“It is complicated being an Indian,” Horace Axtell often says, with his unexpected smile. By that he means it is difficult to reconcile being a modern American with being an Indian who respects past practice.
CHIEF J0SEPH’S REVENGE by Mark Stevens ~ The New Yorker, August 8, 1994
It was hard leaving Coram. Three days of staying in one place allows for a sense of settledness, even if temporary, shaped by the connections with other people within the rugged landscape filled with pines and dramatic vistas.
There had even been a random opportunity to get together with my friend Amy Tibbets, from Northfield, MA and her family. Through our mutual friend, Mary Johnson, I found out that they were camping their way across the country and back, and happened to be in Glacier the night before I left. We met in their campground and shared stories of camping adventures…. it was so good to see friends from home!
It had rained during the night before leaving, and the morning was grey and misty as Glacier was left behind:
I had a plan, that included two destinations: Bear Paw Battlefield, in Chinook and the Evelyn Cameron Gallery in Terry. Both were off the beaten path (meaning no interstate travel involved) and required crossing the northern plains of Montana on US Route 2. I’d been told it would be a dull drive, without interesting landscape or towns. But it was the only way to Chinook. As it turned out (and is often the case) the drive was filled with discovery.
First stop, Browning, Montana. A small town just east of Glacier, where the landscape has transitioned to prairie. Home to the Museum of the Plains Indian, I’d planned to make a stop there, but the parking lot was filled to overflow. With my usual need to avoid the masses, I decided to pass on the visit, and parked at an adjacent casino to use the restroom before pressing on. As it turned out, here was the reason for the crowds:
North American Indian Days is the largest annual gathering and celebration of the Blackfeet tribe. With a carnival/state fair atmosphere (lots of vendors and fried dough) I followed the sounds of drumming and singing to a central arena.
The music and dancing were mesmerizing. There were few other white people there, and I released the feeling of being the “odd one”, settling in to the beauty, power and joy of witnessing what was before me.
Here were children deeply engaged in their family culture and traditions – not dressing up for Halloween.
At one point, there was a gathering of various chiefs, from other tribes beyond the Blackfoot. A call for peace was made- a theme repeated several times by the master of ceremony.
I wonder at the struggle of the elders to preserve the rich culture and traditions of their people, particularly with their youth. How to maintain belief systems profoundly connected to the earth and nature, in a world so disconnected from these essential elements. How to maintain a sense of community and caring, amidst the challenges of reservation life and all the adjacent negatives: drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, etc.
Seeing an event like this left me with hope. It was clear that the focus was not on the stuff being sold, or the carnival rides. This was children, parents, grandparents and extended family, gathering to sing and dance together.
Beauty within a complicated world.