Thursday, June 28, 2007


My last two Netflix pics, “Notes On a Scandal” and “The Queen,” were based on stellar Brit actresses: Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchard. (Aussie is Brit, isn’t it? Hope that isn’t insulting.) These women are grown up, NOT chicks, and have incredible acting chops -- everyone agrees. I enjoyed them greatly. But what I want to talk about is the directors, also Brits but male and (ahem) mature but not old, and the voice-overs they did.

On previous voice-overs I’ve listened to, several people commented, maybe not the director but certainly one of the stars and maybe a producer. It may escape the attention of some people that these folks are there to promote and glorify the movie, not to analyze it. They tell little stories and explain a few tricks to make us feel allied with the movie. All of this is fine, but some do it with more skill than others.

These two movies were controversial to the point of being vulnerable to serious social criticism -- even suppression -- so it was particularly important to blunt that sort of inquiry while pumping up the amazing acting and the ultimate idealism of the productions. The director of “Notes On a Scandal,” Richard Eyre, had the additional duty of pointing out that Judi Dench looks ghastly old because that’s the point of the role -- not out of any desire to destroy her image. She really does suddenly look ANCIENT, partly because of puffy wrinkles and partly because of what the director calls “a tobacco-stained wig.” In this country the movie might be more likely to get an R rating because of her character’s constant smoking than for the lesbian subtext. It took me a while to figure out that the silver rim around the edge of the wig was not the roots of her hair growing out, but her own hair peeking through. When one sees her later in interviews, with her own hair, skillful makeup and proper lenses, she looks entirely different. The director emphasizes many times how well he knows Judi, how much they had worked together, how many supporting characters are stalwart British acting establishment “aristocracy.”

The director emphasizes again and again the “terrible loneliness” of the two women and how wrong their choice of remedies is, but motivated for that tragic and none-of-their-doing reason. The plot is simple: Cate addresses her loneliness by accepting a student effort at seduction (this is high school) and Judi addresses hers by trying to seduce Cate. It all goes wrong. Cate seems “cured” at the end but Judi has not “learned her lesson.” The world being what it is, I suspect that in reality this isn’t the end of it. But this is a popular sort of interpretation that keeps out the politics of perversion.

This director provided some interesting nuggets of cinematography: places where the film was reversed, so that the boy seems to reach out his hands to Cate’s face instead of the opposite, or flipped l-to-r so that the character in the shot used is looking at an opening door, or slowed slightly to give the action a floating, dreaming quality, or -- one of the most interesting -- when there are two talking heads, letting the camera drift very subtly and slightly to give it a tension and dynamism.

The director of “The Queen,” Stephen Frears, talked much less about such things. The fascination and potentially objectionable aspect of this film is the impersonation of real people with huge charisma and meaning. Helen Mirren was eloquent in the accompanying interview, saying that she was both terrified and confused by the task at first, until she told herself that she wasn’t being the final word on the Queen, but merely a portrait painter presenting one aspect. The movie begins with her portrait being painted by a totally grounded but sympathetic artist in a moment that blends the private with the ceremonial, “brilliantly” (to use the director’s favorite word) revealing both the Grand Monarch and the obedient and disciplined Lillibet Windsor. This beginning and the crisis also “brilliantly” (really, the word is often justified in this movie) illustrated by the stag (which is like our elk), may have come from either the writer, Peter Morgan, or the director -- I get the impression that there was a very strong and dedicated team at work.

Other “brilliancies” include letting Diana play herself -- she is FAR too much of an icon to be impersonated -- keeping the sons almost unseen, and letting the dogs stand in for both loyal subjects and loving relationship. But the REAL wisdom of this movie is the script which ever-so-subtly identifies the motives and reasoning of people in roles of crushing responsibility. There’s a maturity and calmness to the movie that will keep it relevant for a long time, I suspect. It’s also a career move on the part of Mirren that has guaranteed her reputation. She’s come a long way since she was willing to get naked and dance with veils.

The director of “Notes on a Scandal” noted that in his movie there were simultaneously three actresses who had played Elizabeth I, which is a sort of rite of passage for Brit actresses. (The blonde girl at the end of the movie that Judi embarks on picking up has also played the part, though rather briefly.) The role has been a staple since movies “spoke.”

Since my undergrad education was with Alvina Krause who deeply believed in repertory theatre, I’m always ready to admire the results: the trust, the meshing, the attention to details, the willingness to take small or unflattering parts. Beyond that, these movies have no raunch or violence or melodrama, quite unlike the BBC mysteries that use the same actors. I would like to hear them with a different voice-over from someone who has no particular investment in movies. Maybe an academic or a “public intellectual” -- maybe even someone as risky as Christopher Hitchens. Because I’d like to think about some of the deeper matters, now that we seem to be leaving the awful French anti-privilege theories that glamorize poverty, deprivation, warping, and social corruption. I’d like to hear more about how people maintain their standards, draw their boundaries, and manage to keep on coming, no matter what. These films quietly and exactly illustrate these latter qualities.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


I wonder how many people remember Gwen Frostic. She was a poet who learned how to make her own books -- not just to print her books, but to illuminate them (not just illustrate) with elegant portraits of plants and birds, and even to make her own paper so that one gorgeous page actually had a real butterfly pressed and bonded into it.

The little yellow butterfly (a sulphur butterfly?) is actually embedded in translucent paper so that when one turns the page, it seems to lift from or descend on the grasses on the next page.

Many of the images are gently humorous. This is one of my favorites.

Here's a double-page spread of a winter scene with red willows.

The covers generally look similar to this. Greyed-out green or brown, delicate lines of small familiar growing things.

Gwen was solidly grounded in natural history, a poetic precursor of Mary Oliver, but with no narrative except ongoing life itself. She was the very opposite of the city-trapped trendy aesthete looking for fame and fortune. Simply she produced these objects in a near-medieval way -- expressions of the heart. I bought several of them, gave a couple away as special gifts and couldn’t bear to part with the last ones. She has been an ideal I meant to follow and maybe it’s not too late.

When I looked her up on, I was surprised to see the enormous disparity in the value of her books. At the low end, one dollar will buy you one of these beautiful books! At the high end, the book dealer wants four HUNDRED dollars. Same book! I suspect the difference is between someone who appreciates a custom collectible unique book-as-object and someone who only sees value in either best-sellers or high academic works. If I had a hundred bucks to spare right now, I’d invest them in Gwen Frostic books, because I think the market will converge on handmade, limited edition, unique, personal books.

With that in mind, I’ve acquired books about making paper and about making book covers. With all the excitement about Print On Demand, there has been little attention to the covers which are often simply a glossy photograph with a title -- at least that’s the way mine are. Maybe perfect bound and maybe spiral bound (much better for reference books because one wants them to lie down flat). It’s perfectly adequate for thin ones to be stapled.

But it seems to me that if only a few copies of a special book are to be produced, that a really good hand-binding job and some special attention to the materials and design is a good thing, if only because it opposes the rising tide of plastic ephemera around us. For years now I’ve been making a pitch for Blackfeet books written by Blackfeet, illustrated by hand, bound in buckskin, maybe beaded or quilled, with a feather for a bookmark. When Bob Scriver got to his “artifact book,” the one that sells for $800 in some places (“Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains”) he made a certain number of presentation copies, specially bound and with a slipcase that had a compartment on the side into which was put a branch of sage, the kind the Blackfeet used for smudging.

One of my delayed projects for the summer has been some “nanobooks” containing the nano stories I wrote earlier. I printed them onto sticky mailing labels, sewed some small booklets and meant to put a label on each page, but then ran aground when I discovered I was sticking them on crooked and would need to somehow make reference dots as guides. Then again, I have rubber stamps and had meant to stamp some decorations or use felt pens to at least scribble on some colored patterns. And again I lost confidence. But there are also people who are the other way around -- they could make little booklets if only they had an idea what to say.

Noma Coleman, a family friend and a one-room school teacher, made each of us cousins a story book when we were little, cutting out ads and composing doggerel couplets about them as though they were about us. When I got an advertising flyer that featured a small Chinese girl as a model for clothes, I tried my hand at this art form with the innovation of laminating the pages and fastening them together with a medley of bright ribbons. As it happened, my cousin had just adopted a Chinese girl so I had the perfect person to send it to. She returned the favor with a slender rainbow on blue and silver paper.

My Chinese grandma friend and former classmate, Pearl Lee, especially enjoys making folded and precision-cut greeting cards, often with a Chinese theme. They are far beyond anything I could do. If the problem with Print On Demand is that it reduces books to something pedestrian that anyone could do, then perhaps custom bindings and covers can restore some of the value and uniqueness. You know, they say that in Asian countries everyone can do lovely art and poetry, because they don't know they not supposed to do it unless they're geniuses!

This material about Frostic is from

Gwen Frostic (1906-2001)

Sara Gwendolen Frostic was a Michigan author, book manufacturer, linoleum-block nature artist and papermaker.

Born in the "thumb" of Michigan, Gwen Frostic spent her entire life in the state. She wrote, illustrated, printed and published 20 books and contributed to four others. Though some described her as handicapped -- she walked with a limp, spoke with a slight slur and had a withered left arm -- she never thought of herself that way.

Her 18-press print shop in Benzonia with its inviting gallery/showroom is still a popular tourist attraction for folks visiting the northwestern part of Michigan's lower peninsula.

In the early 1940s, Frostic set up her first printing shop in her home in Wyandotte, just south of Detroit. Though she moved twice, she continued to work out of her home for the rest of her life. During the 1950s she operated in both Wyandotte and Frankfurt, but in 1964, after she had fallen in love with "the north," she transferred her now booming business to Benzonia.

A Frostic book is instantly recognizable: hardcover, no jacket, every page a different kind of paper, and simple but beautiful illustrations on every spread. Frostic created everything you see in her books, from the myriad papers to the exquisitely printed illustrations to the wisps of free verse that flow across the pages.

If you examine a Frostic book more closely, you’ll find the front board covered in smooth, colored paper and illustrated with a simple but elegant block print depicting some natural object. The spine and rear will likely be bound in a differently colored, differently textured paper. No text will be found on the covers except a subdued title on the front. Almost all Frostic books measure about 6 x 9 inches, although she made some that were closer to 8 x 10.

Inside the book, you’ll be amazed by the many and various fancy papers, some smooth, some textured, some embossed, some mottled, some like tissue paper, some translucent. Many pages will have deckle (ragged) edges while others will be neatly trimmed. Earth-toned papers and earth-toned inks will be heavily favored. The text will be gracefully designed and will not appear on every page. Each spread will be individual and unique, a beautiful work of art in itself.

. . . Since her death in 2001, her business, Presscraft Papers, has been carried on by her longtime friends Pam and Kirk Lorenz, and by her nephew, Bill Frostic.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


I think it has been underreported how much the traditional publishing industry, through failure and simple change, has invited self-publishing, which is often based on Print on Demand.

First, publishing houses were bought up by international corporation who expected the same kind of investor profits as Campbell soups: that is, 10% or more. This pushed the business from a educated and possibly bankrolled gentleperson's enterprise to the ordinary commodification that in other contexts might be called "prostitution."

Second, advances for works not yet written had to be justified but works not yet written are of necessity unquantifiable. This threw the ball to the market research and fame-is-fortune people. The amounts of advances became a feature of publicity and were compromised by Hollywood-style book-keeping anyway: creative deductions for all associated costs.

Third, the whole problem of print runs, much exacerbated by the brilliant decision of the tax people to consider books inventory to be taxed and also the simple physical necessity of keeping books warm, dry, and pristine (another cost) meant a motive for short print runs and quick liquification which are deadly for books that need time to develop an audience, like Native American books. (Frankly, I think this problem alone snuffed the NA literature renaissance since back east publishers had no idea how to market NA books, therefore ordered small runs and ended them quickly to avoid risk, therefore eliminated eventual wide sales.) Again, the Hollywood model: profit in the first hours of existence.

Fourth: The corporation model required "lean and mean" staffing which meant editors who formerly developed the "house focus" by putting in many days of reading in offices were pushed out to being "agents" who had no house, no focus, no stable of faithful writers, no handholds but the necessity of earning a living. I discovered that some agents are not making a living by selling books but by kindly offering "for a fee" to rewrite over-the-transom works to make them more saleable. This was formerly called "editing" and paid for by the publisher.

Fifth: Proofing and fact-checking are time-consuming and time is money, so -- beyond maybe Spell-checking -- those quality-control elements went out the window. Anyway, fewer and fewer new hires were capable of proofing OR researching a fact, a national education failure.

Sixth: The author has to be promotable, so one strategy is to represent that books are written by popular people, though ghosted by someone else, or to represent the author as a larger-than-life person. This is the slippery slope that took us to the "packaged book" which is invented by sales people right down to hiring someone to tour around pretending to be the author. Or resourceful writers pretending to have shocking pasts.

Seventh: Publishers had somehow made a devil's pact with bookstores to allow the stores to return all unsold books. Not just the ones that are still clean, undamaged and saleable, but also the ones that have big dayglo sale stickers or are shelf-worn or that are simply in the way when it comes time to inventory for a tax-audit at the first of the year. The underside of this pact is that bookstores charge publishers to place the books favorably, as on the end of an aisle.

Eighth: A person who has spent his entire life in media work was recently shocked, SHOCKED to discover that publishers don't bother to spend money on promotion or ads anymore. Which has caused newspapers, whose income came from the ads, to discontinue their book review sections.

Ninth: Another little money-saving step: no money from the publisher for research or the acquisition of necessary photos or graphics. The author must foot the bill.

Tenth: When it comes to the step of selling to the public, the money-making publisher likes big chunks of sales and so sells through chains, either “book” chains like Barnes & Noble or Amazon or “Big Box” chains with special discounts like Walmart or Target. This has caused many small quality bookstores to go out of business. But the regional sales force that makes the sales to such venues are not innovative about replacing them with special interest stores (sports) or local interest stores (grocery stores on reservations).

I have beside my reading chair a book called “A Glorious Accident: Understanding Our Place in the Cosmic Puzzle” by Wim Kayzer. It’s a “tie-in” to a PBS series which was a “concept” developed by Kayzer. He invited some cutting edge thinkers to talk among themselves, something like “The Edge,” which is a website for thinkers who are a little bit “out there.” (I was clued to this book by Michael “Blowhard” of So this is a “tie-in” product that is “generated” rather than written because it consists of the transcriptions of Kayzer’s preliminary interviews with these quite fascinating men. The publisher is W.H. Freeman and Company, which publishes science books and engages in “custom publishing” by which they mean classroom books that are composites of other books and lab manuals tailored for specific classes. In other words, Print on Demand.

Is this a good thing? Well, here’s an early sentence: “As I drive to his house on Sunday morning through New York, ever fascinating, pompous, and threatening, I feel apprehensive.” Is this a lost appositive, a confused referent, or a peculiar personification of a city? The book has narrow margins, though the subject cries out for many reader notes. It has clearly not even been run through a Spell-check: “srot” for “sort” as well as the kind of thing that evades Spell-check: “his” for “has.” A previous reader had kindly gone through my used copy and made corrections with a ballpoint but even he or she missed a few. In a book explaining complex logic and new paradigms, such problems hurt.

At least on Lulu the author has control of these matters, which are the difference between Print on Demand and Self-Publishing.

But I submit, if the professionally “published” books are bad and the self-published books are good (which they often are), then what is the distinction of a book produced by a publisher?

Further, I submit that it is not in the production of the book at all, but in the promotion. It is the soulful portrait, the national interviews on prestigious media outlets, the beautiful advertising, and the currying of the promotable author that makes the difference. All of which moves the focus from the quality of the book to the appeal of the writer.

And I return to Snoopy receiving a letter from his publisher. “We have decided to publish your book. If the first copy sells, we’ll print another one.” But Snoopy is resourceful and has grown a longer tail. This is the essence of Print On Demand: that once it’s digitized and can be found by a search engine, no book will go out of print. But that means anyone can write a book. The mystique of the demonic, ecstatic, exceptional genius author who is brought to us by a perceptive, capable, nurturing editor is gone. Oowoooo! Howls of displeasure.

Monday, June 25, 2007


A new friend tipped me off about a website ( for real estate business that shows houses when you type in the address. These are more detailed than Google maps and include the estimated value of the property, which is always interesting. But you won’t get anything out of them about my house -- it is below their notice. Google, however, will show where my house is if you can interpret the last few blocks. It won’t really go close enough for you to see the house.

An old friend of mine on the reservation was showing one of these satellite photo websites to some younger people, college-aged. He showed them Browning -- they were amazed. He went closer, to their street, and they were alarmed. He went to their house and they were irate, terrified and indignant! What RIGHT did anyone have to put their house on the Internet so that anyone could see where they lived?? It suddenly became apparent that the ancient art of staying disguised and in a hidden location was vital to being a Blackfeet and that showing their secret formerly hard-to-find place, esp to a bunch of white people, was like forcing them to become targets.

And again, when I was researching the bio of Bob Scriver and spending hours and hours sitting at a microfiche reader looking at old newspapers from the Thirties, one of the librarians became very upset. She said that she had “loved” [sic] Bob Scriver since she was a little kid and her family stopped at the museum to visit him. She had felt a special rapport with him and thought that for me to write about him would dispell his mystique and destroy her dream of some day being his special partner. (He’s been dead since 1999.) She thought that his privacy was sacred and, especially since I’d been married to him, I was desecrating his memory. (She had no idea what I was actually writing.)

I was the third of four wives and wise advisors told me that if I told the deplorable truth about the fourth wife -- even that she was a common-law wife -- I would be discredited and seen as jealous, inventing slander. A lawyer would be eager to seize on this opinion.

Publishers were scandalized by some of the stories I told, even though they were hardly shocking by today’s media standards, and even though they illustrated some relevant points. An early reader asked me whether what I wrote about, though almost expected by sophisticated coastal readers, might not get me bad consequences in a small rural town. (Suicide attempts. Around here they already know about mine but would never tell you.)

And now I come to “Running with the Bulls,” by Valerie Hemingway, who will know exactly what I’m talking about. Does it dispell the Hemingway writing mystique for her to tell about how he wrote, how much he used his own life, how much was discarded and what was hoarded or burned at his death? Will it discredit Mary Hemingway to tell whom she got angry with, how her own writing went, and how much she drank? (Indeed, how much they ALL drank!) And what about the worst scandal in the book -- not that Hemingway’s youngest son was a troubled man who went from being a cross-dresser, to a transvestite to a transgendered person -- but that he was so irresponsibly treated (years of repeated electroshock treatment and self-prescribed meds) and covered up for by colleagues, all the while “qualifying” as a doctor himself and treating patients.

Does all this make the book better or worse? And does a howl go up about her making money from a lot of pain and despair, claiming that she’s not entitled even though she’s also been a professional writer and editor all her life? Does that make the book better or worse? More or less worthy of being printed in a world that would love to have even his dirty socks? If the tables were turned, would Hemingway hesitate to write HER into a book?

This fall when my own bio of an ex-husband is published, I expect to hear the same outcry. And all the while the newspapers and magazines and even bookstores are crammed with exposes, some carefully analyzed matters of fact and some just junk.

So many times I see stories in the paper about people I know that verge on fantasy. If they printed the truth about some of these people, the lawyers would be on their doorstep the next day -- if not the cops. Some of it doesn’t matter -- it’s just promotion of artists, authors, festivals, towns. Once in a while it’s misguided, for instance, a person whom a judge sentenced harshly, unfairly it seemed to the green young reporter and the editor from back East who’d been here only months. There was no way for them to know that this person was being punished for other and worse history, the way the Mafia gets arrested for income tax evasion instead of murder. When I wrote to fill them in, they thought I was being personally vengeful, so I’ve never done that again. (Maybe I was.)

Writers, even newspaper writers, are after all only writing an interpretation of reality, a virtual selection constructed of what are understood to be facts. If they printed everything that might be relevant, it would be quite unreal and the papers would be hugely fat, impossible to digest.

A biographer is in a slightly different position than a news reporter. As our society becomes more open, less tolerant of secrets, more insistent on transparency right into the Confessional, these questions have also been raised by recent frank biographies of Zane Grey (he “romanced” young girls with the knowledge and cooperation of his wife, who was often related to them), Ernest Haycox (a cranky desk jockey not nice to his family), or Charlie Russell (who had been sterilized by VD and was so afraid of medical intervention that he probably died unnecessarily young because of a goiter that affected his heart). Can their fans survive the knowledge? Aren't the books and paintings unchanged?

If people know that writers, Indians and artists are essentially human like everyone else, will they love them anymore? Good question. That small-town librarian evidently thinks not. Some Indians have the same attitude -- that they should remain mysterious. Smart movie stars take the same line. I’m not so sure.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


I bought the entire set of American “Cracker” programs because there was more show per dollar than any other option: it was cheap. I mean, I wasn’t hoping for anything as satisfactory as the BBC “Cracker” and wasn’t particularly looking forward to all this stuff about LA crime, though I’m a bit of a Pastorelli fan. Still, it poses an interesting question since some of the episodes use the same script as the BBC with only slight changes because of the now American context. The scripts have the same gripping dilemmas, the Cracker figures them out through the same clues, the other actors are all strong, but the essential difference is simply inescapable: in what way can an Italian guy functioning in LA ever convince anyone that he’s suffering? How does he make us know that he drinks, gambles and fools around because he’s tipping on the edge of an existential void, the kind that that the Irish have known for centuries. Pastorelli comes off as justifiably in agony about as well as I come off as a Very Worried Trojan woman. The whole setup lacks gravitas. It becomes just more crazy Hollywood stuff.

But there are a few episodes that are written for the American version, most notably about a man born as an intersexual person who steals a baby. This is written by a woman and the context is Hispanic, people still locked into the unforgiving Catholic context of Mexico where they celebrate the Day of the Dead in a rather Irish way. What if the American Cracker had been given a bit of Mafia background?

The “conceit” of all these BBC mysteries is that, as the Jungians say, the “wound” of the psychologist allows the unbearable pain of psychopaths to get into his soul -- NOT his mind, his SOUL. This is true of the BBC “Cracker,” “Touching Evil”, and “Wire in the Blood.” It’s probably too flip to say that since LA has no soul, it cannot possibly replicate the Jungian anquished empathy of a person who sees not psychological problems so much as spiritual problems that institutional religion fails to address. This genre is psychologist-as-priest-replacement, which swaps the inscrutable nature of life addressed by a dedicated liturgical adept who can offer absolution with instead the intractable nature of a suffering man with no institutional context or rationale, much less desire to get better -- just “understand.” But the suffering man can’t be in a situation of hedonism and narcissism, no matter how much self-knowledge he shows, if society itself endorses his wickedness. Our society says to Fitz’s family, “Get over it. You’re not that special.” Irish society, esp. at the time the original scripts were written, said, “Family is as precious as God, as close to the Holy as you can come. Your sin is beyond redemption. You will suffer in Hell.” This is the same handicap of shallowness that made the Robson Green vehicle called “Take Me” so tedious. The kids were smarter and more resourceful than their parents.

I did NOT know until I looked at just now that Pastorelli had died of a drug overdose shortly after the end of this series. Seeing that, I Googled Pastorelli further and discovered that this man truly DID have demons. His girl friend was shot in the head in his home and he was the prime suspect. His heroin overdose might have been deliberate. This was a man for whom acting via the Method might have been just a bit too close to the bone, may have woken things in his gut that he hardly dared show, might have endangered his Soul. What comes off as lack of connection might have been a self-protective wall.

Another possibility is that the director realized that his “Cracker” was actually a “Crackee,” and might blow up on him, endangering the whole production. Better to low-ball it. The police evidently were thinking along the same lines, classifying Pastorelli as only a “person of interest” in the murder until after his death. Do such labyrinthine situations happen anywhere but Hollywood? (Answer: yes, in my experience, on Indian reservations and therefore, I suspect, anywhere that behavior is more than a little bit out of control, without context.)

Probably even as I write, someone somewhere is writing a script about Pastorelli as Cracker being played by Pastorelli the addict and killer. It will probably be easy to sell.

The worst thing about these “psycho/psychologist” stories is that they lead us to believe that human behavior is fathomable but only by gifted, exceptional persons. I would suggest that most mothers could see something is wrong with a person not their own child -- at least most of the time. Mothers and wives usually can’t act on it: challenge, test, expose. They can only withdraw, avoid. No one wants to be shot in the head.

I’m reading “Running with the Bulls,” Valerie Hemingway’s memoir that tries to explain Ernest Hemingway and his youngest son as they head over the bison-killing cliff into depression, madness and oblivion -- probably genetic at heart. She repeats over and over that she took the best interpretation of what she saw, that she had too much at stake to do any whistle-blowing, that she felt it was her duty to be optimistic and to believe the nuns (Irish!) who said anything could be achieved if one wanted it enough and prayed hard enough. But her mother gave her different advice. Mary Hemingway saw the danger but had the same reasons not to take decisive action until afterwards. I understand very well from my own life.

But why are so many voyeuristic about it? Do we imagine that by watching crime Crackers we will become astute enough to protect ourselves? Know what to do? Or do we like to imagine what it is like to be the nutcase, the one who took revenge? I have not seen the movie in which Pastorelli plays a killer. They say it is very good. Maybe I don’t want to see it.

Or maybe I do. Is there a writer anywhere who doesn’t think of his/herself as a bit of a Cracker? Is there a critic or reader who doesn’t think s/he can crack the author?

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Sometimes a picture IS worth a thousand words, so I’ll just say that during the Thirties, Seth was rising in the world until he finally “slipped the surly bonds of earth” and flew airplanes for a living.

For a while there he got himself a tall hat to go with his tall cycle and performed on the stage in downtown Portland, OR, as part of a variety show. I’ve never seen a review, but no doubt it was a balanced performance.

Friday, June 22, 2007


While the happy married couples are feathering their nests, what are the bachelors up to, the oldest son and the youngest son -- still out there prowling?

June, 1930, in Corvallis, Oregon, at Oregon State College where the Aggies get educated. The Sam Strachans, dressed in their finest, proudly attended the graduation from the Master’s program of their oldest son, Bruce Bennett Strachan. Now the prosperity would truly begin -- the sudden drop of the Stock Market wouldn’t reach out here to the Pacific Coast -- and soon Bruce would get a good job.

Here’s Bruce, posing as a customer at the front counter while the office of the Pacific Wool Growers gets its portrait taken. Bruce has no desk because he’s a field man, a wool buyer, criss-crossing the sheep country that is mostly out in Eastern Oregon.

Here he is in Malheur County, strictly sagebrush county, struggling to match the map with where he is at the moment. Actually, he wasn’t too bad at finding his way in flat country, having been raised in the Dakotas. It was only when he got into the ridge/valley complexes of Western Oregon that he really got lost. Note that this is not a suit but an “Eisenhower jacket,” probably over jodphurs or twill knickers, and worn with high boots in case of snakes when walking out through the brush to talk to a sheepherder on horseback. It wouldn’t be strategic to dress up too fancy to talk to guys in bib overalls who owned thousands of acres of land. Even so, they gave him all the same negative status as a county ag agent and never bothered to learn his name, which he came to believe might be “Hey, you!” But then they were more used to talking to their dogs.

Once things got a little fancier. This is a self-timer photo of waiting for his airplane in the Pendleton airport. No doubt he had lots of film with him so he could snap pictures out the window all along the way back above the Columbia River.

Once home -- well, back with the Sam Strachans in Portland -- he always had lots of field reports to do, though it was a lot more rewarding to maintain his photo albums. All his life he kept little pocket notebooks noting all the facts: names of people, f-stops, date, time of day, geological features, and so on. Carefully organized by year, they were stashed in a trunk. When he died, they went to the dump. But I have the albums, which is why I’m able to do these blogs.

Of course, one’s wardrobe also needed maintenance, and Bruce’s mother was not the sort to hover, though she would teach a son how to sew on a button. The photo on the bookcase in the background is Bruce’s graduation photo. I have it now. Probably among the books are her beloved Harold Bell Wright and Gene Stratton-Porter novels, which I also have a few of. I’m sure my father also read them. Alongside his Zane Grey and Richard Halliburton.

Somehow in the back of his mind he would have liked to be an intellectual, but at this stage of the game, it looks liked adventure was more the game plan. At least it was a good way to interpret what was actually pretty hard and lonely work.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Because art of the American West first came to notice as a record of historical times before there were photographs, it has been considered more history than art and is usually curated simply by establishing the date of its creation, the qualifications (Western or not) of the artist, and the accuracy of the depiction. Very little energy or expertise is available for aesthetic matters and mostly the audience doesn’t care. As art of the American West, like the French Impressionists, has become more and more a way of parking money (very convenient since thousands of dollars of art can be stowed in a vault somewhere, growing more valuable even as it is unseen), it has become highly commodified and curation consists in large part of telling people how much specific art is worth. Whole websites ( are devoted to tracking certain artists’ work through the auction turnstyles, as though they were stocks in a Wall Street portfolio.

At the same time, there has been a serious ebb of money OUT of the very historical institutions who attempt to capture and boast about art of the American West. Few are qualified to truly curate the works and historical societies/museums try to participate in the great market threshing floor without really having much idea what they’re doing. One can hardly expect the boards of these institutions, who in the Western states are often simply prominent citizens with political connections, proud of their own ancestors, to have the kind of experience and education that would justify the kinds of decisions they are asked to make.

This is particularly true when Indians are the subject matter. I suspect that part of the reason that the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls was anxious to auction off their Couse paintings last March (aside from dire need for money) was that they were paintings of Indians. The rationalization was that they were “southwest” Indians and the C.M. Russell Museum “specializes in the northern Plains.” First I heard of it. All those Junior League ladies who put in so much effort on behalf of the museum are not fond of Indians -- mostly because they don’t know any. They want their own ancestors celebrated. (The Montana legislature has had to pass a law to force public schools to teach Indian history.)

The Montana Historical Society usually has a token Indian on the board. The Indian artifacts that remained in the Scriver Estate were all surrendered to the Federal Fish & Game authorities, who gave them to selected Blackfeet. Some of the objects only looked like Blackfeet artifacts and were actually made and used by Scriver, but no one at the MHS had the expertise to separate them.

This summer there is a display of Scriver bronzes that were given to the C.M. Russell Museum by Ed Mitch, who had been buying “speculator’s bronzes,” that is, those created at the suggestion of a dealer who bought permission to cast them and sold them in much larger editions than are usual -- a hundred rather than ten or twenty-five. They are mostly smaller, done late in life, and still for sale through those speculators. Displaying them in a bona fide museum gives them more selling power.

The C.M. Russell Museum was given a tremendous gift of first-class Blackfeet portraits by Winold Reiss, a very fine and well-respected deceased artist who once had a studio at St. Mary’s Lake. These are gorgeous and accurate Indian people. They are brilliantly hung behind the Scriver bronzes. One of them is of “Old Lady Cree Medicine.”

Renate Reiss, Winold’s daughter-in-law, identifies this portrait above as follows:
Deathly Woman Cree Medicine (Reiss Index A4-5) is the title of the portrait I sent you; it's pastel and tempera on Whatman board, 39x26", 1943. My database lists her name as Asená-Sami, daughter of Running Crane. The portrait was gifted to the CMR by Peter Reiss with many others. I have no objection to your posting it with the photo of the Cree Medicines!

“I am not familiar with the other version (the one you say is on exhibit right how) and have no image of that. It is listed in the Jeffrey Stewart checklist as 'unlocated', and without image.”

The one I remember is bigger and shows her wearing a split horn bonnet and blowing an eagle bone whistle, but maybe I need to go back and look again. Anyway, she was noted for her pipe making, which is why Reiss shows her holding one, and was an important informant for John Ewers and others. All this is easy information to access, for instance, through Adolf Hungry-Wolf’s “Blackfoot Papers.”

What was not realized was that “Old Lady Cree Medicine” was the ancestor of the family that was Bob Scriver’s foundry crew. Here they are at the CM Russell Museum on the occasion of the gala presentation of the Governor’s Medal to Bob Scriver:

On the left is Carma and Carl Cree Medicine and on the right is David and Rosemary Cree Medicine. These folks were more than just crew: they were family. When Bob broke his sternum, it was Carl who lowered him into bed at night. Late in life, Bob couldn’t walk without help more than a few steps and David carried a chair alongside him so he could rest every little while and thus get across the backyard to the shop. When Bob died in the shop basement bathroom, the Cree Medicines were pouring bronze in the foundry, only tens of feet away. It was David who broke down the door to get Bob out.

In the Sixties we used to cut Christmas trees, taking Carl along in the pickup and cutting enough for all the families. When we went to cut willows for trees in the backyard, Carl was with us and cut some for his own yard. Once Bob was threatened, told that if he rode horseback in the Indian Days parade, he would be roped and dragged. Carl rode with him so nothing would happen. When Bob first got a snowmobile, he and Carl went Courvetting through the snow together, chasing dogs. This is history as much as Charlie’s friends riding a horse into a bar without knocking.

But it appears that if any curating is going to be done, it's up to the families of the artists and the Indians as well.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Is love of language genetic? Cultural? Or maybe a family matter? At the moment, the evidence is for family. My Aunt May’s grandson, and May’s dearest friend and sister-in-law, Elsie, who for Dean is a great-aunt (and a “great” aunt she was!), are both published poets, though there is no genetic connection. May was not a poet, but an accomplished painter.

At 37, after a past something like Charlie’s Nines (That is to say, he’s been around!), Dean is in college. At 96 Elsie Mackinnon Strachan has transcended this earth as of last week and we presume she is in a well-deserved Heaven. Not long ago I posted a snapshot of her sitting on a sofa with her husband, showing one little white-bowed shoe from under her skirt.

You might say these two poems are end-of-life celebrations: one of human evidence and the other of nature in glory. Dean writes with economy of words about objects closely observed which serve as metaphors for a long life vigorously lived. Not pretty, not powerful, but protective and maintained, these shoes have been a platform
from which to act.

Charlie’s Nines

Charlie’s nines,
left and right.
Worn beyond hue—
black? Brown?
Crooked old boots with
laces like twigs,
soaked with earth and sweat.
Age-lines and charm,
care and a brush.
A good pair of nines
last forever or close.
These nines,
left and right,
have outlived their feet—
soles re-stitched,
new every year.
No more garden to porch,
no more stroll to the U.S. Post,
down the dusty-rut road.
He outlived his wife,
his daughter, and dog.
He outran the dust storms—
West to pick oranges,
to build giant ships.
Just kept on walking,
for love of the view.
Goodnight, Charlie—
left and right,
your old shoes can rest.

Elsie’s poem, like much of her work, is observant of nature as a metaphor for human emotion. In this case the intense color of fall foliage equals fire, but not a fire that burns us. Rather it is a warming campfire we rest beside. End of life is implied, but it is not portrayed as sad or painful. Indeed her end was quiet and serene after a long disciplined and loving life.

Last Campfire

The Last of autumn burns here:
Crackle of golden stubble,
Crimson of sumac’s flame,
Sun on the fruit-sweet bough;

Here, where our fire burns bright,
Smoke-quills lazily pencil
Their last farewells…while we
Bask in the flickering now.
The Relief Society Magazine – October 1958

Elsie's poems have been compiled into a booklet by her son. We don't know yet what's ahead for Dean's.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


A common feature of kitchens in older Montana houses is a trapdoor in the floor. This is not because of Indians or cyclones, but because one needs access to the plumbing and most older houses are built on crawl spaces. (More modern houses might either have basements or be built on slabs.) The door is in the kitchen because that floor is generally not carpeted and, I suppose, that’s most likely where there was earliest plumbing.

This house has crawlspace but also what I call “stoop space,” that is, a hole under the kitchen deep enough to accommodate the water heater and the floor furnace, which help to keep that space warm in winter. Digging that hole was a bit of a disaster, since it’s clear that it caused a shift in the ground that sank the kitchen sills in spite of their foundations and cracked the slab floor of the attached garage as well as caving some of the driveway along the house.

Gumbo or caleche dirt as we have here has the unfortunate quality of expanding and contracting, depending on how wet it is. Houses have a hard time staying square so that doors don’t fit their trapezoidal frames most of the time. When the weather conditions are exactly the same as they were when the door was installed, everything works like a charm. Otherwise, it binds here and gapes there. When it is dry, it is like cement, but when it is wet it’s like sticky pudding.

This house was flooded twice from underneath because of frozen broken pipes, the last time just a while before I bought it. Everything stored down in that hole was floated around: paint cans, lampshades, storm windows -- the people who have lived here were likely to be old ranch wives who found “under the house” a good place for storage. (One local man, cleaning out his long-deceased father’s house, found his grandfather’s historic business papers by the barrel-full under there.)

The old lady who lived here the last time went down into the crawl space for some reason (it had a ceiling light) but the trapdoor fell down. It was too heavy for her to push up so she just stayed down there, without panic. It was late in the day when her children became worried and finally figured out where she was.

I was going up and down once and the cats followed me down the hole. There are steep narrow stairs, which is better than any trapdoor access I ever had before, and they were very interested to see what all was down there, even in the remotest dark corners. Preoccupied, I didn’t “count cats” (there are two) before I shut the trapdoor. After an hour or so, I wondered where they were and pulled up the door. There they sat, side-by-side, at the bottom of the stairs, calmly waiting just like that old lady, but their eyes were big and round.

The east side of this house once had a tree growing next to it, so close that eventually it began to crowd and collapse the foundation on that side. It might have been at that point that the wall was rebuilt and reinforced, eliminating a door but adding a picture window which is one of the assets of this place, though I would like to eventually replace it with French doors, which are more practical with modern insulation, esp. if I can built a sun porch into the angle of house and garage, though it will be more of a shade porch for summer. The stoop space had evidently been intended to become a full cellar, but ran into the root system of that tree, whose roots suddenly began to sprout after the flooding!

After Bob divorced me, I lived in a two story yellow house in East Glacier that belonged to the woman who now lives just east of me here in Valier. It had always had sewer problems, even though it had a cement root cellar accessed through the kitchen floor trapdoor. But it was dry while I was there and I cleaned it all out. That first winter there was a cold snap and my plumbing froze. I went down to Browning and borrowed the plumber’s pot that Bob used to boil out bear skulls. If I ran it a while in the evening, that kept the root cellar warm enough to protect the pipes. But I had to be cautious about carbon monoxide. At the little house I lived in before I married Bob, the crawl space was just that and I lowered an electric heater with an extension cord into it when the pipes began to get too cold.

Late last week the pilot light on my water heater went out. I just left it out, testing to see whether I could get by for the summer without gas. I could. Just like camping, heat the dish water on the stove. Take cold showers. Ignore the need to wash anything else. (I take my clothes to the laundromat.) It worked fine. Then we had a very cold and rainy day and I wished for a hot shower, so I went down with a box of kitchen matches, read the directions about three times, and failed to get it lit. Had to call the gas man, who came promptly and thought it was a great atrocity not to have hot water! He’s the guy who’s building the huge house on the SW corner of town and he told me all about it. “Only 2,000 square feet,” he said, and when I forecast many strong winds, he assured me that he grew up in Fairfield on a ranch so windy that they had to put in power poles to tie their young windbreak trees upright, or they blew flat. He’s a young, cheerful, energetic, intelligent guy who longs for the day his wife can move up from Fairfield to live with him in the new house. He sold the ranch.

What the gas man didn’t know is that hot water heaters are one of the major bugaboos of my life. When I was young, our Portland house had the old fashioned kind of water heater with a gas-heated copper spiral next to a tank. One lit the water heater with a match -- no pilot light. I always got the order wrong, so there was a bit of gas buildup -- which would horrify today’s people -- and once I exploded my bangs off. Luckily, I wear glasses. I was terrified, convinced that I almost died. But my mother didn’t like having to run down to the basement to turn the thing on and off (it was a proper basement) and, anyway, she felt that being afraid was NOT acceptable. So when I refused to light the heater, she smacked me with a yardstick, following me all the way down, until I did it. (It’s part of my counter-phobic syndrome: that is, going towards anything that scares me, which serves me well.) I expect that’s the real reason I was thinking about doing without hot water for the summer. One’s subconscious is quite cunning. A kind of crawl space.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


More syncronicity. You can turn it off now, thank you. It’s beginning to be a little overwhelming. I was sitting here with earphones on watching “The Flame Trees of Thika,” the scene where a thunderstorm saves a man’s life, and I thought, “Wow! This is realistic! I can even smell it! And the thunder feels right overhead!” Well, that’s because it was, and I had to close down quickly so my computer wouldn’t get zapped.

Yesterday I was in Browning and, plucking up my courage, went into Thad and Wessie’s house for the first time since 1970 or so. (Thad and Wessie Scriver were Bob Scriver’s parents, and therefore my in-laws.) Wessie came as a bride in 1911 and I’ve written about what a miserable squalid little house it seemed to her after her graceful family home in Quebec -- now the house is back to being that. It was always scroogie and without any foundation, but with nice furniture and drapes and a good carpet the illusion was comfortable. Now it’s a sort of store with homemade racks in the front for selling medical supplies and Leland Ground lives in the back, cooking soup for his “crew” and sleeping in the room where Bob Scriver was born. Telling him that weirded him out. Leland was gone when I was there yesterday, but I showed his secretary the closet where Wessie would lock in the wayward Robert when he was really bad. And where the big coal stove was that fell apart and covered her with soot. The trees Bob planted in the backyard when he was a teenager have mostly died now, partly from old age and partly from lack of water. Piegan Institute’s Napipuhyahsin School is next door. Darren, Darrell Kipp’s son, says he itches to bulldoze the Scriver house.

My errand was really to distribute and maybe sell some books. Next I went to Blackfeet Community College to give them complementary copies for the library. The librarian was interested -- she turned out to be the daughter of Gordon Monroe, Bob’s fiberglass man and a former student of mine in my early teaching days. What’s Gordie doing? Writing and researching history! Aha! Just the kind of person I’m trying to round up and teach how to do print-on-demand. Gotta call him later. The idea of a one-day workshop at BBC came to life.

Since I was doing brave things, I went on up to East Glacier and stopped in at Susie and Terry McMaster’s Brown House. Terry taught with me at Browning High School, then went to the Free School, where -- though faculty rather than student -- he learned how to make pottery on a wheel. He and Susie bought an old two-story store and, leaving all the old stuff on the shelves, reorganized it into a shop in the front and living quarters in the rear. It’s been growing and perfecting now since 1971 and at last Susie has gotten her quite wonderful dream kitchen!

These two people are very meticulous and talk over details and plans endlessly before they ever do anything. Susie and I shared a love of high-end decorating magazines, but she perfected every little step a la Martha Stewart while my decorating and housekeeping theory can be summarized in one word: splat! Splash on paint, hang bright curtains, shelve the books and never touch anything again. (Well, I change the curtains, slipcovers and pillows with the seasons. The books seem to move themselves around.) Susie keeps everything dusted, polished, arranged, etc. In the long run, we have more in common than not, except that Terry and I share more ideas. Politically, we are worlds apart. We’re Indian-friendly but in slightly different ways, since I’ve been forever changed by the post-colonial Native American listservs. Still, we care deeply about the same people.

It was the McMasters’ snug house and their ability to survive on next to nothing but a dream, determination, and discipline that gave me the courage to move into a little old house in Valier and do something similar. The trick that finally nudged them over into prosperity was creating Bed & Breakfast units on their property -- an extension of the kitchen addition and two spaces in an upstairs on Terry’s studio which was originally the trailer they bought to live in when they came from California. If you decide you want to stay there, you’ll need a reservation (the time kind, not the space kind) because they have “regulars” who come every summer. No website but if you Google, you’ll find the phone number: “The Brown House.” Part of their discipline is not getting enmeshed in the Internet. The little resort town has many new buildings but what struck me was the vegetation: hedges, trees, and gardens are practically fulminating this spring. Looks like an amazing berry year.

Flame Trees of Thika” takes place in the same timespan and very much the same sort of circumstances as Wessie Scriver coming to Browning, Montana. I sometimes speculate on a comparison of the Edwardian period in Kenya and India (I’m still reading “The Raj Quartet.”) and Montana. Huge amounts of land, a native peoples in distress and oppression, enormous corporate greed alongside small people with big ideas, and plenty of opportunities to see what you’re made of. Industrialization in infancy. Even through the Sixties when the McMasters and I came, the air of frontier lingered, especially among the old people who opened their Thunder Pipe Bundles this time of year. It’s younger people doing that now, including Leland. I intend to stay away even though I’m entitled to go. Let them do it. I will support them all I can, but I’m on a different trail. Wessie never cared for “all that hokey-pokey,” because her religion was her family. Plenty of Kenyans, both kinds of Indians, and many Montanans share her idea of the Sacred. It’s what brought her through the enormous cultural and physical challenge of moving here.

Karen Blixen’s “Out of Africa” is about the same time and place and some of the same people as “Flame Trees.” Blixen’s book was an important part of my motivation for coming to Montana. Now if I could just write like her... I try to BE like her, though physically we’re nothing like the same. I’m much more like “Tillie” Huxley, the Hayley Mills mother character in “Flame Trees.” Wessie was very like “Elspeth” in the movie, though she never aspired to writing. (The man who plays the father is physically more right for Dennis Finch-Hatton than Robert Redford was, but Redford’s charisma was right. Also, his ability to raise money.)

People have enormous nostalgia for the Edwardian times on the huge grasslands of the world. Somehow even the people at the time, like Charlie Russell, knew they were partcipating in something that would have hellish consequences, like the disappearance of so many animals. (“Flame Trees,” made in 1981, has marvelous animal photos.) Climate change is just an extension of something that seemed to start so innocently, serving the religion of “family” by building a home. Writing about it can at least leave a record of the powerful emotional connection some of us have made.

Why write? To understand the past? To build a new future? To prevent more destruction? Or just to grieve?

The thunderstorm I mentioned at the beginning was a hailstorm farther east. Three-inch balls of ice some places, piled up three feet high against buildings, they said. Wiped out crops. Hammered new car lots. Broke windows. Raised welts on people outside in sunsuits. Another couple of months and we’ll be as hot and dusty as the first scene in “Flame Trees of Thika.” The first snow here comes about Labor Day. Don’t move here now. It’s not the same. You won’t have the same experience. Right place -- wrong time.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


My current project -- okay, one of my current projects -- is getting a guide to the Blackfeet Reservation into print. I’ve blogged about the three resort towns on the border of Glacier National Park (East Glacier, St. Mary and Babb), the main capital (Browning), and now I’m looking at the two “old-timer” communities where people held onto the old ways a little longer. Heart Butte is a favorite, of course, because I lived there for a couple of years when I helped start the first high school. Both they and I have come a long ways since then.

But I thought I’d be practical and run a mileage on check-points of interest. (Don’t forget to get gas in Valier or Dupuyer -- there’s no gas station in Heart Butte.) Starting at the intersection of Highway 44 (E/W) with Highway 89 (N/S), it took .7 miles to get to the historic marker dedicated to Meriweather Lewis, whose sub-group side-expedition on the way home killed two young men not far from this spot. There is also a memorial marker for those killed in the Flood of 1964, a terrifying event that forever changed Heart Butte. The little hamlet was nearly wiped out and many residents moved to Browning.

1.1 Crossing Birch Creek. This is the southern boundary of the reservation. The flood roared down this small river in a thirty-foot-high wall because Swift Dam had gone out. It was an old dam built by one of the Conrad brothers, notorious profiteers who were determined to irrigate the “Birch flats” on the white side. In the process they created Lake Francis and Valier. Only now are the Blackfeet claiming the water necessary to irrigate alfalfa on the north side of the river.

1.2 On the left side of the highway is the turn-off to Heart Butte. It is well marked by shop-class signs for the school. No one wants the suppliers of milk and lunch food to go astray! Let alone a busload of basketball players! Up on the hill on the right just after turning is Webb Pepion’s ranch and studio. He’s “gone on ahead” now but this is his family’s Hayes Act allotment so they are still there. Every time I go by, I remember once when the whole family was out flying kites -- not kid’s kites, but big serious amazing ones! Usually it’s too windy!

1.3 Jay Laber’s “Guardians of the Reservation” reclaim old car parts in a sculpture of two warriors wearing authentic Blackfeet “straight-up” bonnets. There are four sets of these riders, one at each compass point of the reservation.

As you drive along, just north of Birch Creek, you’ll see tangles of silvery wood that are remnants of the Flood of 1964. Today, I saw a fellow out “windrowing” an alfalfa field -- not rowing the wind, but rather cutting the plants so they fall in a line or “row” or “windrow.” When they’ve dried a bit, they’ll be baled.

9.5 A buffalo rock on the right -- that is, an erratic boulder carried down from far away by the glaciers ten-thousand years ago and left when the ice melted. This one has no lichen or weathering because it was under the ground and only exposed when the road was built when Heart Butte began to recover from the flood by tribal paving of the access roads. Nevertheless, the People remember the importance of such huge stones in their past as landmarks and characters in stories, so if you walked over you might find small offerings. Don’t take any (you’d be courting bad luck), but you’re welcome to leave something. There are other, smaller erratic boulders along the road as you go, but none so much like a buffalo as this one.

12.2 Eloise England’s ranch. Her name is up on the gate with one of those fabulous laser-cut silhouettes of cowboys.

13.7 A T in the roadway. Turn to the right. There is a sign pointing to Heart Butte. The left turn goes to Dupuyer. If the road turns to gravel, you cross a stream (Birch Creek), you’re driving through bull pines instead of prairie, then you’ve gone the wrong way This road can be pretty rough but at night when it’s clear and no moon, you’ll never see more stars. It’s just very important to make sure you have a spare tire. Only a few ranchers live out that way.

16.1 A bridge over a much smaller stream than Birch Creek.

19.3 The turnoff to the left goes to the school complex. It is a sort of village by itself. The land came from the Crawford ranch. The first building, the elementary school, was built into the top of the hill, which was supposed to save heating money. There were no windows. Later, when the high school was proposed, the architects asked what main things people wanted. FIRST, WINDOWS! That even came before the gym, which is rather amazing in size and amenities. Some would suggest that the high school is a gym with some adjunct classrooms. Others would say, “What’s wrong with that?”

Most of the teachers live onsite in row housing or trailers. This can be good or bad, depending on how you look at it. On the one hand, it’s relatively safe and people have a lot in common. On the other hand, they are removed from the lives of their students and can get into each other’s hair.

20.4 Another small bridge and then you’re in the town. Note the turquoise water tanks up on the hill. The school water tank is underneath the outdoor basketball court -- if you stand next to it on a quiet night, you can hear sloshing and gurgling.

When you get into town, on the left you’ll see a very large and modern church, St. Anne’s Catholic Church with a hot tub for a baptismal font. The priest and nuns live right nearby. When I was there, the church was far more modest and historic, almost a century old, but much beloved. Alongside is the graveyard (a graveyard is attached to a church while a cemetary is a free-standing bit of land.) which is often covered with a fleece of white baby’s breath which the wind had planted from the many bouquets. Sometimes the wind plays games with the plastic flowers as well. A statue of Mary stands in a little grotto shell.

Just up the hill is a quonset hut which is the Methodist church. The minister who brought it in was fulfilling a promise to restore the Swims Under church, which was a picturesque log cabin on Badger Creek destroyed by the Flood. Most people feel he rather overshot the mark, but the building does service for summer school, clothing giveaways, funerals and the like.

A little farther along the road on the left is the newest church, Whitetail Baptist. I know very little about it. Across the street from it is nearly the oldest spiritual building: the old round house where Indian dances were held in the old days. The round house and the building just past it, the Marge Kennedy Center which was the original Heart Butte school house, are vestiges of the little “government square” that has mostly been removed now, due to dilapidation.

But then comes the infrastructure that Heart Butte needed for a long time in the interval between the paving of the highways and the return of many people (for whom housing projects had been built). An imposing brick building with unique architecture is the hospital or clinic, which has its own Blackfeet doctor -- much needed in a community with so many oldsters, so many alcoholics, so much diabetes. There is a fire hall for the volunteer firemen -- they used to have to come all the way from Browning.

Across the main Heart Butte road is the post office and next to it the Thompson home and the store Tommy ran there for a while.

Just across the side road from the hospital, next to the Boys and Girls Club and the Diabetes Center is a key structure, the Heart Butte Trading Post. Janet and Merlin Running Crane, experienced hard-workers for school and post office, launched this much needed community service in a building once meant to be a sewing machine cooperative. It was a good idea, but the contractors had a hard time finding jobs that weren’t too much or too little (things like tank air-filters) and it ended. There is a website: They have an ATM, phone cards, friendly faces, a place to sit and have coffee, and old-time photos on display.

When I was there today, Eloise Cobell (unafraid to make war on the United States government!) and some banking development ladies were there, one from Manhattan -- yeah, that Indian island in New York State. I wanted to give Janet some comp copies of my books so she could talk them up and maybe decide to sell them there, and Eloise bought “Twelve Blackfeet Stories!” In came Merlin with familiar local banter. “Howdy, stranger. Are you lost?” he asked me. (That means, Geez, I haven’t seen you for a long time!) My comeback is always, “Heck, no, I finally came home.” Happy laughter all around.

In came straggling packs of kids and dogs. Along comes Father Dan -- it’s mid-afternoon, snack time. “Hello, Father Dan! Hello, Father Dan! Hello, Father Dan!”

“Hey, no doubt about who you are!” I exclaim to Father Dan.

“Then why do I still get mail addressed to Occupant all the time?”

“Why, that’s your dog’s name! Haven’t you been reading him his mail? He’s been wondering why that cute poodle never writes!” More laughter.

Old Phillip Dog Taking Gun comes in, now towing an oxygen cylinder. The kids around him are watching him closely to help in case he falls. He leans on the counter, barely able to catch his breath. I go close to him. “Phillip, I’m Mary Scriver.” He nods. He was the janitor when I taught. He’s a notorious character in the on-going soap opera John Tatsey used to write about Heart Butte. A few years ago his granddaughter, whom I taught, was beaten to death by bad friends who thought she talked to much. Her favorite movie was “Pretty Woman.” Someone who saw her in the hospital said they had shaved her head to get at the fractures.

“Phillip, I just want you to know that I’m still upset about Glenda.” He nods, still unable to get his breath. "It shouldn't have turned out that way." I’m horrified to find I’m crying and leave quickly. Behind me, Phillip nods.

In mid-June along the East Front there’s still a bit of moisture in the air and the small cumulus clouds go in procession above the land. The whole near-infinite vista feels transparent -- blued and thinned, green grass echoing sky, shadows drawing pale purple shapes along the waterways and long hills. It’s watercolor rather than oil paint, mystical, a world of light. But it can be cruel.

I saw a heron flying, trailing its long legs. Not a Running Crane.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


On Tuesday it’s the turn of my side of town to water. Normally I get up about 4AM, do Internet stuff for an hour while the sun comes up (I can see it from the computer-side window), read the paper, and go back to bed until 9AM when the church next door begins bonging its way through the day. But we have to stop watering between 10AM and 6PM, so on watering day I stay up to move the sprinkler around the yard until 10AM. Otherwise, something has to go dry. Right now I have peonies (pre-existing), geraniums (big blood-red ones I brought from Portland), daisies (which just mysteriously appeared) and blue cranesbill geraniums (likewise). The tomatoes in the bathtubs are doing well. But this schedule makes me groggy. I figured I’d sneak in a nap.

Instead, one of my former students called to see if he and a friend could stop by. This not just any former student: this is Leland Ground, descendant of Mary Ground, one of the true matriarchs of the tribe though she had blue eyes. I taught Leland and a couple of his brothers. One brother was a classroom aide while I was teaching in Heart Butte. One student was considered uncontrollable -- he would occasionally rise up and become violent-- so Roger was supposed to sit with him and keep him under control. Lots of times I’d be talking about something and realize that Roger was the only person in the room who was really interested! The thing is that Ground guys are smart. Their sister, Mary Ellen LaFromboise, is one of the smartest and most progressive people on the reservation. I hope I don’t get her into trouble by saying so. (Praise can make a person a target around here.)

In 1961 Leland was in the first class I ever taught after student teaching. In those days they “tracked” kids and we had four tracks in Browning. I taught the bottom of the eighth grade and the top of the seventh grade. Leland was in the top of the seventh. He was little in those days, with big bashful eyes like an antelope, and a gentle manner, a desire to be friends with everyone. But you could see the wheels turning in his head all the time, sparks flying up as the fires in there burned, maybe hear an occasional zap as the electricity made contact.

So now he’s a grandpa and he’s ready to begin writing. Not about candy or Hawaii the way he used to, but real stuff. To show he remembers his lessons, he recites “be, am, is, are, was, were, been...” , the verbs of being, the same way that I learned in the eighth grade from Agnes Carter in Portland, Oregon, and taught my classes. My whole grade school class, which reconvenes every month in Portland to have dinner out together (this is the Vernon Grade School Class of 1953 which overlaps with the Jefferson High School Class of 1957) can recite the verbs of being in their sleep. So can my brother. It’s one of those culture meme things and it persists because it works. If you memorize some of these things (verbs of being, linking verbs, prepositions, the alphabet) it makes a lot of stuff much simpler.

Leland and I have both been a helluva lot of places since then. I started really writing at his present age. Since I have no physical children, my former students mean a lot to me -- or maybe all teachers feel as fierce and possessive about their students. When I make contact with Richard Stern, my ferocious and famous writing teacher at the University of Chicago, he certainly recognizes me and seems to have warm feelings. This chain of learning feels to me very significant, at the heart of being human and civilized. I don’t know how anyone could argue with that.

These big Blackfeet men -- Leland brought Glenn Calf Looking along to ride shotgun -- have shared ceremonial experience with me. Leland’s family, like the Kipp family, is involved in Medicine Pipe Bundle Openings and, as well, Leland has a long history with Pentecostal Christian groups which share some characteristics with my Unitarian Universalist congregations, though they'd be startled to think so. He was raised Catholic and still accepts that. Blackfeet feel the more religions the better. I'm inclined to agree. So these tall bulky men sat in my precarious wicker chairs, balancing the porcelain mugs I gave them and sipping politely though I was so preoccupied I didn’t even offer them cream and sugar, while we discussed points of theory about this or that. (I had no little cakes or cookies to offer them -- a bad side affect of being diabetic. I should freeze some, I guess.)

Both Leland and I have gone white-headed now. I thought he might have braids and he did, but his mother died last December and he cut them off to grieve. Like many others, he remembers my curly red hair. While we shared memories, Glenn patiently looked through my Blackfeet picture books.

We took a look at my Bundle Transfer dress, which has stains on the front. They recommended Woolite. When one has a Bundle Transferred, the previous owner takes off their clothes and the new owner puts them on, so that the Power of the Bundle will know to follow that person. It’s polite to make a new set of clothes, which is what Margaret Many Guns and Richard Little Dog did for Bob and me, but Margaret didn’t have a lot of money and wasn’t really that much in favor of transferring to a napi-yahki (white woman) anyway so she didn’t go all out. It’s a peach colored cotton dress with purple and emerald ribbon sewed on by machine. I want to add beads and some other things in case we ever find our Bundle. (Lorraine, Bob’s fourth wife, didn’t want me to have it and it disappeared when he died.)

We talked about the significance of the animal skins in the Bundle and how important it is to know the iconography and feelings they represent before one can properly dance with them in the ceremony. My big yellow cat came at that time and stood on my lap. (She thinks she’s an icon.) She looked the men over pretty sharply as we rarely get company. Her tortoiseshell sister came later when they were gone and took detailed notes on where the men had sat.

Since then, I’ve spent an hour looking through my slides for one I took of Leland in the 7th grade. He’s standing by another teacher’s big German Shepherd dog, a friend. This dog bit some kids but not Leland. He’s a peacemaker, a weaver-together, a teller of tales. I’m so proud of him! And you know where he lives? In the house where Bob Scriver grew up. In fact, Leland’s bedroom is the room where Bob Scriver was born in 1914. Synchronicity.

Just now I was delighted to find bees guzzling in the peonies. I’ll look for that slide some more.

Monday, June 11, 2007


I’ve spent a good part of today searching my files again for photos of Bob’s first wife, Alice. No luck. Deadline is approaching. We’ll simply have to go without. But I found a little cache of other interesting tidbits: the Christmas cards I made when I was married to Bob.

These are linoleum prints. You buy a little block of wood with a piece of linoleum glued to the top of it. Draw your picture on the white linoleum, then cut away whatever you don’t want to print. (Art stores sell a little set of gouges for this, but you could use anything that will cut the linoleum.) Squeeze out some kind of paint on a flat surface -- piece of glass, maybe -- and roll it even with a brayer, one of those rubber rollers with a handle. Then use the roller to coat the linoleum block and press it on your paper. Presto! A little print! I think I got started because the market came out with lovely little prepared blanks for cards, folded, deckled and with envelopes.

This one didn’t say anything inside. I had kind of a thing for snowy owls in those days. They were illegal to own mounted, so Bob gave me a little hydrocal one, but he didn’t paint it. One of these days I’ll get up my courage and do it.

A real mouse modeled for this one. I kept it in a fish tank for a while and practiced sketching it. At one time I had a little mouse collection, the star of which was a Royal Copenhagen mouse. I gave it away when I went to seminary, along with a lot of other treasures. My reasoning was that I was entering a nun-like state in which I should embrace poverty. I could not have been more wrong. Anyway, this card said inside, “May the mouse in your house never go hungry.”

There were real models for this one, too: our springer spaniel pup we called “Buckshot” and the little fox vixen we called “Vixen.” Well, when we didn’t call her “Foxy.” They had a grand time chasing each other around and I have several “interesting” photos of Bob in his underwear rough-housing on the floor with them. (The photos are not in the pending biography.) The inside of this one said, “Who needs Donner and Blitzen? We have Bucky and Vixen!”

All this would be vaguely interesting except that we sent out quite a few of the cards to friends and customers who are now aged enough to be deceased. At their estate sales these cards are turning up and are represented as “original Bob Scriver works.” Pretty funny, really. I mean, representing a Seltzer painting as a Russell painting is one thing, but mistaking a clumsy little lino print as an original Bob Scriver? Come on, now!

And yet it’s a good illustration of that strange phenomenon of people not seeing artwork for its own sake but only in terms of its sale value on the market and its capacity to endow the owner with some kind of certification by association with a known Important Person.

Once I got a breathless phone call, directing me to straighten out an auctioneer who was selling one of these cards as an original Scriver. The caller knew it was not, but the auction folks wouldn’t take her word for it. So what was I supposed to do? Call the auctioneer and tell him it was worthless art because I did it? Why should I?

It’s pretty clear that a lot of people don’t buy art, they buy artists, and some artists are willing to accept that. Even Charlie Russell was a “special buddy” of certain people who liked to boast about it and Mamie was not above fanning the flames, since they bought a nice big painting every year. So that makes it especially ironic that people who bought these cards were buying a little bit of personal kitsch to show off, but not a remnant of the artist -- rather of his former wife.

If they were really buying the art, I’d go get a stack of lino blocks and start to work. I still have my gouges around here somewhere.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


James Welch is by far the most noted of the Blackfeet writers and, in fact, has probably broken out of the Native American category to be shelved with mainstream writers. In fact, he was not exclusively Blackfeet but he was strongly related or associated with many outstanding personalities on the Blackfeet Reservation. These are his Blackfeet connections:

His grandfather, James Welch, came from North Carolina. He had left a wife and three children there on the Cherokee Reservation. In Montana he married Ellen Sanderville. Her father was Isidore Sanderville or Sandoval (who was half-Piegan on his mother’s side) and her mother was Isidore’s full-blood Piegan wife, who had been adopted and raised by Charles Phemister, who ranched just to the south of Charles Davis’ allotment but across Birch Creek so that he was off the reservation. They were associated with the Heart Butte community.

Ellen’s grandfather, also Isidore Sandoval or Sanderville, came from New Mexico and was a companion or possibly a brother of Pablo and related to the Starr of Starr School. His Piegan wife was named Catch-for-Nothing. In 1833 he was an informant to Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, the visiting naturalist. When Bodmer painted an Assiniboine attack on the Piegan camp just outside a fort, Sandoval was there. Later he was the right hand man for Alexander Culbertson until he was murdered by another engagĂ©. Isidore II was adopted by Malcolm Clarke and survived an Arikara attack on Clarke’s fort on the Marias, even though he, a blind girl, and Helen Clarke (then a child) were outside the fort when the attack came. Their rescue is a thrilling story.

In addition to Ellen, Isidore Sanderville II had a number of outstanding children by several wives: Oliver, Richard and Thomas were strong interpreters, political campaigners and ceremonial leaders. Louise married a Croff and Cecile married a Yellow Wolf.

The first James Welch was the father of the James Welch who was a playmate of Bob Scriver, the two of them becoming the bane of superintendent Doug Gold’s efforts to keep an orderly school. He grew up to be a very fine welder and a hospital administrator, doing well enough that at one point he bought each of his three sons a car of their own. Evidently inheriting his father’s fiddlefoot, he held jobs from Seattle to Minneapolis and married a Fort Belknap woman (they met at Haskell) with whom he had three sons. By a late marriage he also had a daughter. All four children did well in life. Just last spring this James was buried in the Dupuyer cemetary between his mother and his grandmother. His son, James Welch Junior, had earlier died of cancer.

The third James Welch, who used "Junior" with his name, is the famous writer who actually spent many formative years on the Fort Belknap Reservation. His two early break-through novels, “Winter in the Blood” and “The Death of Jim Loney” are about that reservation rather than the Blackfeet one. Among his Fort Belknap relatives is Sidner Larson, author of “Catch Colt,” a memoir that tells about his own careers as a rancher, bar owner, lawyer and professor of Native American literature.

Ellen Welch’s uncle, Richard Sanderville (3/4 Piegan) was a nephew of Good Singing, Malcolm Clarke’s wife, who was married to him by Father de Smet in 1862. Good Singing’s and Clarke’s daughter, Judith, married Tom Dawson. They lived in East Glacier. Richard Sanderville was educated at the St. Ignatius Mission and Carlisle. He was an advisor to Louis Hill, the Glacier Park Service, Schultz, and Grinnell. Some of his correspondence survives.

Ellen’s sister, Cecile, married Yellow Wolf. Yellow Wolf’s sister, Fine Shield Woman, married James Willard Schultz. Yellow Wolf’s son, Sam Yellow Wolf, was the second husband of Mary, widow of William Jackson, a scout with Custer. Yellow Wolf is buried near the grave of James Willard Schultz on the cliffs overlooking the Two Medicine valley, or rather the other way around, since Schultz asked to be buried near his uncle-in-law.

David Duvall (1/2 Piegan), the informant for Clarke Wissler, early anthropologist, had a half-sister, Mary Eagle Head, who was the first wife of Hart Schultz.

Oliver Sanderville/Sandoval was with the Clarke family on Prickly Pear Creek when relatives of Malcolm’s first wife, Kakokima, murdered Malcolm in August, 1869, provoking the “Baker Massacre” in January 1870. (This ranch is now Sieben, the home ranch of Senator Baucus.)

Oliver Sanderville’s uncle was Sleeping-in-Daytime (male) whose daughter Yellow Spotted married Dick Kipp, son of Heavy Runner and grandfather of Darrell Kipp, head of the Piegan Institute.

Though there may not be genetic connections among all these people, it’s clear that the family “culture” was one of openness to progress, valuing of education and writing, and willingness to accept whites. They have been people who successfully assimilated without losing their identities.

(This entry is based on “Blackfeet Heritage, 1907-1908,” edited by Roxanne DeMarce and “Who Was Who In Glacier Land” by Jack Holterman.)

Saturday, June 09, 2007


Nobody tagged me with the mime for favorite blogs, but I don’t care, I’ll just list my favorites anyway.

I. is normally in England where people don’t get so upset about proper terms for male anatomy, except for Mrs. Trellis, an intruder on this blog who says the most remarkable things. I tried impersonating her in the comments once, but was instantly recognized and rebuffed. I suppose she’s Welsh and still there, whereas I’m Scots and only from my grandpa’s generation back, though they say there was a sojourn in Nova Scotia at some point. This clever grandpa comes to the US to visit his children and assures us it’s worth it. He alternates photos of them with photos of birds as he spots them. The birds are less tiring, I suspect, but I hope he never has to make a choice between birds and grandchildren.

2. is such piercingly beautiful writing, also English and also often about birds, that I sometimes end up actually weeping. Seriously. “I’ve watched sparrowhawks fly through hedgerows at top speed. Their range-finding, terrain-avoidance equipment is such that they can pour themselves through tiny holes, shrugging, drawing their wings tight to their sides for an instant, braking with a flowering of wings and huge, fanned tail and throwing themselves to one side to avoid a thorn or a snag of wire. All this at fifty or sixty miles an hour.”


“Sparrowhawks are important to me, because it is too easy for me to do the Keats thing: pour myself into birds as a way of disappearing from me-ness. I identify with birds too easily. I am embarrassed to admit that I’m way too ready to get lost in the enjoyment of a dust-bathing sparrow, take joy in the sun on my fluffy flanks, presume I know exactly what the blackbird’s thinking as it chinks in alarm in a hedge. But sparrowhawks are incomprehensible. I can’t pour myself into a sparrowhawk, not even for a moment. They’re the wrong density for the world I live in, and their mores are unaccountable.”

III. Aside from English birders, I’m addicted to emergency responders. Chas Clifton defends “Ambulance Driver” and I love him, too, (yes, I don’t mean “like”) but at you get more of a novel. Like this: “He pulled the dented car over onto the side of the highway. Rush hour traffic screamed by him in the other three lanes. Horns whistled as the irate drivers raced dangerously close to his driver's side door, angrily flipping him off as he sat in his car weeping. The trashy small sedan reeked of cigarette smoke and the front windshield was stained with the yellow fog from every nicotine-laced exhalation. A dream catcher hung religiously from the bent rear view mirror. It hadn't worked in years.

IV. For head-clearing, it’s pretty hard to beat one of the Glacier Park webcams. This is the url for the entrance on the east side at St. Marys, where I spent a summer at the counter for a campground -- not the parks’ campground, a private one. Same bears. <>

IV. You guys already know about Chas Clifton, Stephen Bodio’s Querencia (3 guys) and 2blowhards with a varying number of blowhards. But do you know about Very careful thinking about the human genome, so much more complicated than the media presents it that you’ll never fool around with Time magazine’s version again. Like this: “Carl Zimmer has an interesting post on Craig Venter's goal of making a synthetic organism. Apparently, Venter has filed for a patent on the process (essentially, synthesizing a minimum number of genes necessary for life, and transforming it into a cell)” Razib has a wicked sense of humor, a strong sense of justice and an intense interest in sexy women and their preferences. Where’s the series, dude?

But the blog also pulls in stories about human evolution like: “You head back to 100,000 years ago just to make sure. There seem to be more people - but still limited to Africa - and finally settle on 60,000 years ago as the low point. Then there were as few as 2,000 humans in existence. The worst time in the history of our species; one we nearly didn't survive.” The weather: what doesn’t kill you will make you strong -- and maybe even smart.

V. is my dependable favorite for literary gossip and opinion. Another Englishman, he’s my age, which helps, and though he once threatened to quit, that didn’t last long, thank goodness. “If you're still thinking about whether to self-publish a book or not, then reading this guide [“Aiming at Amazon”] is an even more salutary experience for you. I don't think I have ever read a book which made it plainer that publishing is damned hard work. It's a fiddly, irritating, time-consuming and exhausting rigmarole of paying close attention to tiny details, adjusting them when they don't turn out right, and then discovering that you have a dozen more of the same to attend to. Not, on the whole, a lot of fun. Writing a book may be fun, but publishing often isn't.” If this were on a page instead of a screen, I would write in the margin, “how true.”

That’s just five. The truth is that my list of bookmarks is rapidly becoming as long as my list of books! There is not enough reading time in the day, esp. when one is also trying to write!! But, oh, the long slow sweet slide of words into the brain -- nothing is better. Not sex. It IS sex. One hopes FERTILE sex.

(P.S. I have no idea why these blogs are all from blogspot. It just happened.)