Sunday, May 31, 2009


Weasel Feather, Buffalo Hide, Running Antelope (Rev. Edgar B. Smith), Old Chief, Eagle Calf

In some ways the World War II years were the best the reservation ever had. The young men were proud warriors and there was no doubt that the “old bulls” were chiefs. Likewise, churches were full and the Blackfeet War Mothers paid little attention to what race those mothers were. Divisions are were minimized and categories went unquestioned for a while.

1956-58 George P. Cox (intern) Babb, Heart Butte
George was born on April 16, 1923 and passed away on Sunday, September 24, 1995. George was last known to be living in Alder, Montana. This is the only info I could find and I’m not entirely sure it’s the same person.

1958-59 Charlotte Bridges

I know nothing about these people and have heard few say much.

1959-67 James E. Bell Babb, Heart Butte

Jim and Mary Bell were the pastors in residence when I came to Browning, Montana. A tall rangy Texas man along the lines of Randolph Scott or Gary Cooper, Jim Bell was a missionary who believed in pluralism. Though he was a strong Christian and a dedicated Methodist, he had great respect for indigenous ways and sought to bring them into the life of the congregation, though the Browning congregation saw itself pretty much as a white church and were more willing to welcome any Indians assimilated, that is, pretty much like them. The perennial problem was solved again by creating a ring of more “Indian” churches around the reservation in the small communities and leaving the major congregation in Browning to be more conventional.

The hammer blow suffered by the Bell ministry was the Flood of 1964. It swept away the little Apistotoke church, known as Swims Under, out near Heart Butte, and lost homes out there meant that much of the population moved to Browning. Coincidentally, the Methodist church in Babb burned down at the same time. The parsonage was not much damaged, but topsoil on the flood plain was stripped off the underlying gravel. There was suddenly huge need and trauma as people tried to cope with loss and change. That year had been meant to celebrate the Centennial of the Territory of Montana and no one could even understand whether to cancel events. Bell and other townsfolk had grown whiskers of various sorts and Bob Scriver was inspired to portray some of them in a diorama sculpture of a poker game, but Jim Bell is seen as a tall, thin cowboy rather than as a parson.

I was not part of the Bell’s personal circle. They lived in a new ranch-style house on the flood plain of Willow Creek just west of the Indian Days campground. The house was meant to accommodate Indian children who needed emergency care or fostering, but I’m not sure exactly how many or which children those included. Once we responded with the rest of Browning to a fire in the barn that had been set by children playing with matches. The major grief of the couple was losing in infancy their twin sons and the chimes in the church were donated in the name of those children. The Bells were beloved but controversial. The final quarrel was over a pair of urban Black young people the Bells took in for the summer.

1963 - Harry E. Pearson Blackfeet United Methodist Parish (lay)

“Papa” Pearson
was a retired volunteer social worker rather than a pastor. He addressed the mounds and mounds of used clothing and spent much of his time wrestling around boxes of donated stuff. Twice we lived on the two sides of duplexes, first the Halseth apartments now under the Blackfeet Trading Post and second Wessie Scriver’s duplex across the street from her. In both locations his stacks of boxes would occasionally topple, sometimes sounding like a body falling, and we’d worry over what had happened to him. In a few minutes his habitual humming/singing would start back up and we’d know he was all right.

1965- 68 Conrad Himmel
Conrad and Gayle Himmel were hard workers who had agreed to split the double-yolked egg with the Bells by taking up the mission side of things, but the Bells left. The last I heard they were in Africa. The major contribution of the Himmels was acquring the decommissioned Air Force building that became Day Care. This was just before Heart Start, but made much the same contribution by allowing parents to work and providing both protection and education to the kids.

1963-64 Richard D. Fiero
Heart Butte
This was probably also one of the mission arrangements that came and went in Heart Butte, which was the most remote and -- in some opinions -- the most backward of the territory. It was where the old people settled and depended upon the leadership of Dick Sanderville, “Chief Bull.”

When organizations are struggling to find a new identity, they often start with a new name.

1974-1981 Walter F. Mason
This pleasant and competent man settled things down. I don’t know much about him, because I left in 1973.

1981-83 F. Richard and H. Marine
Another couple that is remembered with affection.

1983-1985 James R. Bentley (PM)

Some said that Jim Bentley was brought in to straighten out the books. I believe it was during this time that Brent Warrington was commissioned to create a stunning set of stained glass windows, though it may have been earlier. Brent had taught at the Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop and also did the stained glass windows at Holy Family Mission on Two Medicine River.

1986-87 Ron Barr
Barr was the person who installed the quonset hut church at the Heart Butte location across the graveyard from the Catholic Church. It never quite jelled as a congregation and was nothing like the replacement for Swims Under that Bell had promised. It became the inevitable repository for old clothes and a location for sporadic mission visits. Barr had a tendency to overreach and that evidently overwhelmed his family, which shattered. He left suddenly.

1987 - 88 Mary Scriver

I had just left a Unitarian Universalist ministry in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Jacobson had been called to be the next Methodist minister, but he was retained for another year in his previous calling as a Navy chaplain in Florida. I agreed to serve the congregation by preaching and living in the parsonage in lieu of wages, which meant it would be exempt from taxes. Otherwise the choices were renting and paying taxes, or leaving it to stand empty in a place where it was likely to be vandalized. We didn’t do any mission work but I dearly loved the year.

1989 Richard (Jake) Jacobson
Jake was only in residence a matter of months before he realized he’d made a huge mistake and left.

1989 -90 Peggy Salois
Everyone speaks very highly of Peggy, who was a lay interim, I think.

1990- 1994 Donna Lee Martin
Donna had a strong service ethic, which was supported with dedication by her husband, who upgraded the parsonage. People found Donna “very emotional,” which was a plus to some. She did a lot of work with groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and was a senstive one-on-one counselor.

1994 - 1998 Rowland Freeman

Rowland had a strong pentecostal bent and introduced much of that to the congregation. As usual, strong personalities make controversy. Under his guidance, more stained glass was installed in the bell tower windows. The funeral of Mike Swims Under, the wise old man of the original Apistotoke church that was swept away, was guided by Freeman and included many Blackfeet old-timers even from Canada.

After Rowland I have no list to guide me and events are recent enough to be not quite history anyhow. The same problems persist today, though Browning is dominantly Indian now and the congregation is almost entirely of mixed blood.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


The life of a cloistered old woman who relies on the Internet to interface with the world is not an easy one. This computer evokes more profanity than prayer, though that, too. I keep bumping my head on different kinds of limits, which the indefatigable researchers assure me will prevent Alzheimers because no doubt I’m causing many new brain cells to form all the time because the brain -- it turns out -- is a muscle after all and forms paths just like Mrs. Othus taught us in 1949 when she was trying to get us to memorize poems from Palgrave.. But I’m beginning to suspect that like an old computer, there are only so many gigabites of space in my skull.

The other problem is that like a “dirty” electrical stream my blood glucose (the power source of brains) is unreliable. After a winter of fighting slightly high scores (never above the 140 that I’m told begins to cause cell death in kidneys, toes and eyes), summer means that I’m out in the yard working and my blood sugar plunges into the low seventies. Diet must be adjusted but more importantly I need to monitor “how I feel” which I don’t remember to do if there’s a really absorbing project at hand. At dawn my blood glucose is optimal. The only problem is that dawn here comes about 4AM. The solution is already provided: living alone. I just get up and write.

The money stream problem is harder to solve. My eMac is barely new enough to handle Leopard which is the new system I must now buy in order to run iWorks which replaces AppleWorks, my present exasperating all-in-one system. It’s slow, slow, slow and sometimes stubborn but all my files and books are in Appleworks. I would put up with the slowness but, fiendishly, MAC is in league with the Devil: Netflix. It takes Leopard to interact properly these days.

Not that Netflix is evil. In fact, it is Netflix that really transports me in the evening, back to my own past, forward into the future, and horizontally to other lands. Movies enlarge my experience and my heart these days. Magazines have shriveled. Books after a day of onscreen print weary my eyes. So far I haven’t found anyone in town who is interested in many of the same subjects. (They would be offended if they realized this, considering it a snobbery.) I begin to suspect maybe a few do, but combine it with alcohol, which I don’t.

I am, to my embarrassment, not at all interested in the town’s topics except for infrastructure. I’m out-of-sync to the point of amusement. A hot topic at the last town meeting was the number of yards harboring horses. There are three separate households keeping a horse and the ordinances allow this, since the rules hark back to the days when a horse was a transportation necessity. One of the complainants was a mother worried that a horse would escape and attack her children. She may be like the early Blackfeet who confused horses with elk-sized dogs.

The larger Montana community has also found me limited. The old liberal world of the Unitarians -- Democrats, peace organizations, organic producers, humanities circles, “Montana writers,” and English teachers -- none of which have changed much -- expect me to react as they do, but I’m quite different now, not quite welcome because I’m too rude. Much as I continue to admire Scott Crichton and Frank Kromkowski, Paul Dietrich and George Cole, the many Unitarians -- declared and undeclared -- I’ve gone some crazy hybrid place of my own. None of those would touch Tim Barrus with a ten foot pole, though in many ways he’s my most satisfying correspondent. It’s not the erotica. Are you kidding? With what the doctors insultingly call “a senile vagina” I can barely tolerate a visit to the doctor. (I think I just won’t go.)

Anyway, the physical limit that frustrates me the most is finger dexterity. I can’t make the cursor hit the right teeny spot on the screen, much less avoid what my fellow cashier in Portland called “finger booboos.” Well, maybe increasingly bad eyesight is as frustrating. Lamps proliferate all over the house and I’m glad I bought a fancy magnifying glass for the way it looked, so long ago that I got it at Bill Naito’s Import Plaza in Portland. It has an inlaid mother-of-pearl handle.

The other growing edge that I’ve had frozen by lack of software is pod-casting. There is a new program for pod-casting for a MAC, but like everything else -- including the shelves of the Montana office suppliers and the world of hackers -- Microsoft leads the way and MAC comes along months and years later. Which is okay with me unless I need some small thing peculiar to MAC and have to search around online. Montana doesn’t approve of MAC’s. This state admires conformity, though in fact outsiders never realize that until it’s too late. Anyway, I’ve hit the limits of my credit and must stash five dollar bills until I’ve accumulated the requisite total.

Another limit is the neighbors’ standards -- this time of year mostly about lawns. They would sooner save for a new riding mower than a new computer. This afternoon after I go down in the crawl space and re-attach the feed to the hose for the summer, I mow with the weed whacker. They like Roundup better than weed whackers.

You’ll understand that another limit is this little old house, though it’s also a support and enabler. I love to buy copies of “Art and Architecture” but the prospect of maintaining acres of shining floor, three-story stone fireplaces, and elegant but stain-able limestone countertops embedded with tiny fossils is just too daunting. I already did museum maintenance for a decade.

The real reason I chose this life is that I want to push the outer boundaries of thinking, not just thinking but “re-framing.” It’s a time of amazing ideas about both possibility and limitation, including mortality. I put reflections into this blog, not for you but for me, blazing trail so I can find my way home. Wherever that has gone. It seems to be traveling in its own way. I hope it’s ahead of me, not behind.

I’m watching the limits of the Internet. Spaminators and filters and firewalls are so powerful that I’m hardly getting any spam at all, but what potential ideas and friends are being suppressed? Who is out there deciding what “pornography” an old lady should not know about? The Internet, it turns out, is as fragile as our banking and stock market systems: terrific when it works, catastrophic if some small thing goes wrong. Just like human bodies. But if my info stream gets strangled in the interest of protecting bank business, I’ve got lots of books. And I have NOT allowed automated access to my checking accounts.

So the formal position I take -- and this is Barrus talking -- is in the NOW, richly living the present. But I’m too much me to leave the past and future alone. Or do housework and yardwork, except for the minimum.

Friday, May 29, 2009


Photo by Kris Alderton, my cousin's son.

K had heard a strange sort of yodeling or singing for a little while. He was hiking in the desert -- as he so much loved to do -- and was approaching what seemed to be the entrance to a canyon, but it was hard to tell because the stony walls formed a bit of a labyrinth at what must be the entrance.


The sound was getting louder and it occurred to him that he might be a bit dehydrated, always a danger in the desert. Maybe his ears were singing. He was a prudent sort of guy, being part Scots, so he stopped to take a swig of water.


It seemed that there were words in this singing sound and he looked around to see whether someone else were hiking in this remote place. He hadn’t been here before but the truth was that he looked for locations where no one else came and this one had seemed to be unvisited for a very long time. Of course, he was aware that people used to live in villages near here in prehistoric times before what must have been a catastrophic drought hit, forcing them to leave. Where did they go? The coast where he lived? These days the coast was getting so crowded that if a person could only provide enough water, he would much prefer to live in the desert.


This time he understood the words and looked very closely in case of someone in trouble, though he really didn’t have enough water for two people. Then he saw the gaping mouth of the yucca plant. It didn’t seem believable, but it was moving. The sound was coming from it.

“You’re a plant!”


“I didn’t come into the desert to water plants!”

“Then why did you come? We’re happy here alone. We want people to stay away from us. They make trouble. They don’t understand us.”

“I love the desert for lots of reasons. How come you can talk?”

“I’m the sentinel. I’m on the boundary. I stand just outside the entrance on the edge of our circle of safety. Stop looking for that canyon. It’s private, it’s ours, you’re not wanted.”

“I won’t hurt you. I just want to see. I love to imagine I was here long ago when other people lived here. I want to understand what their lives were like.”

“Why don’t you try to understand MY life?”

“You’re a PLANT!”

The yucca shook its leaves like a collie shakes its coat. “Prejudice! Just because I’m different! You mammals are so arrogant!” It shook again. “But vulnerable!” The leaves shook in what seemed a dry whispering heartless laughter.

He thought to himself, this is going to be a long conversation. I’d better sit down. It would be better if there were a little shade but he had developed the eccentric habit of carrying a big black umbrella with him. He opened it and sat on his pack. The sight had the yucca tugging on its roots, trying to get away, which made him laugh.

The yucca was screaming in a voice so high it was nearly inaudible.

“Oh, stop being such a drama queen. I’m not going to hurt you. Who are you warning? Other plants? What did you think they were going to do about it?”

“Insects. Lizards. Snakes.”

He looked around him, a little nervous now. “What else?”


“I don’t really believe in ghosts.”

“You don’t believe in talking plants either.”

This was probably a dream, he thought. Maybe the heat WAS getting to him. “What’s in that canyon? The ghosts of ancient peoples? Did they leave their pots and their bones and their mud-brick homes? If I go in there will I be walking where they walked?”

The plant was very still. It must have been thinking. “If I tell you will you just go away? Will you give up the idea that you have to go collect things, invade places, be part of something that doesn’t concern you at all?”

“Well, to be honest...” He was a bit of a romantic. He’d grown up in a family where National Geographics were piled high in the garage because they couldn’t bear to dump them or sell them. On summer afternoons like this one -- cooler on the coast -- he’d spent many happy hours trying to understand how to make sandals out of some kind of fiber, rabbit skin cut into ribbons and rewoven into a cape, all those ingenious objects. In fact, maybe those hours were the happiest of his life and he ought to have been a paleontologist or archeologist, something that would let him do this for a living. He had a notion he’d like to write about the desert, maybe poetry instead of science.

“I suppose you think you’re going to write all this down!” said the yucca in a critical voice. “Make yourself famous by invading our lives out here.”

“Wouldn’t you want to be known? Would you want to be forgotten without anyone ever even knowing you’d been here?”

“What do we care about being known? If we’re known, we’ll surely be invaded. There’s only one way to be safe and that’s to be completely unknown.”

The man reflected to himself that he’d often considered himself completely unknown but didn’t necessarily think that made him safe. Being a loner made him vulnerable. Maybe he LIKED being vulnerable. Maybe that’s why he liked the desert -- it gave him a bit of a rush to not be so cautious, so self-guarding, so preoccupied with prevention. All “pre” and no real action. But this yucca had a life without action, except for shaking its leaves. It couldn’t really escape anything. Still, it was warning the others, which is a good thing to do, wasn’t it?

That might be the thing to write, warnings to protect places. He looked at the yucca and smiled before he took a long draw on his water. Then he poured the rest on the yucca, which quivered with joy, forgetting to watch him leave.

The military drone, which was overflying the New Mexico desert to practice for desert warfare, was operated by a young pilot in a bunker in Indiana. He stared at his screen, amazed. There was a man marching along in the desert under a big black umbrella. “My God,” he exclaimed. “Can it be raining in the desert?” He went for more coffee, but when he came back, the man was still trekking along, against all probability.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Nausea is my main reaction to accounts of how the “Republicans” have been preparing to discredit and smear ANY nominee that Obama suggests for the US Supreme Court and then their subsequent attempts to do just that to Sotomayor. (I use quotes because I think the conspirators are a splinter group.) They don’t seem to have any particular goal in mind, really, certainly not the prestige of the “Grand Old Party” which now lies in Balkanized ruin across the airwaves. Rather they are like viral playground bullies, enjoying the high enterprise of stripping people naked and piling them up in pyramids.

Now that Tim and I have a manuscript and are getting into the real nitty-gritty of editing, I’ve happened over into a whole stream of these guys -- except that they’re often women, just like the old “flamers” of NA lit listservs. Almost all are young and poorly educated, evidently knowing no other way to make a place for themselves. Lance Foster also notes their identification as “haters” on his blog. . I used to call them “Oswalds,” the idea being that if you can’t be the president, any schmoo can be an assassin.

They have learned to use Google loops of hostile posts that circle back around and around by referring to each other, creating a spiral of accusations that grow more exaggerated as they ascend. They often invoke danger to children, which seems to be the emotional stage of the “haters.”

I’m taken aback to see that again Wikipedia is part of the pattern, so that if you look for Deb Frisch, a target of the haters, you’ll only find Jeff Goldstein, her accuser. It appears that the Rush Limbaugh types now have an interweaving three-strand stream of disinformation going: talk radio, Google loops, and Wikipedia. All three of these sources depend upon poorly educated people who don’t read much and only operate the computer enough to look up their enemies or get onto YouTube or Facebook. They can barely Google and never go past the first two or three panels when they do.

So it’s my fault, or the fault of myself and other teachers, not to have done a better job of educating these people and the people who raised them. We didn’t teach critical thinking, or reading skills, or even the historical basis of this country, which is not my own strong suit either except for the year I had Carlie Gilstrap, who made the Hungarian Revolution come alive. You remember, maybe, that that was the revolution that we promised to help, but didn’t.

My Netflix movie at the moment is “John Adams,” a HBO series about the American revolution that is turning out to be QUITE different from what I expected, partly because of the accessibility of the ideas and partly because of the truly beguiling acting. (I love Thomas Jefferson most, so far, but the version of George Washington -- who is rarely portrayed -- is startling. John Adams’ meeting with King George III as the first United States of America ambassador to England is amazing. Both men are striving hard to take the highest possible ground: George III to be gracious about his now separated people and John Adams trying to overcome his defiant patriotism enough to be civil.) But this series is best watched by intelligent people.

What I hadn’t really thought about is how even then there were two contending forces in our political life that might be seen as embodied by two nations. France was a red-capped mob at the time, decapitating every previous figure of privilege and authority, the way the Chinese did not so long ago. England was embattled, braced to defend its historical identity and upperclass governors. In the US Franklin and Jefferson were beguiled by France, partly because of long stays as ambassadors living in Paris. But Madison likes the English, particularly if he can become landed gentry in a re-creation of the old order. He’s not above dirty tricks backstage. This is NOT different from today’s right-wingers trying to dominate the country because they see themselves as legitimately privileged, up against the New Order which the world at large seems to approve.

John Adams
, his “rotundity” as he is called, steers between them. It is George Washington who completely overturns the card table when he resigns instead of becoming “King for Life” as Third World dictators so often do. It is Abigail Adams -- embodied by Laura Linney -- who makes us love Adams’ rotundity while seeing his faults clearly and throwing her weight against them. Her pale oval face walks through colonial rustic gardens, Parisian satin ball gowns, English paneling, Dutch checkerboard tile, in one indelible image after another. This series ought to play in an endless loop somewhere until every citizen has seen it.

But no, we keep having lessons in violence and polarization. My automated blog ads featured a little vid of Tom Cruise in his flop movie called “Valkyrie,” in which he evidently plays a Nazi. It took me a minute to figure out how the computer decided to put it there. It was the word “Blackfeet.” Cruise and Scientology have been trying to drive a wedge into the Blackfeet world, erecting a big tent at Indian Days, and flattering the locals, who can’t tell Hollywood from reality. Nor can actors and cultists tell real Blackfeet from arrivistes and opportunists.

But can I? Are we doing warring movies here? This “John Adams” series comes from a book by David McCulloch, much praised and read by many, but not me. I wonder if it’s even in the Valier library. I’ll go see. One of the differences between my life and the life of many of my “peers” or former classmates, is that here I interact with people who would never be described as aristocracy. They are the people for which democracy was formed but it is often their children who are hypnotized by fake magic, explosions, expensive belongings, and shiny cars that get low mileage. It is those children for whom public education is provided and their parents who constitute the local school boards.

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance” is a useful statement only if you know what freedom looks like and have some use for it besides hating and attacking. These days even the Pope is trying to learn how not to hate. He needs more practice, but so do we all. Maybe we could start a school for Popes, Limbaughs and Cheneys. Then confine them to campus while the rest of us go forward with Obama and Sotomayor in the nation’s capitol.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Today’s SCORPIO: Even though you are mid-stream, you get to begin again. This time around, integrate the ideas of those with whom you are traveling. When everyone’s say is validated and incorporated, you will achieve success.

The secret to writing a good horoscope is to offer wisdom that’s valid any time and place, while always slipping in a little optimism and (maybe) some humor. But this one is timely. It could be taken as referring to Rose’s graveside services which I’ll lead tomorrow and which she had figured out ahead of time. Nevertheless there are always small decisions and we’ve taken them into account. I hope all will feel valid and included, although there are always some who depend on some way to take offense and exclude themselves. As the church newsletter says, “we have something for everyone, including those who like to find fault.”

The larger transition for me now is that Barrus has “died” and coincidentally I finished the first rough draft of “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs.” It’s not like any other book I know. For one thing it’s a collaboration between the two of us but I’m not an unacknowledged ghost writer -- the ghosts are from people Barrus or I have known and loved. My contribution as a co-writer is organizing his impassioned and poetic essays and stories between transitions that I write, taking a theological, philosophical and sometimes personal position. Since the book grew out of two years of email exchanges, it is roughly chronological but not always. We’re both interested in cosmological and brain theory, theories of identity (especially gender-related), art, and indigenous peoples. We also differ on some things. Of course, the whole situation pivots around AIDS among young boys who’ve had to hustle -- in the street sense -- in order to survive.

What we didn’t really expect was that the boys began to chime in. As soon as we went from email to sharing on a blog their voices began to have opinions, often pretty uncomfortable ones. These are at-risk boys who’ve been pushed out to extremes and who live daily by monitoring their HIV infections. Like any kind of miserable chemotherapy, it takes courage and medical support. By the end of this manuscript, the boys had stopped being so dependent on Barrus -- which is what he hoped for -- and were telling him off! For his own good! As though they were the parents. I expect many parents would recognize this, maybe with rueful laughter.

Cinematheque is on summer hiatus but persists in some new form somewhere. Their candle burned down to the neck of the champagne bottle and snuffed out. In the ultimate “show-don’t-tell” there’s a vid of that.

We’ve still got enough material for a second book, “Shape Shifter,” which is the autobiographical material that was supposed to be “Kickstart,” and maybe a third . . .a fourth . . . Who knows? It’s been a good experience so far -- why would I stop? Only if Barrus gets tired of it.

The grass is tall enough to cut now and I have a lot of plants waiting to go into the ground. I always think I’ll dig the beds up ahead of time and have them ready, but I never do. So it’s dig-and-plant, dig-and-plant. Nicotiana by the front door for the smell, lupine in a front bed (I'm hoping they'll naturalize), tomatoes in the bathtubs and -- thanks to Rose, pansies and violas for window boxes. The daffodils are vigorous and doubled in number this year. I don’t know whether it was Miracle-Gro or lots of rain that did it, but it’s lovely. I hope the daylilies that are intermixed turn out as vigorous. I’ve got to crawl under the house and connect the hose today.

In the house I’m ready to swap slipcovers and curtains from stripes to flowers and, if there’s money for paint, do a bit of that. I’ll tow the furniture around into a new configuration since I no longer have to huddle around the floor furnace and the house plants don’t have to live by the window because they’ve gone outside. I do this in somewhat the same spirit as Barrus, except that he just moves to a whole new place! Like old-time Blackfeet.

The land is changing as well with cattle moving up to the mountains, the alfalfa growing, the irrigation systems working, and boat-fishing taking over from ice-fishing. I’m always grateful for the boat-fishers sort of “owning” Lake Francis because they keep the speedboats and water-scooters away. It’s a quiet, dignified sort of lake. This year is Valier’s Hundredth Year and centennial plans have been afoot since last fall.

It will be a little lonesome without Rose and Wayne but the property is for sale and who knows what the next neighbor might be like? No control, so the thing to do is wait.

Wayne’s a little lost and Andee, the son, a bit the same. Rose was the one who always knew what to do. The advice I have is a piece of Zen (or maybe it’s Tao) wisdom that I use for myself as well. When the stream comes to the end of the stream bed, it stops, pools into a lake, and in time the lake finds a new stream bed to follow. That is, if you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything.

Or rather, do the dishes, mow the lawn, plant the flowers, sort the magazine tear-outs, catch up the filing, edit, edit, edit. Wayne and and Andee gave back all the lovely plants people had sent Rose, since they won't fit into the RV. But they ate all the ice cream! They’re not THAT reckless!

And Wayne said that he did indeed carry Rose across the threshold when they got married!

Monday, May 25, 2009


Born in 1939, I came to consciousness and started kindergarten during World War II, so when I say “veteran,” those are the soldiers and sailors I have in mind. In particular, I was in awe of the young adult members of my family who were in the service. I thought it was all a matter of life and death -- and it was.

My maternal aunt had been the head of the operating room in a Great Falls, Montana, hospital. She joined the Army as soon as the war started and served in London, Oxford, and Rheims. My mother and I are standing with her.

My uncle Seth Strachan had fallen in love with airplanes as soon as the barnstormers turned up on the prairies between the world wars. Through the war he flew bombers and transport planes, big heavy planes because he was a big heavy guy. After the war, Eisenhower asked the army to fly the editors of the major print media in the US into Germany to witness the concentration camps because he said otherwise no one would believe it. (He was quite right.) Seth flew the editors’ plane.

This is Larry Hatfield and his wife, Nadine, who was my mother’s cousin. They all grew up together and Larry taught my mother’s mother how to drive a car. Except for my mother, the Pinkerton girls married Hatfield boys. They were handsome characters, cousins to Mark Hatfield who became governor and senator of Oregon.

This is R.V. Hatfield, the only one of the Hatfields who didn’t marry a Pinkerton. He had red curly hair, so it was hard to figure out how my mother -- the only Pinkerton not to marry a Hatfield -- had the only children with red curly hair.

Harold T. Scriver was Bob Scriver’s older brother, tougher in a fistfight, a better shot, and Bob’s hero. He served in the 607 Tank Destroyer Unit as Sergeant under General Patton and saw violent action at the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge.

Bob Scriver served in Edmonton, Canada, as a member of the Army Air Force Band, Alaska Division. He was first chair cornet and sometimes played outdoors in weather cold enough to freeze his horn to his lips. That’s the band in the upper photo. Bob’s in the middle.

I would be derelict not to mention my brothers. Photo taken in 1963. Mark on the left. He’s the little brother in the photo of Uncle Seth. Paul, on the right, is now dead of a heart attack. Both my brothers served in the Marines for three years, which put them through college. Neither saw combat. Mark was on a ship in SE Asia where he became a chess master. Paul was stationed in Yuma where he taught marksmanship.

I salute them all!

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Rose died this morning at dawn. Wayne says it's harder than losing his arm.

The day is gray and soft with rain.

A good day for flowers.

Prairie Mary

Saturday, May 23, 2009

HUMAN DIGNITY: Near Memorial Day

“CRITERION” is a publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Leon Kass, M.D., is the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the John U. Neff Committee on Social Thought and the College. This blog will be comments on his lecture titled “Defending Human Dignity: What It Is and Why It Matters” which was delivered in 2008 as the Nuveen Lecture. All these entities with person’s names are endowed by those persons. A longer version of this essay appears in “Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics” and online at

It’s hard to think of a more timely issue than drawing up guidelines for behavior in this era of genome fiddling, torture, unmanned bombers killing civilians, parents who kill their own children, sex so pervasive that it’s become boring, and Dick Cheney’s twisted mouth. Kass mentions slavery, sweatshops, segregation as American issues in the past, and incest, bestiality, cannibalism, prostitution, drug-addiction, and self-mutilation as issues we face when upholding human dignity against acts of self-degradation. What makes us individuals, more than animals, more than meat machines, and yet far from being gods and angels? I’m going to quote a lot because he is so eloquent.

“No life is to be deemed worthier than another, and under no circumstances should we look upon a fellow human being as if he had a “life unworthy of life” and deserved to be made dead.” He’s talking about medical research and biotechnology. “At stake are the kind of human being and the sort of society we will be creating in the coming age.” I’m working my way through the HBO series “John Adams” where the founding fathers of the USA are addressing the same questions. Excellent timing!

Kass makes a distinction between the basic dignity of human being and the full dignity of being flourishingly HUMAN. Thus he points out that preventing abortion is inconsistent with the second requirement which would mean providing care, protection, guidance, nourishment, education -- all the things that come AFTER birth. How many babies are aborted because of the inability to believe they will have a full and flourishing life? What do the pro-life people do for the child AFTER it is born?

He asks “WHICH intrinsic excellences or elevations are at the heart of human dignity and give their bearers special standing?” What is it we want our babies to achieve in the best of all possible worlds? He considers Achilles’ courage, Socrates wisdom, Kant’s respect and finds them all wanting. Then he suggests the human dignity of ordinary people, like my neighbors next door where Rose is quietly dying without complaint while Wayne tends her himself as much as he can with one arm and a big heart. Kass lists hope (Rose looks forward to seeing her dead son again), wonder (through the slider doors we watch Spring unfold in the high country), trust (she knows Wayne is there), love (oh, yes), sympathy (cards, flowers, phone calls), thankfulness (they never fail to thank the hospice people or any other visitors), awe (they believe in God) and reverence (we offered prayer together).

There is a claim that any human being has dignity. “Those who advance [this claim] seek to prevent the display of contempt, and especially contempt with legal consequences, toward those who do not measure up. . . the foreigner and the enemy, the misfit and the deviant, the demented and the disabled as less human or less worthy than oneself.” In latter years a recurring American sin has returned: contempt for the poor and a scramble to secure guarantees of prosperity. Now we know what the consequences are and may be in the future.

I had not paid much attention to the end of the Declaration of Independence, which Kass lifts up, saying, “having equal natural rights is neutral with respect to dignity; exercising them in the face of their denial carries the dignity of self-assertion; defending with one’s life and honor the rights of a whole people is high dignity indeed.” He adds “if there is dignity to be found in the vicinity of suffering, it consists either in the purpose for which suffering is borne or in the manner in which it is endured. Not everyone has the requisite virtue or strength of soul, and it therefore cannot be the basis of the equal dignity of human being.” (I must say that Rose is a hero in this regard.)

He continues: “the elevated moral status of the human species must again turn on something else: the special capacities and powers that are ours and ours alone among the creatures.” He includes “thought, image making, freedom and moral choice, a sense of beauty, love and friendship, song and dance, family and civic life, the moral life, and the impulse to worship.” But these are generalities: “FULL dignity will depend on realizing those possibilities.”

Being a doctor, he asserts “the flourishing of human possibility, in all its admirable forms depends absolutely on active human vitality, that is, on the mere existence and well working of the enlivened human body.” This is where Cinematheque is located: in the flourishing of possibility, first, through the best possible maintainance of human bodies in the face of HIV and second, through “thought, image making, freedom and moral choice, a sense of beauty, love and friendship, song and dance.” Kass asserts “the downward pull of bodily necessity and fate makes possible the dignified journey of a truly human life.” One cannot dance without gravity.

Then Kass goes to Eros, the discussion in Plato’s Symposium. He speaks of our predicament between the “self-regarding concern for our own personal permanence and satisfaction” and “self-forgetting aspiration for something that transcends our own finite existence, and for the sake of which we spend and even give our lives.” He suggests that “the fruits of ‘erotic giving-birth’ are not only human children but also the arts and crafts, song and story, noble deeds and customs, fine character, wisdom, and a reaching for the eternal and divine.”

Its root is in the humble daily duty of community. On a warm spring day full of dandelions, Ruth was carried out to the ambulance by Valier EMT’s, firemen, and nurses who had never known her as a person, knew only that it was needed. They did it generously and graciously, with care for Wayne and even for the little dog, Angel.

Friday, May 22, 2009


“Have you seen any crocus yet?” we ask each other in March when it’s really still winter on the high east-slope prairie. Even tough guys ask, “Seen any crocus?” They don’t really mean garden-type crocus but rather a wild member of the buttercup family, except that it’s pale lavendar, vaguely shaped like a crocus and equipped for early spring with an ability to melt back the snow around it. Other names include the official “anemone patens L.” or Prairie Anemone, Windflower, Blue Tulip, American Pulsatilla and A. Indoviciana, but no one asks “seen any American Pulsatilla yet?”

In fact, it’s the state flower of South Dakota -- not Montana -- but the trick is that on the east slope of the Rockies it’s early March in June, which is about the time the tourists arrive in the West, so outsiders never see them in flatter Dakota. Maybe in the Black Hills. Variations bloom from Alaska to Washington as well as Illinois and Texas. It’s the state flower of Manitoba where they are even more grateful to see Spring than we are in Montana.

Patens means spreading, so it lives up to that part of its fancier name. Actually, like many of our plants older than the plate tectonic drifting-apart that separated North America from Eurasia, it blooms there, too. It also grows in limestone pastures in central and northern Europe and parts of Russia, and locally in southern England from where the Pasque / Parsk / Pask family takes its name. Pasque refers to Easter (Passover) as the flower blooms around that time of year. The flower is not flashy and around here they are paler, less red than in other places.

It never occurred to me to try to grow crocus in my yard, though I sometimes have fleeting ideas about growing local indigenous plants, until Prairie Moon Nursery send me an email newsletter that offered the seeds ($4 a packet). They have a website and I got my sweetgrass start from them. The website also lists plants and seeds, plus the directions for collecting the seeds plus many photos of “crocus” and comments on them from many parts of the world. Nineteen individuals will trade plants or seeds. Google lists 134,000 entries for Pasqueflower: shocking to someone who cherishes this small early flower as something unique, local and not quite secret but not exactly shared with strangers or people one doesn’t like much. It takes a certain kind of person to care whether you’ve seen any crocus yet.

As I look at the photos and comments, I begin to suspect that they aren’t all talking about our small pale flower, no petals/only sepals, fuzzy as a kitten’s ear. Some of the variations from other places are a foot tall, dark, much more aggressive-looking.

You want to keep your sheep away from even our innocent versions. “Pasque flower is highly toxic, and produces cardiogenic toxins and oxytoxins which slow the heart in humans. Excess use can lead to diarrhea, vomiting and convulsions, hypotension and coma.” But even things that have potential to be dangerous can be very helpful in the proper situation. Suppose one WANTS to slow the heart? What if one WANTS diarrhea and vomiting to rid the body of something even more toxic? “It has been used as a medicine by Native Americans for centuries. Blackfeet Indians used Pasque Flower to induce abortions and childbirth.” But if one wants to preserve and protect the pending infant, Pulsatilla should not be taken during pregnancy nor during lactation.

“Extracts of Pulsatilla have been used in an effort to treat reproductive problems such as premenstrual syndrome and epididymitis.” (The epididymis, according to my medical dictionary, is “an elongated, cordlike, structure along the posterior border of the testis, whose elongated coiled duct provides for storage, transit and maturation of spermatazoa and is continuous with the ductus deferens.” In pictures it looks like a ball of string after a cat gets through playing with it.) “Additional applications of plant extracts include uses as a sedative and for treating coughs. It is used as an initial ingredient in homeopathic preparations, which don't have toxic effects of other remedies because the ingredients are diluted with water until no molecules of the initial substance can be found in a typical quantity.”

One could invent a a story about a mountain man who, due to the rampant behavior typical of mountain men, caught himself a case of “epididymitis” without knowing what it was, and his worried indigenous consort, being sophisticated about the management of unwanted births -- which is a good skill for those who hang around with mountain men -- finally cures him with extract of pasque flower around Easter on the east slopes of the Rockies, though she knows nothing about Easter. Her world includes no chicks, boiled eggs or bunnies though there are plenty of tortured men, not necessarily linked with the revival of life in the spring. One could have a lot of fun with ironic play among levels of interpretation, good for baiting college sophomores who have just discovered cultural relativity and upwelling symbolism drawn from the land. (I’m joking, but this is one of my serious preoccupations.)

So a pasque flower is an excellent example of a local aesthetic phenomenon linked with a season of ceremonial importance that people think of as their own, but is, in fact, shared around the planet from eons earlier than continents. If I were still creating liturgical garments, I might embroider or bead pasque flowers onto a preaching shawl and wear it on the Sundays close to Easter.

The Blackfeet word for crocus is kippiaapi. This is close to kipitaaakii, which means “old woman.” When one prays in the spring while opening the Thunder Pipe Bundle, one invokes Kipitaaakii, rather as one might speak of “Mother Nature.” Around here now you’d have to go up into the mountains to see a crocus, but they’ll be there at the edge of the snow, just as they were when the glaciers melted back ten thousand years ago and the old Blackfeet women gathered them for medicine. They didn’t put them in vases to admire, just laid them out in the sun to dry and suffered a little afterwards since they wore no gloves. Just the same, they saw the beauty: their hearts slowed.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


When I became “education coordinator” for animal control, I thought it was a step in the direction of “professionalizing” myself. No more scrounging around in decrepit places -- this time I would rent a “nice” apartment, so I settled into a very nice, sort of “French” garden apartment. The reason I thought it was French was that the windows were all the way to the floor. Probably built in the Thirties, the bathrooms had been clustered around an air shaft. A person who really meant to could crawl from the window in one apartment through the windows into the other two apartments that adjoined. The window across the shaft was never opened, which was fortunate since the bathtubs were right under the windows, but I opened mine when it was hot and so did the next-door apartment. Thus I became a part of their intimate lives.

They were two gay men, one a little younger than the other, a little softer and needier. He had the low-pay job and did the “femme” work: dishes and dusting. Sometimes the two of us would sit out on the stoop with our coffee or pop or beer and he would tell me how frustrated he was to be always the backup, always the homemaker. He sounded just like any wife.

The other man worked in a nickel plating plant and came home exhausted, blackened, and angry. He was a dark man in every sense except not African American -- some kind of Mediterranean. He was the dominant one and very hard to placate, to calm. Sometimes they got into terrible fights, throwing each other against the walls and yelling obscenities. I worried about calling the cops. Portland cops were not homophobic and would not abuse them, but still... officers called to domestic violence were liable to overreact. I decided that I would not call emergency unless I heard a shot or someone yelled for help. Neither ever happened.

Maybe in an attempt to be more like a family, they adopted an adult dog. This was not a success. She was the worst dog I ever knew. No mystery about how she got to the humane society (not animal control). A cross between an English sheepdog and an Afghan, she had every possible worst trait of both breeds. Energetic, distracted, destructive, unteachable, uncontrollable, unhousebroken, hairy, noisy ... They named her Sadie. She only lasted a week before they couldn’t stand her any longer and took her back.

But that’s not the point of the story. The rest of the story is that on an August weekend, very hot, I was reading in the bathtub with my window open. It was evening and the neighbors decided to take a shower together. The dark one was in his usual foul mood. The soft one began to gently soap him down. If I got out of the tub, it would make noise: they’d know I’d been there and listening. Anyway, I’m a writer. I might write about it sometime. It’s been thirty years -- I guess that’s long enough to wait.

They rinsed and then ran cool water to sit in together. And each began to tell the other stories about their past, seeking intimacy and trust, grieving over old losses and injustices. I’ve never heard a heterosexual couple in such unguarded moments, but I don’t suppose it would be that different. That’s as far as I’ll go.

This was the apartment where I was living when I took my own small dog for a walk first thing every morning. It was a frosty fall morning when I pulled on jeans and jacket over my pajamas, put a baggie in my pocket and set out on our usual route. Some of you have heard me tell this story before: how I turned the corner and found the street full of football players with hearing aids and giant anti-nuclear war puppets. It was a very nice neighborhood and the president, Jimmy Carter, who was campaigning for re-election, had stayed there overnight instead of in a hotel.

The football players got us organized behind a silk rope they had set up, like at the Oscars, and the President walked down the row, graciously shaking every hand. He had no idea that I had a baggie of warm dog poop in my pocket because I hadn’t come to a garbage can yet nor did he know I was wearing pajamas. The secret service didn’t know it either.

Maybe it was a more innocent time. Carter was certainly a more innocent president. He got in his limo and left and so did all the others. I finished my mission and got dressed for work. Nothing else happened.

Is there any connection at all between these two stories? I don’t think so. Except that when I first moved in, it was late and I was sitting on my bed reading when I heard the window next to me, which was ground level, slide quietly up. In front of it was a chest with a silver tray of perfumes on it. I had enough money to buy serious perfume in those days. Two clean pink hands reached in and took the stopper out of my flask of Mitsouko, very powerful exotic stuff. No longer on the market.

I was both scared and angry and leapt to my feet, slamming the window down so fast I almost caught the hands but I couldn’t see the person. I called the cops. First question they asked was whether the hands were black. The Mitsouko had spilled and I suggested that they go sniff the hands of locals. They had no intention of doing anything like that. The bedroom reeked of the stuff but I was afraid to open the window again. The next day I bought wire mesh and secured all my fancy French windows plus the bedroom window.

Much later my dish-washing neighbor confessed he’d just been curious about my perfume and that I’d scared him as much as he’d scared me. So maybe that’s the thread of these stories: that we are always mis-perceiving things, that knowing the realities might be very surprising -- even unpleasant. But sometimes reality is pretty funny and sometimes it’s quite moving. You might not know for a long time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Yesterday I was visited by the fortuitously named Hope Good, the publisher of “Treasure State Lifestyles Montana,” which is a complimentary magazine supported by advertising and intended for native Montanans. She has been asked to prepare an issue on Valier for the town’s hundredth anniversary and has only three weeks to “get ‘er done.” Anyone would be daunted, but Hope doesn’t sit around hoping: she’s a hustler in the better sense of the word.

She strongly states her position as a person who grew up near a small town (Moccasin) on a ranch and who represents the “mainstream culture” of the state. This turns out to be the same as the culture of the cowboy art crowd, though she left the Ad Club’s CM Russell Auction in favor of the “Western Heritage” group that runs parallel as a benefit for the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, also in Great Falls. It is, in a word, commercial. These people intend to make a living.

Hope was roughly four hours late, suggesting she’d be by at 3PM and finally turning up at 7PM, not out of negligence but out of diligence since she was selling ads. I was grateful we weren’t meeting for lunch. But this didn’t improve my attitude and then I was horrified. First, because I slowly realized I was being interviewed for an article ABOUT me (and here I am, more or less hiding behind Bob Scriver) and then because I began to understand that this woman’s education had left her high and dry, confirming every prejudice I have about Montana high schools.

Hope Good
aspires to be a “publisher,” even though she already is one. I gather she means, like, those Manhattan pipe smokers in tweed (recently replaced by monsters in spike heels). In other words, the prestige, the knowledge, the access to resources, the worldliness, the possibility of hitting the jackpot that Hollywood always reinforces. But when I asked her, as a self-described book-loving Montana ranch girl, which of the many book-writing Montana ranch girls she loved most, she hadn’t read any of them. When I suggested Mary Clearman Blew, she’d never heard of Blew, who is often bracketed with Ivan Doig. She HAD heard of Doig. She owned a copy of “The Last Best Place” but has not read it.

She didn’t know that publishing as the world has known it is now gone, the victim of a one-two punch, first corporation takeovers that demanded high returns, gutting the staffs to improve profits and insisting that only block-buster airport books were worth attention; then, the ePrint revolution that has wiped out the market for print on paper-- along with the booming used book on-line sales which overshadow new books.

She’d heard of Kindle but not Kindle 2, wasn’t aware of the tussle over copyright and payment, and said she could only find good Montana regional books at websites, even though she regularly delivers her magazine to Oasis Bookstore in Choteau, one of the very best -- and not online -- sources of books about the West and Montana. She didn’t know that regional literature has joined the dodo march except for a few stubborn people fixated on Cormac McCarthy or maybe Annie Proulx.

Of course I’m exaggerating and being totally unfair to Hope Good, but she’s one tough and determined lady and will not be hurt by this encounter, though she may rather regret it. And she truly IS representative of Montana small town mainstream culture. The biggest lack is a total absence of context outside of the commercial world. As an example of her major nonconformity, she told me she didn’t really approve of Custer, without any hint of awareness about the storms of opinion and research surrounding the whole clearing of the plains, much less how it fits into the major world genocides on this planet.

The upshot of this realization -- once she gets her head around it, which will take a little time -- will be the dizzy feeling of Oz’s curtain dropping, revealing the world behind the world. Then she’ll have to convey some of this to her staff and keep up the confidence that makes her a successful sales person. She can do it. It’s a major opportunity to connect with some of the writers who have been locked out, overlooked, ignored in this state.

Increasingly I’m aware of a whole “layer” of men who are mature, consistent producers, not academic, and from Montana. I’m thinking of Allen Tooley, Lance Foster, Gary J. Cook, Sid Gustafson, Robey Clark, Darrell Kipp. There must be others. Some of them have pretty good contacts and get their work out to a kind of niche audience, but they are not generally recognized as “Montana writers.” Their names don’t come up among the gatekeepers of the category, who are largely academic.

Ironically, the Montana Festival of the Book, which sort of has the category by the throat, in spite of being organized as “academic,” is transparently commercial, promoting writers published in the old-fashioned paper way by publishers that at least pretend they are saluting quality as they define it. That is, whether it fits the “brand.” With great grudgingness, the Festival has begun to allow self-published books, most of them meant to make a little money for people writing their life stories. They will not address blogs or ebooks or anything else that happens online, including the Western Writers of America or the website maintained by the Western Literature Association.

People have been quietly grumbling and wondering about a kind of failure of energy in the genre categories of Western writing and Native American Lit. Maybe even the Western History Association. The tsunami of theory that washed over us debilitated the innocent joy of reading about landscapes and animals and people we know and live among. If people like Hope Good can be pulled into the field with her high energy and focused determination, maybe that will put the match to some accumulated kindling so that we could have conferences where people shout and pound the table instead of being shushed and compelled to attend workshops on civility meant to reassure newcomers. And all about BOOKS! BOOKS about RIGHT HERE! Who cares how we get access or whether they are paper! STORIES! Give us STORIES! On mp3, on Kindle, on paper, on radio, around a firepit. And the REAL stuff, not sentimental same-old, same-old.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Maybe a little over a decade ago there was a detective show that was filmed in Portland, Oregon, Maybe inspired by “Prime Suspect,” it featured a female lead and made good use of the dark and threatening spaces under all the bridges that cross the Willamette River. That was before they were populated by illegal immigrants. In the series it was always raining, of course, and between overcast reflecting skies and bouncing city lights I joked that it was not quite film noir -- more like film gris. At the end the woman detective was shot -- to death I mean -- while standing in the West Hills in full sunshine with Mt. Hood gleaming with snow behind her. She was wearing a white suit which blossomed a red corsage of blood. Very sad and slightly bitter because so many people loved that series while it lasted.

My automated book review from Powell’s announces:
“The “noir” idea is back again in a book called Portland Noir (Akashic Noir) by Kevin Sampsell.”

Publisher Comments
“Explore the dark, rainy underbelly of one of America's most beautiful but enigmatic cities.

“Brand-new stories by: Gigi Little, Justin Hocking, Chris A. Bolton, Jess Walter, Monica Drake, Jamie S. Rich (illustrated by Joelle Jones), Dan DeWeese, Zoe Trope, Luciana Lopez, Karen Karbo, Bill Cameron, Ariel Gore, Floyd Skloot, Megan Kruse, Kimberly Warner-Cohen, and Jonathan Selwood.

“From the downtown streets littered with strip clubs and gutter punks to the north side where gentrification and old school hip-hop collide, Portland, Oregon, is a place that seems straight out of a David Lynch movie. It's a city full of police controversies, hippie artist houses, and overzealous liberals, where even its fiction blurs with its bizarre realities.

“Portland Noir is an encompassing literary journey where your tour guides take you to the Shanghai Tunnels, dog parks, dive bars, sex shops, Powell's Books, Voodoo Doughnuts, suspiciously quiet neighborhoods, the pseudo-glitzy Pearl District, Oaks Amusement Park, and a strip club shaped like a jug. Violent crime, petty mischief, and personal tragedy run through these mysterious tales that careen through this cloudy, wet city.

“Portland Noir is sure to both charm and frighten readers familiar with this northwest hub and intrigue those who have never traveled to this proudly weird city.”

PW Review
"The home of Chuck Palahniuk, Powell's City of Books — and the place with more strip clubs per capita than any other city in America — gets its due in this splendid entry in Akashic's noir series. Portland natives will appreciate shout-outs to lesser-known landmarks, like the weekly showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Clinton Street Theater in Ariel Gore's 'Water Under the Bridge,' while outsiders may recognize some of the city's more famous draws, like the Shanghai Tunnels in Gigi Little's 'Shanghaied.' . . . In a city full of police controversies, hippie artist punk houses, and overzealous liberals, Portland, Oregon, is a place where even its fiction blurs with its bizarre realities.”

My Cousin:
“That is not the Portland I know!”

This “noir” series is, of course, an attempt to create a “brand” and to package some small dimension timber from aspiring writers who evidently have been accumulating in Portland the way they used to in Missoula. Portland is something like the twentieth town to be immortalized this way, which is supposed to be paranoid and creepy but stylish. I’ll wait until I can buy second-hand copies a few years from now.

In the meantime I can only remember my own encounters with “The Gray Lady,” especially in my animal control years. Those were the Seventies when Patty Hearst was hiding in town, the mayor’s affair with his babysitter was still a secret, and one of the county commissioners was a known chicken hawk. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was playing even then, as well as “Deep Throat,” which was in something like it’s third year. But also, since I was born there in 1939, I can remember when that jug-shaped building had three X’s on it -- wasn’t that root beer?

Interesting that the cover photo is one of Portland’s more innocent life-sized bronzes, the one of a man with an umbrella hailing a cab -- not the nude. I can only remember taking a cab in Portland once: when I had an investigation of my stomach from a little camera (spies!) pushed down my throat while I was sedated. The sedation was quite thorough, enough that the doctor said I could NOT drive home and, in fact, couldn’t even take the bus. So they called a cab and the nurse walked me down to make sure I got into it. SHE gave the address to the driver, looking him over closely to see if he were trustworthy. Good thing. I was high as a kite. If he’d suggested that he take me off into the woods that surround Portland and chop me into little pieces, I would have trilled, “Oh, sounds like fun!” Noir.

Just down the street is the Lovejoy Clinic where young women who failed family planning go to have their innards corrected. I took a young relative of mine and sat with her in the waiting room. The nurse came with her clipboard. “Will all those who are having this procedure for the first time come with me now? Those who are returning may continue to wait here.” Maybe twenty per cent of the clients rose. One young woman with a backpack approached the nurse. “I couldn’t get cash. PLEASE can I write a check this time? I'm begging.”

“You know the rules,” said the nurse, turning away. Noir.

On Oaks Bottom I took my ancient mother for a sedate Sunday afternoon walk along a trail through the woods. “What’s posted on that tree?” she asked. I waded through the bracken to look. It was a page out of a porn mag, the rough kind, and there were more of them stapled to other trees. In the middle was a kind of nest in crushed bracken, a ragged old sleeping bag . . .

“Let’s go back now,” I suggested.

“Why? What was it?” I don’t remember what I made up. Noir.

Forest Park, when Portland is being packaged and branded as a conservationist’s wet dream, is portrayed as pristine forest in the middle of the city. In fact, it is full of human traces, not just sleeping bag nests but full-scale well-disguised hootches. It’s a cop’s nightmare. Guns, drugs, violence, floating sociopaths, and one lady ran a herd of pigs there one summer. But I never ran into any voodoo doughnuts.

It would be all too easy to write a noir book about Browning except those sneering self-satisfied liberals who like to give each other chills are mostly seasonal -- the stories would have to happen in summer. And Valier? Ten years ago I would have told you nothing noir happened here. Now I know better. But still, David Lynch grew up in Missoula. It remains the creepiest town I know, much more than Portland. To understand noir you have to be around a university. Otherwise, it’s just crime and heartbreak. Always just under the surface everywhere. Waiting to be packaged and sold.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Ang Lee, always at the cutting edge of the culture, has picked up on the returning interest in the Sixties and Seventies by making a movie about Woodstock. (“Taking Woodstock,” now showing at Cannes.) But is he really? The diagnostic anecdote is that when Lee advertised for extras -- a LOT of young people willing to get naked, slide around in the mud, and have their faces painted with flowers -- there were plenty of applicants. The problem was a modern fashion: shaving one’s pubic hair. In the Woodstock days one didn’t even shave one’s legs and pits! What does it mean? My best guess is that it’s a refusal of adulthood. An unwillingness to risk being grabbed by the short hairs? I had no idea it was a fashion and it seems to me an inconveniently itchy one.

I’m always talking about the Aquarian Revolution in San Francisco -- as though I were there, even though in the Sixties I was in Browning, Montana, reliving the 1860’s, a steady stream of tragedy and loss for the Blackfeet. These were indigenous people the hippies intended to make common cause with, if they ever figured out where they were and what to do. I never heard any Blackfeet say he was at Woodstock, though some made it to Haight/Asbury.

So I thought I’d do a little research on those people a little younger than myself, the hedonistic idealists, the ones I wanted to join but didn’t. I've told about the young man on his way to Stanford who stopped in Browning long enough to help build the fireplace in Bob’s studio and then asked me to go on to California with him. (I wonder where he is now?)

My counterculture participation was mostly buying a copy of the Whole Earth Catalogue and writing theatre reviews for the Portland Scribe. I never tried weed, or even tobacco, much less alcohol and free sex. Where are those people now? I googled and my first hit was a win: It’s a blog that is nothing but long interviews of former hippies now living in Arkansas. It was intended to become a book, though there’s no sign that it has. I realize now why Clinton did so well in Arkansas: there is evidently a huge population of free-thinking do-gooders, all quietly minding their own business. I can only hope this is true of other places.

The book it makes me think of is “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System” by Paul Fussell in which Fussell calls a certain kind of people, brought up in prosperity with “good” educations but living as hippies, “Class X.” This is not the same as Generation X, which is an age group, the children of the “boomers” I guess. Class X goes back to the rebel younger sons in Europe. Maybe it goes back to Caravaggio, about whom I’m currently reading. The group Fussell proposed was later corrupted to Bo-bo or “bohemian bourgeois” which is another book which I haven’t read. (“Bo-Bo’s in Paradise.") At least it breaks up the constant obsession with the Middle Class, which is much less the high-school-style uniformity that is assumed. At least I hope so.

These earnest life stories from people now old enough to be grandparents (maybe ten years younger than myself on average) are full of trap-doors and surprises, even though the over-all gist of them is about the same: “I had an easy childhood; in college I woke up to the draft, riots and urban blight; I couldn’t sustain an ordinary respectable job; and then I began to find my way to a rural life doing work with my hands and gardening. Since then I’ve tried to help others.” Sometimes there are sequential partners, other times only one. Always a lot of concern for the children. ALL the children. Always social action on behalf of the poor. Always worry about education, kinds of knowledge.

They’re an admirable lot, not in the least dangerous, quietly resisting Bush as they wait for an Obama. And they DID see the economic plunge coming. They were prepared. Along the way most lost interest in their early psychedelic explorations, though there are no regrets and many credit those epiphanies with finally putting their feet on the right path. Not many of them in this town. I can only think of a couple and they are as resented now as they were when they were in high school. In Montana one says they’re “different” and looks away. Lots of them up on the rez, though, but Montana isn’t the right climate for living in tents and raising veggies.

It’s been a while since Woodstock. Even the dangerous anarchists are out of jail and doing good works now. The generation of direct descendants has been mostly orderly, diligent, and honorable. But they DO know how to be hippies living on the edge of society if that should become necessary. I suspect that their books -- which they are bound to write -- won’t be conventionally published, but that these are the people who will be quite willing and able to self-publish. Maybe they’re doing it right now. After all, a blog is self-publishing and I just read a LOT of Aquarian Revolution stories this afternoon.

I suspect that the Aquarians, like every other category, exist in a continuum from mellow to pretty damn dark. I’m curious about that dark edge and what it might do if it got activated. I suspect that now it’s busy smuggling drugs, but if drugs (at least marijuana) is decriminalized, then what will happen? The last counter-culture was fueled in part by the Vietnam War, but these “sand wars” are different, they say. Still, the underculture, the criminal culture, the subculture is now global just like the international corporations that have screwed up our financial systems. How can we appeal to the JFK-style patriotism when the boundaries of nations have been erased? Or did the Peace Corps help to erase those boundaries? It's going to be different this time.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Decades ago, I started accumulating books about something I might call “the philosophy of the body” if I wanted to be pretentious. “Incarnate Being” if I wanted to be religiously poetic. But the nine books that have survived many purges and moves over the years are a hodge-podge. Now I need them and books like them, because of Barrus and Cinematheque, so I can think clearly about subjects normally pushed away as pornography. I see that the books are all from the Seventies and Eighties. Did I stop buying them? Was no one writing them anymore? Or was I just in places where they weren’t on the shelves anymore? Surely in the Nineties when I haunted Powells they would have been there.

I think (at least I hope) the books are trying to get at ways of thinking about subjects as vital and timely as sex, torture, death, addiction, disease, combat trauma, mutilation, and some of the edgy health issues we seem to be addressing now. Plastic surgery, nutrition, meds vs. supplements, euthanasia, DNA. Are we animals? Are animals human? What is there besides the body? What is extending life if one’s body breaks down?

Here are the book titles, in case someone has something to say about them. They’re all paperbacks:

Duyckaerts, Francois, (translated by John A. Kay) “The Sexual Bond,” A Delta Book, Dell Publishing Co. by arrangement with Delacorte Press. Originally published in Belgium in 1964. Delta edition in 1971.

Hutchinson, Marcia Germaine.
Transforming Body Image: Learning to Love the Body You Have.” The Crossing Press, 1985.

Keleman, Stanley.Somatic Reality: Bodily Experience and Emotional Truth.” Center Press, 1979.

Fisher, Seymour, and Sidney E. Cleveland,
“Body Image and Personality.” Originally published by van Nostrand in 1958. Dover, 1968.

Kurtz, Ron and Hector Prestera, M.D
. “The Body Reveals: An Illustrated Guide to the Psychology of the Body.” Harper & Row, 1976.

Nelson, James B
. “Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology.” Augsburg Publishing House, 1978.

Scarry, Elaine.
“The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.” Oxford University Press, 1985.

Scarry, Elaine, ed. “Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons.” Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Stuart F. Spicker, editor. “The Philosophy of the Body: Rejections of Cartesian Dualism.” An Anthology. Quadrangle/New York Times, 1970.

I think I have some other “high philosophy” from Anne Douglas and maybe some anthro stuff. And my brain books. But wait, here’s a sweet little booklet: Laiken, Deidre S. “The First Kiss: a Teenager’s Guide to the Gentle Art of Kissing.” G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1982. Some nice little tips in case you’ve been practicing on the back of your hand or kissing your dog. (I used to leave the booklet around my classroom because I’m here to tell you cowboys can’t kiss! Now, cornet players! For one thing, they don’t chew snoose!) There is a class angle to this. (like everything)

My original purpose was for thinking about liturgy: what positions and gestures connect to what concepts and emotions? Kneeling, folding hands? The Cinematheque crew must address their defenselessness, both as bodies whose antibodies keep being suppressed by the HIV virus and as boys who had to resort to painful and desperate ways of getting money, which meant they often turned to self-administering drugs to comfort themselves. Their naturally unfolding emotional lives have had to grow around and through many obstacles, but grow they did and continue to do. Barrus, with his avascular necrosis, faces daily limitations hard for a former dancer to accept, as well as constant pain.

Contempt and ferocity are effective defenses, but they take a lot of energy. Boundaries, structure, the mechanisms of sussing and testing, are all distorted and/or imposed from the outside. Normal functions like eating, sleeping, and caressing have been converted and re-interpreted. Appearance, always a big issue for pre-teens and teens, is scrambled among appeal, saleability, self-respect, and feeling dirty. Rhetoric is the same. One minute swaggering obscenity and the next a child’s need.

Asia has been the place on the planet where the power of helplessness has been developed into systems. Judo and all that. Weaponless combat. Body as weapon. Strategy as weapon. America is the place on the planet where the power of helplessness has taught biding one’s time and unexpectedness, guerrilla warfare. The populations of these two places are historically genetically continuous.

We are protective of our flesh but so willing to risk that of other people. We worry about flu but never worry whether our neighbors have enough to eat. We worry about global warming but blame and stigmatize street people. We worry about meds but eat dreck and excrete our meds in such quantity that the frogs become hermaphrodites. We have the illusion that we can be apart from everything else. Safe. And then drive drunk or texting.

We are so protective of our flesh that fear of death prevents us from being alive. Once one has faced, risked, and temporarily survived death, life becomes a new thing.

Making such pompous pronouncements is easy, especially on the Internet. Forming one’s own strategy and setting one’s own small daily goals is much harder. But I feel as though reading this stuff and thinking about it is necessary and why I want to live in a small house without doing any housework so I have time to think. Besides, I hope it won’t attract any other people except on the Internet and then only people who also want to think about what it means to live in a body. Without bringing it here, hoping to be fed and held.

My body is not exceptional: old, tubby, hair thinning, eyes dimming, hands fumbling, feet stumbling. But I’ve always been curious about it. Never imposed much discipline until the necessity of going sugarless. Every morning I spent a half-hour with my friends, one dying of cancer and the other operating with one arm and a morphine pump. They’ve been married fifty years, worked hard, had many dreams. Yesterday morning I watched she and her husband trying to get her little pain-killer patch (a square inch) peeled off its backing and stuck onto her chest. It was a ten minute struggle. They wanted to do it themselves. The stuff is so powerful she only needs one every three days and drinking alcohol at the same time would kill her. I bring gossip, pet the busy little dog, and help him put on his shirt and socks. I go at the same time every morning. Dependability is important. Bodies understand it.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Most people are aware that stereotypes about Indians exist just as they do about any minority -- or majority. But few realize that the Indians themselves make assumptions about whites, esp. whites from outside. You have to live around Indians long enough for them to either kind of forget that you’re white or for them to stop considering you dangerous, before you find out what those assumptions are.

The first one I ran into was the Indian woman who told me when I first came in 1961 that she had stopped making friends with whites because “they never stay.” She had had her heart broken again and again by becoming close to someone who left after a few years. Of course, that’s built in to a situation where most whites were on the rez because of teaching or working for the BIA. Now that there is Indian preference, the few whites who come are either really intentional about staying or are tied into local ranching or merchant families, who have economic attachments. Still “white people are transient” is the ironic stereotype from a formerly nomadic people. I don’t count white summer people because they’re so obviously transient that it’s not a stereotype -- it’s just the plain fact.

Recently I was talking to an older Indian woman and mentioned my niece. “Oh,” said this woman, “I didn’t think you had any family. I never think of white people as having family.” She meant that for her the norm is “all my relations” who generally cluster up with whoever has an income or a house or enough influence with the powers-that-be to be useful. There are very few Indian loners. It’s just not their style. So my choice to live alone means to them there are no relatives. Whites who marry Indians are sometimes a bit shocked when they realize that means they’ve married a whole clan. But if people are living on the edge, that’s one way to survive.

As there become more resources and as more people become used to isolation while living in the city, relieved only by cell phones, computers and television, there are more Indian people who are a little guarded, but they are still more likely to tolerate and even welcome people coming to visit. Some expect it and see it as a compliment that many people come by, in spite of the expense of coffee and sometimes something more. If a college-educated Indian is involved, best to call ahead, same as urban whites.

White people in the past have been authority figures and Bob said that in earlier times, if a white person pulled into the ranch yard, no one would be home. You might glimpse shirt tails disappearing into the brush. If you waited quietly by your pickup, an older man would generally come from somewhere. (This happens today at the Hutterite colonies.) In the old days it was because Indian children were seized without warning and carried off to residential schools without even telling their parents. Even today it might mean a warrant was being served, but the officer would likely be Indian.

One should approach with caution white families of the strange American sub-culture of throwbacks, little knots of defiant opposition that may have come out of moonshining and continue through illegal drugs, and consider themselves MORE virtuous than the surrounding hedonistic culture. I don’t know of any Indian families like this, but small groups of whites immigrate to the high slopes of the Rockies, thinking they are in the 19th century and going to the wilderness. They assume Indians are 19th century people who might be allies. Indians assume they are crazy.

To Indians all white people have mysterious resources from some other place: money or connections or information, so there’s never any worry about how whites will survive. At holidays all white people disappear someplace mysterious, going “home.” The kids think of it as a kind of “cargo cult” deal by which people acquire a lot of stuff. When I stayed in Heart Butte over Christmas, the kids were concerned that I was doing the wrong thing and might suffer for it. I tried to tell them I WAS “home,” but to them it was THEIR home and one person’s home can’t be an entirely different kind of person’s home. No one shares home in that way: home means place and people who are blood relations.

Much of the "old" white stereotyping has dispersed now because of television, but that has brought in a whole new set of stereotypes, partly because it coincided with the exodus of most of the white people on the rez except in the summer. So now the younger Indians think all white people are like the examples on sit coms. But they have been introduced to the idea of black white people and they have firmly grasped the idea that black white people are more powerful than white white people. They’re better basketball players (which is a major criterion) and white people are very careful around them. Yellow white people are invisible.

The biggest stereotypes that are (thankfully) dying out are the stereotypes that Indians have about Indians. Like cowboys in the bunkhouse reading Westerns to see what they should be like, some Indians read anthropology and try to follow the descriptions as though they were prescriptions. This pleases summer white people who like to be told “what Indians are really like.” They do NOT want to hear that Indians are like anyone else.

Statistical constructs about what Indians are like are pretty risky to even talk about. If one says that “surveys show” elevated levels of drunkenness, unwed mothers, family abuse, theft, and so on, the Indian listening will think they personally are being accused of all these things and they will vigorously quarrel with all these ideas. Besides, when these things are part of your own family life of whatever color, you learn to keep them secret. You only drag them out when intrafamily or interfamily warfare breaks out, as around tribal elections. Then everything comes out, usually full of exaggerations and wrong assumptions. Therefore, given the ambiguity of reservation life, no one ever really knows anything about anyone. They just have their suspicions, which gradually develop into convictions. There are more family stereotypes than racial stereotypes. X family are drunks; Y family are thieves. Whites are greedy, undependable, and addicted to lawyers.

Every stereotype serves a purpose, justifying something from the point of view of the stereotyper and sometimes becoming self-fulfilling. There used to be an educator here who had two major convictions about Indian kids which he passed on as Truth. One was that Indian kids can’t handle sequences (like the alphabet) and the other was that Indian kids will always avert their eyes. Maybe. Or maybe this guy was just obnoxious, in their faces. But he’s made a living ever since by touting his grasp of Indian kids. When I asked, they said they couldn’t remember the guy. He didn’t stay long.

Friday, May 15, 2009


A landscape restoration specialist once remarked that everyone wants the landscape to be restored to what they first encountered. Since landscape is constantly transforming, as a group they can’t agree on what is “right.” One guy’s shocking dandelion invasion is another guy’s field of gold. Something like that happens with populations like Native Americans, who are a succession of generations influenced by time and circumstances. When I first came to Browning, Montana, in 1961, there were several distinct “types” of “Indians.” (One of the things that changes over the years is nomenclature.)

At this point in history, Bob Scriver had created his sculpture to “freeze frame” three generations by portraying three people still living. One was Chewing Black Bone, the Aku Pitzu of James Willard Schultz’s tales and a very ancient man. He had been in a real war party, he had seen the buffalo disappear, he had dressed in buckskin and a Sioux headdress to meet dignitaries, and now he lived in a lodge by his granddaughter’s reservation allotment ranch house. He had survived one of the largest displacements of a people in history, a refugee in time but not in place. His culture had been removed but his location remained.

Mae Williamson
was half-assimilated. A Blackfeet speaker, she had been married to a lawyer and was the first woman on the Blackfeet Tribal Council. The boy’s name has been lost. If he is alive today, he is over sixty, a grandfather or great-grandfather. He may be one of those who completed the assimilation to white ways, losing his Blackfeet ways but becoming competent in modern society. I’m sure he still self-identifies as Blackfeet.

In addition to these three groups, I was aware of what we now call “street people,” which is to say hard-core alcoholics, and because of being around off and on for fifty years, I’m aware that though many died, some of these people sobered up and became productive family members again. And I was aware of those who were part of the mostly white manager/shopkeeper/clerical/rancher classes who would send their children to college to become today’s Blackfeet middle class.

In the public mind the “shape” of the American Indian comes from the Prairie Clearances, the huge land-grab that rested on the reservation system, powered by a corps of Civil War veterans suited for frontier war. Horseback, mixing guns with arrows, this picture of Indians is reinforced by indelible art and books mostly created by white men, like “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which listed the many violences without much nuance. Every time I go to the CM Russell Benefit Auction I run into white men, usually middle-aged but lately older, who can recite amazing amounts of detail and who are emotionally invested in a certain point of view. Clearly they encountered all this at a time of their life when they became deeply invested in a certain way of seeing it.

A boy who came here with his missionary father during WWII tells me proudly his father was a member of the tribe because Chief Bull (Dick Sanderville) gave him an adoption certificate. The fact is that such a ceremony means about the same as a Hallmark greeting card. It is honorable, affectionate, and indicates a wish to stay connected, but it has no legal significance and would not be recognized by any other tribal member or the federal government. Chief Bull was one of two brothers descended from a Mexican family, mixed with Indian, who acted as cavalry interpreters, political leaders, and civil or ceremonial icons in “full buckskins.” But for a small boy, and possibly for a romantic father doing his best for a damaged people, it meant everything to have this relationship. They want to recognize it, valorize it, and keep it in mind. They ought to.

The small Blackfeet boy of those times would have a different “take.” His sons or grandsons may have been exposed to the ideas of the post-modern/post-colonial/redemptionist point of view that declares only genetically descended have the right to describe Indian knowledge. (Well, at least government-confirmed pedigree-descended, since no one had genetic tests and everyone had to go by the commodity rolls first listed by some 19th century clerk with a little table and a dip-pen, trying to get an accurate account of who-was-who out of people who didn’t speak English and only knew that getting one’s name on the list meant food.)

The idea that Indians who write about Indians should be privileged when it comes to publication and authority was a powerful one that fit into the Sixties Counter-Culture resistance to Old White Rich Men Dominating Everything. Women, Blacks, Indians, what is (rather disconcertingly to me) called Queers or GLBTDS (I never get that right), all benefited from a turning of the tables that’s still incomplete. But it created a couple of new “shapes” of Indians. One was the “white Indian” who pretended to be Indian -- maybe casually and maybe so seriously as to take up a 19th century Native American lifestyle -- and the “ultra Indian,” the person who really was enrolled and used that fact not only to write as an Indian, but also to drive white Indians out of the “commodity line” that publishing briefly provided. The very fight to preserve the right created so much uncertainty and so many lawsuits that publishing fled from the trouble.

By now those few decades have been submerged by globalization. We speak of authochthonous or indigenous people of the world and read books by oppressed minorities in Africa, China, the Middle East -- some of them held captive since before the Americas were even known to Europeans, inhumanly ghastly and ongoing today. American Indians of today are mostly baffled by all this. They are used to being privileged by their identity and suffering and don’t always have a strong sense of the planet, though continental alliances, the Pan-Indian movement, is strong and Incas and Aztecs now sometimes attend pow-wows.

Today the Chewing Black Bone patriarch is gone. Even the Mae Williamson/Chief Bull transitional figure is just about gone. The boy probably remains living, but he himself may have changed over the years. I see my former students slipping in and out of guises, according to what will help them survive, because this is what has kept the generations alive. Still, the common denominator is the place, the land, whether or not it is called a “reservation.” It has its own agenda.

I am -- right here before your very eyes -- a white woman writing about Indians. I defend the idea that all people have the right to write about what they know: this place and its people is something I know. Not just that: love. But not paralyzed into some stereotype. Rather, the real and constantly shape-shifting of a real people.