they can get to the Cardston hospital in a hurry even in the middle of the night, a year-round grocery store, and a post office. Nearby Duck Lake is surrounded by seasonal and permanent homes where many Canadians as well as locals love to ice fish all winter. Sometimes they love it so much that they fail to get off the ice soon enough in the spring. A scuba-diving club used to enjoy an annual tour of the sunken tangle of huts and pickups on the bottom of the lake. Evidently they provide excellent habitat for the fish. The economy got a boost when the Duck Lake Road from Browning was finally paved throughout. Tourist businesses had blocked the paving of a rough stretch in the middle so that people would stay on Highway 89, but it’s a winding, climbing, difficult highway and finally the much more gradual and wide Duck Lake Road was finished for the sake of the people who lived along it.

The key family in Babb was the Thronsons, who had originally come to the Montana High Line to homestead, but starved out in the early part of the 20th century. Rather than retreating back east, they hit on the idea of summer tourist accommodations and built a series of little one-room cabins in Babb. Every morning water and wood had to be carried to each porch and the sheets were boiled and scrubbed by hand over a wood fire. These exceedingly hard-working and frugally living people have persisted (and some of the cabins have as well), sending their children off to college. As it happened, I was serving the Methodist church when both Oscar and his wife died. One of Oscar’s claims to fame was that the famous Father Van Orsdel came to visit and was assigned to sleep with Oscar, who was a teenager at the time. It was considered a great honor, so be careful how you tell the story. Mrs. Thronson was buried with her fondest possession, a red patent-leather purse that she carried everywhere. Her children put inside it a rock from the top of Chief Mountain and another from the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, both personally collected by them. The Thronsons were laid to rest in Great Falls, not far from Charlie Russell’s grave.

At the new Babb School two giant Bob Scriver sculptures have found a home. They were cast in fiberglass by Gordon Monroe. One is “An Honest Try,” a bucking bull with Bill Cochran on it; the other is the trademark bucking horse of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. The sculptures cannot be placed in Browning because of vandals.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


You can take a look at St. Mary right this minute (if it’s daylight and the camera is working) by going to the Glacier Park webcam system: I started watching it regularly last summer when there was a forest fire almost directly in front of the camera. In the past few years there have been repeated fires in this area, partly because of beetle-killed trees and partly because of fuel buildup under the trees.

The Blackfeet Tribe, whose forest abutts the Park, sends in clearing crews, especially along the highways where careless people throw out cigarettes and trucks strike sparks. These hardy folks cut low limbs, gather dead wood, and generally clear things out in much the same way that forest fires do if they occur in natural rhythms instead of being suppressed for long periods of time. The Tribe has a special interest in the forest fires because that timber is a major part of the tribal assets. Since last summer’s fire started inside Glacier Park where it was allowed to burn instead of being immediately suppressed, it eventually consumed a large proportion of tribal forest. There will probably be a lawsuit. An added twist is that some people suspect the fire was started by Boy Scouts. A lawsuit pitting the Blackfeet Tribe against the Boy Scouts of America ought to be pretty interesting!

St. Mary as a community exists because it is where the road called “Going to the Sun” branches off from Highway 89. Most of the roads inside Glacier Park end at campgrounds, but this one continues clear across to the west side where it reunites with Highway 2 through the much lower Marias Pass. It is the drive that made the Park famous but since it is so precarious an engineering feat, it constantly caves off the mountains. It may not exist in another decade. Certainly, it was not built for modern huge RV’s and it would be foolish to drive such a vehicle through that road. The largest are forbidden.

“Going to the Sun” is closed in winter and so is St. Mary. Of the three towns that interface Glacier Park with Blackfeet Reservation, this is the most purely a “tourist town.” There’s a small store, a gas station that closes in winter, a summer hamburger joint that serves buffalo burgers alongside ice cream, and so on.

St. Mary was called by the Blackfeet “the Inside Lakes” but at one point along the lake it is possible to see in the skyline a profile of a woman with a cowl -- that’s all the encouragement needed by those eager to Christianize and respectabilize the wild peaks. No huge railroad hotel exists in St. Mary which is split by the highway rather than train tracks. On the Park side is a lodge built and run by the Catholic family of Hugh Black. On the reservation side is a campground, motel and restaurant run by the Methodist Lester Johnson family. Both families have been there a very long time and are quite different in style. The Blacks have produced at least one priest and have been major land-owners and capitalists. The Johnsons began in a run-down building at roadside and lived in a tent in back during the first seasons. Their children married into the tribe and have become educators and business folks across the reservation.

Other businesses tucked in around these two major players. A beer garden, a KOA campground, various small cafes and shops come and go from one year to the next. Not far to the north was once the summer art school run by Winold Reiss. Close by in the Korean War years was a recreation site for Malmstrom Air Force Base. The Blackfeet Crafts Association ran a small shop, subsidiary to the major shop in the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, in a little old log cabin until they moved across the highway to a newer portable building. In the early Fifties, Bob Scriver and his then-wife Jeanette ran a little curio shop with a mounted horse out front, rigged to a pivot so it would “buck.”

As the population of the reservation grew and global warming made winter travel more possible, more people began to live year-round in small allotment homesteads. More than the other two tourist towns, St. Mary “rocks” in the summer but belongs to the elk, bears and cougars all winter. Still, the road along the lake to Canada is plowed and one sees 4-wheel-drive tracks taking off on dirt roads. There is no church or school in St. Mary.

The Thad Scrivers and their close white community of shopkeepers joined together to buy Mrs. Jim Stone’s allotment, which was just above the highway some miles north along the lake. They scattered cabins through the aspen groves of the hillside so they could socialize there in the summer as they did in Browning during the winter. This assortment of very different cabins -- ranging from the stone cottage of Jack Holterman to the screen-porched abode farthest back to the Aubert two-story cabin built along a slant, including the cabins of both Bob Scriver and Thad Scriver, are operated as rentals in the summer.

Many of the happiest hours of my life were spent in that little cabin with its lean-to bedroom and massive fireplace. Flying squirrels zoomed across between tall trees and clover scented the meadow out front. Once we found in a light snow the pug marks of a pair of cougars, circling the cabin and then exploring the roof. In the early Sixties the bears were still pigging out on garbage and no threat to us. Later, things changed and now one must keep up one’s guard against bears and some humans.

Once I stayed at the cabin alone and was pestered by mice running across my arms in the night, so I went back to Browning and fetched the cat. As soon as it was dark, there was a lot of rustling and scrambling -- then the cat began to scream in rage and pain. Lights revealed that the “mice” were shrews and they had buried their little fangs in the toes and nose of the poor cat! We slept with the lights on for the rest of the night. Sometimes the small carnivores are more of a threat than the big ones.

Monday, January 15, 2007


“James J. Yee, a former Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was suspected in 2003 of aiding terror suspects imprisoned at the facility, but the military’s espionage case against him soon collapsed.”

This was the lead story in the New York Times on Sunday. It reveals a crucial contradiction in the role of clergy in our culture, in particular that of the “chaplain,” who is understood to be comforting and advocating for hospital patients, prison inmates, soldiers, legislators, or sometimes even factory employees. But unlike other clergy, who are paid by and responsible to either their congregation or their denomination, they are hired and paid by the hospital, prison, military establishment, politicians or factory owners. Though the formal idea is that they are responsible to a Higher Power than any institution, the plain fact is that they are often held to account by the guy who cuts the paycheck and are sometimes expected to be subversive towards their believers, to rat them out, or at least try to keep them under control.

There are two kinds of congregations: “gathered” which means they have assembled because they hold certain beliefs, goals or styles in common (in the early days because immigrants spoke a different language) or “parish” which means that it is assumed that all right thinking people in the area will belong to the same church (Catholic in early Europe or Anglican in post-Henry VIII England) so the territory is simply divided up. A chaplain ministers to people who have been gathered for other reasons than faith, but who share a situation.

There are also two kinds of ministers: “learned” who have been to college and divinity school to formally study theology and history of religion or “inspired” who have had some emotional connection to a belief system and pledged allegiance to it.

Chaplains can serve either kind of congregation -- in fact, a chaplain in a hospital or on a battlefield may be called upon to pray for believers in quite different traditions than their own, though usually theist. And chaplains can be either “learned” or “inspired.” The clergy’s certifying denomination sets the standards. But no one can identify a chaplain with integrity until he is actually exposed to the terrible collision between the individual believer and the institutional controller. In this case, James or “Yousef” (Joseph) Yee came through more than two months of harsh confinement and accusations. (Dare I say with Confucian restraint and wisdom? Or is that a stereotype? Or is it a cultural heritage?)

It’s easy to imagine the stupidity of the people who originally hired Yee. No doubt there was pressure from nations, faith communities and justice-seekers to provide a chaplain for these captives, not least because of constant rumors of prejudice and abuse, to say nothing of the puzzle of why they were confined in the first place. So the authorities wanted the appearance of a chaplain without worrying about that person’s loyalty to the captors. They might have done better to hire a nice Quaker lady, who might alarm Muslims as much as the guard dogs did.

Yee had converted from Christianity to Islam in 1991, taken four years of academic study in the Arabic language and traditional Islamic sciences in Syria, and married a Middle Eastern wife with whom he has two children. Though he had to be aware that in the US many Islamic converts come from the Black community -- and even the prison community -- as a way of staying religious without having to accept the White Christianity which is so entwined with governmental power, he must have seemed “different” since he was Chinese. He didn’t LOOK like Louis Farrakhan. He was one-of-a-kind, so how much power could he have? (They should have consulted a Lutheran.) A West Point graduate, he’d been a Patriot Missile Fire Control officer after the first Gulf War, so he was bound to be loyal to the military, right?

But the point of a chaplain is to transcend earthly affiliations, to aspire to higher laws, to stand -- if necessary -- as a lone sentinel for justice. In our culture a chaplain is allowed confidentiality and is expected to respond with compassion and understanding. To have it otherwise is to make it impossible to minister, especially to this group of teens-to-grandpas who speak different languages, come from different backgrounds, committed an assortment of offenses, represent no single nation, and (in growing numbers) are psychotic to the point of suicide. No doubt the government was hoping Yee would figure them out for THEIR purposes, rather than responding to their needs.

Many people go into chaplaincies assuming that demands will be light: no need to raise money, wrestle with the Sunday School committee, maintain the building, or produce a stirring sermon every Sunday. They do not expect to be thrown into solitary confinement, nor do they expect their finances and communications to be secretly investigated. But it is still an occupation that may demand extreme dedication and not to any bureaucracy. (My view is somewhat influenced by the Navy chaplain who came to the Rez to be the local Methodist minister: he didn’t last six months outside the protection of a military base. Or consider the married hospital chaplain who was sleeping his way through my congregation, assuring the women that his job was as secular as that of lawyers, therefore put no restrictions on his sex life.)

Many of us formed our ideas about what a chaplain does and is like from WWII and Korean movies about combat. They were, well, rather like Quaker ladies: quick to pray and comfort, brave in the face of danger, believers in a Higher Order.

Put Yee’s story alongside the news about Polish priests who collaborated with the Nazis in WWII and hinted afterwards that they were brave, if covert, defenders of the innocent and faithful. Now documents have knocked them off their sainthood pedestals and may have seriously damaged the entire Polish church in the same way that sexual scandal has dogged Catholic priests in other countries. Not that scandal is always bad. For instance, in Ireland such disclosures finally broke open a country that a corrupt religious establishment had gripped by the throat for generations.

There’s no doubt that Yee’s integrity has been a rock that breaks another hole in the hull of the Bush/Cheney ship of state, before its prow thrusts even more deeply into our private business. Yee probably doesn’t rise to the level of sainthood (he merely did his duty), but he is a role model to many chaplains who are taking the easy way by collaborating with the institutions who employ them. Yee takes religion seriously: therefore, we must take HIM seriously.