Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Before I was hired to be the first woman dogcatcher for Multnomah County (second in the State of Oregon), I was asked to go on a “ridealong” to make sure I really knew what it was all about. The powers that be were convinced that any woman exposed to the raw facts of life would find some other job more genteel. They were wrong: I was intrigued by the problems and interested in trying to find solutions. Going in and out of people’s lives in response to complaints and emergencies took me places I never suspected. It felt like a call to action.

I never forgot the power of that experience and used it now and then in different ways. Once I asked the judge to “sentence” a vitriolic, scoffing, noncompliant middle-class woman to go with me all day. By noon she was saying she could only admire animal control officers and that she would never make trouble again.

By far the most pleasant ridealong passenger I had was David Weintraub, who took the photo with this blog. Intelligent, cheerful and competent, I don’t think he -- like the rest of us -- really had much idea what he was in for. My area was SE Portland, which ranged from big mansions broken up into little roosts for hippie kids with big dogs through pleasant quiet neighborhoods down to the rather grand homes around Reed College, where people felt their dogs were “entitled” to special treatment. I usually didn’t deal with the real criminal element of the city, but rather with argumentative folks who wanted to impose their own standards of the good life on everyone else.

The fact that I had a photographer along did affect the dynamics of interventions. Some dogs were easier to catch, since they had learned just one set of indicators for animal control officers -- one person, no camera. Some offenders (the dogs were not the offenders -- it was the people who were breaking the laws) were harder to deal with because they began to playact and show off. Others made themselves scarce, not wanting their photo anywhere they could be recognized.

On the other hand we never faced the trauma of the young, pretty, female officer down in the rural south who was carrying along a videographer. A pit bull came out of nowhere and attacked the officer, trying to tear her throat out but not quite able to leap that high, so shredding her bosom. The videographer, male, got some footage of it, maybe thinking that all animal control officers knew how to handle such events. In a moment he realized that the officer was overwhelmed and put down his camera to grab a big stick and beat off the dog.

The worst David and I confronted that day was the evidently communal household of owners of a St. Bernard who had also owned an Irish Setter, but it had run loose until it was hit by a car. Evidently penniless, according to the neighbors, they let the dog lie in the front yard unattended until it died. Since it was on private property, I certainly couldn’t remove it and the neighbors would have been at some legal risk to do so. They felt it would be dangerous.

I was suspicious of how such threadbare young people managed to acquire such fancy purebred dogs and one way to find out was to boost the St. Bernard -- which was loose -- into the truck. In order to get it back, they’d have to answer a lot of questions and come up with some stiff fees. If I put a citation on the dog, they would also be recorded in the formal court system and required to pay or go to court. If they ignored it, it was possible that some day far in the future when the highway patrol stopped them and ran their identification through the computer, this citation would come up. Very inconvenient.

I rarely cited loose dogs without some history like this. But in those days we didn’t get pit bulls very often. (Rottweilers were just beginning to be turned to the same nefarious purposes as fighting dogs and drug guards.) Once there was a story about a deputy who was trying to serve a warrant way out in the boonies. He knew enough to stay in his vehicle and honk, but a pit bull came charging out and bit his tires hard enough to deflate them. Luckily, he had a radio. In those days animal control officers didn’t have personal radios or cell phones, just the radio in the truck. If things looked tricky, you told the dispatcher to listen for you and if you didn’t come back on the air in ten minutes, to send backup. It was nice to have someone else along.

Today David is a successful writer, photographer, editor, and instructor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina who will get his master's in December. His website: shows off his fine work. I particularly admire his portraits of individuals in their own settings. I would like to think that his portrait of me in my “dog-catching” days is a good example. When I called out of the blue, he was so organized that within minutes he was able to locate the photos he took that rainy June day in 1975 just before I went to a desk job as education coordinator. We both remember it rather vividly.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


TWO OLD LADIES: My mother and her friend.

My backyard has a big tangle of “squaw wood,” that is, dead branches off my trees -- some of which were torn off by wind, some of which I broke off myself, and some of which were sawn off. This is not about my scrappy -- and to some offensive -- collection of wood which is destined for my little garage stove, but about what I call it. “Squaw wood” is not pejorative but refers to what a woman can collect handily from a stand of trees for a quick fire, maybe in a lodge where it would be good for heating water or cooking. Big limbs might be fed into the fire a bit at a time if there was no saw or hatchet available.

But one is NOT supposed to use the word “squaw” anymore. Activists, ever alert for slights and indignities, have ruled that it is an offensive word referring to the female organ. They are accustomed to the Euro or at least Brit idea that a female organ is likely to be named in a derogatory way, as contrasted to the celebratory or at least friendly euphemisms for the male organ. In truth, and as scholars have explained to no avail, the "Indian" word for the female organ is NOT “squaw” though in Athabascan Blackfeet the particle one attaches to the end of a word to indicate that it’s a woman’s name is “AKI,” which -- if pronounced with an “aw” instead of “ah” -- sounds like squaw, or at least rhymes with it. The word for the female organ is “beestinah.” I know this because the 7th grade boys at Heart Butte once began yelling the word at each other in the halls and then going off into gales of hideous laughter, which prompted me to get a translation.

Be that as it may, “squaw” has not been a friendly word in English. The connotation is someone old, bent, ignorant, smoky, greasy, etc. and in spite of all that, sexually available. When guys in a bar start muttering “squaw,” licking their lips, and looking over at a dark woman, she doesn’t take it as a compliment though she might be very proud to be a desirable Indian woman. She might want to remind those jokers about the reputation of squaws for enjoying torturing captives. It is a word that demonizes Indian women.

The movement to remove the word “squaw” from all maps has proven expensive both in terms of money and effort, but to many Indian women it is one small thing they can control in a world that still likes to push indigenous women into jokes and subservience. The Squaw Mountain just outside East Glacier is now “Dancing Woman Mountain.” I’m uncertain about the new name of the rocky outcrop that used to be called the “Papoose.” I suppose “papoose” and “buck” have either followed or preceded squaw out of polite useage. However, we still say Teton, despite it meaning “breast” in French, and one swelling hill near here is still called “Molly’s Nipple.” Of course, Molly was just one rancher’s wife and, according to what I hear, well able to defend herself. Hardly low class.

One might say, what use is there is changing names that were given in an unenlightened period of history when it would be more important to change the status of the women in question and improve their actual economic conditions? I guess the answer would be that the power to make the names change is a symptom and symbol of the rising fortunes of indigenous women. Once the movement begins, it pulls more people into its wake and empowers “squaws” in a way they need.

Now the movement to suppress Indians as team mascots has been pretty successful in eliminating in what is called “low hanging fruit,” easy pickin’s. But they’ve come to some quandaries that I wondered about earlier, like nearly all-Indian schools with names like Warriors, Chieftains, and -- indeed -- Indians. I’ve asked people around here (Browning is Indians and Heart Butte is Warriors) whether they think they should be prevented from calling themselves that, whether they feel it is demeaning. The result is generally a sort of fading and disappearance. Uuuuuummmmm.

Maybe mostly-Indian schools should go to names in their native languages: the Amskapi Pikuni or Kainah. A problem would arise over a team called the “Crees” since on Blackfeet Territory that name is sometimes used as a pejorative, more in the past than now.

I call my little book operation the “Nahpi-Yahki Press,” which the initiated will know is “White Woman Press.” When I started to teach here in 1961, I was told that if any student called me a “napi yaki” I was to take him or her straight to the office. It was a pejorative, especially said with a sneer and half under the breath. My mother used to rebuke my father, who was uneasy about his German blood (not much of it), by calling him a “Teuton.” Not a French “teton,” but an early name for the more-or-less German enemies of Rome. When the Teuton women were captured on one occasion, they asked to be temple handmaidens (nuns). They were denied, so in the night they killed all their children and strangled each other -- a collective act that was considered heroic. I don’t think either of my parents knew this story and maybe that’s a good thing, or “you Teuton” might have implied quite a bit more than she meant.

And that’s the problem, of course. A word acquires associations, maybe local and maybe widespread, maybe innocent and maybe political, possibly deadly. It seems to be the way we name things. If someone objects to a name, it seems only polite to avoid it, to rename the geography and honor the territory. Politeness is sometimes considered trivial, though it is a great social good. Try calling it diplomacy then.

The solution finally hit upon by some schools on reservations is to keep such names as Indians or Warriors unless the concerned tribe objects formally. This seems to be diplomatic, a way of putting control in the hands of those who feel the pejorative edge of the name.

Monday, October 29, 2007


When I first came back to Montana, I had a job with a local ag newspaper. (I’m not a total self-destroyer!) I knew I was taking a big pay cut, but I thought that this minimum wage job would be enough to carry me to Social Security. What I didn’t know was that the newspaper was not owned by the man who hired me, that he knew at the time that it was likely to be sold, and that he had already begun planning for a different newspaper that would not include me. Good Methodist that he is, he didn’t worry me with all this.

The people who bought that first paper have never canceled my subscription -- I don’t know why. So I’m accumulating quite a bit of information about farming and livestock, which is very welcome. Not that I’m going into ranching, but I like knowing about such things, esp. since I live in the middle of it all. Most of the info is simply downloaded from ag extension agents at ag university websites anyway. But I wouldn’t know to look for a lot of it in the first place and would not have it gathered up in newspaper form.

So here are some things for you to ponder about horse hay. Horses are meant to graze all day on the grasslands, in herds. You can tell anatomically because they have small stomachs, ordinary small intestines, and an extra big “hind gut.” This is quite unlike cows, which have a series of stomachs that can digest almost anything, a kind of distillery on legs. (They say cows are always a little drunk, which explains a lot.) We interfere with horses by keeping them for pleasure (ours, not theirs) in small enclosures where we must bring them the grass in the form of hay. They are totally dependent on our decisions about what and when to eat and our faithfulness in following through.

Dennis Cash, the MSU Extention Forage Specialist, points out these basics:
1. Hay and other roughage provide both nutrients and satiety for your horse. (If they don’t get the right stuff in the right amount, they start chewing on their corral and stall.)
2. Different ages, classes and workloads of horses require different levels of nutrients from the hay. Sorta like people.
3. All hay is not the same. Here’s where a kid cannot be in charge. Knowing what sources have high protein is pretty complicated and a kid is going to be tempted to overfeed “good stuff” thinking of it as a kindness. It might be a temptation to throw a lot of early bloom alfalfa hay in there, enough to keep the horse eating all day. Result: fat horse. And then there’s always budget to consider, the eternal tradeoff between cost and quality.

Cash says: “An inexpensive hay analysis will tell you the level of crude protein, total digestible nutrients, calcium, phosporus, magnesium and potassium in the hay.” I can’t remember us ever doing such a thing. We just tried not to buy moldy hay and Bob preferred grass to alfalfa because Mr. Stone, on whose ranch he learned most of what he knew about horses, always had that preference.

I think that our horses survived mostly because they were on pasture most of the time. We did supplement with hay in winter. We'd take hay and our lunch out to the field on cold snowy days so we could watch them eat. Once Bob was waving his peanut butter sandwich around and Zuke took a big bite out of it.

Knowing what hay to buy from whom was always a problem since we didn’t buy in much quantity. In the early days there wasn’t much money. We could store it inside to keep it from being moldy, but, even so, hay from the first cutting in this country is likely to have been rained on or at least to have lain on wet ground. Moldy hay is not just bad for horses: one friend of mine had to give up his beloved animals because mold from their hay took hold in his lungs when he fed on windy days. The doctors said it was particularly hard to eliminate a fungus from his insides, since fungus genomes make up a good part of the human genome. What’s bad for a fungus is not good for a person.

We didn’t feed oats much, using “horse cookies” to entice our little herd of five in where we could catch them. That’s hay, maybe alfalfa, compressed with molasses and extruded as cake. The dog liked them, too, and I tasted them a few times. Not bad at all. I’ve always had a fondness for alfalfa, like alfalfa tea, which we referred to as “alpha-falfa.” (See Verlyn Klinkenberg’s classic book, “Making Hay.”)

My black and white horse, Zuke, was a real pig and LOVED cake. Once at our “little” ranch on Two Medicine (before Bob bought the “big” ranch out on Flatiron Creek), I was having coffee with a visitor when we heard “fwump!” and then again “fwump!” out on the road in front of the house. We went to look and there was Zuke, unloading the sacks of horse pellets that filled the back of my visitor’s pickup. Grabbing a corner of the paper sack, he’d just slide them over the edge. “Fwump!”

Another time I looked out the window to see that our little red van had a horse rearend sticking out the back. The back doors were open so I had slid the horse cookies way up behind the driver’s seat, I thought out of reach, but Zuke had crawled in there on his elbows. Bob always said it was a waste for us to have such a horse, because a rodeo clown could have taught him to be a show-stopper. He wasn’t a big horse and it was pretty easy to flop him on his side when riding, just by suddenly throwing your weight. Once when we were leading him out to pasture he tripped, fell and skinned his knees. Such antics were not welcome when we were running fast on the prairie.

After I was gone, Zuke got into too much of something and developed laminitis, which is a condition where undigested or improperly digested food makes proteins too big to circulate in the blood, which causes the layers of the hooves to separate, peel, and lame the horse. By then Bob had enough money to call the vet and did, but there’s not much that can be done for the problem. Zuke hung around the ranch house where he could lean on the buildings, which meant he didn't graze and got thin. I’m glad I didn’t see it. Bob claimed that he made a miraculous recovery, but I think after Zuke died he got another similar horse and claimed it was Zuke.

Once he had asked me whether, since Zuke was theoretically my horse, I would like his hide when he died. I knew he was trying to make me react, so I said blandly, “Sure. The hide would look great on my floor for a rug,” which made Bob snort. I don’t know what really happened to Zuke, except that he lives on in sculptures, esp. the ones painted black and white.

There is more to consider about hay than just the well-being of the horse. It’s smart to buy “certified noxious weed seed free forage” to keep nasty stuff from growing around your home place. It’s required if the hay is be packed in to a federal forest. One year I asked for horse dung from the loafing shed of a corral on the edge of town where a guy kept his hunting horses. (The loafing shed because the horses hung out in there all summer to get shade and therefore trod the “cowboy muffins” into dry fiber.) I put this on my flower beds and got pretty good results. It was a lot pleasanter than the steer manure mixed with wood chips from feedlots, even though that’s baked to get rid of the seeds. But I did give a bit of thought to tetanus, which is carried in horse dung, and wore my gloves to dig around that summer.

Flesh cycles through grass and grass cycles through flesh. It’s a good thing to do it well.


In my bathroom I keep a basket containing paperbacks by the Durrells, both Lawrence and Gerald, for “occasional” reading. When people go into my bathroom, they tend to stay a while.

These two writers represent two modes of my own writing, one the humorous tales of animals and the other a kind of hallucinatory and oversensuous account of life. They are, of course, brothers and very much part of a kind of Mediterranean ex-pat libertarian scene, not unlike that of Marguerite Duras in SE Asia. Recently I finished “Tunc,” by Lawrence.

First, after noting that L’s titles are generally one-word and keys to the plot, I guess it’s a good idea to settle what “Tunc” means. No one is named Tunc in this story. Wikipedia says it
“is a Latin expression in common use in the English language. It means Now for then,”. “which theoretically applies to acts that are allowed to be done after the time when they should have been done with a retroactive effect. . . . In the probating of an estate, if real property (such as lands, mineral interests, etc.) are discovered after the Final Decree or Order, a nunc pro tunc order can include these after-discovered lands or assets into the estate, as well as clarify how those assets were meant to be distributed. . . . A corporation may have been created by an individual, but since a corporation has the standing in law of a person (although not a natural person), it is possible for its human creator to go bankrupt and for the assets of the corporation to be seized to satisfy unpaid taxes. Then, if others bought the assets from the tax authority and the corporation shell passed into other hands, it is possible for the person who bought the assets to also buy the corporation shell and upon payment of corporate franchise taxes, for that individual to claim that the corporation is the original corporation with the original assets.”

In addition, according to the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “The word tunc is Latin for "then." Historically, as a famous page in the Irish "Book of Kells" has made us aware, Tunc is the first word of a sentence in the Vulgate edition of the Gospel of St. Matthew: "Then there were crucified with him two thieves." As used in this novel, the word tunc suggests both the past and the future.

At least one reviewer identified this book as Durrell’s “1984,” an attempt to describe a dystopia in the future. It’s that in spades. Whatever the “inventions” that the hero is supposed to have made, they are so close to today’s computer devising that I had to keep looking at the year it was published, 1968. It sounds like “The Matrix,” perhaps known here as “The Firm.” The epigram is “deux fois deux quatre, c’est un mur” from Dostoievesky, “Vois Souterraine” (“Two Times Two is Four” and a “mur” is a wall, as in “stone-walling.”) Lawrence was the brother wrestling with relativity, wherein two times two might mean anything. Gerald was the one trying to save the animals, the conservationist. Both were deadly opposed to authoritarian impositions and boundaries.

Necessarily, given the circumstances, I read “Tunc” episodically all summer, parallel to a more formal and sustained reading of “The Raj Quartet,” which spent the summer in the front room, but they are creatures of a similar era and did not clash. Both immerse the reader in an exotic world where not even the characters are very sure what’s going on, but that has a immense resonance with the Iraqi misadventure reaching out to Afghanistan while our mighty leaders try to spin, erase, buy out, deny, punish and control. An author, of course, can start over in the next book, reincarnating everyone as though laying out the cards again in a new session of solitaire. “Koepgen used to say that human life is an anthology of states; chronological progression is an illusion. And to be punished for what one does not remember except in dreams is our version of the tragedy the Greeks invented.”

Short bits of reading are a good way to tackle this book. There are two long set-pieces that really struck me. The first is Caradoc’s impromptu speech -- he was expected at a kind of salon, but drunk and forgetful, therefore presumably likely to tell the truth. He is, as he claims, “the fruit of a mixed mirage.” For pages he explores his idea of what “womb to tomb” might mean and how that vision contributes to our cultural and intellectual pursuits.

The other is the first meeting of Benedicta, the women who seduces him into joining the firm, then marries him, becoming pregnant and unavailable. She is presented as a falconer, which -- since I regularly read <> and <> -- has enormous resonance for me these days. “Now she pulled on an extra sleeve and worked her hand into a gauntlet. Somewhere in the shadows there came the dying fluttering of some small bird, a quail perhaps, and I saw with disgust that she was busy breaking up the body with her fingers into small tidbits. She suddenly began uttering a curious bubbling, crooning sound, uttering it over and over again as she drew a long plume softly over the legs of the peregrine; then the gloved hand teased the great scissor beak with the bleeding meat and the bird snapped and gorged. As it ate she reiterated the single word in the same crooning bubbling fashion. Slowly, with the greatest circumspection, she coaxed the falcon onto her wrist and turned to face me, smiling now.

I could hardly tell you the plot of “Tunc” but the hints about crucifixion and thieves as well as the convolutions of law that make a “firm” or corporation (corpus meaning flesh, meat) more real than a human being, that allow a person to be punished for a mistake made long ago and not recognized as such at the time -- all this becomes relevant in an aesthetic atmosphere that moves from the ancient dryness of Arab lands for the musty plush and damp of more modern mansions in Britain. Thus, it is a chilling book. One doesn’t mind that in August in Montana. But perhaps I’ll go back to Gerald for a while.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


Blogging has meant making new friends, keeping old friends, and starting friendships with people with whom I shared space many decades ago -- same high school, same neighborhood of Portland, Oregon -- but never knew. One of those new friends has kept her relationships with church communities alive as organist, parish nurse, and mother-in-law of ministers. Her life has been a busy one so only now is she catching up with some things, like the “Bridges of Madison County” wherein Meryl Streep has a relationship with Clint Eastwood, who is only passing through, but stays faithful to her family. My friend’s reaction was “yiyiyiyiyi!”

At the same time my Netflix movie (which I really hated to send back) was “The Lover,” the Marguerite Duras movie, also about a short relationship, drawn from Duras’ life. I told my friend this, so she looked up the review and was shocked.

One of my key “documents” is Duras’ earlier film “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” which also addresses a short relationship but in a philosophical way about time, regret, and so on. The images are as strong as the newsreel images of the actual bombing aftermath which are among my earliest memories. “The Lover” was rather taken out of Duras’ hands and is so directly sexual that it demands some sophistication to see through to the issues of relationship, but it is also rewarding. A young girl has an affair with an older Chinese man, rich and spoiled and arguably the weaker of the two. She is unblinking, he is trapped, their freedom is rooted in the knowledge that this is a transient state of affairs. (The location is Vietnam -- make of that what you will. It’s before any American war.) He gives her money and initiation. He does not know that he is giving her the basis of an entire career of writing.

I could compare it to the happy year I spent as the interim minister of the Kirkland, WA., Unitarian Universalist congregation, knowing that -- as I kept reminding them -- it was an “affair, not a marriage.” This context kept out the power plays, the baggage of expectations, and left events simple enough to deal with honestly.

The real subject matter, a writer remembering a near-childhood affair, is handled artistically. It begins as many of these movies do, with a pen nib scribbling over fine paper, but before that with extremely close-up silvery images of the author’s eyebrows, glasses, blurred curves of face. We never really see the face. At the end we see the writer’s back and she answers the telephone. Presumably it is her Chinese lover, now old and visiting Paris with his wife, who assures her that he still loves her.

Now to the other end of the spectrum. Today the newspapers tell of a teenaged boy who had consensual oral sex with his girl friend, was caught, and sentenced to ten years in jail. He has been released when a judge ruled the sentence was cruel and unusual punishment and the law has been changed to make the offense a misdemeanor instead of a felony. These days, they say, girls are “expected” to contribute oral sex to their boyfriends or even unknowns at parties. It is “innocent” because, as our president said, it’s not “really” having sex, which is intercourse. There cannot be babies. But there can be some nasty VD of the mouth and throat. No one seems to think about the emotional consequences.

How is it that sexuality has become so cheap and brutal? The answer is that it has become commodified: something to sell. It has been detached from human experience and made into a stylized set of objects and rituals. The yearning, the poetry, has been removed so that all that is left is the fucking. SPAM. A privilege of high status.

The media says you must wear certain clothes, pose certain ways, own certain amenities and appliances, all commands that conflate sex with money, though sex has always been the most basic and available of experiences. After all, one can relate to one’s hand. Men can and do fuck animals. Women can and do use vibrators. We know all this. What we really need to understand has nothing to do with belongings but rather has to do with love.

Some would separate sex from love, commodify love as well. You must buy flowers and chocolate, jewelry, clothes, and so on. Money proves who loves whom. Merchandisers don’t want the young ones to find out that what’s really important is paying attention, protecting the future esp. for children, and not losing one’s community. The great love stories are always about the danger of losing commmunity and family.

With the rise of anthropology in the 19th century, we have all been fascinated with the idea that a culture could allow free and easy sex while preserving order, you might say “bonobo happy.” Even Margaret Mead was distracted by that possibility, though later the Samoan girls she had believed said they made it all up. We see both the French and Japanese or SE Asians as people who accommodate sex in the extreme and outside of marriage, people who don’t have “prudish hangups.” But in fact, those cultures are strongly patterned and simply assign compartments to limited licenciousness, like a Scandinavian needle park for addicts.

In America we are so deeply confused by the plurality of cultures, all struggling against each other to establish some overarching consensus that can be written into laws, depended upon in marriage contracts, made a foundation of economic stability -- for it is families who guarantee stable societies where commerce can flourish -- that we have little integrity. Teenagers don’t trust their parents, aliens from the country of the past, and instead ask each other for help. Like the girls in “Lisa, Light and Dark” who try to help a schizophrenic friend by themselves, kids are NOT up to the task of advising other kids. In fact, these days even medical authorities and church officials -- much less teachers -- are no longer trusted, nor do they enjoy consensus.

The Bridges of Madison County” is a very old story, but the coherence and dependability of the woman’s world -- that legendary American spine of the family farm in the Midwest -- is not always valued by contemporaries. Instead we admire the footloose photographer who crosses cultures everywhere, always belonging to himself and pretty much only himself. Their affair is a moment to rest, to regard the alternative, to consider that path and reject it -- not as hated or bad, but as simply not their right path. Not that it would be morally wrong to take that turn, but that after mature consideration it would not balance out with the shock and damage for her family or the curtailment and burden for the man.

The great frustration of being human is that you can only live one life and that most of us stick it out in one chosen or born-into culture. A few lucky people (artists?) have a chance to make their own culture and community, but it might be fragile. In this place, next to the Blackfeet Reservation, many come to move out of their own culture into what they imagine to be Blackfeet culture. What a shock they get! Without family, without the right skills, without a shared history -- they’d better bring something really valuable with them in terms of their personal identity as well as a lot of tenacity -- determination to make it work. Sorta like marriage. Sex is like Indian Days, a vivid celebration. Real relationship is seasons, generations, trust and hope until the tribe accepts you. Loves you.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


When I was a little girl, I had on my bulletin board a double-page spread from a magazine depicting a herd of horses running. It was an advertisement for Mobil gas about “horsepower” and was painted by John Clymer, who was much teased by his fellow artists that such a thundering herd raised no dust. I met John later and learned that he, like me, grew up in the Pacific Northwest where one is more likely to experience mud than dust. We see according to our time and place.

Jim Dunham, whom I met at the recent CMR GF event, has a way of sorting out Western fans according to their generations. What’s the earliest of the cowboy heroes you remember? he asks, and that tells the story. He figures the oldest folks are thinking of Tom Mix in the silent movies. I think of Mix as well, but on the radio where he was a bit of a McGyver. I ordered a magnet ring after Mix, hiding in a hayloft, used his to cleverly heist a set of papers by their paperclip. A little circle of predatory bankers and lawyers were preparing to use them to turn a widow lady out of her home. Wish I had that magnet ring now, just in case, since my county property taxes came yesterday.

My most deeply felt cowboy heroes were on television: Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Cheyenne, Wagon Train. I had an intense yearning for a strong moral male figure who know what to do and had the ability to get it done. I’ve sought out such men all my life, which is why I get so hopeful when I meet someone who seems promising and then so vengeful when they turn out to be weak incompetents. (The seminary thought this was a very bad trait. I thought that was a self-serving opinion.)

The Autumn issue of “Montana, the Magazine of Western History” contains an article about the problem of how to regard “Deadwood,” the hugely successful “Western” that has an anti-hero for an organizing principle -- er, principal character. This article is by John Mack Faragher who uses a slightly different method for sorting. He suggests that the audience for the Fifties Westerns still remembered rural life, and felt nostalgia for it, but the audience for Deadwood is urban, accepting of capitalism, accustomed to debunking romantic notions, and fond of irony. Marshall Matt Dillon would strike them as earnest to the point of being thick.

David Milch, originator of the Deadwood series as well as the definitely urban NYPD Blue, claims to be trying to work out how it is that order finally emerges from the raw chaos of a frontier. Who steps forward, what are the strategies and what are the costs? He sees the frontier as Elizabethan in language and drama, though many of his characters, esp. the women, are clearly New York Types, like his Calamity Jane who is almost a stand-up comic, running commentary. I would suggest that he also frames these folks as immigrants -- still European in roots. Both the notions of what an American might be and what a Westerner might be are still developing in this paradigm.

Yet another way of classifying Westerns might be in terms of the social issues of the time. When I was listening to Tom Mix on the radio, WWII was raging. Maybe Indian war movies were a displacement of that. (Later “Soldier Blue” was deliberately a comment on Vietnam from a left-wing point of view.) In the Fifties we had a lot of television and movie plots in which cowboys and cavalrymen strove for justice to Indians and others -- arguing against violence like Gary Cooper in High Noon. It’s almost impossible to imagine Gary Cooper confronting Al Swearengen -- they don’t inhabit the same universe.

Wikipedia sorts Westerns by style and considers “Broken Trail” to be a “revisionist” Western like those beginning with “Shane” who went against the assumed standard. They identify such categories as “acid” Westerns, “spaghetti” Westerns, and Soviet Westerns. An interesting long list ends the article on “revisonist Westerns.”

Personally, I think that “Broken Trail” like “Open Range” is almost defined by Robert Duvall, which means I could throw “Tender Mercies” and “Lonesome Dove” in there. The opposite of Cormac McCarthy, much more in the spirit of “Dances with Wolves” or some of the other generational and “small realism” historical recent miniseries of reconciliation that try to feel out “how it really was.” Duvall’s characters have a couple of very strong characteristics, one of which is an impulse to protect the weak and small (women, children, maybe Indians and dogs) and the other of which is a desire to educate everyone around him on the things they need to know to survive in the West. In my experience, this truly is characteristic of many Westerners, esp. men. (I helped calve one night and was told to watch out for defensive mama cows, to be sure to write down the number of the ear tag, to always dab the umbilical stub with iodine and to put the iodine bottle right back where I found it at the base of the third post from the calving corral -- otherwise it would be hopelessly lost in the dark.)

The rest of the characters are just dialogue partners: slow learners and fast learners. We learn about tick fever, how to sew up a scalp wound (Duvall urges a “nice chain stitch” like he uses on his clothes.), and a few basic principles of public health. (Shoot deliberate disease carriers on sight, also their horses and pack animals, and then burn the whole mess. One of the nice touches was the ghost dancers in the flames celebrating the end of smallpox germs.) “Killed more Indians than ever were shot,” declares Duvall, accurately.

Another inspired moment comes when three young Indian men demand a two-horse toll for crossing their lands. Seems reasonable, considering that the remuda is supposed to contain hundreds, but Duvall convinces them to accept a small carved horse as one of the two. (Interesting that art seems to be creeping into these movies. Tommy Lee Jones in “Missing” was originally supposed to be even more of an artist than he turned out to be.) I doubt these guys were in the right place to be Crow, but it appeared that the actors were actually Crow. They said in their language, "What are such good-looking women doing with these loser guys?"

The biggest and most deliberate “revision” of this movie -- aside from replacing those danged cows with horses like Clymer's -- is turning the direction of regard from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Now we’re not dealing with immigrants from European cities, but rather “native-born” Westerners and captured Chinese. (There are no Africans.) A fascinating snatch of dialogue between Duvall and his nephew notes that the younger man’s father migrated from the Cumberland and that the mother was “too German” and Huguenot. A great deal is implied in those few words.

Much of the authenticity of the movie comes from the relationship between these two men. Thomas Haden Church is no Rowdy Yates or Chester, simply a foil and a lesser man. He can ride his horse, he reacts swiftly with competence, and he shares his uncle’s opinion of what is honorable. He’s been around. (The actor owns a big ranch in Texas and is married to a sexy wife. He has a rich, almost gravely voice, which contrasts beautifully with Duvall’s rather high, thin rambling.) Duvall tells him to do something, he does it. If Duvall isn’t there, he uses his own judgment and is effective.

The bad guys are not geeky weirdoes, the prostitutes are not very fancy, Greta Scacchi is utterly convincing, and Scott Cooper as the Easterner who can play the violin is a welcome relief. The Chinese actresses are the whole point of the exercise and well worth it, though it’s a little startling in the movie-about-making-the-movie when they speak perfectly fine English. The costumes and sets were thoughtfully and authentically done.

So now, at last, do we have a vision of the REAL West? I don’t think so. These folks have a much better script writer than real folks do. Would you want it otherwise? Westerns are an art form, not documentaries, though we like them to be persuasive and coherent. This movie must have been made just before the despair over Iraq or it would have had quite a different twist, its optimism impossible. We’re in another Deadwood time. Might not make it home. Might die young. Might be swallowed by the chaos.

The biggest irony is that we were taken into this mess by men I’m willing to bet grew up with ideas shaped by Westerns, about the same era as me. Cheney is even from Wyoming, Bush pretends to be from Texas. We may be back to sci-fi Westerns, dystopias.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


When I trekked to the post office this morning, I took along a small pot of blood red geraniums for the windowsill of the newest people to move to Valier, “Mike” or “Michel” with his lovely lady. They are French but Mike has been living between Florida and California -- he’s a real estate person. I gather he “flips” houses, buying the small and inexpensive, renovating them, and then re-selling. His first rental, across the the street from the bright-red shingled house with the ham radio operator’s antenna tower and the greenhouse where they are moving in, was to Joe, a Mexican. Now you can say, “Oh, the globalization of everywhere!” Joe moved out after the sewer, long unused, failed. At least one person who moved here to the east side of the Rockies to escape the wild inflation of everything on the west side has decided he cannot tolerate our heat, our cold, our wind, and is selling his Valier house in order to go somewhere milder.

Valierians look at each other and smile. Though, in my opinion, the chief fault of the town council is being far too “other-directed” and worrying more about what people in other places (esp. the rich and important) think of us when they drive through than they worry about the basic issues a government ought to address: infrastructure, law and order, simple safety like fire issues. The thorniest issue they deal with -- and it will continue to be -- is water, because it is linked to “nice lawns and gardens” but it is a life-sustaining commodity. It is also the keystone of the economy in this irrigation-based farm center. Personally, one of the nice things about finally getting snow on the mountains is that the well water begins to be a little softer, so a person can work up a lather in the shower.

As I’ve been moving around the state for the last week or so, I’ve been meeting the convoys of cattle trucks going up to the mountains to move the herds down -- some of them moving clear to the southwest, but maybe not this year since it is so dry and on fire. Maybe more will simply go to mid-west feed yards, though corn is far more expensive that it was. I consider this a good thing, since reading has convinced me that corn is a bad food for cattle. Grass-fed cattle do not carry e-coli. And my dark suspicion is that the hormones and antibiotics fed to cows in feedlots so that they can stand in shit and eat corn but still get fat, may be a basic cause of the storm of diabetes across the country. It can’t be healthy.

I’m not seeing the usual flatbeds loaded with bees that ought to be moving. Maybe that’s because there aren’t so many now that the latest plague has hit them. I did see a strange semi-load of dumpsters, brand-new and brightly painted, headed down from Canada. The logo on each, including the semi, was 1-800-got junk? For miles I puzzled about what “junk” they meant. Copper scrap? Old furniture? Collectibles? All big business and should be. Re-cycling of everything! An economic bulge composting our discards.

I’m hardly seeing the military vehicles which normally used to convoy out of Great Falls’ Malmstrom Air Force Base to do maintenance on the nuclear missile siloes. I suspect that part of the reason for closing them down was simply that the hummers and small pickups they used by the hundreds were needed in Iraq, the same as the men, and the toll on them all is high. Also, I see fewer of the giant $500,000 RV’s towing $40,000 cars are on the road, though it’s still a little early for them. Canadians are diehards and won’t migrate until the snow flies. But they say that the Mexican border communities where they used to go are getting too tough and lawless to be safe now, esp. by Canadian standards.

Our weather stats today are a high of 77 and a low dropping quickly to freezing. (Compare to the records of 79 in 1915 and record low of 10 in 1957. The “normal” readings on this date are 55 and 31.) The hose must come in, but I’ll spend most of the day using up as much of the latex paint leftovers as I can because it’s ruined by freezing and this house is too small to bring a stack of paint cans inside, though I’ve done it. There are always things that need to be painted. I missed some spots on the stepladder I painted green, so I’ll catch those and then paint grass leaves on the side of my raised planter. A bit more raking to do. Flower beds to clean out, though I never do that very well. When I have money (!) I’ll make a proper plan and dig everything up to sieve, sort and replant. For now I’ll go on a while longer with the crowd of volunteers, mostly cranesbill and bluebells, but enough wild rose to make weeding painful and a lot of iris that never blooms.

Mike has (alas) removed his greenhouse addition to the back shed, though he claims he’ll reattach it to the back of the house as a woodshed over the winter. He’s trying to convert that shed to some kind of shelter for his down-south fancy vehicle. At this point I would advise him to trade it in for a pickup! It’s not quite time for me to throw some old tires into the back of the pickiup for traction in snow, but I’ve moved them closer to the door of my back garage which I’d love to convert to a greenhouse. I get this great catalog about an outfit called “Farmtek” that sells stuff that’s like corrugated cardboard, except that it’s plastic and bendable. It’s meant for livestock sheds and greenhouses, much easier to handle than glass. While I type this, my eye keeps being pulled to the lone fly which is living between the inside and storm layers of my alongside window, a kind of terrarium the fly constantly buzzes up and down, back and forth.

One of my most seminal books is Tim Flannery’s “The Eternal Frontier,” in which he points out that weather and other planetary forces are like a great scythe that moves through the centuries and millenia in a long pendulum from one extreme to the other. Global warming in one direction, glaciers in the other. We spread ourselves out, taking risks and pioneering, and then comes the scythe which cuts down all those at the unprepared extreme of that movement. This is what powers evolution, a clear force on the glaciated high plains where this little village clings. One fails to adapt at one’s peril.

Monday, October 22, 2007


One of the few times I miss having a buddy is AFTER major events, when I begin to decompress and debrief. It helps to have a second witness, which was often the role I played for Bob and then later for others although not so effectively or crucially. I got back from this history conference and from the CMR colloquy with a pocket full of business cards and a lot of little cryptic notes, some fairly orderly and others scribbled on margins or handed to me on scraps of paper. It’s a strange process of trying to bring things together and separate them out at the same time. This time it’s complicated by two different events with overlap: maybe three or four other people were in both places.

And also by the fact that this is the held-breath time just before the biography of Bob hits the bookshelves. I’m braced for both attacks and praise and even for the long silent pause that often comes just before people figure out what side they want to be on. Not that the book is particularly incendiary, but people will react in quite different ways just as they did when Bob was alive. He was intense enough to polarize people and the field of Western Art has become even more overheated than ever.

So, I’ve got all the business cards into clear holders for three-ring binders. I’ve written out blog accounts of the two events and sent them via email to people I know want to hear about it but who don’t check my blog regularly. (My blog veers back and forth over a lot of different categories. is both more focused and more neglected.) But my mind is still chattering away with questions and follow-ups.

There were several quiet conversations with people I hadn’t known before. For instance, Lon Johnson (cultural resource specialist and historical architect on the payroll with Glacier National Park) is someone I’d heard mentioned and never met. He was at the Historical Conference. Our conversation ranged all over the place, trying to discover whom we knew in common, but more about vision beds and condors -- esoteric, but subjects we knew about. I always have a weakness for architects, who are generally dreamers but in a practical way, though I’m beginning to have real issues with some the newer architecture in Montana.

Jim Dunham, Director of Special Projects at the Booth Western Art Museum, was from Cartersville, Georgia, where one of the newest of these institutions has just grown out of a millionaire’s collection. Dunham himself can paint a pretty amazing version of one of Charlie Russell’s figures in an hour. He presents a talk in which he does just that, accompanied by a cowboy singer, and then gives the image to the group he is addressing. The photos he had were pretty convincing. Dick Flood would... well, “appreciate” it.

A few people were jerked up short when they came across my opinions. Afterwards I always wonder whether I ought to have been more, um, diplomatic, but then I think I did the right thing. So many rat-finks cruise through life undetected by always preying on new victims and preventing them from networking with the old ones. The other protection for rat-finks is the great number of people who believe that being big fans of Western art or literature is an innocent hobby -- though it seems a little expensive at times -- with a Roy Rogers aura of good old honest mom-loving home-on-the-range safety. Would Matt Dillon allow people to be cheated? Their heads go to a child’s fantasy about what life is all about. (No wonder wives tend to be sceptical!) They shut off their crap detectors.

At the same time, more suspicious youngsters are looking at some of this and recognizing highway robbery when they see it. Just the simple accumulation of facts as in the CMR Catalogue Raisonne will put paid to some of the misrepresentation. Rick Stewart told us about a sort of “gun” that one holds up to a painting which immediately on the spot tells the chemical composition of the paint, what’s under it, and what the supporting surface is. Sometimes a bit of a surprise.

Customers of both history and art objects, literature and sculpture, are constantly demanding to know what something is “worth.” They never seem to grasp that the steak itself is worth one thing and the “sizzle” or attraction is another: quite ineffable but terribly relevant. If some fool is willing to pay millions of dollars for a dead shark floating in formaldehyde, that IS what it’s worth. Until the prestige of such a belonging is deflated by mockery (or in this instance, requires expensive maintenance like switching out the old shark for a new one and changing to a new formula of preservative) at which time the value of the thing may be severely diminished. Should we be surprised? It’s essentially no different than a house or a car, which some would argue is or ought to be considered a work of art. Certainly, it would have artful components. Some people value old battered cars more than new ones.

A person wants to discuss such issues with others, but in Valier not too many people are prepared for disillusionment, at least outside the bars. The postmaster gets pressed into service or maybe the woman who runs the trash roll-off. Both are actually pretty sharp as well as grounded in reality as you might imagine. They see through a lot of the razzmatazz that more sophisticated folks can’t. We all hope our belongings and relationships show that we’re discerning and sophisticated. We don’t want to be fools.

So I dream conversations with people I used to know or people I just invent for the occasion. I split in half and argue with myself. I try to intrigue my relatives on the telephone. Maybe this is one of the uses of literary or artistic agent. I’m writing one of those into my nascent novel. It’s a little risky to involve actual people at the University of Calgary Press. They’re just finding out about Bob Scriver and still a bit overwhelmed. For them it’s unprecedented but I don’t think they will want to admit that.

Now where’s that list of things that I promised to send people? What pants was I wearing? What jacket? Where did I put my earrings when I took them off on the way home?

Sunday, October 21, 2007


This event was organized to celebrate the publication of a complete list of the work of C.M. Russell in two modes: one a very expensive book (for sale on the spot, which was the CMR Museum in Great Falls) and the other a website which will continue to be updated, since there are over a thousand CMR paintings known and probably more unknown. (Dick Flood combed the territory in the middle of the last century, always hopeful of finding an original in some attic or chicken coop. Or something that LOOKED like a Russell. Someone remarked in a loud voice, “They say that Dick Flood could sign Russell’s signature better than Russell himself.” Heresy!) A humonguous amount of information and disinformation to sort out.

Much of the value of art depends upon “provenance” -- an account of where the object has been from the time it was created -- and that information along with size, subject, media, and other remarks are included in a “Catalogue Raisonne.” (I’m creating a primitive version of one for Bob Scriver’s work in a blog elsewhere.) When one buys the book, one also gets a password that allows access to the website which is the truly useful acquisition for research. It’s just that you can’t put a website on your coffee table. It looked as though sales were brisk.

The concern I discussed the day before in Helena with a friend popped up again at this meeting when I was visiting beforehand. A famous prize-winning book was mentioned by a fan of the Blackfeet who remarked that it would be interesting to find the original journals from which this book was supposed to be derived. As it happens, this author was a predator and a faker. I told the fan that there probably were NO journals. The fan said, “Gee, I thought it must be okay, since it fitted with Ewers.” Of course it did. He was QUOTING Ewers. But faking journals isn’t a particular crime. Victimizing an old man and his family certainly is.

But -- the agenda on this day was CMRussell and, remarkably, the major Russell scholars were all on hand. Anne Morand is the Chief Executive Officer of the CMR Museum. B. Byron Price is the Director of the CMR Center for the Study of Western Art in Oklahoma City and I think I heard someone say he is now the head of the University of Oklahoma Press. Anne’s presentation was on other artists of the time who had influenced Charlie’s painting and, remarkably, projected side-by-side versions of very similar compositions and subject matter. Of course, there are not a lot of ways to depict riding up alongside a buff and shooting an arrow into it. On the other hand, there was a derived version of Hiawatha that mostly just converted him from a Woodland Indian to a Plains Indian. B. Byron Price simply explained how to operate the website.

Peter H. Hassrick is the Director of the Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum and here’s where my inner pessimist began to take it on the chin. Instead of talking about how much money the art was worth and who collected it, he talked about the ACTUAL WORK and how it developed over the years. Clearly Charlie was going along doing his own thing with happiness and success until he and Nancy went to New York City about the turn of the century. Quality makes a huge jump at that point, which plainly came from visiting galleries and interacting with other artists. Since he often returned to the same subjects, it’s easy to find comparisons of, say, a bronc invading the cook’s campfire from both early and later periods. Anyone could see the difference in color, design, paint-handling and so on.

Brian Dippie is a professor of history at the University of Victoria in B.C., Canada, and a native of Edmonton. As such, he kindly wrote the foreword for my book about Bob Scriver which just went to the printer in Calgary. Since meeting Brian in Helena at a previous History Conference, I’ve always thought he was such a joyfully erudite person that I would love to run off with him. But now that I’ve met his wife, I think I would do just as well to run off with HER! I doubt anyone could separate them nor should they. But I see now that the reason Brian could see something in my book that others could not was simply that he is married to that lively woman and therefore able to accept women in general. Brian’s presentation wittily argued that Charlie, who rode up into Alberta as though no border existed and had some of his best early experiences there, was actually a Canadian. He cinched his argument with the address on a letter from the Prince of Wales, whom Charlie met up there. “Great Falls, CANADA.”

Raphael James Cristy, CMR impersonator, walked us through some of Charlie’s writing. Dyslexic and dysgraphic, something in Charlie’s brain wiring prevented proper spelling or even decent hand-writing, but in terms of narrative and image, he was unbeatable, exactly suited to his time and place. Cristy is able to make this immediately vivid.

Rick Stewart, Curator of Western Painting and Sculpture at the Amon Carter Museum, addressed Charlie’s watercolors and proposed that the only American artist to touch him was Winslow Homer -- that in fact the two men separately took a similar trail through the flood of popular information about water color painting that washed through the country around the turn of the century. Stewart was able to specifically name the pigments used, how that shifted when the just-founded chemical industries provided new paints, what Charlie’s strategy was (working from dark to light or light to dark, from figure to background or background to figure, treating foreground loosely or with detail, achieving transparency in shadows, how much to underdraw and why to use graphite rather than charcoal) -- it was a revelation. He talked about the size of brush Charlie used (often sable #2 or 7) and how he sometimes modified them by pulling out or trimming hairs. He talked about working flat on the ground or floor and how naturally that came to Russell who began drawing and painting “en plein air” -- as is fashionable now -- because he was camping and had no table! He showed how the painting would have been turned to make the paint run in long washes for a sky and pointed out in one photo that Charlie’s fingertip was dirty from pushing puddles of pigment around. Stewart is an artist himself and by the time he got through, one began to think that art must be the most rewarding sort of enterprise there is!

I drove home seeing Charlie Russell colors on all sides: the purply “gentle” gray from cobalt blue, the arsenic green to gold ochres and Naples Yellow of ground, the transparent blues from ultramarine, the warm grays from rose madder as sunset approached. The buttes and coulees are still there. One’s vision is renewed by Charles M. Russell, which is the whole point in the end.


Bob Scriver used to say it’s always better to be a pessimist, because then if you turn out to be wrong, you’ll be pleased. So right away I was pleased to arrive in the conference hotel next to Blackfeet scholars! I didn’t expect to see any there. None were advertised in the publicity beforehand. Willene Old Person, who gave the fine archeology talk about Glacier Park last August at the Piegan Institute history conference, was there, as well as Patty and John Murray and others I didn’t spot right away since I don’t know them so well.

They had been encouraged and enticed by a special program showcasing Montana Tribal College History Scholars and managed by George Oberst, a quiet force for good, who gave out some nice money rewards supplied by the Washington Foundation (the millionaire, not the state). It was enough for gas for whole families of the presenters to travel, so you know it was generous.

Deanne Morris, Blackfeet daughter of Jackie Parsons who is the head of the Montana Arts Council, gave a Power Point presentation that was elegantly simple in concept but one of those door-opening bits of work: she simply researched the lives of the Blackfeet signers of the 1855 Lame Bull Treaty and even managed to find drawn portraits. What surprised me most was that several had signed both the Lame Bull Treaty and the Canadian Treaty 7, which was with the Blackfoot tribes up there. She didn’t explore the political implications or even outline the splits among the Lame Bull signers, which were severe, but somehow that helped to give the audience a sense of who those men were.

The other presentations were by Jason Smith from Salish/Kootenai and Peter Bearcomesout, a Cheyenne from Chief Dull Knife College. I had very little sense of what they said since no effective microphones had been provided and they had soft voices. Just another of the little oversights that make minorities feel shushed. On the other hand, I went around beforehand and turned all the lights up, in hopes of seeing the faces of the speakers. But then someone else had to go around and turn them all back down so we could see the Powerpoints, which all worked very well. Remarkable. The IT man was on his toes.

Two “regular” presentations were about Native Americans but not from them. The one I really drove down there to hear was by Andrew Graybill from the University of Nebraska, who has been researching the Clarke family, esp. Helen Clarke, the first female (as well as mixed-blood) school superintendent in Montana (in Helena) and the first owner of a piano in the state. Blackfeet on one side and upper class white on the other side, Helen’s accomplishments included touring Europe with Sarah Bernhardt. She declined to continue with her acting career on grounds that she could not “step out of herself” to be the characters, but maybe it was a case of people being so curious about her genes that they didn’t pay attention to her stage work. Anyway, she never lacked for things to do.

The Blackfeet emerged from the Dawes Act vivisection of the rez with better results than some tribes, probably because of the efforts of Helen. She’s a beautiful woman with the hair-curler bangs still popular among Indians today, but with a back arrangement in a kind of roll, more in keeping with her period. She never married. Who WOULD she marry? She was a “Parlicoot” -- a unique being. But she was an accomplished hostess and kept house for her brother, Horace who also sometimes was called Malcolm, on their ranch behind the Big Hotel in East Glacier, surely one of the most beautiful locations on the planet. Graybill is proceeding through the documentation in many places, reading accounts by friends and actual correspondence to and from Helen as well as newspaper stories.

Which leads me to a conversation that began about a session concerning Teddy Blue Abbot. I was talking to Dale Burk, there as the owner of Stoneydale Press to promote their books, about whether the descendants of the persons being researched had been invited or would receive accounts of what was said. Abbot’s son, for instance, is living and could attend, as is Joyce Clarke Turvey, John Clarke’s daughter. It has been my dismaying experience that historical societies and so on are quick to separate historical individuals from their families and communities. Maybe it’s because they are afraid of interference, or out of a sense of ownership, or because it’s too confusing to address, but research tends to be limited to what can be found in papers and books, especially those in official archives. Maybe it’s a simple matter of those institutions promoting their own services.

But the effect is a kind of flattening and a loss of context that could make the subject both more accurate and more alive. For instance, I believe that Sherry Smith, in her book called “Reimagining Indians,” got Walter McClintock entirely wrong. For a while there was such a tendency to candy-coat major figures, that maybe we’ve gone too far in the other direction, demanding that evil and conspiracy be unmasked on all sides. Sometimes it's a matter of (again) ignoring minorities. No one has ever interviewed the Cree Medicine family about their long relationship with Bob Scriver.

We speculated on whether this might be aggravated by the dynamic of researchers and writers having come from the East, educated in eastern schools and simply not realizing that people living a hundred years ago have descendants alive today who actually knew their ancestors. The West seems to these researchers a mythic place without real connections to the ordinary. While looking up something about Bob Scriver, I sat with one young archivist who told me with great feeling the contents of an essay about the death of Bob’s daughter. She regaled me with the facts, not realizing that I was THERE when Margaret died and had written the piece she was quoting. I felt both disrespected and invisible. Like an Indian.

The second speaker at this session was Carol Williams from the University of Lethbridge, just a little over a hundred miles to the north of me here in Valier. In Canada many of the US movements live on even as they sputter out on this side of the line, so Carol is an “old-fashioned” feminist who thinks in terms of labor, specifically NA and Aboriginal women’s labor, both professional and -- what to call it? “Women’s work?” You know: cooking, laundry, typing, and all that. Indigenous women have always been pressed into that sort of jobs, but some manage to escape mission and school categories. I want to put her in touch with some of the professional women among the Blackfeet. Margaret Bell is particularly interesting since she worked as management in the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs in Chicago during some major transitions.

But I also want to point out to Carol the “sister chains” that often govern employment around Browning. I’m thinking of the Bremner girls, the Bullshoe girls, the Pepion girls, and Lucille McKay’s “Drive-In girls” who were not genetic daughters but were trained by her. One member of a family would get a job clerking or cleaning or cooking or even teaching, do well and then show the way and recommend sisters. Sometimes this system would go down several generations. It always made me think of the old polygamous chief who recommended to the young man that when he chose his wives, he should marry close relatives so they wouldn’t get into fights over how to run things.

The conference center in Helena, a part of town developed when the old rail yards were abandoned, makes me shake my head. Organized around a sheltered carousel, everything is in a faux antique style with no edges knocked off, very studied and for some reason DARK. Dark woodwork, dark brocade unholstery. The two big federal buildings, both named for living politicians (Hatfield and Baucus) look like penny banks or industrial kitchen equipment. The ridged dome on the Hatfield Court House looks like a juicer. Some of the buildings feature “quilted” stainless steel. I don’t understand this architecture at all. Maybe it’ll mellow. But it’s clear what the main amenities in that section of town are: coffee and ATM’s. Presumably a little justice and knowledge gets worked into the pattern now and then.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


If you want to know what Tim Barrus’ Nasdijj books are like, don’t Google either one of his names: Google the book titles. There are three, “the blood runs like a river through my dreams” (2000), “The Boy and his Dog are Sleeping” (2003), and “Geronimo’s Bones” (2004). Somewhere around the last book Nasdijj was “revealed” as Tim Barrus. Barrus’ past as a porn writer and editor in San Francisco was used to help demonize him, and the Native Americans trying to defend their right to write their own stuff were encouraged to pile onto Barrus -- the charge being led by Sherman Alexie.

Barrus was not inclined to take all this lying down. Instead he fired back with an online guerrilla blog full of outrageous images and tales as he presumably shepherded a small group of outcast boys across the southwest, uplinking through his satellite phone like a war correspondent. Hard to know how much was what some people call “fact” since Barrus contains multitudes.

What few did was to read Barrus’ books, both as Nasdijj and not. Given that I’m an old lady entering her Gray Panther years, that the books are on the Internet for a buck each (except the early porn "classics," which run into the hundreds of dollars), and that I have time -- and given a former Unitarian minister’s sense of justice and lack of fear of atypical people, sexual or otherwise -- I thought I’d just read and review the books. I’d already read “The Boy and His Dog Are Sleeping” which I picked up as a remainder and thought was a good book. I know nothing about Navajo, but I’ve known the Blackfeet for fifty years and to me the book rang true. Maybe we put beans and beef instead of mutton on our Indian tacos, but a lot of the rest is just the same.

First I tried “Anywhere, Anywhere,” a pre-Nasdijj book about gay Vietnam veterans, and reviewed that. Again, I though it was a good book. By this time Barrus had seen some of my comments and we began to correspond. Nothing deep. “How is Navajo?” (The dog: she’s aging now.) “What a beautiful grandchild!” (His. He’s very proud of her!) Like that.

Yesterday I read “the blood runs like a river through my dreams,” which is really twenty essays, some quite short, all in the poetic and remembering mode of memoir. I see online that young people, including NA young people, are most likely to say, “I was disappointed that Barrus is not really half-Navajo, because I wanted him to be like me, but I love what he wrote.” I think they are responding in part to the moral dimension of this writing. He doesn’t bother with condemning “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll,” but rather mounts a scathing attack on unreliable parents and other authority figures and a world that in general preys on the weak while rewarding the powerful even more.

Every real writer has a little crux somewhere deep inside that constantly taps the core magma of the identity. One’s ability to feel that, shape it, and relate it to the lives of others is what creates good books. For Barrus, it appears to be his relationship with his father. Somehow, to some degree, the father/son relationship was one of oppression and punishment, and Barrus’ way of dealing with this has been to seek to nurture and to receive nurturing from other men. Most of the sophisticated indignants of the publishing world have assumed that meant sex, a turning away from women, but that is NOT what Barrus is expressing. He is addressing a father’s protection and guidance for a son, which he wanted and didn’t get in childhood. (He is happily married for the second time, has a happily married and productive daughter, and a charming toddler granddaughter.) His outrage is AGAINST men who use children for sex and being accused of that makes him crazy.

Writing about NA children on reservations is a problem. One can’t tell the truth. For one thing, no one will believe it even if you’re providing court transcripts of sworn testimony. For another, authority figures do NOT want people to know because it would mean change. And some of the tribal peoples themselves rightly suspect that such evidence would be used to demonize THEM. Now that the link between church and child abuse, or boarding schools and child abuse, has been proven beyond doubt, anyone who mentions them risks being identified with them. By not only disguising the children, but also himself, Barrus is protecting them from those constant “truth” snoopers unleashed by a sensationalist press and a relentless Internet. The youngsters are too vulnerable and could not resist reporters with cameras.

Somehow the two accusations that such media-feeding defamers are most fond of is that a writer “copies” or else pretends to be someone else. Aside from the facts that all writing is derivative of other writing and all writers assume a created identity when they write -- things that people qualified to write literary criticism know -- it is strange that these rather than the qualities of the writing itself should be of such little concern. Barrus writes in great romantic arcs of image. “Chahash’oh” is about taking his small son fishing and staying barricaded safely in a cabin while a “father,” “mother,” and two cubs fight to the death outside. The male bear kills the female and cubs but does not eat them. Maybe you remember overhearing your parents fighting? “Emergency Landing” is emotionally true rather than factually.

I think “Onante’s Foot” is a true event reimagined. It’s about a people who were punished by the Spaniard Onante who ordered the amputation of the right foot of the young men of the tribe. A huge statue of Onante on horseback turned out to be easily amended with a hacksaw.

Flying Solo” is the story most like an Alexie tale of oddballs and misfits in high school, but it could be compared to Garrison Keillor’s reminiscences just as easily. “Half and Half” is a meditation on being a mixed-blood, prompted by stirring cream into coffee at MacDonalds.

Barrus, who actually did have a small damaged son for a while and did probably lose his first marriage to that trauma, has by now internalized both the son and a “good father” who knows how to help small fierce boys as in “Michif’s Tape.” “My Son Comes Back to Me” is about the same nexus. “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams” is the obverse reflection of “And the Dreams Come Down Like Thunder in the Rain.” Why is this hard for critics to understand?

Two tropes recur. Fly-fishing is about control and skill, like writing. Horses are about power and freedom, like living in a truck named Old Big Wanda with a dog willing to share dogfood. (Barrus eats it with a fork, to show he’s not totally uncivilized.) When you have a little extra money, you buy new dolls for the two little homeless girls, Molly and Ringwald. These are things that Barrus knows, that he lived, that he could have lived as a Navajo migrant worker, but that he actually lived as a writer, scribbling onto legal pads with a pencil, selling bits of writing wherever he could.

I haven’t read Barrus’ “Genocide,” an anthology, but I am keenly aware of the American genocide of the native peoples as well as the creeping genocide of the poor of the world through AIDS and FAS. There are plenty of forces willing to convert death into profit, social disorder into convenient oppression.

If I were Tim Barrus’ publisher, I would re-issue the three Nasdijj books in one binding -- they aren’t big books -- along with an essay by some qualified person re-categorizing the trilogy with “Laughing Boy” by Oliver LaFarge (white) which won a Pulizer Prize, or maybe “Skins” by Adrian Louis (Indian), which became a movie. Maybe Sherman Alexie, who has had a change of heart about witch hunts, would like to write it. These stories need to be told and told and told, until necessary changes are made.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Since Unitarianism is presumably unified mostly by their characteristic non-conformity, having been dissenters against the doctrine of the Trinity that defined Christians for many centuries, one should not be surprised to find that a Unitarian seminary included people of various convictions, such as the Methodist student and a range of kinds of theism, a-theism, and agnosticism. When European Unitarians, particularly those from Transsylvania, began to interact a bit more with American Unitarians, things got even stranger. The Europeans tended to be quite Christian, at least in their style, and they didn’t have the streak of hippie antinomianism that characterizes California “hot tub” UU’s, the kind that felt they had slipped the bonds of matriomony and touched the Face of Eros.

During my first year of seminary, the strangest classmate was a man I’ll just call by his first name, Teruo. “Tap” the r as if you were speaking Shakespeare. He wasn’t just a priest of Konkokyo, he was a descendant of the founder, Konko. When Konko was a small boy, he fell off a cliff while his mother watched helplessly. In the moment of that fall, she gave his vocational life to religion if his physical life were saved. This happened. The actual sect, cult, denomination, subdivision -- whatever you want to call it -- was syncretistic. That is, it melded together Shinto and Christian elements of good behavior and relationships toward God. It was a “henotheistic” religion: it recognizes one dominant and all-powerful God while recognizing the existence of other gods. (Try Wikipedia for other interesting stuff.)

There was no real relationship between Konkokyo and Unitarianism, but both organizations belonged to the Liberal Religious organization that was something like a League of Nations. That connection was enough to get Teruo to Meadville, but also the dean of the Divinity School, Professor Kitagawa, was very interested in Teruo and helped him organize a quite atypical year in Chicago. Without Kitagawa, Teruo might have gone quite mad.

Occupying the smallest of the rooms, but also the most private (probably a female servant’s bedroom/bathroom in its original use), Teruo could go up the back stairs from the kitchen directly to his room. There he kept a giant color TV and a bottle of excellent Scotch. He did not offer to share either one. Sometimes he slipped off to the North Side of Chicago, where the blues bars were liberal, until at his favorite bar he attracted the attention of a Nazi man (he wore a uniform) who fell in love with Teruo. Then he couldn’t go there anymore.

Being a Konkokyo priest was much different from being a UU minister and Teruo was often puzzled by our preoccupation with psychological matters or even moral questioning. At his temple he waited until someone came with an offering, asking for advice. He would sit before them, both people on cushions on the floor, and the counselee (most often a woman just like Christians in the US) would present her problem. Then he’d tell her the right thing to do and that was the end of it. What could be simpler?

He was also puzzled by me: a forty-year-old unmarried childless woman who had been in law enforcement, who had lived on a Montana reservation for many years. What was the right thing for me to do? And how should he relate? We’d run into each other late at night when taking a break from studying by whipping up a little snack in the kitchen. I was at my most Japanese then, if a big pale red-head can look at all Japanese, wrapped in my terry cloth bathrobe. He most commonly was wearing long underwear.

I was used to strange people and also very curious, so I asked questions. Was he married? Yes, he said. He had a wife and two small daughters at home.

“You must miss them.”

“Yes.” A long pause. “Do you course?”

I pretended I didn’t hear that and ran for my own room with my toast and jam. I didn’t know what he meant and had no intention of trying to find out, but I certainly realized at that point what a sacrifice he was making.

“Why did you come here?” I asked. “What made you want to?”

He had NOT wanted to come. Konkokyo is a hierarchy. His superior sent him, over his protests. They needed people who were more able to interface with Westerners, to explain their point of view. His life was meant to be obedient, but it was very hard, though he knew the rest of us suffered from too much freedom.

I asked once if he were lonely and he said gallantly, “Oh, no! Because everywhere I go in this house, I can hear your voice and it makes me feel better!” Others might have remarked on how loud Westerners used to being outdoors could be. “And you make so MUCH noise on the stairs!” he exclaimed. When we got to the end of the year, he wrote each of us a beautiful little poem in Japanese on lovely paper and he gave us each a translation of what it said. Mine said, “Look out little sparrows! Here comes Mary!

In an odd way we were equals -- even kindred spirits. Both of us were on strange ground, not quite knowing what the others seemed to have been born knowing. Even the Methodist was well able to fit in. We were older than the others, in some ways had more experience than the faculty, and -- yes -- we were both lonely. He seemed to me a little like a Blackfeet. Sometimes I wondered whether I should have answered that I DID “course,” but clearly that would REALLY have freaked everyone out and there was no way to keep such a thing secret. I assume he found an answer to that need on the North Side. As for me, I’m very good at sublimation and far too idealistic about sex to be casual about it. But I wasn’t offended by the idea. Wasn’t one of my key movies “Hiroshima Mon Amor?” Morality doesn’t have to be anti-erotic.

Seminary is always a place of revelations, ideas and situations totally unanticipated and never really explainable to people who haven’t been there. Sort of like the military, I guess. A kind of boot camp.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


On our 1952 trip across the United States, one of the places we stopped was the Kansas City home of “Bachelor #2,” my father’s youngest brother, Seth. He’s the one who started out barn-storming in one of those little canvas and bamboo planes on the prairies and ended up flying transport and bomber planes in WWII, then piloting for TWA for the rest of his life. He was the one who made money and the one who married a glamourous stewardess, Josephine Sutherland, a Southerner whom my mother considered to be a true “steel magnolia,” a role-model.

Seth on the left, then my mother, then Josephine. A sun porch through the door.

Young Seth Thomas, the reason why bachelors marry and have children: so they will have an heir! Like Al Gore, it took three girls to get to the boy, but the family could afford it.

I’m never clear about which middle girl was Bonnie and which was Shirley, but I have a hunch this is Bonnie. I’ll send her this and find out! Jo is in the kitchen through the pass-through.

The children eat on the Sun Porch where I saw jalousie windows for the time time. Such elegance! A few years later my mother bought two wicker chairs just like these. I’m not sure she was conscious that they were just like “Aunt Jo’s” chairs. Here are ( r.) Mark, Paul, Shirley (I think), me up high and Carol Lee down low, and Bonnie (maybe).

Two “markers” of suburban affluence impressed us. One was this custom barbecue. My mother pressed the PTA into building one at our local public park, reasoning that if we had a barbecue like this in our backyard, none of the neighbors would EVER go home. The other marker was a riding lawnmower, which Valier residents consider one of the basic elements of life, rather like a dishwasher. I mean, you’ve GOT to have one!

Here’s the lineup before we all left. My mother and Seth on the porch. (Jo must have been doing something with Seth Thomas inside.) What has only dawned on us cousins gradually and recently is that this was IT. None of these children had children of their own, except possibly Paul, but his daughter was out-of-wedlock and therefore probably doesn’t even know he was her father, though he helped raise her for a few years. I never wanted children. Mark married a slightly older woman who already had children. Carol Lee never married and died young. Next is Paul, who died this March of a massive heart attack in his early sixties. The two little girls married but had no children. Seth Thomas (called "Tommy") ended up marrying but adopting two Chinese girls.

Both older Strachan brothers died of strokes at a relatively young age (sixties) even though Seth, as a pilot, had very tight medical review all the time. Both men tended to put on weight though they dieted constantly, to be red-faced, and late in life were irascible. I’m suspecting metabolic syndrome, a disorder in the proteins that circulate in the body, one symptom of which is diabetes 2. I have that and I rather suspect that Paul also had this syndrome, which means that some day his daughter may come looking for him. Mark seems to have a slightly different chemistry, more like my mother’s side of the family. My paternal grandmother struggled with goiter late in life and lost her first baby who was premature. One of my interests in this genealogical pursuit is putting these little wee pieces into the puzzle, including the Chinese girls, because heredity is only part of the story. Environment counts for another big part.


From the Hillsboro Journal, May 2, 1985

Mr. and Mrs. Seth Strachan

Miss Susan Blair Telfer and Seth Thomas Strachan, both of Barrington Hills, were married Saturday, March 16 at sunset (5:30pm) overlooking the ocean in Carmel, CA, in a private family ceremony.

The bride is the daughter of Mrs. James D. Telfer of Hillsboro, and Mr. and Mrs. Seth S. Strachan of Pebble Beach, CA, are the bridegroom’s parents.

The Rev. Elmer Gorman received the wedding vows in a setting enhanced by pink and white azaleas. Classical music was played by a guitarist and a flutist.

Given in marriage by Lloyd Hubbard of Stony Brook, Long Island, NY, the bride wore a floor-length, white, sleeveless gown of alencon lace and organza. Fashion details included a portrait neckline. She chose a bouquet of gardenias accented with heather and ferns.

Mrs. Kim Telfer Lohman of Hillsboro, sister of the bride, was her matron of honor, and was attired in a floor-length gown of organza in hues of pink. She carried a bouquet of purple iris, yellow tiger lilies, and pink heather, accented with ferns.

Mrs. Telfer’s street-length dress was of mauve and white crepe, and Mrs. Strachan’s street-length ensemble was of mint green silk.

Joy Moler of Phoenix, AZ, served as best man.

A wedding dinner was given by Mrs. James Telfer after the ceremony at the Highland Inn, Carmel. The bridegroom’s family entertained at a rehearsal dinner at the Monterery Peninsula Country Club on March 15.

The bride is a 1974 graduate of Hillsboro High School and earned her bachelor of science degree in nursing at Clemson University, Clemson, S.C., in 1978. She is a flight attendant for United Airlines and is based in Chicago. Her husband is a 1975 graduate of Arizona State University with a bachelor of science degree in aeronautics. He is a pilot employed by American Airlines in Chicago.

Following a wedding trip the Caribbean, Mr. and Mrs. Strachan are now at home in Barrington Hills.

from the Santa Clara Mercury, June 17, 1985:

Carol L. Strachan, 42, Santa Clara Schoolteacher

Carol L. Strachan, 42, a Santa Clara schoolteacher for the past 21 years, died in a Carmel hospice June 7 after a two-year bout with cancer.

“She was a person who had a tremendous love for children and a kind of mannerism about her where she could relate very well to them,” said Earl Davidson, principal of Westwood Elementary School on Saratoga Avenue in Santa Clara.

Davidson said a tree will be planted in the play area next to the classroom where she taught for many years, in recognition of her outstanding service to the school.

“She liked science, and it will be a living tribute to her memory. Her room was always a good one to be in,” he said. A plaque will be placed with the tree, Davidson said.

Miss Strachan, a native of Detroit, was a graduate of San Jose Sate University and the University of San Francisco. She was a member of Alpha Chi Omega and the California Teachers’ Association.

She is survived by her parents, Seth and Josephine Strachan of Pebble Beach; two sisters, Mrs. James Murray III of Santa Monica and Mrs. Gene Jacobson of Marina Del Rey; and a brother, Seth Strachan of Barrington Hills, IL.

At Miss Strachan’s request, no funeral services were held. Private inurnment was handled by the California Cremation Society.

Memorial donations to the Hospice of the Monterey Peninsula or to a favorite charity have been suggested by the family.