When I showed up in Browning, newly hired, Joe Lewis’ nice cafe had not yet become Ick’s booze shop. The town was white and run by whites. I hardly noticed. My head was still full of “Marjorie Morningstar”, theatre and acting, the college courses I’d taken. A Fifties novel.
It was a while before I figured out I’d fallen into “Longmire” with no script. My version of the lead character was a little older and a judge rather than a sheriff. A little older, a little less heroic, a taxidermist on the way to being a sculptor.
For the next ten years I did what was necessary, watched things magnificent and appalling, and coped with a Scots Anglophone Quebequois mother as old as I am now: 80. I just watched. I never judged. I tried to inhabit people.
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Acting training teaches one something like psychology but from an entirely different point of view. Instead of analyzing from the outside — which is necessary when interpreting a play — the actor inhabits the character. Stand as they do, keep body tension the same as theirs, see with their eyes, try their words on your tongue.
A famous story about Dr. Carl Rogers is about him as psychiatrist in a mental hospital. A catatonic man sat unspeaking all day long every day. Rogers sat next to him, arms and legs disposed as the man’s were, weight of his body arranged as the man’s was, as unmoving as the man. One day he offered the man a stick of gum. “Thanks,” said the man and took it and chewed it. He was not cured, but he would occasionally look in Rogers’ face and say a word or two. It was attachment, bonding.
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The next time someone says how “depressing” poverty and pain and confusion are I’ll slap them. It is an escape from inhabiting (which I use instead of the much misused “empathizing”) them as well as an escape from any responsibility because they are distressed.
In the Sixties, in the mid-Seventies and again at the end of the Eighties, there would be kids — usually boys — who were so in pain and danger — from ME — that they forbade me to look at them, to say their name, to admit that they even existed, because the only escape was secrecy, hiding, not being seen or acknowledged. So I wouldn’t “help” them.
A student from the Sixties called me up this morning. He saw my prairiemary blog was missing. He wanted me to tell him about the “old days”, to be his familiar female helper again because times are tough. He wanted to “help” me. He wanted to Naapi-laugh at the antics of the old days because secretly they are burden.
I didn’t remind him that I ran into him in Portland on the sidewalk in front of a building known to have “cribs” for “nooners” upstairs. He was tucking in his shirt. He thought it was a secret. My fellow cashier at the City of Portland, the one I call the “Texas Mermaid”, made money there every lunchtime, then ate when she was back, not just on her back. I thought she’d be killed. She was found dead but no one wanted to know why. The rez is everywhere.
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The first year I taught I was totally unprepared. The whole time I taught English I should have known how to teach reading. No one really knew then anyhow. The elegant neuro-braincell knowledge we have now was unguessed then. One used flashcards and intimidation. Baby stories because there were none in simple language for adults. None for rez people, Blackfeet or not. I tried making one small reader: “Willow Sticks”. You can find it online or at Lulu.com.
Then I made a history book of stories, “12 Blackfeet Stories” for 12 Blackfeet generations. Then the Heart Butte 7th graders and I wrote “One Windy Day” and I wrote “Heartbreak Butte.” I put manuscripts about Blackfeet on Academia.edu and Researchgate.com.
Today’s Blackfeet tell me I’m trespassing. I have no right. I don’t belong. Stop existing. Don’t use our names. They forbid people to read my writing.
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Not all Blackfeet say that. Not all rez people are Blackfeet. Not all Blackfeet are on the rez — half are elsewhere. Eisenhower tried to make them leave and failed. They just left on their own.
Many of the people the government sent on relocation got trapped in the ghetto for lack of support once they got to the cities. Now the ones who object to me are mixed blood, some from that time. Many have internalized the Black ghetto culture, aggressive and profane. They are trying to frame up their identity by assuming they know mine, but I’ve spent the last sixty years changing.
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They’re too young to know the Native American Renaissance books and now many of those authors are aged or dead. A few have corrupted. They are too young to remember any full-bloods. They watch movies and think they are books.
I remember people whose grandparents escaped the Baker Massacre when they were toddlers. In the Sixties we were marking the centenaries of the 19th century genocides.
Then came the Big Flood. And the white man assassinations of the bright and noble by what became Trumpers. Rez deaths meant little to the rez people, even the white people, though the white priest dropped in on the white mortician for a hearty breakfast every morning.
The law came in three layers: the Federal Bureau of Investigation claimed the big ten offenses, including murder, but kept adding to the list until there were almost a hundred. The Tribal Police were hampered and underfunded but responsible for the vast miles of the east slope. Their courts were separate from those of the town, which were run by white men. It was accustomed for the judges to release all relatives.
Bob was the City Magistrate instituted by the town in the chaotic aftermath of WWII. Every day (I was the “bailiff”) the town police chief brought the half-dozen men pulled off the streets as disorderly drunks and every day they were sentenced to a few days imprisonment in lieu of fines. Once in a while a disheveled and familiar character would claim he’d been arrested unjustly because he had been sober for a week. Bob would ask the others, “Is this true?” If the officer and drunks agreed, Bob dismissed the case.
My former student wants me to tell funny stories about the past that were tragedies at the time. He thinks I’m “mad at him.” He has no idea. Literally, actually, truly.