April 2, 2005
This is the Place
Why Prairie Mary? Well, once I was married to Bob Scriver, who is a famous sculptor in some circles, and though I kept his name, I don’t think I should trade on it, so I picked up this nickname which is easy to remember. (My precedent was the former wife of a much-loved Unitarian minister, a man named Raible. His first wife took the name DeeDee Rainbow. She was an art teacher and rather outrageous, so she wore rainbow-motif everything even before Jesse Jackson and all that.)
The prairie is my favorite metaphor and my conscious choice for a context. “My” prairie stretches from Edmonton to Yellowstone and from the Rockies to the Dakotas. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and earned my college degrees (one bachelor’s and two master’s) in Chicago, but I spent the Sixties here, anchored in Browning, Montana, capital of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. When I retired in 1999, I came back.
To the uninitiated and those in too much of a hurry to really look, the prairie is just a blank. Cruise control. Sunglasses. Don’t worry about traffic. But traffic will begin soon, when the tourists come looking for some kind of connection with Lewis and Clark, or at least the locals who make their money from tourists are hoping they’ll come. For a while there, it looked like it was going to be one of those fire storm summers and we’d all have empty pockets. Tourists hate smoke, much less fire. (The governor notified President Bush that Montana wanted its National Guard and big helicopters back, so they can fight fire the way they do most years. They are a Montana entity. Bush stonewalled.) But now that we’ve had some weeks of rain, the calculations are confused. Calculations on the prairie are always complex, always a little more complex than you thought they were. Maybe on the wrong scale or not taking into account one of the dimensions, like time.
The Blackfeet who roved here for hundreds of years, on foot before they had horses, survived because they studied and remembered every small complexity of the terrain, both the coulees and, on the horizon, the peaks of the Rocky Mountain East Front. The area called “Glacier National Park” is called that because it was carved from the cordillera of upthrusts by glaciers -- not because it was full of glaciers, which are all melting anyway. The Park is a section of the cordillera that was bought from the Blackfeet in 1910 when they were starving. Originally the price proposed was three million dollars -- the white men said, “Oh, no.” So then the Blackfeet were pressed down and down and they got hungrier and hungrier (people were starving to death) until they finally agreed to halve that. When tourists come today, they get excited about Glacier National Park and want to know all about it, but they drive through the Blackfeet Reservation quickly, saying “oh-how-depressing.”
When I taught in the reservation high schools, I would draw the profile of the Rockies as seen from Browning. I drew it over and over again -- just a line with the proper peaks in it. Early, I drew it on the blackboards with chalk and then, after decades, I drew it on the whiteboards with erasable fibertips. The kids looked, recognized it, and said, “How did you do that?” They had lost the habit of attention that saved their ancestors, and not very long ago either. But a few said, “I can do that,” and they could. Maybe they’ll teach the others.
When there were still one-room scattered-site schools, another earlier teacher of Blackfeet was Jack Holterman, who wrote several history books. One of the most useful is “Place Names of Glacier/Waterton National Parks.” Published in 1985 by Glacier Natural History Association, copyright 1895. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 85-70523. ISBN 0-916792 Holterman says, “To someone standiing out on the prairie, the Rockies appear to form a great concave bow between Chief Mountain (Ninaistuki) in the north and Heart Butte (Moxkizippahp-istuki) to the south. Lewis and Clark marked on their maps, “The King” and “The Heart.” That “great bow” was Glacier Park. They also carefully described the place where they killed two Blackfeet -- with enough detail for people to find it in the Sixties. It’s only a few miles from me.
Where I live, I can see Ear Mountain which is by Choteau, where A.B. Guthrie, Jr., lived and wrote stories that refer to that mountain many times. He had a ranch not far from Ear Mountain. The farthest north peak of the Rockies I can see is Ninaistuki. Did you remember that means Chief Mountain? (Istuki is mountain.) Chief Mountain is on the Canadian border.
North of me along the Canadian border are the Sweetgrass Hills, once the only earth sticking up above the glaciers that repeatedly scraped their way down the continent and halfway into Montana. They are “refugia” where some plants and animals survived the glacier. Like great pale worms over a foot long that live three feet deep in the ground. They were also sacred places -- really properly called “the sweet PINE hills” since that’s where the balsam pine grows. There are sweet grass, sweet pine, and even sweet poplar, or balsam poplar. They say that the poplar trees smelled so good that rural ladies would gather the buds, soak them in water, and then dip their hankies in it to get the smell.
The Sweetgrass Hills are three separate buttes, one called “Gold Butte” for obvious reasons. It has a hard rock mine in it, which is said to be played out, but there are -- of course -- people who would love to grind up the whole butte and soak it in cyanide to get the last traces of gold out. Since the Sweetgrass Hills put water into the aquifer for many miles around, the idea of cyanide heap leach mining enraged the local ranchers. But a Canadian company had already started digging up the Canadian side. If this drought continues long enough, there won’t be any ranchers.
When gold was struck, the Sweetgrass Hills were simply overrun, though they were still on reservation land. I forget how much money the tribe finally got when they sued for compensation not too many years ago. Not enough.