Today I begin an overview of the life of Darrell Robes Kipp, a Blackfeet man of exceptional achievement who was known to me from the time I came to Browning, Montana, to teach in 1961. Five years younger than me, he was a senior at Browning High School, but not in my classes which were 7th and 8th grade. However, in my 8th grade class called “Speech and Drama,” was Dorothy Still Smoking, who became the co-founder of the Piegan Institute repository and immersion Siksika language school.
Blackfoot was a small town at the end of the Great Northern drive to establish a cross-continental railway, a feat that depended on a pass across the Rocky Mountains which was located on the Blackfeet Reservation. Blackfoot was busy as a terminus and turnaround while the pass was being built along twisting narrow river canyons. The town was served by a remnant of the empire Joseph Kipp built, which was a hotel. Thomas Kipp ran that establishment as well as a nearby ranch and worked for the railroad. The name of the station agent was Carberry and his daughter was Bob Scriver’s babysitter from the time he was born in 1914. The Carberry’s had a major collection of Blackfeet artifacts and often hosted famous artists like Phimister Proctor or John Sharp.
One of Darrell’s earliest memories was of an ancient Blackfeet woman in an upstairs corner room who had recreated the inside of a tipi by stringing the canvas liner — that normally hung from the circle of poles around the lodge — from a kind of clothesline that circled the room. Behind it she kept her bundles and a few trunks. He understood her to be a great-grandmother. She did not speak English and kept the old ways.
This establishment was where the linguist C. C. Uhlenbeck and his wife came in 1911 to stay with the Tatseys for the summer while the professor collected stories in the tribal language. Uhlenbeck’s wife’s journal and the original stories in Blackfeet are published together in the book entitled “Montana 1911” edited by Mary Eggermont-Molendar (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005) Mention is made of the suicide of Duvall, Clarke Wissler’s main informant, when the Uhlenbeck’s heard his gun go off in front of the building.
Darrell was born much later, near the end of WWII and had a younger sister, Geraldine, plus older brothers. His mother was educated — maybe his parents met at one of the government advanced schools — and worked in the BIA and tribal offices as part of a secretarial pool. By that time the family was in Browning. In the tumult after the war, Darrell’s brothers were caught up in the personal struggle of many with drinking and so on. At the same time one uncle, Jim Kipp, became an English teacher.
Possibly in reaction, both Darrell and Geraldine were quiet, conservative people, but Darrell had a balanced, reasonable, moral center that made him a leader. People valued what he thought. The first time I saw Darrell with his flattop and thick BIA glasses, was outside the then-new high school. A big kid was picking on a little kid and Darrell intervened. He was close to his mother who was actively Catholic.
When I began the year with the Speech and Drama class, which turned out to be all female, Dorothy Still Smoking was one of those too shy to talk. To cope I decided we would do a style show and borrowed clothes from Elbe Higgins, who ran a shop. Remarkably, she was very cooperative, but the girls were so modest that they put the loaned clothes on over the top of their own clothes! Dorothy was too shy to even do that, so since it was close to Halloween, I put a sheet over her so she could be a ghost and run across the stage that way! Eventually she was able to present her doctoral thesis verbally in London.
Somehow Darrell and his close friend, Joe Fisher who also had a flattop and thick glasses, decided they should go to Eastern State College and hitched their way over. Entirely innocent though they were, academia was ready to deal with them like all the other naive Montana ranch boys, so found them jobs, roommates, and bonehead English classes as was customary.
Darrell was assigned to room with the son of a lawyer in Great Falls and they bonded easily. At the end of the year the roommate, who had a car, gave Darrell a ride to his home where he was received warmly and put to bed in a spare room. The next morning he woke so late his friend had left but the lawyer’s wife fed him a generous breakfast and chatted cheerfully. The Indian boy was going to hitch on up to Browning, but the mother would have none of that and insisted on buying him a bus ticket and seeing him off safely.
The kindness of these people would be Darrell’s pattern for how to live for the rest of his life. He was impressed by the grace and order of the big house. In his future was plenty of hardship, but he was also willing to accept opportunities and to extend hospitality to other people. He knew the expectations of him were very high and sometimes the pressure became fierce. When he was at Harvard, things could get too intense, but he had a very large black mentor who would take him into his office, pull out a bottle of whiskey and a little stack of five dollar bills, and administer both along with counseling.
The classes at Goddard, a famously free-form school where he expected to earn an MFA while learning to be a poet, he was baffled to discover there was no course of study or set of protocols. This was the Sixties and Seventies and invention was the key. An entirely new idea to missionary-conditioned community-focused Blackfeet.
A sequence of courses and degrees prepared him to a be a sociologist and work for a while with a Canadian tribe who operated a housing cooperative, moving people from one structure to another as was fitting. Big families had big houses; singletons and old people had more modest dwellings. Perhaps deriving from this, Darrell used to talk about a dream village where all his friends lived in a circle like an African village and shared a dining hall and laundry. To sit with friends, talking, was his best delight.
Possibly because of his early years in the Blackfoot hotel with the shifting travelers of all kinds, Darrell was comfortable with all people and even in foreign countries. He had a natural sense of manners and formality. When one went into a ceremonial circumstances with him, he was careful to guide one where to sit and what to accept. When he was drafted and stationed in Korea, he made it a point to learn their language. He looked Asian but was bigger than most Chinese, so they decided he must be Korean. When in his middle age a delegation of South Koreans came to visit, they were startled that he could visit with them.