Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Norval Morris’ technique is certainly effective. I want to try applying it to this blog, just to see what happens. I’m going to use the approach, not of fiction, but of imaginary fictional commentators. This case really happened, but it hasn’t come to trial yet so probably not all the facts are present. I wasn’t there, naturally, so I’m getting my “facts” from the newspaper which is notoriously wrong. The problem is the slant of reporters and editors, who are always from some definite point of view, though they may not realize it.

The local small town weekly paper is deeply invested in making everything look good, minimizing any damage to their friends, and controlling information. The larger regional daily paper is run by white people, though they are much more sympathetic to Native Americans, and the reporters are usually young, partly because the salaries are so low. This makes them prone to romantic idealization of Indians. Therefore, they don’t even think of some of the questions that us old locals would like to know. I choose this case not because I have a point of view but because I’ve heard strong and conflicting points of view.

The narrative: Three brothers, not Indians but possibly with some Mexican blood, liked to fight and had been drinking all evening. At closing time, 2AM, they chose as their victim a hired hand, a Native American single guy who was mild-mannered and well-liked, but not very good at self-control or social smarts, esp. once he was drunk. They picked a fight with him and all three began to beat on him. When he went to the ground, they began to kick.

A Native American county commissioner came out with his wife, saw what was happening and decided to intervene. At first he just remonstrated, saying he was going to call the police. (He had a cell phone.) So the brothers began to beat him and took him down. His wife tried to help but she, too, was shoved and sent flying. By that time enough people were there that the brothers thought they should get scarce.

But the county commissioner, a handsome and resourceful man from a strong rez family chose to make an issue out of it. He tried to press charges, saying it was a “hate crime” because the men were shouting phrases like “dirty Indian.” The white county attorney refused, saying that it was NOT a hate crime, just a fight as usual. The state officials did a punt by saying it was not a hate crime, but that it amounted to “assault with a deadly weapon” because of the boots. No one asked why bar fights were so common and acceptable in this town.

The case will go to trial in Libby, a long drive from the county, because tempers are flaring and people are radically opposed to each other. The court is afraid the bar fight will be reenacted a little too realistically in court and an open-minded jury would be hard to find. I don't know how Libby feels about bar fights. They are away from reservations.

You need to know that the reservation occupies almost all of the county except for a small part that is the location of the county seat and the oil businesses. Until recently it was the only place to bank, which is why the Indian bank was so important. From the beginning this has been a “white” town that wants to be like suburban America (at least their mental construct of it) and to control, contain, and exclude minorities. People from this background say, “What was a county commissioner doing in a bar at that hour? He ought to have known better than to get involved. Anyone who goes to such a place at that hour can expect trouble and he ought to gone to a more high-class establishment.” What’s disguised in this opinion is the idea that no Indian can drink at all. They are essentially bound to get into fights no matter how fancy they are.

Lately, as economic power has shifted, the white towns are shrinking and the reservation population, which is growing quickly, begins to move into the empty housing. Also, the reservation now has a solid middle class that expects to be treated as equals, or what they perceive to be equal. Therefore, these educated and savvy people, often in early middle age, have been elected county commissioners. Businesses need to cater to them to succeed. So the opinion from them is, “Don’t offend Indians! We need the business!”

The white town has a history as an oil town, which means roughnecks, floaters, and bad actors from many sources, mostly not local at all -- the original Red Necks of dubious background and no education: brute force labor. In 1961 when I came, they inhabited a whole string of bars worthy of Deadwood. I come from a teetotaling family, know very little about bars and bar culture (I don’t even know how to run a tab, since I’ve never had more than one drink at a time!), but was in one of those places back then. The experience convinced me that they were no place for a lady. I never went back. This point of view is that brawling bars are a necessary evil, sort of like brothels.

On the reservation is a history about drinking which is split. On the low end is the binge-drinking street alcoholic everyone treats with contempt. On the high end is the idea that what sophisticated people do on the weekend is go to a “watering spot” to sit and talk, show off good clothes, interact, demonstrate generosity by buying drinks for others, and so on. When I read through the old Browning newspapers, every issue had ads about how truly important men sat sipping expensive drinks by a hearth, wearing slippers, accompanied by a faithful dog of some bird-hunting kind. The ads were aimed squarely at the newly returned WWII veteran, who wanted to be like his officers and who had either witnessed or participated in their “clubs.” It was a marker of success. It is surely what the doctors and lawyers do in the bigger “cities” of Montana. Those who hold the first opinion will stigmatize all drinking as symptomatic of the low class. Those who hold the second opinion will defend the right to indulge in the same vices as the professionals and politicians. How can they succeed otherwise? (It’s one of the forces that keep women out.)

Both the white and the Indian context are strongly affected by family relationships and status. Being well-connected, having a good reputation, being able to call in “chips” created by helping people, and all the other “lubricants” of society, will come into play on this case. There will also be strong reasons to disguise one’s true opinion so as to avoid retaliation or being aligned with someone who might later turn out to be a loser.

Young people and outsiders look at such a case and have an instant opinion. Older folks and insiders know there is no ideal solution, but that it is a marker on a long line of incidents leading into a new future. What that will be like might be indicated by this trial.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

THE BROTHEL BOY by Norval Morris

One of my little “elitisms” is having attended the University of Chicago, but I didn’t do it for the coursework. I’m a firm believer in the value lodged in people, both faculty and fellow students. The courses are just chances to interact since the content and method of most courses change over the years (or SHOULD) and often radically as they respond to new insights.

Once one knows who is there and how they work, it’s possible to follow them (or even double back and retrace their trail) simply by reading books. I don’t know how internet vids will fit into this, but for now books are at the heart of the “company of scholars” that Hannah Gray welcomed us to when she handed over our Master’s Degree velvet hoods (which are not really hoods anymore -- just a velvet drape to wear over one’s black gown.)

One of the professors who made a huge impression on me without me ever taking a course or having a long conversation was Norval Morris. I was typing for my “supper” at the U of Chicago Law School and technically assigned to the newest profs, but occasionally -- since it was a typing pool -- given work that was overflow from someone else. Thus, I typed a chapter from “The Brothel Boy and Other Parables of the Law.” The chapter was called “The Planter’s Dream,” in which a white man was taking advantage of his wife’s absence by sleeping with his Burmese mistress, dreamt that she was being raped by a mysterious “black man” and shotgunned the intruder, who was not there. His mistress was destroyed. Was he a murderer?

Morris’ work was focused on the insanity plea, but within the context of the hard work of trying to get justice to bear some relationship to the law -- or the other way around -- esp. in places where an empire-mongering nation had come in over the top of an ancient pre-existing way of doing things. In order to do this in a class discussion without either free-floating in theory or invading someone’s privacy (often legally forbidden) and in order to make sure the salient points were covered, Morris wrote up what amounted to short stories, all composed around the invented career of Eric Blair, better known by his nom de plume, George Orwell. Most people who have made it to the graduate level of a good university have read at least one essay (the one about having to shoot an elephant in order to save people and crops, but hating every moment of the task) and have at least heard of his novels, “1984” and “Animal Farm.”

Morris decided that he would write taking Orwell’s real name as his nom de plume. Orwell/Blair is considered one of the finest of writers of his type. Morris pretended -- as has often been done, maybe more commonly with paintings -- that he had found a cache of long-lost manuscripts. Morris, as an Aussie, was rather audacious. The trouble was that since he could write as well as Orwell, his faux essays were picked up by the credulous media as real. So he had to get a friend to label him a hoax. It happened that I was typing for him and even answering his phone (his secretary must have been on vacation) when the media began to call about the “hoax,” which excited them as much as the original “discovery.” I went over to the Faculty Club where Morris was playing tennis to give him the “urgent” messages. What I remember was that when I poked them through the cyclone fence, he looked at me sharply and said, “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” And I realized that I WAS. I had an appetite for the strategy and excitement. Something to watch out for in the ministry. A path into the swamp.

Back to the book, which I ordered because of “wrestling alligators” alongside Barrus and hoping that I could pick up some inspiration. Absolutely, I could. And enjoyed every minute of it. Norval Morris was a witty and humane man, much mourned when he passed away.

The title chapter “The Brothel Boy” is obviously meant to attract attention and titillate the reader, but it is a very closely reasoned account of a retarded boy in Burma in the 1920’s who had been produced and sheltered in a brothel. His job, among others, was to be the fan wallah. That is, while customers panted and sweated over the prostitutes, he shared the room and kept a big sheet of fabric waving back and forth over their heads to create a breeze. Often he would lie back and loop the rope over his foot while he nearly slept, so it wasn’t exactly onerous work. He made a tiny bit of money and witnessed both acts and payments. At some point in his physical maturation he tried the act with a laundry girl, who did not cooperate. In the tussle she hit her head on a rock which killed her. He put the money in her pocket and did not seem to realize she was dead. To him, so long as the woman was paid, everything was fine.

So “Eric Blair” had to unravel all this to the satisfaction of the community, his Brit superiors, the boy’s employer/family, and his own conscience, newly challenged by this foreign context. In the story the boy ends up hanged, so it’s lucky he was fictional.

Sometimes Morris rewrites actual cases so as to sharpen the issues and close down the loopholes or create new loopholes. His character of “Blair” is joined by the local doctor, a man of vast experience from India, and a Burmese Buddhist politician who -- with good humor -- loves to exploit Blair’s missteps. Sometimes there are other outsiders, like the overseeing officer and his wife who become involved in the death of a baby out in a village.

A Brit family employ a very pretty Burmese girl who has a baby she leaves in the care of her aged and erratic mother. They are so poor that when the baby’s teeth become abscessed, the problem progresses to gangrene which becomes fatal. The girl brings her dying baby in from the village and shows her to her white employers, who are unsympathetic and direct her to take the child to a doctor but not before serving dinner to guests. The delay contributes to the death. The matter is complicated by the gender of the baby, since females are not valued, and indications that the father may be the husband-employer. Discussion is enriched by the opinions of the beautiful wife of the supervising officer who arrives to make sure “Blair” does the right thing -- whatever that is.

These puzzles are not Sudoku. They are human dilemmas. But fiction. Based on fact. Like much of Tim Barrus’ work. Like my “Twelve Blackfeet Stories.” This sort of inquiry is key to the values of a humanities education. And to religion as well as law. Parables.

Monday, September 28, 2009

SNOW ON THE WLA (Which is not a mountain)

There’s a rather desperate sounding message from a major figure in the Western Literature Association, which has a conference up-coming in Spearfish, S.D. (see website at begging to be reassured that snow is NOT expected during the conference, Sept. 30 - Oct 3. Too bad. IT IS! This is the WEST, and not just the Southwest. I’m sorry I won’t be attending, but the snow will be attending us here in Valier as well, so I'm in sympathy.

I had not visited the WLA website for a while, partly because in the past it was numbingly dull and mostly relevant for people who got their degrees in Western Lit about 1955 when people talked about Vardis Fisher and McKinley Kantor and no one knew a damn thing about deconstruction -- the concept didn’t exist. Luckily, that particular theory-storm has pretty much passed on after doing its valuable work of tearing up the landscape of scholarship. But this is not your grandpa’s WLA.

Dave Cremean organized this conference and you can tell. It’s people-friendly, including Native American friendly, featuring a Louis Owens award for NA grad students (application on the website) and the actual person of Susan Powers as well as papers on Elizabeth Cook Lynn and Vine Deloria Jr. I rejoice and I’m not making that up.

I stole all the rest of this from Dave’s post on the website. He’s a friend and will not massacre me. Anyway, I have South Dakota credentials: my father was born in a homestead tar paper shack in Faulkton.

44th WLA Conference
in Spearfish, South Dakota:
Sept. 30 - Oct. 3, 2009

THEME: HIGH PLAINS DRIFTING. The Western Literature Association Conference 2009 will be hosted by McCarthy scholar and outdoor enthusiast Dr. David Cremean.


Would you like a place to network with other WLA graduate students? Just send a Facebook friend request to your Graduate Student Representative, Kerry Fine, and she will send you an invitation to join the Western Literature Association Grad Student Group. There you will be able to access message boards and wall posts in order to share your academic interests with other grad students, post academic inquiries, arrange conference room/ride sharing, and any other thing that you think would supplement your membership in WLA. The group is by invitation only in order to keep the posts and messages limited to its members.

President's Letter of Invitation

May 14, 2009

Dear WLA Members and Friends,

Dave says: I wish to emphasize the following three awards:

1. The Frederick Manfred Award for the best Creative Writing Submission. Please include your full and completed selection as a separate attachment with your title and "abstract." As always, the creative writing itself should be your presentation. Final paper to be submitted no later than August 10.
2. The Louis Owens Award for the Graduate Student presenter(s) "contributing most to cultural diversity in the WLA." Please see the information available on this award and how to apply for it further down on this page. The deadline for the application with the final paper is August 10.
3. The Willa Pilla Award. Though scorned by a few, this stands alone among the most-coveted awards for humor in the world. The Willa Pilla is intended to honor the most humorous presentation of the conference and to highlight the role of humor in western literature. In the spirit of the Pilla, a soon-to-be legendary story about the actual Pilla's early arrival in South Dakota last fall will be coming to a WLA Conference near you. Please note to me in your cover note for your abstract if you would like to be considered for this much-underrated fashion statement of an award.

Speakers and Special Events: My colleague and good friend, Black Hills State's Writer-in-Residence, Kent Meyers will be taking part in the conference as "Mine Host," for those of you who remember the journey of Chaucer's pilgrims and that Tabard Inn. Other speakers I have commitments from include Chuck Bowden (our Keynote), Terri Jentz, Doug and Andrea Peacock, Gary Ferguson, Linda Hasselstrom, Dan O'Brien, Susan Powers (via the SD Humanities Council), Jim Stiles, Alison Hedge Coke, M. John Fayhee, several others, and likely a few surprises. Kent Meyers's new novel, Twisted Tree (Harcourt), is being released to correspond with the conference. Numerous of these guest authors (and several WLA members) are slated to have new releases close to the time of our conference. We almost certainly will be hosting a South Dakota Humanities Council Event on "Writing Deadwood [and/or South Dakota]" with Pete Dexter and Tom Griffith.

We will have a special panel on Indigenous Women of the Northern Plains, emphasizing the diversity of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne Women, from Traditional to Modernized, etc. We will be featuring The Porcupine Singers from Pine Ridge for traditional music and hope to have a group of Lakota dancers along with them. My former department chair, Ronnie Theisz, a Lakota musicologist, will provide contextual and interpretive background about Lakota musicology and dance. Our emphasis for this part of our program will be "True Black Hills Gold."

The South Dakota Festival of the Book will be held in Deadwood on Friday afternoon through Sunday morning, and I am working together with them on sharing a few speakers and on hosting at least one of their sessions at our conference. WLAers are welcome to attend any of the Festival's functions in Deadwood on Friday through Sunday morning; I will include their program in your registration packets.

We are eagerly anticipating David Fenimore's several-faceted homage to the late and lamented Deadwood, entitled something like "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Audience" (sorry, David, I had to crib and invent that) and preformed (another regionalism) by the disclaimed Deadwood Deadend Players (ibid., David). We will be screening one or two films, observing the 20th Anniversary of Edward Abbey's death with a special session, providing a special emphasis on South Dakota's "own" author and director Oscar Micheaux, giving another special emphasis to the 40th anniversary of N. Scott Momaday's Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn, honoring Cormac McCarthy with our Distinguished Achievement Award, and by yiminy and golly, so much more. It appears most likely this will be in absentia, his attendance, in his own words from The Crossing, likely a "doomed enterprise," in contrast to rumors that keep reaching me regularly from WLA members, though I'm still trying.

Louis Owens Awards/Graduate Student Support for Conference Attendance:

The primary goal of the Louis Owens Awards is to build for the future of the Western Literature Association by encouraging diverse graduate student participation at the annual conference through assistance with conference-related expenses including travel and accommodation. While these awards are intended to foster greater cultural diversity within the WLA membership, they are also intended to help broaden—as Louis Owens did—the field of western American literary studies. Therefore, while preference will be given to graduate students who are members of cultural groups currently underrepresented within the WLA—including African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Arab Americans, and Chicano/a Americans—these awards are also open to graduate students of ALL cultural backgrounds.

NOTE: You must be a member of the Western Literature Association to present at the conference. If your proposal is accepted and you are not a member already, you can either join on ONLINE SERVICES or you can join when you pay for registration.

BLESS YOU ALL, BUT ESPECIALLY DAVE CREMEAN! Pack your woolies and git thar!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

NO PLACE LIKE HOME by Linda Hasselstrom

Linda Hasselstrom is a cranky old woman. If she moved next door to me, I would be very pleased because that would make two of us. Of course, this is a village of cranky old women who earned the right to be that way by providing service and shelter to everyone else for decades. I’m older than Linda by a few years, but have been married fewer times. She does workshops for women writers and I would rather stick pins in my eyes than either run or attend one, but we both write so much that everyone around us is a little baffled if not inconvenienced. We both like men. Very much and all kinds. For their minds. Linda might be armed. I am not.

In college Linda took English leaning to journalism while I took English leaning to theatre and that’s probably the most crucial difference between us. Before her own books were published, Linda had created a magazine, founded a press of her own, was editing for other publishers, had a book of poems published by elegant letterpress, and was teaching at the college level. She’s gone on from there. The first books were published in the Eighties, most auspiciously “Windbreak” drawn from her journals growing up on a South Dakota ranch. My opinion is that “Feels Like Far” is one of the ten best autobiography/memoirs of the West. Then there were those “grass and wind” anthologies of women’s writing about the West, co-edited with Gaydell Collier and Nancy Curtis. She’s a “do it” writer who can operate a cow-and-calf ranch, create bird or flower sanctuaries, build a house, and so on.

This book, “No Place Like Home: Notes from a Western Life,” collects essays written over a period of time and originally published in a variety of places. Some are the sort of lively environmental scolding beloved by High Country News where she is a “Writer on the Range.” Others are more reflective or poetic essays in an academic tone. One that rings true with me, now that I’m working with Tim Barrus, is about used clothing merchants in a van who showed up at a Buckskinners’ camp (Linda’s second husband was a buckskinner) with rude habits and a very skinny and hostile little boy who repaid every attempt to help him with violence. Buckskinners are a pretty tolerant bunch, but they do have rules and limits.

I read all the essays straight through, as though they were chapters, so had the reward of seeing how Linda’s life has twisted and doubled back like a grassy stream in a flat meadow, but the book would also be rewarding if picked up occasionally. Just enough unexpectedness between topics and just enough consistency of philosophy.

A favorite essay of mine was about dead herons, since we had a rather parallel event here in Valier. (A rookery invaded.) Linda was taking a friend out to see their local heron rookery only to find the nests deserted and the ground putrid with carcasses. Outraged and horrified, she and her companion thought of the usual suspects: violent humans. Her first assumption was that someone had shot the birds, but she could find no bullets. Then she thought of toxic substances, but that didn’t quite make sense. In the end the answer was simple and nonhuman. I won’t tell you, so as not to spoil the puzzle. (In Valier we had human culprits.)

Not every essay is about ranching, since Linda and her present husband, Jerry, lived at least part-time in Cheyenne until Jerry retired last year. The town stories are about trying to observe the Western rules of staying in your own territory, minding your own business, and yet protecting oneself against those who seem to have no boundaries at all, a tricky business that can’t always be solved by cops. But the most egregious theft, the loss of her second husband’s canoe, happened in the country and was resolved in a country way. Read and learn.

Linda has claimed a territory that is uniquely hers, though there are other writers who inhabit the same realm (Sharon Butala, Teresa Jordan, Kathleen Norris) but with other voices and priorities. She is willing to share what she has learned in hard ways, the hardest probably being the death of her second husband, but very close to that the senile dementia of her father, whose madness braced him against her. When one’s best friend and mentor turns on one, it’s nearly insupportable.

But like that gentle stream, when blocked in one direction, Linda found another way, and then another, until the meanders -- looking back -- have formed a pattern and watered much grass. She has worked in community, braided waters, so that her own force is matched with others. Water is a continuing theme, whether the dwindling aquifer supporting too much population or the roaring floods that strew housing built on floodplains across the fields, and she has not neglected sewers. What goes in must come out, what goes up must come down, what is born must die, and what is dead gives new life to something beginning again.

It’s all very well to say this sort of thing at conferences and write flowery poetry about it. It’s quite another to get out there with a shovel or a backhoe and do what needs to be done. One of my favorite Hasselstrom essays is missing here, the one about putting the barn cats into the tractor cab to take them through the snow to where mice had infested the hay yard. The cats didn’t appreciate the favor and bounced off the windows and ceiling the whole way, yowling and scratching, until she finally released them, moved a few bales and hordes of mice ran out. For the rest of the winter, if they saw the tractor heading towards the hay yard, they came in a line right behind, picking their way along the snowy double trail.

But there is one about the field cats getting trapped in a tree during a flood and how Linda went out on horseback to bring them back thrust inside her jacket, regardless of the ruckus and wounds. I mean, you just have to respect a rancher who herds cats.

Friday, September 25, 2009


A good theory is simple enough to apply in a lot of places, so let’s try the aggregator/curator idea (collecting things together, versus analyzing what they are) on a current vexed situation in Great Falls. For many decades the Great Falls Ad Club has sponsored an auction to benefit the CM Russell Museum. Now they have parted company. Originally there was ONE auction on ONE night. It was mostly local. The Russell Museum was small, quietly managed (too quietly, some might say, since a certain amount of mutual back-scratching went on), and though the SW cowboy art scene was heating up, not much attention had been paid to the northern prairie. The Ad Club had been raffling off a high end automobile for their benefit project. So it was all simple -- one celled. Horizontal. One small event in the lives of Montana folks.

Over time the museum itself has swollen into a huge building that gobbles money, the auction has become a year-round industry, and other auctions have joined the first, for various reasons, with none of their money going to the Russell Museum. The event is now vertical, an aggregate of Western art -- some of it, like the customers, coming from back East. From the beginning dealers have auctioned works that weren’t moving from their galleries, and now the many rooms that wrap around the actual auction are filled with dealers as well as artists. Recently, the original wheeler-dealers are aging out and even dying -- after all, this end of the movement began in the Sixties -- but there are plenty of replacements and they are far smoother, more hip, and not so local.

If one looks at Western art vertically, not as part of horizontal Montana life, it is much expanded across the continent. Major institutions and dealers have learned how to manage “the auction” as an event of aggregation and as a price-curator. Now websites like are aggregators of auctions. Catalogues are aggregators of content useful for dealers and collectors, who curate at various levels of education and straightforwardness. Western art has grown powerful enough to support slick magazines and to engage some serious scholarship. But it also pulls along with it a bit of the horizontal: guns, uniforms, Indian artifacts, military paraphernalia, cowboy gear, overlapping a bit with popular history of the West, which sustains a parallel network of aficionados.

Over the years tensions developed between the local horizontal, which claims this category as part of their own history, daily life, friends and neighbors, and those who see it in the vertical, part of a “brand,” a sales and scholarship category responding to theory somewhat but far more controlled by profit. The vertical commercial interests were committed to cloaking, because some of the profit came from playing poker with art. it helped to have uninformed enthusiasts around. The artists themselves ended up on both sides. Some of them were not Westerners. Some of them were not great artists. Not many were like Charlie Russell.

Local Westerners tend to judge art on the basis of what they know of real life. Is that good horse anatomy? Would a person throw a rope that way? Would griz act like that? Is that the right period of rifle? But the academic art curators, who deal with many kinds of art, think in terms of skilled brush strokes, color values, composition and the like. They posit major art movements and look for dates of birth and death, who the teachers were, what other artists traveled with them, and so on. All this “privileged” book learning increases expert importance and their ability to earn money by using their knowledge. So they value the vertical. The dealers, who are operating as middle men between the two approaches, just want to convert both local lore and specialized erudition into cash.

In the beginning, back in the Sixties, when Van Kirke Nelson was experimenting with auctions by working with Father Schoenburg, whose museum of Indian art (MONAC) in Spokane finally failed, and when these auctioneers were going around asking artists to donate art for the good of the cause, Ace Powell and Bob Scriver were always trying to figure out what people valued when they bought art. Their naive ideas were things like how many colors were used, how many figures were in the painting, whether it was action or just a still-life, whether it was painted on stretched canvas or canvasboard. Originality figured large in their minds, but it was hard to know how not to be so original that one left the cowboy category. These days the talk is a whole lot more fancy.

There is a layer of thought that goes up and up from the horizontal, through the vertical “brand” of cowboy art. It is theoretical, philosophical, dominated by academics. They publish books, though the movement still doesn’t support books with no pictures. There is another layer that goes down and down from the horizontal, about how to make deals in cowboy art, not written out since some of it is not just down but also dirty. Horse trading stuff. Buyer beware. Is this a Russell or a Seltzer with the signature sheared off?

On the up and up is the issue of status. If a millionaire (esp. the Western shirt-sleeves type based on mineral development or industrial development) wants to show he’s not just some uneducated bozo who can be patronized, he might want to have some pretty nice art in his game room. And to him, Western art is likely to hit the spot. Rough-hewn manly stuff, but respected by the experts. That sort of buyer is likely to need a gallery or advisor just to find out where things are. He's used to hiring experts.

Recently Western art as a marker of status and discrimination has gotten tricky. The PETA crowd doesn’t want to see dirty old cowpokes roping a poor innocent wolf just for the fun of it. They don’t like rodeo, either. Or branding. Must everything be so violent?? So sales action has shifted from cowboys, hunting, and so on over to the idealization of animals in the wild. Suddenly Remington and Russell were joined by Rungius, even though the latter painted moose and mountain sheep so well because he regularly shot himself a model and strung it up too look at. Which is also what Audubon did. At this point the art begins to leave reality and soon there are Rainbow Grizzlies.

As the RR and R available oeuvre has thinned down, scenery came into vogue, esp. the early mystical aggrandizement of American “cathedrals,” illuminating the connection between patriotism and Christianity. Add a fourth R, “Republican.” Now the center of Western art, which has flooded (Dick Flooded, you might say, if you knew that dedicated entrepreneur) the Southwest, shifts slightly to the American South and East. They’re the ones who have had the money, honey, for the last eight years.

All of these countervailing forces, but primarily the one between the horizontal locals who have little notion of what the continental scene and values might be and the vertical experts who chase a narrow goal in a way that includes a certain amount of flim-flam, make the Great Falls art politics and power struggles almost more interesting than the art work. One again, too much aggregation. Not enough curating, or maybe meta-curating. Who’s curating the curators when the curators come from outside?

Thursday, September 24, 2009


About this time of year Bob Scriver used to start making jokes about shooting ducks in their aggregate, which is the language the waterfowl licenses use to describe the limits on the numbers a hunter can shoot. He’d say, “Now, be sure to shoot those ducks in their aggregates, whatever part of their anatomy that is!” Sometimes I got aggravated by the jokes, to say nothing of agitated! No, I’m kidding.

The word “aggregate” jumped out at my eye from a post called “The Shatzkin File,” which is about publishing. The blog is written by Mike Shatzkin at Actually, he was talking about two concepts. One is aggregation and the other is curation.

He says, “Aggregation, of course, simply means pulling together things which are not necessarily connected.” Making a list. A catalogue.

“Curation is a term that has always referred to the careful selection and pruning of aggregates, such as for a museum or an art exhibition. But the concept in the digital content world means the selection and presentation of these disparate items to help a browser or consumer navigate and select from them. Aggregation without curation is, normally, not very helpful. Curation creates the brand.”

“Brand” is the key for Shatzkin. He means something like predictability, I think, but also something a little broader. Sometimes he seems to mean a category or genre, like “soup” and other times he seems to mean something like “Campbell’s”, an owned and marketable kind.

“No content makes its way from its creator to the public without aggregation.
Because the organization and delivery of stuff — including information — is being realigned into verticals; that is: subjects.”
Some people call this “siloing” to describe the stacking up of something normally spread out.

“The requirements of physical delivery required aggregation across interests that the Internet does not. So enduring horizontal brands of content like newspapers or book publishers but also outside content, among retailers, for example, that thrived across interest groups will find themselves challenged by new brands that are narrower and deeper. Being narrower and deeper permits a much more involved engagement with the audience. It strengthens the brand.”

Well, you could argue with that, because “narrower and deeper” is not always what the person wants, and maybe it’s just “more of the same.” But let’s consider some examples from publishing.

A few days ago I ran into Darnell Rides at the Door, who has always been active as a writer, editor, and television show hostess about Blackfeet. She mentioned that though she had already written a small book of “Napi Stories” published by the Blackfeet Heritage Program back in 1979, she was considering composing a new volume with illustrations. I remarked that I’d rather read the real life story of the Tatsey family, since there are so many versions of Napi stories already in print.

She challenged me to name a list and I was a little surprised myself that there are so many, so let’s look at the aggregate.

The hoary oldster in the group is “Blackfoot Lodge Tales: the Story of a Prairie People” by George Bird Grinnell. This University of Nebraska Bison Book seems almost old as the buffalo, though the copyright says 1962. There’s also a small (in every dimension) book called “Blackfeet Indian Stories” by George Bird Grinnell, that’s an Applewood Press facsimile of a Charles Scribner’s Sons’ 1926 edition.

Actually, the earlier collection of tales is more recently published: “Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians” by Clark Wissler and D.C. Duvall. Wissler was one of the first anthropologists to collect stories here, with the help of D.C. Duvall, a controversial local informant. Alice Kehoe, a contemporary anthropologist, added a bit of comment about him. Darrell Kipp, enrolled, also contributed to the newer editions.

Then there’s Percy Bull Child’s “The Sun Came Down.” Percy is the only full blood Blackfeet writer on the list, except for Darrell.

Walter McClintock was in Blackfeet country for many years around 1900 and included many Napi stories in “The Old North Trail” in particular.

In fact, including Napi stories in a different genre is quite a common practice, a sort of authentification. Richard Lancaster included them in his supposed journal of a stay with Old Jim Whitecalf, called “Piegan.” James Willard Schultz and Adolf Hungry-Wolf slip them into their adventure stories everywhere as what was told around campfires.

“Montana 1911”, Mary Eggermont-Molnar’s translation of the notes of the Uhlenbecks, a professor and his wife, is supposed to be about collecting the language itself, but the means was the recounting of Napi stories which Professor Uhlenbeck struggled to master in actual Blackfeet language.

There might be more anthologies around because to many people Napi stories are the extent of what there is about Blackfeet. Napi stories are understood to be the “way in” to the culture. The fact that the culture was severely broken in the 20th century makes the tales more attractive, more collectible. The fact that everyone tells slightly different versions, means new collections are always justifiable.

Google turns up many Napi stories and includes those from the Canadian side where three-fourths of the Blackfoot nation resides. There are digital versions. And if you go to YouTube, Lance Foster reads some of these stories out loud for you. He’s especially interested in scary stories, ghost stories, and there are always lots of them -- maybe not exactly Napi stories, but close.

Google is an aggregator. A bookstore or library is an aggregator. We’ve got lots and lots of aggregators these days and they gather up huge mounds of “stuff.” What’s missing is “curation.” Who tells you where to start reading, what you can depend on, what it all means? Wikipedia is supposed to do that but because it is so vulnerable to hidden manipulation -- all the time pretending it’s not -- that it can’t be trusted. Individual blogs are more transparent but there are a zillion of them, aggregations of curations.

Editors, publishers, teachers, preachers, and so on used to know “what’s what.” Now they’ve ALL been revealed as serving their own interests or the interests of their institutions. Cultural curators, maybe “meta-curators,” have been stirring up questions about authenticity, entitlement, validation, marketing, and a host of other issues. Who is entitled to tell these stories: pre-contact Blackfeet? Enrolled Blackfeet? Academics with degrees? Friendly writers who come to stay for years? Can they be successfully moved from oral literature to written manuscripts? Should all such anthologies now be on video, restored to orality? And what’s been left out of the aggregations? Are there other Napi stories languishing in archives somewhere? Have any been “de-constructed?” Who "owns" the stories?

It seems to me that we aren’t through with the task by a long shot. Napi stories are not sitting ducks. Unless you’re just shooting them in the aggregate.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


It’s hard to know what the reception of the Nasdijj trilogy might have been in a different time or place. The three books are not alike, except that they were all passed through the persona of “Nasdijj,” the nom de plume of Timothy Barrus. The first is a collection of essays, the second is Barrus’ kernel story of two males in intimacy (one dying), and the third is a bildungsroman, a story of growing up and struggling against society. Or maybe a kuenstlerroman, which is the same thing only about an artist. It is also once again Barrus’ kernel story, except about two young brothers.

I’m in a position now, knowing a bit about Tim, to say, “Oh, he got this idea from the time in his life when . . .” or “this person is really that person from his real life, but mixed in with another.” But I’m also QUITE aware that that’s not the useful or meaningful thing to do. Nasdijj was a mythical character marketed as part of the Native American corporate literature soup, but that’s not what counts. Then he was recycled into a part of the Great Cynical Hoax soup, which he was not. And now it would be easy to “do him” again as part of the True Confession soup, trying to get at his “real” life.

But this time I reread “Geronimo’s Bones” with things like Jung’s Red Book in mind.

There are two things I was sharply aware of and neither of them was the fact that Tim’s shoulders are being replaced at the moment. One was that when Alexie and Fleischer attacked Tim by ransacking his background for people who would tell them terrible things, they were careless of the effect of their revelations on the people around Tim, some of whom were shade dwellers and night dwellers who were hurt very much. Yet no one has really turned a retributive spotlight on Alexie and Fleischer, who might not be able to withstand much scrutiny of their own motives and methods.

The other is how much “Indian” is code for a certain class, just as porn and sado-machochism are also code for a certain class. In the case of the former, “Indian” has come to mean (except around reservations) a kind of idealized person beyond reproach, sort of like the characters in Ruth Beebe Hill’s “Hanta Yo” or Asa Earl Carter’s “Education of Little Tree.” Guilt, pity and admiration form a shield that is also a screen around Indians, one that some Indians depend upon. If you say “porn,” then that’s enough of a crime to justify any attack. It’s worse than perpetrating a Ponzi scheme that pitches old people and nonprofits into suffering and destruction.

Yet Indians are everywhere and mostly like the rest of us. As someone remarked, any family that has a history in America that goes more than a few generations back has undoubtedly got Indians in it somewhere. And sado/masochistic dynamics, pornographic representations, are so common we barely notice them. Diluted, sure, but the top/bottom dynamics of social struggle and personal relationship are inescapable.

Geronimo is the hero of the main character “hero” whom the naive reader assumes is the writer, since the book is written in first person. (They were absent the day the English teacher explained the literary technique of the “unreliable narrator.”) This time the actual narrator, Barrus, is fictionalizing himself in many ways, but also the actual narrator, Barrus, was recovering from double hip replacement and under the influence of strong drugs. His father died in 2003. This book is an expansion of an essay in the first book, “The Blood Runs Like a River Through Our Dreams,” (2000) about a demon father, a man who is everywhere on the American frontier. Even on television every night. Fleischer didn’t think such men ever lived in suburbia.

Fleischer took 1950 Michigan to be like his own well-heeled, recent, Eastern, white suburban past. He knows nothing about industrial towns who just happen to have a university and how the undeveloped second growth and farms came right up to the city, even into it. He knows nothing about working class men, recently rural, lacking college educations but determined to come up in the world, which is certainly what their wives intend. He does not know how the north timber country can be like the frontier West, how full of Indians it remains, nor does he know anything about how those working class men, so recently dependent on hunting for a winter’s meat, define themselves in their hunting and fishing. He doesn’t know about how they use ingenuity and force to survive through boom and bust and how they do it all for their children on the one hand, but how they feel they own their children on the other.

Sort of the way publishers feel they “own” their writers and treat them that way, even on the scale of the local newspaper. The book section editor of Tim’s paper was very offended that when he tried to call Tim about the Nasdijj furor, Tim didn’t call back. Evidently no one told him Tim was fighting for his life in a borrowed cabin while he kicked the drugs necessary for his hip surgery. A man wants obedience! A man demands a response! It validates his worth in the world!

At the end of the 20th century, which was also the end of a millennium, repeated hurricanes were responsible for fungus pneumonia that nearly snuffed Tim. He was saved with massive doses of prednisone which caused avascular necrosis. Simultaneously, a story he wrote was accepted by Esquire magazine. This went well enough that in 2000 he was offered a contract by Houghton Mifflin, which he fulfilled with the same essays he’d been writing for years, except that now they were hailed as brilliant. Sherman Alexie despised them and labeled them “fake” but at that point no one paid attention.

Tim broke with Houghton Mifflin but was offered a contract from Ballantine for two more “Nasdijj” books, one in 2003 and one in 2004. “Geronimo’s Bones” is the last Nasdijj book. In 2006 Fleischner put together a negative version of information people had known all along and found two or three haters willing to be quoted, not counting Sherman who was still in a huff that Barrus won the PEN Beyond Margins Award that he’d been counting on. In essence, Fleischner targeted Barrus without knowing him, to ingratiate himself with Alexie, who didn’t know Barrus either. None of the people quoted really knew Barrus. People who knew him protected him.

But if one forgets all that, and looks at the book as a book, the experience is quite different. This is my third reading. I HATE reading it, because it’s full of abuse. And yet one can’t really describe the overcoming of abuse without describing what one is escaping. I know people to whom these things have happened. Barrus is not making up things that never happen. What is important is that in the end, the boys DO grow up, they escape their tormentor, and it is clear that small generosities and big braveries have made it possible.

So what kind of “roman” is that? I don’t know German well enough to suggest a name for this kind of story, layered with both truth and myth, torment and love. Joe Campbell could have told me.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


My intention this morning was to reflect on the problem of the split between the kind of person who can create excellent works of art, full of meaning for everyone, and the kind who can promote such work so that the world even knows it exists. Even in Montana (tongue in cheek) we all know that Charlie Russell just wanted to paint, but his wife “Mamie” knew how to sell, both through her belief in the work and because she was good at the game of selling. She knew how to tempt, flirt, and reward the buyer. Charlie did the steak -- Mame did the sizzle.

I was going to say a few words about Al Tooley, who is another Montana artist, working in a cool medium: “CGE,” which is computer-generated environment. I THINK. The letters also seems to stand for other things, such as the Center for Gender Equity in SF. It’s a bit of acronym alphabet soup, but shucks, a bit of ambiguity and accident is good for us all.

Getting back to Tooley, he is the founder of a whole town: McKinley, MT, which is a town he made up. It’s virtual, but not necessarily virtuous. He sets out the nature of this town on his website, and invites us all to contribute virtual history and stories and even artifacts that describe the place. My stories turned out to be suitable for a smaller town, so I invented “Twenty Mile,” a little satellite suburb that gradually gets absorbed by McKinley. I need to think up a new story for the place. Lance Foster is the person who told me about it. He writes scary stories with a sort of gothic tone. I guess this town amounts to a sort of organic anthology that generates itself. Al is the editor, of course, and might reject a story if it doesn’t fit. is Al’s main website where he posts experiments and demos in CGE. Or is it CGI? Computer Generated Images. He makes scenes of dinosaurs that are highly realistic and then again a herd of bison that regroup themselves unrealistically to form a map of Montana! A lot of this expertise is meant for computer games, but also shows up in ads. A lot of this stuff appears on websites. I love checking out Tooley's hyper-scenery, which is intensified and augmented real landscape, rather like what Charlie did with paint. I think many of the images we see are altered and saturated without us realizing it, so that ordinary life can seem sort of . . . drained.

The thing is, such work requires intense concentration over long stretches of time, so Tooley and his computer are symbiotic. His personality is suited to that. I could (and do) sit at the computer for a long time but my writing is a matter of making a line of thought flower (sometimes way too florid for a scholar) and his image-making is much more dependent on detail and layers. At one time I thought I’d love to try that, over-laying images in the way that Tim and his boys do, but now it’s the words I want.

So I was intrigued by the Review of the Day, which arrives automatically from Powells in Portland. This time it was from ”The Nation” and the book was “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector” by Benjamin Moser. (Google Moser -- he replaced John Leonard as the New Books editor for Harpers and he is based in the Netherlands. He looks about twelve but he believes books will survive our tumbling business models.)

He really has the hots for Lispector, but it’s a little tough to understand why. She looked “like Marlene Dietrich” and the claim is that she writes like Virginia Wolff, but then they go on to say that she wrote about trying to lose consciousness, to be not so much transgressive as withdrawn. Of course, she got off to a bad start: the product of a WWII gang rape that gave her mother syphilis as well as herself and ended up in a bad near-end, going to sleep while smoking and waking too late to avoid crippling burns that ended her beauty. During the fifty years in between she was a sort of reclusive Mary Gaitskill person, writing beautifully about miserable subjects. This is a very extreme example of what I’m talking about: a creative person who would seem not only personally unsuited to self-promotion, but also not likely to produce marketable books.

Evidently she is written about as being “religious,” a mystic though variously described as Jewish, Christian or even atheist. A sort of self-afflicter in the way of saints. This reviewer of the biography is Rachel Aviv, described as a Rosalynn Carter Fellow in mental health journalism at the Carter Center. Who knew you could get a fellowship in “mental health journalism?” Googling HER is also rewarding. For instance, at she writes about a “poem” or trope that many people claim to have written. (It’s about footprints in the sand.) She quotes Jung, who’s hot right now: “In ‘Cryptomnesia’ (1905), a paper about accidental plagiarism, Carl Jung argues that it’s impossible to know for certain which ideas are one’s own. ‘Our unconsciousness . . . swarms with strange intruders,’ he writes. He accuses Nietzsche of unwittingly copying another’s work, and urges all writers to sift through their memories and locate the origin of every idea before putting it to paper: ‘Ask each thought: Do I know you, or are you new?’”

One of the “values” of creativity is supposed to be total originality, which may be why writing about formerly forbidden topics is so attractive, since even if someone wrote about -- as Lispector does -- the exaltation of licking pus off a cockroach, since one could hardly go lower, it’s not likely to have been published. (Personally, I’m not very curious about that.) Solitude would allow one to write in this way. Then promoting and selling it would be someone else’s problem, if anyone even knew it existed.

Which is a question that doesn’t seem to be included in this book/review/review-of-review -- how in tarnation did anyone know she existed? I gather that in certain circles her abruptness and mystery was magnetic and drew people to pursue her. The contradiction between her appearance and her “content” somehow hypnotized people. Maybe it was the period, or maybe that’s just the way people are wired: to be curious about what is different. . . or what is forbidden.

Al Tooley is not forbidden or gothic, just evasive, but CGI is certainly a curious medium and dinos are not cuddly. Worth checking out Tooley’s websites.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Lance Foster's new book, "The Indians of Iowa," is now in print.

You can actually read the first 25 pages of this book online for FREE through Google books, and those pages have the chapter about the Ioway in it:\
I doubt you can click right on this link. You'll have to cut and paste it or just search at Google books.

Lance says: “Nope. I don't get any money for this Google stuff. In fact, if I ever get any money for the book, maybe $1 for every book sold I hear, the Press only pays the royalties once a year-- and I won't know if/how much until next August (2010). Anyone who thinks authors of books get rich ---hahaha! --are sadly mistaken, unless that author is Stephen King!

“Oh well, the way I look at it is that it's not much different than someone reading a book in a bookstore...if they like it, usually they will buy it, and if they don't, then they saved their money :-)”

This is the link to an article in the Helena Independent Record:

This is Lance’s art blog:

* * * * * * *

Going to the art blog site will give you access to photos, a mini-graphic legend, and other places that Lance Foster posts. Readers of “Prairie Mary” have become accustomed to his insightful comments, often daily monitoring which I appreciate very much. Lance’s great strength is that he is both multi-cultural (Native American + Euro) and multi-disciplinary: landscape architecture, archeology, NA history, and art plus a good deal of knowledge of Euro systems of legend and psychic theory. As is often typical of NA’s, he has a lively sense of of humor, for example this book cover which I hope will make it onto my blog. (Google has new rules about what images can be reproduced.)

If you can’t see it, a warrior on a galloping horse aims his nocked arrow at the sky. The moon that is his backdrop is a crescent holding the dark moon in its “arms.” The rider wears jeans and a t-shirt with a cell phone for a logo, as well as a ball cap with an eagle feather attached to the button. His horse is running down a highway with a tilting power pole in the background. A great image of syncretism in good humor!

Another of his entertaining images is an Indian offering Van Gogh, bandaged where he cut off his ear, a replacement ear -- of corn. His art is straightforward: strong lines and images, well-composed, and story-telling. He himself does not have the blade-like face we often associate with images of NA’s, so rather often his art shows massive monolithic faces like his own, especially when he is dealing with “spirits.” He has a profound interest in the supernatural, skeptical and believing at once. That is, he is strong in his belief that SOMETHING is there, but open-minded about what it might be or what it might mean.

Lance Foster
is not recognized by the art power-brokers of the state of Montana, neither the cowboy art cartel that values 19th century images nor the humanities/academic gate-keepers who have a captive clientele that includes very few Indians. He has academic credentials: some of his degrees from the University of Montana. We sometimes talk about organizing a salon de refusee for artists, writers, and those who combine both categories. It’s hard to know why the exclusion: oversight? Failure to fit the stereotypes? Failure to flatter the right people? Politics? We don’t even know what our guest list might look like, just that we run into others all the time. Maybe blogging below the radar will bring us together. Or maybe it will break us apart into allegiance to larger networks, national, continental or even planetary.

Lance’s new book is an example of clarity after thorough research. He doesn’t try to include every fact known to historians, but there are some strong new ideas here, mostly about the swarm of explorers who came on the heels of Lewis & Clark & Sacajawea, destroying the ways of the People in decades. In fact, that may account for some of the lack of inclusion, since there are people invested in supporting the uniqueness and prowess of the two celebrated explorers. Lance talks about Moses Reed, who deserted the expedition and was captured by the Otoe. It was a military expedition and therefore could legitimately by Euro law have executed Reed, but the Otoe made a case for merely forcing him to run a gauntlet of the exploring party -- that is, running between two lines of the men who would strike him as hard as they could. This was their “gentler” convention.

Ioway Marie Dorion was the Sacajawea of the Oregon Trail, going with John Jacob Astor and barely escaping when the party was massacred on the way back. She had been the wife of Pierre Dorion, hired to be the interpreter, and she traveled with two small children plus being pregnant. After the escape with her children, she trekked 250 winter miles in near-starvation until they joined the Umatilla tribe where they stayed for the rest of their lives.

About the only names that pop up as familiar in my mind are Black Hawk, a war chief, and Spirit Lake, a massacre made famous by MacKinley Cantor’s massive novel of that name. As usual, we cling to the sensational. But Lance has supplemented each historical chapter with a more personal and contemporary reflection about something like mixed blood people or modern pow wows.

The principal of the high school in Heart Butte, Robin Krantz, is one of the Ioway Sioux Lance describes. The tribespeople there have been using “Ioway” to designate the tribe and Iowa for the state name to keep them separate. She is married to a white man but both have lived in Heart Butte a long time so they are woven into community life. I don’t think anyone in that community knows Lance or his work, so I’ll have to make sure I get a copy of this blog to Robin.

Lance Foster
is not getting rich, but he is not giving up. He is rich in ideas, living “the life” without knowing the future -- a modern hunter-gatherer. We can learn a lot from him.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


My cousin, Diane, who is two years older than me and therefore wiser, has come to visit overnight with her husband, Ham (short for Hamilton). More about this later maybe, but right now I’m in an kind of ecstatic trance induced by a pile of magazines called “Selvedge” which describes itself as “the fabric of your life: textiles in fashion, fine art, interiors, travel and shopping.” The website begins with an animated flip-through of the mag which will tell you more than any description of mine. A quick set of other websites is below, each a delight to look at and think about, regardless of what you might actually order from them. I included a short snippet of their self-descriptions.

Selvedge Magazine... offers the world’s finest textile photography, unparalleled design and peerless writing

Open a copy of Selvedge and you sense there is a philosophy that Selvedge readers subscribe to. A belief system based on a cerebral and sensual addiction to textiles in all forms. Readers share a belief in the importance of their material surroundings and a passion for the beautiful and beautifully made.

Our aim is simple: to provide a textile publication which fits seamlessly into their creative lifestyle. Directed towards an international, discerning audience, Selvedge covers fine textiles in every context: fine art, interiors, fashion, travel and shopping. Selvedge Magazine... offers the world’s finest textile photography, unparalleled design and peerless writing.
Loop is a knitters heaven that has to do with all things 'knit', with knitting and crochet classes, gorgeous and quirky knit homeware, knit accessories, haberdashery and vintage buttons.

What is your dream fibre?
I have so many favourite fibres, it's hard to choose. But if I were pressed, I would have to say our Synchcronicity. A blend of silk and merino, aran weight, it is a single ply fibre with unbelievable luminosity and depth.

Alchemy is the creation of Gina Wilde, a sculptor, painter and fibre artist; and Austin Wilde, a former marketing executive and musician. Nestled in the rolling hills of Sonoma County, California, between the vineyards and the old apple orchards, Alchemy is a funky little fibre farm. As a work family, we custom create every skein of Alchemy with love and attention. Our intent is to share our passion for colour, natural fibre, and contemporary design with artists around the world.
Contemporary science tells us that color is a sensation experienced because of the differing wavelengths of light waves. To me this is only part of the story. As an artist, my sensation of color is also informed by that color's material substance and the process that gives color form for me to reflect upon.

Materialized from the soil, rain, and air around them, plants physically embody place. Plants also embody their individual histories, as well as the history of their species and its interactions with humans. Using gathered and cultivated plants as dyes I transfer their color to cloth with traditional dyeing techniques honed over centuries. The colors obtained are enriched by each plant's historical, cultural, and physical substance as well as by the connection across time to all who ever worked within these traditions.
We sell authentic vintage and new Japanese silk kimono, imported from Japan so that you can buy with confidence, knowing that you are purchasing not just an elegant piece of clothing, but a future heirloom. We have a wide range of Japanese silk kimono fabrics in various weights and weaves: damasks, crepes, ikats, tie-dyes, etc. We've also got a small selection of hemp/cotton blends and fine wool fabrics.
Fog Linen Work produces a large line of linen products for the home and linen clothing.
Its products are leading and defining the natural life style trend in Japan today.
Sekine continues to be inspired to create beautiful simple products for daily use.
Ads always include linens and yellow cats:

* * * * * * * * * *

My aesthetic innards are torn between the simple, spare, enduring, pale lines of a Montana winter horizon and the hysterical, brilliant, pow-in-the-eye of Blackfeet fancy dancers. I mean, I really cannot decide which is my true preference and I don’t want to. But I want to run my hands and eyes over all these surfaces from French ticking pocket dolls to living Japanese yellow cats on linen squares. This mag gives me Russian peasants so swaddled in layers of quilted coat that they look like matryoshka dolls, all in red, yellow, purple; and then desert nomads draped in taureg blue.

Also, a lot of really weird stuff that is pretty much of a puzzle when one tries to figure out what to do with it. A lot of strange spindley coffee-brown rag dolls in intricate dresses and at least once a row of lambs in bright sweaters with pompoms on them. Things are both witty and comforting, as in the felted wool tea cosies in the shape of sheep with black velvet faces and ears. Once was a series of knitted balls, each with an exquisitely embroidered bright “moth” or “butterfly” on it. Calling them “mothballs,” the creator could suggest no particular uses. Mary Emmerling, my fav interior decorator, would put them on a brass tray in front of the sofa, just to admire and touch. Isn’t that enough?

These are items of “material” culture: silk, wood, bamboo, alpaca fibers plus whatever else an inventive person could think of. But for me, here in this village, it puts my hands on the kind of yarn worth working with. I can find ideas for things like used denim, either to overlay into a bricolage of patches or to tear into strips sewn together to make a rag rug. Recycling is in, but with a luxury touch, maybe a little gleam of something copper-colored, a brass button.

Diane remembered my reading chair, which was once my mother’s chair bought when she married in 1938. Right now it sports an unfinished corduroy slipcover, bright orange, overlaid with the Navajo blanket Tina Giovanni sent me, and fortified with a down pillow for the small of my back. The pillow is covered and ruffle-edged with orange material I bought so many years ago that it’s faded, which we think adds to the richness. The images on it are from India: elephants, flowering trees, and men in turbans. Diane and I like is the textures -- velvety cotton, strong wool, shiny cotton -- the various oranges, and the jokes of India Indian on Navajo Indian and of sweet and puffy ruffles against severe geometry.

The magazine called Selvedge (self/edge) is expensive but, oh, what a wealth of networking! I don't know how Diane could bear to give me so many issues! Thanks, Diane!

Saturday, September 19, 2009


The Golden Triangle newspapers are a regional group of papers all owned by the Kavanagh family. The news in them often overlaps and the classified ads are the same. Valier is thirty miles from Browning and only a few miles from the boundary of the reservation, but the ordinary word-of-mouth generally stops at that line. People in Valier rarely know what’s going on in Browning and vice versa. However, the news for Cut Bank, which is in the same county as Browning, tends to be more the same, except that there is always more news in Browning and more advertising. It is an awkward truth that the small white towns around the rez are collapsing while Browning and environs expands both in population and prosperity.

When I came in 1961, Browning had its own separately owned newspaper and Milo Fields was quite an active reporter/photography/editorialist. At that time the white population of Browning was strong and owned most of the businesses and professions. Also, the Bureau of Indian Affairs bureaucrats were mostly white. All that has changed and now the town, to an outsider, looks solidly Indian. Mostly that’s true.

Even when Milo was the editor, one of the most interesting and controversial features of the paper was the report of arrests and trial results. It would run for a couple of months, and then someone’s relative would awkwardly end up on the list (white as well as red) and the list would disappear. Then after a year or so, someone would manage to beg for it to be reinstated on grounds that it was a deterrent to crime. These days the Sheriff’s Log runs consistently, partly because the editors are in Cut Bank where they are somewhat shielded from rez politics and partly because the sheriff’s report conflates the reports for the whole county so that Cut Bank’s escapades are hidden in among the reports for the rez. (The Pondera County sheriff converts everything to numbers: so many arrests, so many horses struck by cars, so many dogs at loose, etc.)

Just as in Portland, some people can’t wait for the printed news, so they follow dispatch along on a radio monitor of their own. The dispatchers, who have long boring stretches to deal with, are aware they are broadcasting and sometimes the sheriff’s log reflects the same consciousness. All that said, sometimes the reports are pretty vivid and the reader is easily drawn into the situation by curiosity.

For instance, a Friday night report: A man calling from a bar says his son is beating up his wife. He’s drunk so the dispatcher is a little skeptical. Three hours later a call comes in that a woman in the East Glacier cemetary is getting beat up. (Cell phones mean calls can come from anywhere. The only cemetary I know of up there is way back in the trees.) At 8AM a man in Heart Butte says his sister is trying to attack him. He is handicapped, at the other end of the rez, and holding his oxycodone pills which his sister wants, but he’s escaped the house and is up on the hill. The cops come. They arrest him.

The next afternoon the airport (in Cut Bank) calls to say they canceled the drag races so the ambulance doesn’t have to be on standby.

Someone called to say girls in Cut Bank were kicking the planters in front of a business out into the sidewalk. The investigating officer says the girls were chasing a mouse so it was not vandalism.

A caller reported a “bright flash and three pieces of metal hanging from the substation across from the wrecking yard on US Highway 2 eastbound. [next to Cut Bank]. Advised GEC [Glacier Electric Company] and are experiencing a power outage. May be vandalism. Officer checked it out. There is a crispy pigeon on the ground. It is smoking but there is no fire. Officer advised he’s hungry and to pick up the crispy bird for lunch. On another day a Hutterite colony called to advise they have no electricity and are running a generator. A bird on fire was seen flying away from the “transistor pole” and the wheat crop is just ripe, so everyone be on the lookout for smoke.

Many complaints are about drunks fighting, but there are also many problems with non-human animals. Dogs bark and one “boxer” which “looks like it has a family” [they don’t mean human] has been chasing joggers. The officer has returned it home, talked to the family, and issued warnings. This time he takes it to the animal shelter. It was a black and white pit bull. On another day there is a complaint about two dogs traveling together: one is small and fuzzy and the other is “big and dumb-looking.” On still another day a cougar invites itself to the Chewing Black Bone campground alongside St. Mary’s lake. The complainant is camping in a yellow tipi. Many bears are clipped by cars, mostly driven by tourists, but they have sense enough to not check for damage to their vehicles until they are a few miles away. Carcasses rarely found.

A complaint comes in that a tourist family with little kids is chasing a grizzly bear up by Many Glacier. Call referred to the Glacier Park rangers. In the summer there are regularly tragedies but they are usually people falling over cliffs. This August it was a motorcycle that went over a cliff, killing the operator. On a lighter note, a “tall blonde male from Washington and Alaska left his backpack with his undies alongside on the steps of the Job Service office in Cut Bank.” They consider this objectionable. Another backpacker has been sleeping at night in the Babb Post Office.

There are always complaints about noise from parties at the Pine Tree Apartments and fighting at the Bear’s Den. These businesses have no listed telephones, so I can’t confirm their location and my knowledge of them is hazy since I don’t patronize them, but I believe they’re in Cut Bank. If not, I may find out who reads this blog. These days they are more likely to egg my car than break in all the windows with a baseball bat.

The Cut Bank kids are always at war with the cops. Someone calls in to complain that the kids have stretched Saran Wrap across the street. Dispatch records that the officer already knows: he just hit it and it is wrapped around his squad car. (Cut Bank is where a MacDonald’s employee put ag chemicals in a border patrolman’s food, which nearly killed him. Last I heard neurological damage had put him in a wheelchair, maybe permanently. Years ago they used to just put Ex-lax in their food.)

There is a strongly defensible theory that addressing these sorts of calls promptly and efficiently will prevent more serious crime and this is probably true, but it takes time and money. The claim that serious crimes are insufficiently investigated and prosecuted is a different problem but it has my sympathy.

Friday, September 18, 2009


This week has been a bit of a Charlotte Rampling festival in honor of older women. Last night was “The Duchess.” Tonight was “Swimming Pool.” The two movies could not be more different in one way: “The Duchess” is based on historical fact, heavily overlaid with modern bodice-ripper interpretations. “Swimming Pool” is . . . well, what is it? An erotic thriller? A psychological philosophical mind game? A French excuse for toplessness? Charlotte was absolutely believable in both, without any extravagance or obvious tricks.

The interesting movie is the latter. I’ve been reading about “quantum mechanics” (finally got around to “The Dancing Wu-Li Masters,” which I suppose is already obsolete since there appears to be an additional “force” in the cosmos -- we’re up to five now. Quantum mechanics are for particles so teeny they are indefinable, not quite perceptible: energy in both wave and particle which has the potential to be two places at once, possibly in multiple parallel universes, and -- on the Newtonian level -- to make our solid world. At least as we perceive it. Human identity appears to operate on a quantum basis.

We know that the brain takes in all the sensory information of our bodies, sorts it, throws out some, makes up some, and creates from the result a reality of its own. One for the daytime, one for sleep, maybe one for school and one for home, and slides into the identities in books and movies with no trouble at all. Writers? Oh, my. It’s clear that a world summoned up in a book and worked through (a virtual world) is real to both the writer and the reader and capable of changing them in the same way as real experience. And actors? Sometimes they’re lucky if they stay on the functional side of insanity, especially when they’re starting out. When I was taking acting classes and hanging around actors as an undergrad, there were several who wavered back and forth over the line between their own identities and those in the play. Actually, it didn’t seem to hurt them but it was hard on the people who were intimate with them. How do you know to whom you are really relating?

And that’s the premise of this movie. Charlotte is playing an abrupt, impatient, productive writer who has a testy relationship with her publisher. (PUBLISHER now, not editor -- I’m not sure most people would see the difference. Publishing is about money; editing is about the product.) Slender, short-haired, Charlotte is the sort of person who goes abroad in khaki trousers, as opposed to the kind of older woman who wears black jersey skirts and keeps an eye out for attractive waiters. Except that Charlotte DOES keep an eye on the waiter. In a restrained English way.

The publisher lends Charlotte his house in the south of France -- everyone is more “themselves” in the south of France -- and mentions a daughter. Expecting a spotty half-grown girl, we and Charlotte are dazzled by a daughter with a fabulous body, a golden girl far more sophisticated than anyone of the type in California. She is outrageous, sexual, seemingly all surface and no boundaries and yet . . . The writer is intrigued. She reads the girl’s diary. The girl reads the writer’s manuscript, which is about the diary. The two fantasies entwine until -- well, you have to remember that this writer’s specialty is Brit murder mysteries and they always include someone being buried in the garden. I loved all the footage of Charlotte at her laptop, though the outtakes show many didn’t get included.

Viewers of this movie decide for themselves what it is all about. (One must remember that a movie is quick flickers of still photos which only seem to move because the eye is not fast enough to see them separately, and then one “take” is edited with another in a sequence as little attached to Newtonian rules of reality as any other art form, so that one must fill in for oneself a good deal of information. Anyway, in the first place the movie was shot by a camera that changes the light, distorts distances and proportions, and can only see what the cinematographer allows. One is probably viewing on a computer or TV screen, depending on one’s eye NOT to see individual pixels.) Some thought it was a straight mystery story. Some thought Charlotte was inventing a book as we watched what was in her writing. Some thought it was a little lesson in expectations, a joke really. Some worried about what the director thought he was doing. (A director is sort of combination writer/editor.)

Reality is equally a matter of selecting identity through perception of many options, many of them involuntary and unconscious. Women are forced into awareness of their bodily swings over a month’s period. Even at seventy that constant tide affects me, but I was never so aware as in 1990 when I was taking hormones. I was controlling the swings consciously. I hated it -- not the high-awareness, over-emotional part, but the nesting week when I purred and cuddled and didn’t want anything. Now I take daily pills for high blood pressure and diabetes, neither of which is very accessible to consciousness but both of which affect everything from eyesight (the thin film of the retina swells up with extra sugar and loses focus) to patience. A ten minute walk makes me different because it changes my blood glucose by twenty points.

On blood tests I test high-normal in androgens (yes, the testosterone male stuff, though I don’t look at all male) and cortisol which is self-made cortisone and meant to go high after emergencies. These are about high energy, passion, willingness to risk. Forget the pharm people’s pills. These inside chemicals, like adrenaline, respond to and create the world.

There’s a focus of auto-chemical studies that is about the gut. The brain is evolved from the gut. Emotions (which are chemical) are in the gut first, then recognized and responded to by the brain. Pay attention to your digestion, because it is part of your whole autonomic sympathetic/parasympathetic feedback system, on its own to keep your heart beating, your blood circulating, your cells getting their energy, the whole chem lab inside human individual bodies which is the foundation of identity. We’ve learned how to intervene with powerful drugs, both legal and illegal, but also we are flooding our minds with media images and ideas that get us in the gut: fear, contempt, hatred, rage. As one film character asked (in another movie), “Where’s the love, baby?”

This interests me. If I weren’t living in a quiet village, I would be so flooded I wouldn’t be able to think about it clearly. It’s only barely possible now. Like Charlotte or an actor, I go in and out of roles. I don’t need the south of France. A publisher wouldn’t hurt.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I once said the name “Peter Beard” in the presence of Peter Matthiessen and saw that it had roughly the same effect on the latter as being plugged into a wall socket. “What?” he demanded. “What about him?” I love both Peters, though I’ve only met Peter M. and own all his books but have never owned any of Peter B’s photo books. Just now I googled Peter Beard and discovered that he is the great-grandson of James Jerome Hill, the founder of the Great Northern Railroad which opened the northern prairie to homesteading and provoked the creation of Glacier National Park, which means that he relates to the past of this part of the world in much the same way as Barnaby Conrad III. But Peter Beard himself has become greatly identified with the Kenya of Isak Dinesen. They were only alive at the same time for a brief period, but their spirit was similar. He met her the same year I came to Browning, Montana.

I have always said that this part of Montana was my Africa. Peter B. is a year older than me and very, very rich to say nothing of being very very well connected. He takes fabulous photos with magnificent cameras and then besmirches and adorns the enlarged photos with bloody handprints, tiny India ink drawings, glued on bugs and leaves, anything. He’s a little like Robert Kennedy (who was a friend) crossed with (if you must know) Tim Barrus. And not terribly unlike his Yale compatriot, Peter Matthiessen, except that everyone loves Peter M. and some people think Peter Beard is, well, too much the free spirit. He probably has as much of what he calls “jewelry” in his hips as Tim Barrus does, but because an elephant trampled him, an event that was filmed, right out to the moment he actually died as he was wheeled into the Nairobi hospital. They did revive him and he’s still out there having art shows and getting into trouble, which is like Tim Barrus.

Beard’s specialty is photos of supermodels, meaning very skinny and young women with long necks, like gracile gerenuks, who are willing to take all their clothes off and stand against a background of the least modern African people Beard can find. Splashed with paint, encouraged into extreme poses, adorned with extravagant objects, they are quite stunning. Beard says they are NOT fashion photos and one has to agree. Who would show up at a cocktail party looking like that? The Africans are terrific -- work-worn, humorous, always up for anything. The most famous photo of Beard is the one he took of himself half-inserted into a dead croc. It had only been dead a short time and some of its reflexes remained, so he ended up with painful tooth marks. I’ll bet his toenails got bleached as well. I just rented “Peter Beard Scrapbooks: Africa and Beyond” from Netflix.

I love these kinds of wild and original guys. Yesterday one of our local examples (a good reason for loving Montana), Rib Gustafson, took me to lunch at the Panther Cafe. 84, Rib and his beautiful artistic wife have raised five kids, four of them men, two of those veterinarians like their dad, in addition to a famous singer (Wiley) and a math teacher. They all write, especially Sid. The daughter is a lawyer who has just finished a book on maritime law.

Rib met Bob Scriver for the first time in what must have been the late Fifties after a rousing bar fight that caused him to be jugged until he sobered up. Bob was the City Magistrate who tried Rib's case, but I didn’t ask what the sentence was. The other story Rib told happened in the Nineties. Bob had a pet badger, which can be thought of as either a weasel on steroids or a mini-grizzly. The badger had caught one of its formidable claws under a piece of heavy machinery in the shop and was so frantic that Bob couldn’t get near it to help. So at midnight, happily asleep, Rib’s phone rings and Bob wants help -- NOW. It’s an eighty mile drive, but Rib gets up and heads to Browning where he rendered the badger comatose with a shot. Even the two men working together had to remove the wedged claw to get the animal loose. Rib said when he left Bob was holding “Badgie” on his lap, soothing his beloved pet.

It’s not that I love these extravagant guys because I want a romantic relationship with them. Been there, done that. My thing is that I wish I could live the risky life as they do. I wish I were them. But women in bar fights end up dead and I’m not willing to go that far. The next best thing is to sit across a table or in front of a fireplace and hear all about it. Not that I haven’t managed to do a few far-out things, but it doesn’t matter how liberated a woman is, she still can’t live quite so “large.” Of course, men die along the way, too. Now and then.

Rib has the great advantage of being in a position to do a great deal of good for people and they reward him by watching out for him. In his several books Rib tells about some of his strategies. For instance, once he was called by a threadbare rancher with a cow teetering on the edge of oblivion, a man too proud to go into debt. So Rib proposed that the rancher make him the half-owner of the cow as payment. That way there was a chance the cow would be saved and the rancher would have half a cow -- without treatment he would have nothing. When word got around, Rib accumulated quite a little herd of half-cows.

Society theoretically likes the dependable wage-earner who protects his children and comforts his wife and we do, we do. But we also love the guy who gets out there and tastes everything the world has to offer, risks big-time pain but also big-time gain, and then can tell us all about it. I’m going to watch this movie from Netflix about Peter Beard about five more times before I send it back. Then I’ll try to buy the disc. In the meantime, I’ll watch for Rib or any of his sons, or any of a dozen other resourceful reprobates around here. And, of course, I can email Barrus any time and I do, I do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


First comes commodification, then comes status, and next comes equity. So first a town library is a commodity: worth a certain amount of money, supposed to help the children grow up to make money, and maybe to be a resource for community people who either need it to make money or need it because they have no money. An accumulation of books as wealth.

A library is a good middle-class sign of a prosperous community. People move to towns that have libraries -- I did. (It had a laundromat then, too. Even a car dealer.) High school kids use libraries. Story hour. We have no street people taking refuge in this library. I was very grateful to blog on the Valier library’s computers when mine broke. I’ve checked out books; I’ve given them books, as well as videos. They actually have my book about Bob Scriver on the shelf, but I’m not sure what they did with the Blackfeet history POD books I gave them.

For some reason, they broke up the Indian history section and distributed those books into the regular shelves. I think the issue was equity. When the state passed a law that all children in Montana would have to study Indian history, the previous librarian said to me, “I don’t see why I should have to study THEIR history!” I think that since then she has come to understand that at least in theory we are one people, so their history needs to be learned. But in a sort of revanchist spirit, that means the Indians get no “special” section because they’re “just like everyone else.”

The issue at last night’s meeting between the Conrad and Valier library boards was financial equity. The Conrad library, which sometimes sees itself as the Pondera County library, has decided that the way to solve their constant money problems is to revisit a split in funding that dates back to 1961. Half a century. But that wasn’t what really had tempers hot.

Some years ago the Conrad library lost their humanist, inclusive, progressive librarian. She was replaced by a woman who has made a good thing better by setting her salary at $34,000, which around here is teacher’s wages, more than the median income in Pondera County, $29,432 per household according to Google sources. Then, since she prepares the budget herself, she increases the salaries by 3% every year, without increasing her duties, her hours, or her qualifications. One employee was dropped. (Local teachers have been foregoing raises.) She has a bachelor’s degree in business management. She has no library degree. Montana requires librarians to earn credits. The Valier librarian just returned from a class in Indian education. She has an associate degree in business management. Clearly libraries here are in a business paradigm.

But my interest at this meeting was not the money. I wanted to rethink the whole ball game from the point of view of quality of services and inclusion of the whole county, if they really think of themselves as a county library with a county population as a monetary per capita base. They don’t. Their heads were firmly planted on charts, calculators, proportions, and monetary equity. FIRMLY. They didn’t want to think of the other small villages in the county, but were very aware of the Hutterite colonies. The word “Indian,” as in Heart Butte which is in Pondera County, froze them in their seats.

And yet now and then we came back around to glancing off of the real issue: hard feelings, mostly relating to the arrogance of this librarian. My opinion is contaminated. She gored my ox, the one with “Bob Scriver” painted on the side. I suggested that I do a reading of “Bronze Inside and Out” -- no. I’d bet you five dollars she hasn’t even bought a copy of “Bronze Inside and Out” for the library. She’s got some kind of fantasy going because her doctor daddy used to stop by to see Bob Scriver and Bob would make a fuss over her to get her daddy’s checkbook out of his pocket. She thought it was personal. Bob Scriver was the same marker for middle class status as a library.

The previous librarian had found an old microfiche machine and installed it in the library. The backbone of “Bronze Inside and Out” was what I gained from reading all the microfiches the Montana Historical Society had of newspapers from the very beginning. In fact, the notes I took are on this blog and people have used them over and over. At the time, that far-sighted Conrad librarian understood that there are some materials that can only be accessed that way and the Montana Historical Society was willing to put the microfiches in the custody of the Conrad library where I could read them without driving the 200 miles to Helena. (I could read two years a day, which took about four hours plus the thirty mile drive for months.) She was a service-based librarian. And that library could have taken credit for the publication of the book. A reading there seemed natural. The present librarian would have nothing to do with it.

In my allotted 3 minutes at the meeting I spoke about bookmobiles, about that microfiche reader, about the arrogance and snubbing that I meet in the Conrad library now (People piped up to say I'm not alone.), and about the Choteau library as worthy of inquiry. (That librarian used to run a dress shop.) They objected to everything. “But those things will all cost MORE!” Their idea is to pinch and scrimp and drop services to match their budget, rather than think of ways to generate interest and energy -- which always leads to more money coming in.

But the most daunting and maybe typical aspect of this was that the Conrad board admitted that they had discouraged people from coming to the meeting, telling them that they couldn’t attend. That they wouldn’t be welcome. Hell’s bells. It’s a public meeting! Public business! It’s ILLEGAL to keep people out. It’s always a scandal if they are barred. What is the person who is told not to come supposed think about why he’s not welcome?

The more that come, the more that get invested in what’s happening. The Valier people came, but only the same ones, the previous board members. Both boards expressed surprise that the other board was, well, HUMAN! And maybe even REASONABLE! And some of the Conrad board members grew up in Valier!

The more people are kept out, the more they go underground and get more sore and have more fantasies and vote down all levies. The rumors fly. Pretty soon the Conrad/Valier “library money grab” could be on NPR, just like Choteau where the superintendent tried to cancel, suppress, control, deny, and otherwise consolidate power. It ALWAYS backfires.

I thought I had heard the Valier board recommend that Conrad drop Interlibrary Loan, because Valier had, and it saved money. So I had to do a little research this morning. Neither library has cut themselves off that way, but Valier has imposed a fee if more than five books a month are ordered.

Then the librarian took me out to the storage to show me Valier’s microfiche machine! I had no idea it existed. What’s that old library motto: “knowledge is power?” I sure could have saved gas if I’d asked. And the Valier library was happy to schedule a reading. They know that readings get people coming in. They might even get their checkbooks out.