Saturday, November 30, 2013


Obama's speech script

No one can really teach writing.  One “evokes” it.  One is a “writing-caller.”  One doesn’t say,  “do it this way” but rather considers possibilities.  The criterion that matters is NOT correctness but rather what it -- in turn -- calls out of the reader.  It could be dismay.  It might be admiration.  Maybe undying love.

I like to mix languages, which is a little risky, but most of my early vocabulary came from reading and puzzling out the meaning via context.  I pronounced words in peculiar ways. I wasn’t always old enough with enough knowledge to understand.  Anya Seton  (Ernest Thompson Seton’s daughter) wrote historical novels about mad passionate love affairs that were read in a social atmosphere that would never tolerate the kind of explicit stuff that’s in my ladylike cousins’ beloved historical time-traveler novel series, "Highlander".  (The author is a biologist and uses her knowledge!)  So Seton had to do a bit of metaphorical suggesting:  the hero carries off his red-headed prize to the bed-chamber.  The next morning she has strange red marks on her breasts.  I figured they were bed bug bites.  Castles are so unsanitary.

The real secret to writing is that it’s not about the words:  it’s about the thinking and envisioning and sort of mental diagramming that comes ahead of time, accumulating until it really NEEDS to come out.  It’s the “foreplay.”  It’s the teasing.  It’s the engaging with the subject matter.  And always keeping an eye out for the voyeur who is trying to understand -- you can make it tough for them or easy for them.  Depends on the audience.  The audience -- maybe an invented one -- shouldn’t have control, but on the other hand, a really good reader can pull things up through the writer that were always spooled in his or her guts, waiting for the right understander.

Grammar is only a tool.  Few kids old enough to attend any level of school have NOT internalized the basics or we couldn’t understand them.  Nouns are names, verbs are actions -- that’s the coupling that everything else revolves around.  Adjectives stick to the fronts of nouns in English, the backs of nouns in other languages.  Adverbs can go anyplace.  Move ‘em around -- see what happens.  Phrases and clauses obey the same rules.  Memorize the prepositions -- it’s sort of fun.   

Because of working on the computer instead of the typewriter, I bold all the names of people the first time I use them in a post, because I know that some people will be wanting to google the name or check it some other way and it will be easier for their eye to find again if it’s bold.  I italicize titles for something like the same reason.  But I also like to use it to separate fact from fiction, thoughts and quotes, like that.  All tools.  Underlining, colored fonts.  I would love to have a computer tool that would let me insert automatically triggered music -- I know it exists: I just don’t want to take the time and money to find it and learn it.  I’m a lazy writer in some ways.  I just link.  But then I could go cross-media.

Publishing is nothing but a capital investment in writing, backed up with an advertising and distributing mechanism.  It’s just money.  The idea that publishing is an indicator of worthiness is dead now.  Only in the “sticks” like around here do people knee-jerk say,  “Oh, you write?  Well, are you published?”  They mean,  “Is it safe for me to admire?”

But writing shouldn’t be safe, nor should any other kind of media.  Media is about the edge, the growth, the possibility, the potential.  What comes AFTER tablets?  Every kid in the Browning Public Schools on the Blackfeet rez is now issued a tablet.  I hope it doesn’t turn out like the “green” children’s networking computers in Africa given to the kids for free:  the adults stole them.  You don’t have to spell or even keyboard on a tablet.  You can dictate into it, listen to it, draw with it, take photos, compose music.  Speech is a way of capturing and conveying what is happening in the mind and then writing is another level away from that.  Other media are more sensory, more invested with emotion, more immediate.  No media can ever be as powerful as face-to-face hands-on with another person, the vocabulary of touch.
Nevertheless, writing can give precision, it can hold something still for long enough to study it, research it. analyze it.  Proper tools for proper goals, improper tools for improper goals.  Propriety is situational; the protocols for one time and place won’t work in another.  We admire the creator who can explore that -- joining the minuet or throwing a bomb into a mob, as wanted -- maybe as needed.

Censorship is a strange practice if you ask me.  Why prevent people from seeing things they won’t understand anyway?  Why narrow their understanding of what humans can do and be?  Why assume that children should not know about death and sex or the suffering of other children other places?  Surely these days they already know.  What does it do to the censors who sit there and watch, read, think about all the forbidden subjects?   If it has no evil and corrupting effect on them, what makes them so much more able to handle it?  On the other hand, maybe they have become evil and corrupt from watching all this -- can they prove otherwise?

And yet, as a small child who normally had her questions answered, there were things I couldn’t figure out that took on a menacing shadow because adults were disturbed.  My father took me -- maybe three years old -- with him to the wool buying warehouse where he worked.  I had to pee but there were no women working there, no women’s bathroom.  My father took me into the communal bathroom while one of the other men guarded the door.  The row of urinals (the tall kind), so sculptural, so stinky, seized my imagination.  What were they?  Did they have something to do with the sheep?  Everyone pretended they didn’t know what I was talking about.  I dreamt about urinals.  Maybe they were an art form!

Rez kids have a thousand half-understood things shadowing them.  Unexpected reactions, glimpsed tableaus, misunderstood scenes in movies, song lyrics that make no sense.  I’ve been watching “Deadwood,” which I do not admire or even like, but it does have that hallucinatory quality of being half-understood, sometimes deadly and other times slapstick.  (Milch tells his actors to be “operatic,” but then admits he’s never attended an opera.) They didn’t dare take on Native Americans but the Chinese trope does just as well.  Also, whores, though they never even hint at MSM.  (No one says “gay” anymore.  Try to keep up.)  Shakespeare understood all this very well, even fancy language, MSM, cross-dressing, obsession, addiction and all that other fascinating plot material.  No censorship until the Victorian middle class suddenly decided Shakespeare was an icon of education.  The only reason the Bible escaped was that they rarely read it.

Writing that explains all that, writing that denies all that, writing that makes you feel a little strange, writing that confirms exactly what you’ve always believed -- everything has its place on a page, a screen, someone’s back fence, the side of an abandoned warehouse.  Maybe one’s own arm.  

Lately, in a world where men are garlanded with tattoos, the most eloquent writing I’ve seen was simply a straight black line drawn with a ruler down the inside of a young man’s arm, a geometry, a simple principle, written on living human truth.  Not exactly secret, but we don’t normally see the entire length of the underside of a young muscular arm.  I look at that strict plumb black line again and again, “reading” it.  I’ve fallen in love with it.

Friday, November 29, 2013


After a tragic historical story, I thought it was time for a dynamic contemporary story, and since I usually write stories about boys, this one is about girls again.  The paintings I’m using as illustrations are the work of Rob Akey whose website is  His phone contact is 406-862-7425.  He lives in Whitefish, MT, where he grew up, and generously allowed me to use his paintings.  He writes a blog about his work.

This is not by Rob but by Ed Roberts.  I couldn't find the artist to contact him.

The past week had been almost too much.  Graduation from high school, a successful track season, good grades, but her grandma sick, maybe gonna die.  And this fall she would be going to college if she were accepted, but she hadn’t gotten word yet and she should have by now.  She knew there were many changes coming.

Her grandma was really her great-grandma.  There was a generation of women that was missing in there -- drinking, gambling, falling for bad men -- so that her great-grandma had raised her mother and her mother would only say about her mother and aunties,  “They thought they were squaws.”  Then she’d clamp her jaw shut and say no more, except that her eyes said, “You will NOT think you are anything but proud and successful!”

It was a lot to carry, but if there was anything she’d learned from track, it was that she could run her troubles off, especially early in the day like it was right now, just barely light enough to see the road on this clear June morning.  This was her favorite place to run because it was along the east front of the Rockies where for millennia people and animals had moved in the rain shadow that let grass predominate over trees.

It was even too early for traffic but not too early for a meadowlark caroling halfway up the bluff on her left.  Then there was a big dark shape ahead of her and for a minute she thought it was a pickup, but it was an animal.  In fact, it was a bull buffalo!

It it had been white, she’d have thought she was having a vision, but it was a plain brown bull buffalo, the kind that occasionally plagued the keepers of the tribal herd by wandering off, as likely to plow through the fence as not.  She tried to remember what one was supposed to do when encountering a buffalo.  If it were black bear, she should stand her ground but not stare; if it were a cougar, she should puff up, yell and act aggressive; if it were a grizz, she should drop, roll up in a ball and pray.  Although, she remembered a boy telling her that when he met a bear, he sang his bear song and the bear just went on its way.  She didn’t know any buffalo songs.

If she could have thought of an honor song, she’d have sung that, but her brain was only playing a silly kid song from the Black Lodge singers:  “Mighty Mouse.”  Her small cousins had picked it up and went around chanting,  “Is it a bird?  NO!  Is it a plane?  NO!  Omigosh, it’s Mighty Mouse.”

Or in this case, mighty bull.  “Omigosh, it’s Mighty Bull!”  Mighty Meat?  Her crazy brain went off on a thought about how good the buffalo burgers were last Indian Days and the bull gave a great whooshing whuff, as though it could read her mind.

They just stood there eyeing each other.   Her senses sharpened by adrenaline, she noted that the bull’s cleft hooves overlapped just slightly, the inside over the outside.  She saw that his shoulder height was a good two feet taller than she was though she was a very tall girl.  When he licked his nose to get it wet so he could smell better, she saw that his tongue was purple.  She could smell him and guessed that he smelled the way a buffalo should smell. How else?  He smelled BIG.  But looking at him head-on, once a person looked down the long sides behind his massive furry head, his sides were lean -- not square like a cow bred for meat and shaped like a dining room table.  WHUFFF!  Oh, sorry.

Maybe she should just talk to this animal, in case he were a medicine bull, stumiksahtosee.  “Mister Bull, I respect you and I don’t know how much power you have, but I wonder if you could help my grandmother ?  She is a Blackfeet speaker and would be able to speak to you much better than I can.”  Maybe she was being superstitious, but what could it hurt?  She had a lot of little superstitions about winning at track.

The bull was not wetting the earth with urine or drooling or pawing in the dust of the road.  Those were all good signs, or lack of signs, so maybe the rutting season wasn’t underway yet.  July, wasn't it?  In July?   The bull seemed to nod -- crazy!  She knew that animals could tell female humans from male humans, but what were the implications?  Would it be better if the bull thought of her as female?  Probably.  Less likely to want to fight -- after all, testosterone is about the same in every mammal.  But, well -- being a bull buffalo's girl friend . . .  uh, no.

“I respect you and I honor you for being our source of life and shelter for so many millennia.”  The bull was watching her closely but he swung his massive head back and forth a little, as though favoring one eye and then the other.  His wet nose wrinkled and he made a noise like a pig, grunting.  She couldn’t help giggling.

Then, slowly, the bull turned aside into the barrow pit, walked up to the five foot fence, leapt over it as gracefully as an English thoroughbred horse in a fox hunt, and marched straight up the steep bluff as though it were level ground.  She saw that a coyote had been watching from halfway up.  “Too bad, you dog!  No stomped carrion this morning!”  

Newly energized, she resumed running along the road, and saw that the coyote was running along parallel to her over in the field.  When it sat down, panting, she looked back at the top of the bluff and there was the bull, watching her moving along.  She slung her arms into the air, a victory sign.

There really had been more of a communication than a competition, but her head had cleared.  Whatever happened now, grandmother or college or boyfriends or a summer job -- she could deal with it.  How could any problem be bigger than a bull buffalo?

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Now that I’m dead it’s much easier to understand what happened.  Time is changed after you die.  It’s like water and you can swim in it, so that it goes forward and backwards and has waves in it but no temperature.  It was night time, the coldest part of a January night before there was any light yet and the trees groan and pop.  I was glad to be under the buffalo robes between my mother and father.  I dreamt the horses were running so the ground shook and then it was true, but they were not our horses because there was jingling and the creaking of leather.  Then the shooting began.

My father grabbed me up in his arms, and my mother scrabbled quickly to find the Peace Paper that would tell soldiers to leave us alone.   She had made a little case for it that hung with the Pipe Bundle on a tripod. She pushed it into my father’s hand, between his hand and me where he held me against his chest.  As he stepped out of the lodge, there was a whispering sound as the bullet pierced through the paper.  Then I felt it go through me -- between ribs, through my lungs and then I couldn’t breathe.  My father made a sound I can’t describe and fell.  Then I heard my mother give a sound, the sound of her life leaving her.   Not quite a cry. It was too fast to understand.

I only lived a little while with the big dark horses rushing back and forth and the men’s voices shouting at each other.  Not our men, who were away hunting, but those white men all muffled up in heavy coats and hats pulled down but I could see that there were stripes down the sides of their legs.  Their guns exploded and their sabers flashed.  Panting of horses and men showed as pale vapor in light from fires set by the soldiers.

Our people, women and children and old people, were quiet.  They didn’t cry out or shout because that would attract the attention of the nearest soldiers.  They saved all their breath for running, dodging into shadows and through brush, pulling and carrying children.  It was all over in minutes.

Then I lay on my father’s body, which was still warm, though I was cooling myself, while the soldiers went on burning the lodges even if there were people inside, the people who had smallpox and were too weak to escape.  Lying there dead with my eyes open, it wasn’t until the sun came up that I could see the blood on the snow, just dark smears until there was enough light to show red.  At first the light was silver except for the blood and the charred things, but then it warmed to golden and the sky cleared to blue, such a blue.  By then the cavalry was gone.  Everything was silent.  Charred lodgepoles still fumed and flickered soundlessly, rigid triangles over the black remains heaped inside and out.

From far away came singing.  The People came walking in a long procession, all the People who had died so many ways but were still somehow moving through time because there was no time now, just the place, and we were all together as a tribe.  We newly dead rose.  I was happy to be walking between my mother and father.  The snow was sand under our feet and drifts were sarvisberry bushes in bloom.

Maybe you’ve figured out that this is an experiment to see if I could summon up a word picture of the Baker Massacre that was new.  Usually battles are a man-thing with a lot of emphasis on who dominated, who had to submit.  So I thought of the most unlikely point of view:  a girl, a girl who is already dead, like the narrating heroine of “The Lovely Bones”.  It’s known that Heavy Runner was shot while holding up his letter of protection and that the same bullet killed the daughter in his arms, so that’s where I started.

One of my premises is that death, once you cross over, is not painful but rather a kind of bemusement, transparent but not agitated -- “swimming.”  It’s a strange phenomenon that understating something horrific can be more powerful than the gory details.

The librarian at BCC said that they were still having to address the problem of students with weak writing skills.  They’re not stupid -- all of them can speak eloquently -- but somehow there’s something about writing that makes their brains go flat.  Partly it’s because they don’t read any more than is strictly necessary, but there’s something more.  I think it’s because they haven’t had the experience of falling through the words into another world, what some people call “immersive.”  It’s like an addiction.  What they read doesn’t “hook” them.  How can it when it’s not about them?  There are exceptions. 

In this story I tried the trick Jim Welch used at the end of “Fool’s Crow” which was also about the Baker Massacre.  Instead of letting it end on horror and injustice, he summons up a vision of the People traveling on with their travois and dogs into some protected place where the past can continue to unspool.  

This is not just an invention of his own.  When someone on the rez has a close brush with death, like being in a car accident that leaves them suffering in a snowbank all night before they are found, they will often report that this procession of All the People, the Nitzitahpi, passed by them and that they tried to join it.  They will say that their grandmother, the most recent family member to die, was at the end and when they tried to go with her, she turned and made them go back to Life, even using a quirt to beat them into turning back -- because the suffering want to go with their Tribe but they shouldn't unless it's time.  It’s an illustration of the essential truth that to tribal people it is the survival of the tribe that counts more than any individual, which is why speaking the language -- the main marker of the tribe -- is so crucial.  But an individual has a story, too.

Some people, immersion readers, will not want to know the things I’ve just told about how and why I wrote this little piece.  They’re the same people who never want to know how movies and sausages are made -- they cling to their illusion.  But it’s like that thing about being inside the circle and outside the circle:  inside, the illusion is strong and convincing; outside, it’s clear that it was conjured and can be summoned.  There's skill to it.  The true writer and the stronger power is to be able to call up the circle, but then also to cross its boundary and inhabit a dream.  Dreams are also real.

Where it really happened

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Squanto, whose real name was Tisquantum, was the inventor of “tisquantum physics,” which premises that everything is relative, especially all one’s relatives, who are always around if there’s a feast but not so much in times of need.  (I’m kidding.)  He crossed the Atlantic four times without dying of a European disease which is better than usual.  He kept getting abducted by various Euros and at the end of his life was for sale for twenty pounds, which is about forty dollars today (unadjusted), which (also today) is about the price of a little boy on the world market.  I am not kidding.  Even the Great Falls Tribune admits it.  You could read all about it on that eminent source of information Wikipedia, although I have to admit that the Wikipedia is very weak on accurate Native American information since it’s mostly written by know-it-all youngish white men from the East Coast of America.

The clergy who sometimes owned Squanto assured him that Jesus loved him so long as he was obedient and they taught him English though few of them learned Patuxet.  (They still talk funny over there on the East Coast and in Europe.)  He lived to be thirty, acting as a peacemaker among tribes, and died rather mysteriously, possibly poisoned by Waupanoags but not with polonium.  (No one had an umbrella to poke him.)  At least he’s famous.

But I’m grateful not to be Squanto, not to be famous, and not to own an umbrella.  I’m grateful to be me, to be here, to have a lot of books and too many cats, but none of it was my doing, really.  It just happened.

I ran my limited knowledge of Squanto past the clerk at the gas station, who is actually an Amskapi Pikuni scholar.  He said he knew all about Squanto, so nevermind telling him anything, and anyway, there have only been two polonium deaths.  (I’m betting he doesn’t own an umbrella.)  We talked about a few other issues, too, like whether there is no word for goodbye in Blackfeet.  He says there is but it’s a bit of a circumlocution, like “not-hello.”  I really like this guy but I don’t buy much gas so I never get to talk to him as much as I want to.  He’s a type not much known or appreciated, but not unlike Squanto, except that he belongs to himself.

Yesterday a scholar referred to me another scholar’s question about a Sixties writer who won big prizes by writing a faux journal patronizing a local Amskapi Pikuni famous for being very old.  In those days it was very “cutting edge” to call the book about this old man “Piegan.”  (Some kids have been troubled because they thought it was the same as “pagan.”  Not.)  The writer, who is dead now, went mad, was confined for a while in Texas, then stumbled drunk through the streets of a minor city until he died.  Never wrote another book. He was a bad man in many ways.  When he came around, Bob Scriver locked himself in the shop and pretended he wasn’t there.  Yet people still think the book is reliable.  

Since this guy used our shop phone to call his editor, always claiming to reverse the charges though I don’t think he ever did (this was before calling cards), I stuck my ears out to see what I could learn.  Mostly what I learned was that his editor (in those days people had editors instead of agents and the publisher paid them instead of the writer paying them) was demanding that he write things more like what people expected to know about Indians.  He had a tendency to write about himself in self-flattering ways, though the book opens with him forcing open a window and climbing into the old man's the empty house, on grounds that they were expecting him and would want him to do that.  I think they were trying to do the same thing Bob did, but forgot to lock that particular window.  Anyway, this semi-scholar wanted to know where this author’s papers were.  As if he HAD papers and as if a drunken madman would put them in a safe place.

Anyway, the point is that a white man forcing himself into the lives of tribal people -- whether or not they are expected -- is no longer a viable concept.  Even book editors sort of realize that.  But then what about my book, “Heartbreak Butte,” about the two years I spent teaching there?   (It’s online. )  What about my Blackfeet name and what about my teasing of the gas station cashier?

The other day I got an email asking for contact with a renegade anthropologist who was also around here in the Sixties.  This inquiry came from Cornwall, England, where the anthro (uncredentialed) grew up with the inquirer, who had some connections with Sioux country, entirely honorable, and assumed that his renegade friend was the same.  Not.  The renegade had become an artifact dealer/stealer and spent time incarcerated for it.  He even stole from white people.  Bob should have locked the door.

On the way to Darrell Kipp’s funeral mass, I stopped in at the Blackfeet Community College library which has come a looooong way, baby.  Most recently, they just finished cataloguing the acquisition of an outstanding collection of books about Indians that was given them by Bob Doerk, a deceased Air Force lieutenant colonel, who then became a banker, and, in addition, a Lewis and Clark and fur trapper aficionado, which led him into an admiration of the Amskapi Pikuni (Blackfeet).  He was tall, intelligent, patient, and capable of managing a dignified interface with the tribe itself.  It’s a huge collection of books, all of them significant and timely.  Not enough of them by Blackfeet themselves.  It takes more time to build authors than it does to build structures.  

Bob Doerk

Doerk was one of the most faithful attenders at Darrell Kipp’s and Rosalyn LaPier’s August Piegan Institute seminars.  He was always interested, comprehending, and diplomatic.  That was better than myself, who holds grudges, pays off old offenses, and pins people to the wall -- which defeated the purpose of the seminars.  The seminars were supposed to dissolve some of the local animosity and urge appreciation.  Doerk was in line with that goal.  His library was a valuable gift since a book these days (including the one I wrote about Bob Scriver) often sells for about forty dollars, or as much as a small trafficked boy, who would be a lot more trouble but a worthy recipient of care and affection.

Some people on Thanksgiving will express gratitude for living in a civilized country, for being good religious folk, for having a nice income and owning in a pleasant house, for living in an advanced technological world where one can visit with a man who is in Cornwall and have a scholarly discussion with a gas station attendant.  I don’t think about turkeys much.  I think about that little boy quite a lot.  And also the seven-year-old grandfather of Darrell Kipp who escaped a winter massacre with only his life but made Darrell possible as well as all the boys and girls inspired by Piegan Institute.  It’s not some romantic fantasy -- it’s reality.  Well, at least as real as I can manage today.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013


What IS official poverty in the United States?  After considerable digging, which mostly revealed how many people administering Social Security and other “help” programs know nothing at all about what they are administering, it appears that defining “poverty” comes from a set of guidelines that are themselves determined by poverty “thresholds” which were originally defined by the Department of Agriculture by determining the cost of four “market baskets” for diets of people on farms and off farms, ranging from poor to superior.  

At the time these four levels of diet were arbitrarily defined, there was no allowance for contemporary nutrition standards, nothing about ethnic differences, nor about diets for chronic diseases, nor about processed foods. Far more people at the time lived on farms because the post-WWII migration to the cities was still in early stages.  Farm crops were not so involved with chemicals or genetic tinkering, nor were they so industrialized.  There was as much concern about farm income as about the hunger of people.  There was no allowance for how food shopping is affected by long driving distances to market sources or ghettoes where food prices are artificially high for captive consumers.  The shift of the labor market from basic work to specialized and computer jobs had not happened yet.

Thresholds and guidelines are renegotiated constantly, so that a person can be moved in and out of categories because of politically desirable standards based on non-personal characteristics like the current national resentment of any kind of social safety net.  The same income might be on either side of the cut-off line: sometimes at 120%, sometimes at 90% of the poverty threshold.

Federal Poverty Guidelines  (abridged):    “Some programs use the poverty guidelines as only one of several eligibility criteria, or apply a modification of the guidelines. For example, the eligibility level may be set at 130% or 185% of the guidelines rather than 100%. Other programs, although not using the guidelines as a criterion of individual eligibility, use them for the purpose of targeting assistance or services. The guidelines become effective on the date they are published in the Federal Register (unless an office administering a program using the guidelines specifies a different effective date for that particular program) and remain in effect until the next update is issued.”

No wonder that none of the multitude of people trying to answer questions on government hotlines or trying to sell me insurance had any idea what it meant that in 2011 I was moved from Level 4 to Level 1, or what the “levels” themselves meant.  Which "market basket" was a plunked into?  Is 4 the top or is 1 the top?

Poverty guidelines, or percentage multiples of them, are used as an eligibility criterion by a number of Federal programs, including the following:

1. Department of Health and Human Services
2. Community Services Block Grant
3. Head Start
4.  Low-Income Home Energy Assistance 
5.  Hill-Burton Uncompensated Services Program  (in connection with previous medical facilities construction and modernization assistance to hospitals or other health care facilities)
6. AIDS Drug Reimbursements (under Title II of the Ryan White Act)
7. Medicaid (The guidelines are used only for certain parts of Medicaid; however, the rest of the program — which probably still accounts for a majority of Medicaid eligibility determinations — does not use the poverty guidelines.)
8.  Department of Agriculture
9.  Food Stamps
10.  Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
11.  National School Lunch Program School Breakfast Program
12.  Child and Adult Care Food Program Special Milk Program for Children
13.  Department of Energy Weatherization Assistance for Low-Income Persons
14.  Department of Labor
15.  Job Corps
16.  Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers
17.  Native American Employment and Training Programs 
18.  Senior Community Service Employment Program Corporation for National Service
19.  Foster Grandparent Program Senior Companion Program
20.  Legal Services Corporation. Legal services for the poor

The following Federal programs do NOT use the poverty guide-lines in determining eligibility:

Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
Supplemental Security Income
Social Services Block Grant
Department of Housing and Urban Development’s means-tested housing assistance programs

The article at the following url is very enlightening.  It shows that the original thinking came out of the Great Depression and was then somewhat revised for the purpose of the Johnson War on Poverty.

The "generally accepted" standards of adequacy for food that Mollie Orshansky used in developing the original “thresholds” were the food plans prepared by the Department of Agriculture.   With family roots in the Ukraine, Oshansky (b. 1915 in the US) was one of six children who were raised in the Bronx.  This family information was sometimes used in an attempt to discredit her standards so the poverty level could be raised.  In fact, a West Wing television series plot aired November 21, 2001, was called “The Indians in the Lobby” and was based on a story by Allison Abner that addressed the issue.  is a short clip of Abner in person.  She is now involved in the issue of child sex trafficking.  All these issues are inter-related.

So many aspects of contemporary society demand a global re-thinking.  There is a movement away from statistics and politically-controlled issues towards practicalities.  Recently I saw a list -- which would not be universal, but an excellent beginning -- of questions for someone trying to determine poverty levels:  

1.  Do you have a warm winter coat?
2.  Do you ever have to miss a meal or go to bed hungry?
3.  Must you choose between medicines and food?
4.  Can you easily get to a store for your necessities?
5.  Do you always have clean underwear?
6.  Is your sleeping arrangement comfortable and safe enough for eight hours of sleep?
7.  Are your shoes comfortable?
8.  Do you eat the school-provided foods?
9.  Are you ever too cold/too hot?
10.   Can you afford public transportation?

I would add things like:

Do you have a library card?
Do you own any books of your own?
Can you afford a pet?
Can you afford to go out for sports?  Or attend games?

This list is mostly for school children.  A list for older people might include things like whether there is enough money to join the local morning circle of coffee-drinkers or enough money for proper hair care.  

What people really need in order to have an endurable life is not always definable from one group to another.  For some, being gregarious is basic; for others, solitude is far more important.  Some wish to be around children, others want to be away from noise and mess.  The costs will differ.  Now, of course, we’re looking at a technological divide, which is a HUGE leap in the necessary assets, though libraries with computers and personal smart phones are taking up some slack, even in the Third World which is partly internal to the USA. 

I figure that if all else fails, I’ll get to Mexico somehow, look for a village with clean water, and never wear shoes again.  But what about the cats?

If you have Netflix, here's the code for the West Wing episode in question.

Monday, November 25, 2013


The day dawned clear and golden with dry highways.  On the way to Browning a coyote crossed the road, searching the willow brush along Two Med creek.  A golden eagle -- I am not making this up -- flew along with me for a few miles at Antenna Hill and, just before I got to Browning, a raven was lingering along the way.  In Browning the dog people -- all of them variations on huskies and shepherds if not wolves -- rushed out to challenge my little pickiup and then finally a Newfoundland the same size as the vehicle.  The rest of the animal life was the same old groups of cows and horses.

Near Cuts Wood School, where Darrell’s body had been through Sunday, cars were everywhere, some of them probably parked overnight after the Nanamska (Bundle Keepers) ceremonies on Sunday that GG Kipp guided.  The Catholic mass was scheduled for eleven AM but people were taking seats by ten AM.  The basement held a megascreen relay for the overflow.  

I sat in my usual place: the back pew.  On one side was Sandra Watts, tribal attorney who got her law education in Oregon with my cousins' husbands, and on the other was an extremely ancient woman who explained that her name was “Bubbles” by pantomiming the juggling of balloon-sized bubbles.  In front of me was Dorothy Still Smoking, who teamed with Darrell to create the Piegan Institute, even kept Darrell moving through some tough times.  (He was not the only one with ideas.)  And on the other hand, Donna Douglas (I don’t know her married name), the cheerful and competent granddaughter of Vina Chattin for whom one of the elementary schools is named.  Donna’s hair is white now, but she does not dye it fire-engine red as her grandmother did.

King Kuka’s Roualt-style chunked-stained-glass Stations of the Cross glowed dramatically in the bright sun, tinting the people primary colors.  We were startled to realize that one young woman with green hair that we assumed was stained by colored light, really DID have green hair!  Most of the people were adults.  Maybe the babies were downstairs.  

Many boys, some pre-teens, all dignified, scrubbed, braided and attentive, were standing to spare more seats for older folks.  A few of them were drummers for an honor song.  I suspect they all had close ties to Cuts Wood School, all devoted to Darrell Kipp if not related.  (Darrell always joked Kipps were numerous as tin cans on the landscape.)  They acted as orderlies in the ceremony, bringing forward the wine and  communion wafers.

Father Ed had an emotionally tough job because over the past years Darrell and his wife, Roberta, had become more and more closely dedicated to church matters, a support to this priest who once lamented,  “I came here hoping to lead the people to renewal and instead all I do is bury teenagers.”  Today he commemorated a 69-year-old man who had cut trail for decades, renewal after renewal.  At many points in Darrell’s life he barely squeaked through, but very few people had much awareness of that.  He used a quiet network of people he thought of as educated and aware, as well as several circles of people who were great jokers, sometimes in rough ways. 

Charlie Farmer, for instance, visited Darrell in hospital during the last days, pretending to ask to inherit his pickup.  When Darrell improved a few days later, Charlie pretended to be disappointed that he would have to give the pickup back.  Darrell used Charlie as a kind of lieutenant and co-conspirator, giving him various titles and responsibilities.  There was a swimming pool they could see from the original Moccasin Flats school but it was full of blown-in dirt and a couple of dead dogs.  Charlie nagged to re-activate it until finally they hired a backhoe, gave the dogs proper burial (since all Browning dogs are enrolled in the tribe), and brought in a squad of boys with borrowed shovels to shift the dirt out from corners.  In their practical nepotistic way, they hired a couple of Kipps who could swim to be lifeguards and called a plumber to see about water.  (Alas, no Kipp is a plumber.) 

The water treatment shed turned out to have been used to store 200 pounds of “Cap’n Crunch” breakfast food that had been donated by the company because the boxes were mislabeled.  (One of Darrell’s peeves was the practice of giving aged-out, broken, useless things in “charity.”  Another of the stories about him was that once when he went to Blackfeet Community College to teach, he found most of the desks damaged -- they had been that way for months -- and simply pitched them all out the door.)  Charlie finally gave the Cap’n Crunch to Vic Connelly and the rumor was that he used it to wean his calves.  They act as though they’re on a sugar high anyway.  Charlie talked a long time, telling one story after another. 

The second speaker was a man from the Flathead whom I didn’t know.  He was a fine speaker and part of the global academic context.  Hawaiian indigenous language speakers were deeply involved with Piegan Institute.  Over and over they reassured Cuts Wood teachers faced with crisis that they had confronted the same thing and told them what would work.  One of the recurrent problems was people who tried to exploit the school for their own uses and even poisoned relationships.  The Hawaiians said,  “Be tough.  Throw ‘em out!”  So they did.   Jim Thorpe’s daughter was an advisor.  The Canadian Blackfoot people were vital, esp. Shirley Crow Shoe.

Darrell’s father was a hard worker on the railroad who in advanced age sat by the window all day looking at the Rockies.   Darrell wrote a poem about it.  When he was a soldier in Korea, he used his free time to learn Korean and startled a South Korean trade group that came to visit the rez by greeting them in their language.  Words were his weapons.  Make that “tools.”

Mothers, esp. ones mindful of massacre and world war, tend to spoil their sons in order to keep them close and safe. Darrell broke away early, but then in late adulthood came back to help his parents.  He promised he would never put his mother in a nursing home and he didn’t.  Roberta and he talked for a long time to understand what they were doing, which was one of the secrets of their success as a relationship.  Both took care of their parents right up to death.  Darrell never made a secret of his three brothers who died of alcoholism and violence.  Donald remains, the lone brother.  Geraldine, his quiet conscientious sister, was the office manager at Cuts Wood.  There was never a pretense that Piegan Institute was federal or tribal, neither in terms of funding or of control.

Darren is following that pattern.  He has all the legal control and training experience he needs to keep the school operating.  The restraint and equanimity may be a little harder to come by for a young man who succeeded in keeping himself separate from a powerful father by becoming a videographer in his own right.  Roberta is relatively young, still beautiful, and has a strong support group she earned as her own when she formed a study circle focused on earning distance-learning master’s degrees.  They'll be okay.

At one time Darrell had a commune-style fantasy about all his beloved friends and family living in an old-time village where they could visit each other in the classic sit-by-the-fire way to smoke and drink a little.  This picture didn’t include movie stars or Montana big shots and I didn’t spot any at the Mass.  We don’t need them.

The thing of it is, Darrell just doesn’t feel dead.  I found myself talking to him as I drove back across the dun fields.  The railroad was pausing for some reason -- first a string of coal cars, then a string of oil tankers, and finally a line of Christmas presents from China.   The frozen sloughs along the road show extra-tall muskrat midden-houses.  The waterfowl have gone on ahead. It will be years, if ever, for those who knew Darrell to stop turning, expecting to see him right alongside.

Tom Saubert is the artist.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


“A Native American Prayer”  Nolan Schmit

“Bird Songs”  Louis Ballard

“Ojibwe Prayer”

Magic of Rebirth/Wisdom of the Eagles 

Summer Sun, Winter Moon

This is what Darrell has meant to his students.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Darrell Kipp’s great-grandparents were murdered in the Baker Massacre.  His name was Kipp only because the Kipp who (with Cobell) was a scout for the Cavalry -- and who accidentally led them to the wrong camp -- in remorse adopted as many orphaned children as he could.  It was that recent.  

Another of his ancient ancestors was an old lady who lived in a room at the Kipp railroad hotel in Blackfoot.  She strung ropes up across all the corners of the room, hung what amounted to a tipi liner, and treated the whole space like the interior of a lodge with no tables and chairs.  Just a stove in the middle.

He told about going to the show house in Browning carrying a flashlight because there were no streetlights.  When he went to Bulgaria as a visiting scholar, he stayed with a distinguished professor who lived in a simple stone house furnished with a one-legged bed (two sides were fixed to the wall) and a peg for the single change of clothes.  The family gave him the single egg their hen laid daily and the professor made him toast by laying the sliced bread on the top of the woodstove, just as Darrell’s grandfather had done.  Until then he had thought he knew what poverty was.  Somewhere there is a short film called "Black Foot, White Hand" that shows his walking through the villages and countryside, respectfully attending a mosque, and joking with the little kids who inevitably came to find out about him and walk with him.

Darrell’s family of cousins tended to be readers: Uphams; McKays; Clarke Wissler’s informant David Duvall, who finally committed suicide in front of the Kipp hotel.  They succeeded in whatever schooling they had, which ranged from primary school to post graduate degrees, and were early in crossing the socioeconomic barrier between the janitor and the classroom teacher.  What made Darrell unique was his sense of humor at the absurdity of it all and his determination to be dignified, forgiving, and even noble in the face of many insults and assaults.  He used to say that he had instructed his friends that if he ever ran for tribal council, they should just kill him.  Yet for many years he accepted the thankless task of serving as an appellate tribal judge, dealing with cases that were essentially unsolvable and full of rancor -- even danger.  Only very rarely did a flinch or a wince show his underlying outrage at the constant indignities of being “the Indian.” 

Resisting the idea of both “chief” and “shaman,” Darrell chose the path of the scholar and educator, which his mother proudly supported, but he also picked up a few tricks from the Kipp side of the family, whose entrepreneurial spirit was remarkable.  Thus he was on the board of Siyeh, the “wholly owned subsidiary” of the tribe that finally began to make a profit because it was insulated by its own board from privateering and meddling.  But he was not a greedy man.  Every morning he loaded a few five dollar bills into his wallet because he knew he was likely to be approached by people begging for a little help.  He never passed judgment on his friends for their drinking and violence.  When he found those sunk in despair and lying passed out in the street, he took them home and put them on his couch to sleep it off.  He had a period of despair in his own life when he realized the height and slipperiness of Indian success.  Maybe the last year or so was hard when he saw the limits of what he personally could do.  The demands on his time and energy were enormous as he crossed the country in airplanes, speaking and counseling and being on panels.

As a boy, he had gone to Eastern Montana College without any idea what it really meant.  Like many of us who made that jump, not just Indians, he discovered that his education had woefully prepared him and also found out for the first time what it meant to be upper class.  His assigned roommate was the son of a Great Falls lawyer.  At the end of the year, the roommate -- who owned a car (imagine THAT!) -- gave him a ride back across the state.  At the lawyer’s gracious home the rez boy was put to bed in the guest room (imagine THAT!)  In the morning the roommate had left for some reason but the mother fixed him a fine breakfast.  He had intended to hitchhike the hundred and thirty miles to Browning, but she was having none of it and put him on the bus, buying the ticket herself.  This was what he wanted to be like, that elegance and generosity.

Darrell’s wife, Roberta, always reminds me of Carolina Herrera, the haute couture clothing designer.  She is that elegant and composed, but with a sharper tongue.  While their son was growing up, she lived apart in Missoula so the boy could go to good schools, but he was included in Indian doin's.  In summer the family lived in a simple cabin on the shore of St. Mary’s Lake and when Darren grew up, he built his own cabin a little further along.  Many a story was told, many a scholar took notes, many a town kid took his first walk in woods there.  When any Canadian Blackfoot family failed to cross the border before it closed, they crashed at Darrell’s, rolling up in blankets on the floor in the old way.  The cabin was a cross between a think tank and a sanctuary.

One day Darrell was daydreaming and reflecting when he realized he had become almost a white man.  Moved to action, he drove north to the closest Blackfoot Nation reserve and walked into a moccasin factory where Blood women were working.  “Teach me how to be an Indian,” he said, and -- delighted! -- the women began that very moment.  They were Blackfoot speakers.  Then one day Dorothy Still Smoking drove up to his porch.  “Get in the car, Darrell,” she said.  “We’ve got work to do.”  Ed Little Plume was soon recruited as the best Blackfeet speaker on the rez.  When he died, Darrell mourned.

The first thing was to survey the People to see how they felt about learning to speak Blackfeet.  The People thought it would be a disaster.  It was a marker of backwardness, would cause a person to be punished by white people, had no use.  Taken aback, the two simply drew up a new plan.  They would start their own school on the pattern of the one-room school houses of the early rural days or, if you like, the ultra-modern idea of the charter school.  (Same thing)  In a spirit of revolution they would accept funding (and restrictions as well as meddling) from neither government nor tribe, but rather apply for grants from nonprofits like the Latham Foundation.  Eventually they had even managed to teach the newspapers to use a few Blackfeet words and the Blackfeet stunt riders in movies taught movie stars to speak Blackfeet.

The Piegan Institute would not be just an immersion language school but also a depository for scholars.  They set about finding and capturing copies of all the many studies that had been done on the rez without ever including the People themselves except as subjects.  In the Seventies School District #9 had contracted with Darrell to teach evening classes about Blackfeet history and we all made time-lines of events that proved to be consciousness-raising: so brutally lethal, so recent, so unjust, and yet the people persisted and many flourished.  They found ways to join forces, new sources of energy in things like relocation that were supposed to disperse them.

But those classes weren’t the first time I knew Darrell.  Almost the first week of school starting in 1961, the year I taught junior high school and Darrell was a senior, I was crossing the street to what was then the new high school and saw a big kid bullying a little boy.  Then Darrell in his Indian Health Service black specs came out of the building and intervened.  His reputation among the teachers was respectful.  

That entire cohort of seniors somehow found fire and became Promethean.  Elouise Cobell was one of them, Joe Fisher who became the Piegan Institute cinematographer was another.  It was fitting that Darrell died on the eve of the fifty year anniversary of JFK’s death, because they were much influenced by his example and rhetoric.  They were children of assassinations and Darrell said that in the early years when he went in and out of homes as a sociologist and activist, every house had pictures of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. on their walls.  High idealism comes easily to the young, but often gets crushed.  To resurrect those goals with mature determination is what makes people great.  Great Falls Tribune front page 11/23/2013
I’m going to post this and leave it up for a few days, adding to it as I think of things.  There will be a LOT of Darrell Robes Kipp stories.  One of them is that middle name, which is meant to perpetuate the name of the “Far Away Spotted Robes” subdivision of the Blackfoot Nation.  It was the smallest of the groups and the most open to the white people.  It was a tribe of one, but now it is extinguished.

One of Darrell’s “structural” practices, the things that kept ideas alive and functioning, was friendships, some quite public and announced on the Piegan Institute website and others almost covert, while some dated back to grade school.  They were not the people that the public noticed or who were promoted by institutions like publishers.

Rosalyn LaPier and Dave Beck, who are a married couple, are part of the Missoula complex of people interested in the Blackfeet Rez but not quite so politically oriented as, say, the Badger-Two Med activists.  It was Dave who got Darrell to Bulgaria.  What Rosalyn brought (besides friendship) was two-fold:  one was an artist’s sense and skills of presentation so that materials and the website took a jump in quality. Rosalyn’s mother, Valentina LaPier, is a prize-winning artist.

The other factor the two brought in was August seminars featuring a day of lectures by noted experts, some of them conventional white academics and other from the new category of tribally-based scholars. The whole spectrum from Narcissse Blood to Hugh Dempsey, many from Canada, explained cutting edge computer skills and ingenious investigations of the past, like using the earliest maps to locate actual places.

Jack Holterman was an historian who in his youth had taught in one of the one-room schoolhouses that used to dot the rez, the same kind where Darrell started school.  Jack fostered and adopted many Indian kids and began to build a stone cabin next to the Scriver’s cabins in St. Mary but never finished it.  He was a year younger than Bob and never married.  

Jack was brilliant and had family money so eventually he had freedom to travel and research.  Often his articles appeared in Montana, the Magazine of Western History.  One editor playfully accused him of being in love with Natawista Culbertson.  I paid high prices for his self-published books and found them worth much more, as he was always searching the small corners overlooked by everyone else.  His AB and an MA in Romance Languages were earned at Stanford and he was a Spanish speaker, who spent time in Argentina, Spain, and Mexico.  One of his most useful books was “Place Names of Waterton and Glacier Park” and he was constantly suffering the hijacking of his work by such eminences as the American Museum of Natural History.  Another reference work was “Who Was Who in Glacier Land,” which I’ve almost worn out.  He taught in Whitefish and Kalispell.  He taught Darrell much about local history as well as strategy.

When Darrell’s uncle was in the service in WWII, he sent home postcards, usually of some structure, with an arrow pointing to what he said was “my room.”  Darrell playfully followed this custom when he was on the road raising money, so I have a pile of postcards of everything from prisons to cabins to the Taj Mahal -- but usually a hotel -- with a window marked “my room.”  I was tempted to send him a “big sky” picture with “my cloud” marked on it, but it was too late and too macabre.  The last time I talked to Darrell was only weeks ago.  He looked good, spoke optimistically, full of ideas about the coming school year.  Or at least he was putting up a good front.  It was a good talk.


Like so many of us who are literate, Darrell longed to write a great book or at least get a chapbook of his poetry published, but everything he knew taught him to stay hidden and guarded.  I’m hoping that somehow a manuscript will turn up now.  I know he wrote a lot and often.  In fact, he kept journals from his high school days, suitcases of them, and when I heard about them I got VERY excited, urging him to put them in a safety deposit vault.  They’ve gone with him everywhere and would be an incredible EARNED record of what it is to be an educated man struggling to make sense of the world.  But they are NOT as valuable as the work he did with kids who are living manuscripts that will endure a long time.

Once I made a “chapbook” out of the poems I had copies of and put on the cover the huge “buffalo rock” that’s along the road out to Heart Butte.  I sent that to him and his response was that it was “scary.”

I've spent the day reading our correspondence over the years.  Most of them were from the years the Piegan Institute was beginning and I was teaching in Heart Butte.  There were many of them, immaculately typed.  I keep them in three-ring notebooks.  I don’t know what their legal status might be in terms of copyright.  They are, as I reread them now, often blowing off steam and rueful complaints -- nothing at all like his public persona.  In fact, they often sound like Tim Barrus, which explains why I so easily fell into relationship with him.  I would not have said that when Darrell was alive.  I was never in love with Darrell, but very good friends.  We loved to talk together as two writers, talk fast and smart aleck, so that some referred to us as the “two philosophers” (which tells you something about their view of philosophers).  I wish I had been more involved with his work, but the first problem was that the basic context was “being Blackfeet” which I was not and the second problem was that I kept being thrown off the reservation.  

My participation in Bundle Keeping was while he was off the rez back east in the Sixties and so was quite different than his, which rubbed him wrong.  It seemed politically incorrect for me to know the really old people, though Mike Swims Under was his guide, along with George Kicking Woman who was the youngest of the group I knew.  My experience was with older people and shared with Bob Scriver.  He was guardedly resistant to Bob, but I think he hoped that I could surrender some tips from his success.  If I could, I didn’t know it.

Here’s a sample of his advice when asked to participate in Red Ribbon Week in Heart Butte.  The context is that he was shoved down to the end to be the last speaker and all the previous speakers had followed the same pattern:  “I coulda been a contender, but I screwed up bigtime with my terrible addiction which gripped me beyond my power, but now I realize and repent and etc. so I’m in recovery.  

Here’s what Darrell said:

Marry late if at all.
Never dive into a pool without knowing the depth first.
Never crawl into a small space unless absolutely sure you can get back out.
Be clean.  Literally, like with soap.
Be careful what you wish for.
Develop the attitude of a stand-up comedian.
Hide your getaway money somewhere and never touch it unless you really need it.


Most of the letters I’ve put into binders are from the years that Piegan Institute is starting and I’m teaching at Heart Butte.  If only for that reason, they are valuable.  At first Darrell and Dorothy try to work through School District #9.  They're writing up justifications, going to seminars somewhere else and brainstorming sessions in the school system.  Then the bosses are coming around seeking reassurance and asking for more detail.  The stalling goes on and on.  

One day Darrell just gets fed up.  He goes over to Vina Chattin School, asks one of the teachers he knows pretty well if she would mind going to have coffee for a while, and takes over her class.  He teaches the kids Blackfeet by teaching them the spoken words and the sign language at the same time.  Just like that.  By the end of the hour they are not just speaking Blackfeet, they are high on it, shouting and moving.  After that kids are constantly stopping him on the street to sign and say the words they know.  

Darrell's mother died in this time frame and he says:  “We are always dying.  We should live each day with that awareness.”

Bill Grant comes to town and married into the DesRosier family, one of the key mercantile-based families like the Sherburnes and Scrivers with the difference that they intermarried with Indians.  Grant is a Boston-raised architect and at once grasps the idea of the Piegan Institute.  The two buildings he designs for the school, one modest beginning on what was Moccasin Flats and then a larger complex with a kitchen on what was once the “white” street, next door to the childhood home of Bob Scriver.  This becomes the location of “Cuts Wood School.”  At first the idea was to scatter one-room school houses around among neighborhoods, but it develops that teachers needs to be close to each other to exchange ideas and back each other up.  Bill has enough poetry in him to include touches like the Celtic cross that means a “dream moth” on the top back of a tipi which he translated into a window.

Quite aside from that, Darrell’s near military insistence on maintenance, cleanliness and order meant that the building became a pleasant venue for ceremonies and lectures that is not quite church and not quite school, but something like both.  The Moccasin Flats building was sometimes used by Grant, sometimes by the Imitah/Poos group that does spay and neuter sessions, and sometimes as a place to fort up and avoid demands from people, often far away and with no comprehension of the realities of rez life.  “Coastal” producers and writers often treat Darrell like a tour guide or an assistant.  The magic word “Harvard” generally cures them.  “Vermont” makes no impression.

When the money situation got really scary in spite of all the speaking and moderating and consulting, Darrell and the others reminded themselves that they were the owners of the property and that it was a reservoir of value they could use if it became absolutely necessary.  And now it will be where the People will gather his body and his life, so that they will remember as the work goes on.