Sunday, April 5, 2015

Today the Great Falls Tribune printed a story about the Big BB Gun case in Cut Bank. (An amazing shrinking paper -- you know how you train a puppy by getting it to wet a newspaper and then make the newspaper smaller and smaller until finally the puppy has to go out? Well, this newspaper gets smaller and smaller all by itself. Just lost an inch off the sides and increased the font size.) I hadn’t known about this momentuous case until now.

Evidently some students were shooting bb’s, they were caught, and the School Board imposed unknown punishments. The Pioneer Press demanded to know what punishments. The School Board (which is famous for resisting transparency) refused to tell. The Pioneer Press sued to find out. The School Board said the Pioneer Press already knew because of the rumor mill. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the School Board HAD to tell the Pioneer Press because the newspaper had a “personal interest” in the records (the news) and they were injured by the withholding School Board.

What the major franchise newspapers in the state never “get” is the small town angle of this kind of story. They don’t seem to realize that Leanne Kavanaugh, the editor of the paper, is the wife of the owner of the paper (actually a small franchise chain of its own which they call “the Golden Triangle” since it includes four weekly newspapers in this relatively small wheat-growing area) and the owner of the paper is the coach of the basketball team. Very convenient. My suspicion is that the offending bb shooters were members of whatever team Kavanaugh was coaching and their punishment upset his plans for them. This, of course, to his mind, is not their fault, but the fault of the School Board.

Basketball is more important in this area than scholastic achievement. Success in basketball probably costs the school as much or more than the entire high school science and math program, especially counting those big Bluebird buses that criss-cross this vast state through the season plus the gas for them.

The School Board maintained that the tender psyches of the bb-shooting perps should be protected by secrecy, as though they had committed a felony. I’m guessing that Cut Bank wanted to know who got what punishment because they suspect that there was inequity among the kids -- some were punished more than others with “others” likely being basketball players. That’s a tradition in Cut Bank -- as well as other small towns around here. After all, it’s simply the small town version of the big time athletes getting into drugs and violence and being forgiven by the courts. Everyone wants “our” boys to succeed.

Athletics in this neck of the woods is the lifeblood of the town, the identity of every adult male on the Chamber of Commerce and a high percentage of the women as well. I daresay that no one in the town would consider going to the State Supreme Court to force the release of the academic testing scores of the students, even without names. It would be considered obsessive. (They also might be surprised, due to grade inflation. The parents discovered a long time ago that they can intimidate teachers into giving high grades, but so far they haven’t figured out how to affect national test scores.)

The economy of a small town is not just about money. Secrets are big. Being on the school board or being an administrator is big because then one has trading chips in terms of punishments, exceptions, class transfers, teacher assignments, room assignments, textbook acquisition, and a host of other small adjustments that affect the lives of students and teachers.

Sex used to be a major small town trading item, but now people are so casual about it all that perversion or force would have to be involved. A girl is expected to put out. A boy is expected to want her to. Doubt it? Read Dear Abby for a week. It’s the media-celebrated thing to do.

Of course, besides the coach, the bank or the insurance man has a pretty good hold on businesses, especially ranchers. Then there’s the realtor who can find a buyer for your house, cut you a deal for an upgrade, put you in touch with a compliant assessor. (I knew an assessor once -- wow! The stories HE told!) One hopes that the doctor or the dentist don’t participate in this little underground economy. We had a doctor here for quite a while who would slip you free drugs, which weren’t covered by insurance, but then bill you for a visit even if he only waved hello to you in the waiting room. Visits were coded for insurance.

They say that if you want an honest President of the United States, then be sure you elect an honest local dogcatcher. If you insist on knowing about punishment for bb gunfire, then the army isn’t so liable to lie about “friendly fire” that kills our own heroes. As Saint Francis put it, “Faithfulness in little things is a big thing.”

People around here, even thirty miles from Cut Bank, will be interested in this story, though school elections were just held and school boards have new members. I hope people follow up in the future -- maybe even attend school board meetings, required by law to be open. Too many secret deals, too many exemptions for this one and that one, too many unjust penalties for those who are disliked or don’t fit the pattern. Too much fear of retribution.

I speak from experience, having resigned from Cut Bank High School in 2001 over exactly this issue. The townspeople thought it was because of the antics of the football team, told from the early grades that they were such talented athletes that they couldn’t be disciplined. No other teacher would take the job. The school board never talked to me. The superintendent only yelled at me, standing on the sidewalk. The boys themselves had never understood what was at stake until it was too late. Then they defended me, blocking the School Board’s desire to punish me.

I resigned because I couldn’t tolerate the REAL game-playing which was not a matter of sports, but a matter of status and control. The newspaper, without ever interviewing me, said I resigned “for personal reasons.” If I hadn’t been over sixty, everyone would have assumed I was pregnant. Administrative bullying and blackmail would never cross their minds, not would it cross the minds of the State Supreme Court.

I’ve never forgotten the content of a letter someone smuggled to me that was from the state school board association, addressed to school boards. It was about how to bully and blackmail faculty without being caught.

I got another letter this week: it was from the mother of one of those boys. Six years later they’re doing fine: married, employed, some with children and some with college degrees. None is a professional athlete. The sheriff's report in the weekly paper today includes a complaint about someone shooting bb's.
A couple of older men showed up at the last town council meeting, asking what the council was doing in the way of researching and planning to meet the constant need for water restrictions, since the town has by now blundered through half-a-dozen years of drought by saying, “Next year.” The results blossomed at this council meeting: some concrete efforts at research.

First, Roger the Water Man and Jackie the Clerk had designed and sent out a rather extensive questionnaire to every town they could think of that had similar size and situation: Belt (617 pop.), Big Sandy (656 pop.), Chester (818 pop.), Choteau (1,758 pop.), Circle (577 pop.), Conrad (2,638 pop and our county seat), Fairfield (641 pop.), Fort Benton (1,506 pop.) and Sunburst (362 pop.). The “everybody else does it” argument fell into the ditch on all sides. Big Sandy is in the lamentable position of drilling a new well that found no water. Circle found water at 1,450 feet. Belt and Valier are the only towns doing twice a year disinfection. The others do full-time.

Valier’s average yearly water use per capita is 96,840. (Based on a ten year average.) Compare with 218,880; 88,200; 41,760; 43,560; 60,480; 113,760; 83,520; 149,040. I spent a little time with Corky Evans considering what the variables might be and we thought of quite a few: size of households, extent of yards and gardens, etc. It appears that water meters are a good influence.

Depth of wells in Valier is about 100 feet (that’s the depth of the pumps). Other town’s wells are at 640/620 ft; 28 ft (Choteau, which is close to the mountains); 1,450ft. ; 28 to 60ft.; 45ft.; 350/350/187/180 ft. The seven wells at Fairfield, which are the ones from 28 to 60 ft. are shallow enough to have raised concerns about contamination from nitrate fertilizer and herbicide. Everyone but Belt and Fairfield is selling water to dryland farmers around them, which was once considered a way to pay for the system but is now beginning to look like a drain. Still, the existence of small ag towns is dependent on the surrounding ranchers and farmers. When they suffer, the town suffers.

If enough small ag towns suffer, the whole state suffers. Therefore, the state, through the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Ground-Water Assessment Program, created in 1991, collects data and posts it online constantly. “Mousing around” (more subversive than “horsing around”) reveals all sorts of things. For instance, we appear to be tapping into the Virgelle sandstone formation, about 200 feet deep and probably connected somehow to the same aquifer as the one feeding Giant Springs in Great Falls. Zowie!

Kurt Christiaens, Councilman, was inspired to reach out to these guys, who sent us Marvin R. Miller, Assistant Director for Contracts and Grants, Senior Research Hydrogeologist. He reminded me of my boss in Portland, the soils engineer at the head of the Site Development team of the Portland Bureau of Housing. Quiet, thoughtful fellow with a strong moral spine. Brunette, blue-eyed, handsome but not flirtatious. Geologists are more science-conscious than engineers. Miller (If I have the right fellow in mind) is a midwesterner. He didn’t recognize “Pondera,” the name of the county, as a corrupted version of “Pend d’oreille” -- French for earring, which is also the name of a tribe.

But he sat with interested parties patiently sorting out which well was where and swapped studies with Roger and Leo, the city workers who had raided their own files. Then they went out to take a GPS reading on each location, which ought to help match up likely aquifers that have GPS readings recorded in Butte. No deductions yet. There is some idea that the old wells might be plugged by biomass or silt and that lifting out the pumps, “blowing” them out or maybe drilling a bit deeper, might be low-cost ways of solving the problems. (This does not please pipeline fans.)

Now I’m going on a short side-bar excursion. I have two points to make. The first is the more important to the community. Like AIMster political Indians, citizens of Valier who are upset with the status quo tend to look for a human being to attack. They have been so unreasonable over irresolvable problems, ranging from national political quandaries like the economy to small complaints (usually about dusty streets or plugged up drainage), that no one wants to be on the council. There are no experienced older men willing to be called by outraged old women. The former handyman could hardly wait to leave town because HE took so much abuse over wallpaper that didn’t match or a remodeling that went $10 over the estimate. The two younger businessmen on the council grieve over the way people treat them -- “Why is it always us against them?” asked one.

I would suggest two reasons: one is that people feel so powerless (like Indians) and out of control that extremes seem justifed in hopes of jarring something loose. The other is that throwing a fit has become a part of the American character created somehow by child-raising practices that reward a child who raises hell and blames parents. (This has a lot to do with people not wanting to teach school anymore.)

The first time I saw grownups act like this was stark. It was a Unitarian General Assembly -- a religious annual meeting -- on a college campus. A guest in the cafeteria, a UU from back east, was so enraged by an error in the change he got that he threw change and tray of food on the floor. We thought maybe he had a brain tumor. Now, I doubt that anyone would be surprised. “Cafeteria rage.” We’d be relieved if no gun were involved.

Reaching out for information that is quantifiable and scientific is an excellent way to break up this game. Two factors interfere. One is the tendency to want to restore peace by papering over differences -- keep things vague (not on paper), just work it out as it happens, keep it quiet (secret), and discredit all complainers. Especially if one is financially involved in the decisions. The other is to turn on the hired help -- the two city employees.

In a town the size of Valier, no one can sneeze, have company, or neglect to mow the lawn without everyone knowing about it. And since many people around here do manual work with equipment, they have opinions about how long things should take, what they ought to cost, etc. etc. Any city employee has lots of kibbitzers. With a mayor who doesn’t act as a foreman, it’s hard for the employee to defend his or her self. By default, I see the clerk getting pressed into the role of foreman and monitor.

In the recent past our town water man attended water school, as he has for some years now in order to keep his certificate. (The survey showed that Belt currently has no certified water operator, a major problem since that can cut off subsidies, quite apart from water disasters.) Leo, the other employee, has been around a long time and has a lot of information acquired over the years, just from being there. This means that both employees are repositories of information with considerable value to the Town. Replacing them with new hires would lose that.

On the other hand, both men have been plagued with illness. Knobs at joints, tiredness, “flu.” In my paranoia I suspect chemicals. People here are very cavalier about spraying for weeds, for pests, etc. I don’t know how much we have been thinking about the job-related health issues these men and the summer high school help might develop. I don’t know of studies about cancer and neuropathy rates among small town residents, but I’m going to begin “mousing around.” In Saskatchewan all such information is the property of the province and kept secret.

In the past fifty years there has been a steady effort to persuade people to learn and use communication techniques, statistical methods, personal relationship principles, good citizenship, and so on. Now and then someone comes through but too many of us lean on our oars. Me included. Now I’m going to go clean out my gutters. It’s supposed to rain and snow in a few days, though it’s a brilliant clear day and politicians are out roaming the town.



Here’s the way it works. The village has a little town hall that truly is a hall -- a big room with a kitchen and two wings: one for the town clerk’s office and one that used to be for the local law enforcement, a deputy hired through the county sheriff. At noon the hall is used by an entity that provides inexpensive hot meals for senior citizens so that they have a bit of social life as well as good nutrition. A “meals on wheels” person delivers to those who can’t get there. A nurse monitors blood pressure. Valier has a very high proportion of older folks who have moved to town so the next generation can live on the farms and ranches.

The mayor and her trusty councilpersons decide that the hall looks shabby. They pay for refinishing the floor. Then paint the walls. Of course, that calls for new curtains. The old wooden chairs look bad so new chairs are bought. The mayor looks around and says, “You know, this place looks so much better, I think we need to raise the rent. We’ve done a lot for these folks.”

The new higher rent means that the food program has to raise the charge for the meals. Quietly, some senior citizens stop coming. No one on the town council notices. They have gone on to their pet project: improving the campground by plumbing it for water and planting trees. “We want people to drive through our little town and see how nice it is!” exclaims the councilman. The town is approximately five blocks from end-to-end. With gas costing more than three dollars, driving and camping are seriously curtailed. If one asks whether the campground is breaking even, the subject is changed.

When I was working for the City of Portland Bureau of Buildings, the director was a woman. She was tired of having to deal with problems like houses that were sliding over cliffs because of inadequate engineering soil studies. They should know better, she thought. What she wanted to do was find the money to have all the file cabinets in the Bureau powder-coated the same color -- they were such a hodge-podge. In the end she just went ahead and spent the money on all new file cabinets. It was such a lift to morale, she knew, even if the inspectors were out in the field all day.

The main problem for this Valier meeting was (again) water. People are so desperate to have their lawns green and the proper height that they are drawing down the three wells to the point where the pumps are in danger of sucking air, which means that their automatic monitoring and shut-offs won’t work and the pumps will work continuously, eventually burning out. So what were the possible ways to get more water? Tap into our Lake Frances? Sign on with Conrad’s grand scheme to run a pipeline down from Tiber Dam? 

Drill another well? One town had pulled up their pump from a well and removed the screen underneath it, then drilled the well deeper. Unfortunately they broke through into something that sucked all the water OUT of their well instead of water flowing in. There are also aquifers close to town that are notorious for the low quality of their water -- if they were accidentally connected to the town’s present aquifers, there would be more water but of poor quality. Some say undrinkable.

What about conservation? Not practical. Alternating sprinkling days between the two sides of town just makes them compete to try to get more water. Automatic sprinkling systems are “proven” to use less water than a sprinkler (just ask the salesman) and if you restrict people to hand-watering, they will only stand out there with the hose for hours. Anyway, it’s SO important for a person to have good water pressure when taking a shower.

Meters? Oh, everyone would be angry. Everyone is always so angry at us and we’re just doing our best. They simply don’t understand that we want the best for them -- green lawns that tourists will respect. All the other kids (er, towns) look better than we do. 

Oh, by the way, the sewer lining project that’s starting in a few days? We still don’t know whether people have to sign up to put new connections in before or after. And the cost is MUCH higher than was published in the paper, because the cost of copper pipe, you know, has really gone up, and anyway the sewer-lining people are refusing to give us a quote. (The one in the paper was wrong.)

Also, on Sunday there was a break in the major waterline on that same street and the town maintenance men said when they dug it up that it has major corrosion and should be replaced as soon as possible. After all, it’s a hundred years old. In fact, if there’s a fire in town, the maintenance man has to hustle to the pumps and turn an extra one on, or there won’t be enough pressure for the hoses. Then when the fire ends and the hoses are shut off, he has to hustle back out and shut off the extra pump or the antique underground pipes will burst. No one has explained this to any of the people building new houses in town. Or their insurance providers.

But, don’t worry, two of the councilpersons plan to attend a conference in West Yellowstone in a month and they might find some grants. But, warns the mayor, “I don’t want to hear you telling all about the wonderful shopping you did down there -- it’s a great town for jewelry and...” The ladies reached for more cookies from the nearly empty plate.

During the entire meeting, the air conditioning unit ran on high while the door to the room stood open to the outdoors. There was probably no one in the room over forty except me. By the end of the meeting, the local newspaper reporter was listening to her iPod. But she didn’t forget to order a new sharpener for her eyebrow pencil from the mayor, who is an Avon lady.

SUNDAY, JULY 16, 2006


From the Great Falls Tribune, July, 1906

An offer has been made to the directors of the Nothern Montana Fair Association, which if accepted will result in the providing of a large and most unique attraction for the coming fair.

The offer was made by F.C. Campbell, superintendent of the Fort Shaw Indian School, who agrees to bring in the prindipal part of his school, excepting the buildings, and to conduct all of the branches of the school work at the fair grounds, providing quarters can be provided for the children and equipment.

It is his suggestion that all of the school work be carried out here, including the famous manual training department of blacksmithing, carpentering, sewing, cooking and other branches which are taught the little Indians at the school.

In the neighborhood of 400 people would take part in this exhibit, including the Fort Shaw band and mandolin club.

The pupils would be quartered in tents but one or more buildings would have to be provided for the school work.

In case the offer should be accepted, Mr. Campbell may decide to take the children on to Helena for a similar exhibit at the state fair, the idea being to impress upon the people of the state the great work which is being done by the government, through this school, in educating the Indian and develping his talents so he may become self-supporting.


Fred C. Campbell was one of the more enlightened Indian agents to serve the reservation. In “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912-1954,” Paul Rosier describes him as “an imposing red-headed figure of six feet, two inches,” which would also have fitted William Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition or George Washington. He was of a “type,” unusually strong and qualified for leadership. He’d had several BIA jobs under several administrations and arrived in March 1921, a time of drought and severe winter. Though these conditions are hard on the mixed-blood stockmen who normally did well, they pressed full-bloods into starvation. Campbell’s first act was to visit every household on the reservation with the agency doctor in tow. His whole approach was more like an extension agent or a 4-H leader.

His solution was to try to make the people self-sufficient through mixed farming: small gardens, pigs and chickens, and small grain fields with a flour mill in Heart Butte. His method was to organize a Five Year Industrial Program (the “industry” involved meaning hard work rather than the use of machines) through 29 chapters of the Piegan Farming and Livestock Association that somewhat echoed the old-time bands of related persons. These folks were put in competition with each other as chapters or granges, but also encouraged to cooperate among themselves in the purchase of stock and farm machines. (Darrell Kipp’s father at one point won a competition for big fat mutton sheep!)

There was enough success for Commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles Burke to say, “Without making any invidious comparisons, I may say that no tribe of Indians in the United States has made better progress during the past two years than the Blackfeet.”

But it only looked good to the outside, where having Indian children demonstrate their 4-H-type skills seemed progressive and not just a way of preparing them for domestic service or humble farms. On the inside Campbell’s success with the full-bloods began a prejudice against the “south siders” as being sheep (like their herds), Bolsheviks (because of their communal ownership of some things), and old-fashioned, that has persisted in tribal politics to this day. (For images of these people and their work, see William Farr’s photo album: “The Reservation Blackfeet, 1882-1945.”

The other dynamic was the discovery of oil which immediately pushed aside all other sources of wealth so far as either the mixed-bloods or whites were concerned. The Osage were the example: rich enough to buy cars and live high and idle. (The Osage murders over ownership of oil wells were muffled. Not until Linda Hogan’s novel, “Mean Spirits,” did the dark side of being rich rise to awareness.) The mixed-blood and white influence was so strong that they managed to push Campbell out. Campbell had little or no interest in the oil industry and paid little attention to it at a time when oil barons were on the prowl. The result of that inattention has been continuing cheating of the tribe while Cut Bank, just off to the east and the county seat, was flush with oil for a few decades. 

Controversy over oil, now much stripped out, continues on the reservation. The only force strong enough to compete with it is gambling casinos, which threaten to reproduce all the victimization and exploitation of both land allotment and oil rights. Campbell would be appalled, but one wonders if he could be effective in the face of today’s social forces. One wonders what house-to-house visits on the rez would reveal.

1 comment:

Chas S. Clifton said...
I note with some cynicism that reporters a century ago also tried to create levels of uniqueness. Did it go from unique to more unique to most unique? Tsk.
  • FRIDAY, JULY 14, 2006


    Once I had a friend who became a millionaire. He had belonged to a church near Los Angeles where the minister had been a big help to him in hard times and he wanted to reward them. They were in desperate need of a new roof for the church and just beginning a fund drive. So my friend went to the minister and proposed that he simply write a check for the cost of the new roof.

    The minister was enraged.

    My friend was stunned! He had a very hard time understanding the minister’s explanation that his donation would destroy the congregation by removing their need to work together for a common and quite real goal, to say nothing of their democratic process and self-determination. My moneybags friend knew little about groups or what held them together, to say nothing of their internal dynamics. But in a sly way, which he denied even to himself, he was trying to buy the congregation, make them like him.

    This little village and others like it have a similar problem. Very rich folks have come to the area, finding it delightfully spacious and inexpensive compared to either coast, but inevitably they want to be instant big shots in a place that doesn’t think anyone is “real” until they’ve lived here a couple of decades. And they always start wanting it to be like what they left, so they press for sidewalks and flowers and cute little shops and a source of espresso. Night lighting for the little crop-duster’s airport, so they can land their commuter plane.

    Our particular rich person is a wife and therefore needful of things to do. Our particular village has a female mayor who is quite impressed by money and not particularly experienced. (She has worked as a bartender, mostly, and is presently an Avon lady.) Soon the village’s lawyer quit because his advice was no longer taken and a new female lawyer was hired. They just KNEW she would be great because she dresses so well.

    The infrastructure costs of my house have doubled since I came in 1999. If they double again, I will have to give up either water or sewer or electricity or gas. I live on social security, which is not likely to double -- in fact, they say, is likely to be reduced. I’m not the only one and the pressures are making us mean and angry, though rather covertly so far. The village council, which includes two young, handsome, competent young men (who are quietly left out of some doings where they might make problems), does not like trouble. People who grew up in this town are very sensitive to criticism and blame, so they hate having to be on the council, except they’re afraid that if they don’t, the town will simply be destroyed by debt and overblown projects.

    Last night one problem was the new little park on the highway, augmenting a much bigger and more pleasant park a few blocks away IN the town and FOR the town. A man has adopted it and has been fertilizing, mowing and watering to suit himself. But the mayor sees it as HER baby and wants everything cleared through herself. Big brown spots have appeared. Is this the man’s fault: fertilizer burn? Is it the mayor’s fault: not authorizing enough water? Turns out it is the fault of those who built the park: there are relic gravel parking pads just under the dirt and they will not hold EITHER fertilizer or water. Anyway, they are probably contaminated and ought to have been dug up and trucked out.

    There’s a moose on the loose and it was hanging out on the little island in the irrigation reservoir that the two women insist on considering a recreational bonanza, though for the last years it’s been mud for a hundred feet around the edge and even the ice has been undependable because of global warming. (Ice fishing is big around here.) The men’s bathroom has a single toilet which has broken again, but this time it’s not vandalism. Luckily, there is a urinal, but it’s not enough, as reflection will confirm.

    Water and sewer are the major issue. One old man insists that though he lives in a little old house, he uses no water. Indeed, he never turns on an outside faucet. Some claim he pees in a can and dumps it outside at night. What to do? We do not have metered water -- it’s just divvied into even shares, which bugs me because I have no washing machine (I use a laundromat in a town thirty miles away because the laundromat in Valier was removed because the young new owners of its location thought it was too much work), no dishwasher, a shower instead of a tub, and otherwise am pretty water-sparing -- but I pay the same as people who have houses with three bathrooms, who run loads of clothes all day long, who have teenagers who live in the shower, and automatic subterranean watering systems that never forget to turn on. The only real answer is meters, but the cost would be enormous. On the other hand, there are people who use Valier as their weekend home only, yet pay full fee. 

    We are all forbidden to use outside water between 10AM and 6PM. And if our grass gets too tall, it will be mown for us and we will be billed $150.

    There are people who are urging the building of new houses, even as the businesses in the town close, one after another. The population grows and the part that is growing is the high-income part, coming in from outside, people who live on capital rather than labor. All the small people, now living on Social Security after a lifetime working as gas jockeys and clerks and waitresses for local citizens, are feeling desperate and oppressed. Because they are. The infrastructure is shrinking in many small ways. The town clerk is only working four days a week now, to save money. The rich lady wrote a check to buy a $12,000 K-9 German Shepherd for the county sheriff to use in this village of 350 people, mostly over fifty years old. It will take six weeks to train the deputy at a special location in the midwest. The mayor is thrilled. This deputy will take another two weeks to be trained for the DARE program. (No one here has any awareness of research showing the DARE program doesn't work.)

    The most exciting part of the meeting was when one of the older and most beloved characters of the town, who has served and helped people for decades, rose on her cane to challenge a letter she’d been sent telling her she was out-of-compliance on one of her rentals. She’s in the commercial zone which stipulates that no one can live on the first floor, which must be a place of business, but can live upstairs, which this woman does. She owns other property where men were living while they did some work for her and that was on the ground floor. (There are few two-story structures at all in this village where the water tower and grain elevator are the equivalent of skyscrapers.) 

    Beyond that, for relief on hot evenings, they had sat out on the curb drinking. WHAT they were drinking was a matter of controversy. Were they dangerous rough sorts who threatened children as they passed by? Or were they honest working fellows trying to relax a bit? “Govern less by the books and more with your hearts!” scolded the old lady. 

    The young men on the council writhed in misery. The two women were unmoved. “We MUST reinforce the existing ordinances,” said the rich lady piously. “I don’t want to see our downtown no longer viable,” said the mayor. The location in question is a couple of former bars, now defunct out of sheer decrepitude. One had a basement that filled with water, which was thought to be from the water table until it was discovered to be a sewer leak. The proprietor had been pumping it into a truck and taking it out to his little farm to put on his trees. They grew wonderfully well.

    The bottom line was that a local business had complained that the loafers were interfering with their business traffic, but didn’t go straight to the landlady -- just inviegled the council into being their catspaw -- and the landlady (probably knowing this) had attacked the town council (who had quietly granted her a variance at once) instead of her neighbor.

    I hope the K-9 sheriff’s dog can solve this sort of problem. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when the first teenaged nocturnal vandal (who are a major part of our crime quotient) gets badly bitten.


    Genevieve said...
    That's so pathetic that it's funny and it's pathetic that it's funny. 

    Our county seat has a population of about 30,000, but the mayor and city council don't function much more effectively than the one you describe here.
    prairie mary said...
    There has been some kind of loss or misunderstanding throughout the whole country. Some say it was that decade or so of anti-authoritarianism in the Sixties and Seventies. Some think it's the schools. Others think life is just too easy. Somehow -- from the boards of major corporations to the smallest village boards -- people have the idea that everything is for the individual rather than the community.
    Steve Bodio said...
    Same here, same here. Prices going up and town people losing out. Wonder when we are going to lose our feed store as the rich people who bought it are finding it too much work....
    Cowtown Pattie said...
    Ahh, and the same story for far west Texas. Disgruntled Santa Fe-ians, and Californians newly wealthy from the sale of the family home have moved to Marfa by the droves. The entire ambiance of the little town has changed, and made it impossible for anyone of average middle class means or less to buy property or start a small independent business. Prices for real estate are so exorbitant, a run-down, two bedroom adobe shack will sell for $100K. Ridiculous and makes me heartsick.

    Change is not always for the better.
    Matt Mullenix said...
    Fantastic essay---pitiful situation! I think it's the same everywhere and maybe for the reasons you suggest. We certainly have it easy now, which makes for idle hands and minds.

    People would be a lot less nosey if they were more exhausted. Everyone should have twins.
    prairie mary said...
    The rumor is that our rich lady is planning to adopt a China baby. Maybe they'll talk her into twins.

    Prairie Mary

    WEDNESDAY, MAY 31, 2006


    The weather weaver here on the high prairie has at hand a warp from the West Coast and a weft from Alaska and the Arctic. The shuttle is the jet stream. We’ve just experienced a several-day spate of cold rain that usually hits about now -- after a couple of weeks of summer weather in May while there are still classes -- just as the school kids get out. This is about the time that the major flood of 1964 hit here, with results like a mini-version of New Orleans. That is, three poorly maintained federal dams broke, sweeping down the rivers, killing more than thirty, and changing the hamlet of Heart Butte forever. (It was destroyed, rebuilt, connected to a paved road, and expanded into a housing project.)

    I think what really happens annually is that the jet stream moves sideways from south to north until it reaches its summer location in Canada and when it moves over us, it brings along the coast weather but breaks up whatever inland high rests here. A commercial pilot who flies east/west would know, since they often piggy-back on that jet stream.

    About this time of year in 1971, newly divorced, I moved from the little ranch on Two Medicine where I’d wintered, up to the resort town of East Glacier at the mouth of Marias Pass. A hulk of a two-story yellow house (much better than usual on the reservation) had stood empty there for several years and I proposed to rent it for $75. Further, the rent was not to be paid to the owner in money but in receipts equivalent to materials as I made repairs. My labor was free. In fact, it was therapeutic. My landlady (who now lives across the alley from me here in Valier) had grown up there and said she always liked the house because when the snow got so deep that you couldn’t see out the first floor, you could always go upstairs.

    It was technically summer vacation. Nothing was hooked up except electricity and water. The wall behind the kitchen sink had a hole burned in it from a fire that started from an effort to thaw the pipes in winter, so my first chore was patching that and installing a new window. There were stovepipe chimneys so I got a little tin stove and I hooked up the old gas stove that had been there. That was enough heat to get me through the first fall, though I often read with my feet in the oven to keep them warm. Just before the first major blizzard hit, Joe Evans drove up from Browning to install a wall heater that equalled one month’s rent receipts.

    But the first part of the summer was occupied with replacing the glass broken out of every window and with hardcore scrubbing. The house had been occupied by squatters. In the kitchen the floor was saturated with beer and grease, which fed an amazing assortment of fungus and mold. I pulled up four separate layers of ancient linoleum and spent a day searching out and lifting the tiny sharp tacks that had anchored them. 

    The most dubious problem was something nasty on the walls that some people claimed was human excrement. A bit of investigation showed me it was actually commodity peanut butter. A friend walked over to see how I was doing. She and her husband, a fellow teacher, were renovating an old mercantile store -- much older and mercifully pre-cleaned since an old lady had lived there with a small flock of chickens -- indoors. They had tools, skills and double the person-power of my project, so their achievements were far more definitive and impressive. She was a real cleaning demon, in contrast to my tolerance of anything not contagious or moving. 

    And she really wanted to see this “excrement” on my walls. While she peered at it, squawking that I might die of some terrible disease, I walked over and swiped a finger through the stuff. “I’m not afraid of shit!” I declared, and put my finger in my mouth. I thought she might faint. It was great.

    Luckily, she wasn’t there when I opened an old styrofoam cooler that had been on a high shelf in the shed. You know the phrase, “great gray-green greasy gopher guts?” That’s what was in there -- except that it had deteriorated into goo. I smelled it for days afterwards even though I’d immediately resealed it and taken it out to the dump. (This was in the days that it was a real dump where we all went on Sunday morning and swapped discards, sometimes coming back with more than we took out.)

    Through most of that June I kept warm through muscle power -- scrubbing, scraping, tugging. But the jet stream was bringing water for the grass and sometimes I just got too chilled and tired to keep it up. That’s when I resorted to the Big Hotel. 

    The big East Glacier Hotel is one of those railroad hotels, built in Adirondack Style but on a scale far beyond any Eastern lodge. Since the train went through at the foot of the ridge on which it was built, huge Douglas fir logs were brought in to create a three-story central atrium with rooms all around balcony hallways. Of course there were huge fireplaces with crackling logs, as well as a window-lined hallway supplied with writing desks. I spent my afternoons there, watching tourists indignantly shaking off rain.

    On the first few mornings in my new house I woke up with small red itchy bites. The second time this happened, I quickly snatched my bedding off, threw it on the floor and jumped on it. Out ran a cluster of small black predatory spiders, the kind that jump and bite rather than make webs. I overcame my fear of poisons enough to insect-proof the room and ran the bedding through the village laundromat. No more problem.

    Except that I kept dreaming that a grizzly was trying to break in. This was not entirely unwarranted, since bears walk through East Glacier all the time. In fact, the citizens have learned that it’s best not to have a leash law because big dogs help discourage bears, besides keeping the stray cows out of your petunias. In the end I realized that the Palomino Bar cleaned up about 3AM and came out to dump the empty bottles in a great crashing and splintering. That’s what my sleeping mind made into a grizzly attack.

    On the other hand, I was lying in bed one morning contemplating a cluster of really big nails driven above my bed and reflecting on how heavy a picture must have been hung there. Maybe a mirror? Then it dawned on me. One of the last legitimate occupants of the house had been Richard Little Dog and family. He was the man who had transferred his Thunder Medicine Pipe Bundle to Bob and I. This was where the Bundle had hung when he lived here. Technically, I was still a Keeper, since a white man’s divorce had no relevance to ancient tribal customs and Bob had no intention of transferring it to anyone else.

    I could not be sleeping in a safer place. Let it rain and blow and storm and snow. All the troubles were so much peanut butter. Rain for the grass. Last night I thought about all this as I took my evening walk under a clearing sky. The town was quiet as the surrounding prairie, peaceful quiet -- safe quiet.


    dighdown said...
    Three members of my family were lost in the 1964 flood. Thanks for all of your posts, I always enjoy reading them.
    Pat Onion said...
    very moving, Mary--you make me feel the place--both the house and the area, very haunted; I remember your showing us the house in Glacier from the outside--it looked innocuous enough at the time!

    FRIDAY, MARCH 03, 2006


    Though I’ve never run a business, except as second-banana for Bob Scriver, even that small role plus shoptalk about the Browning Mercantile got me interested in the how-to’s. How does one figure out what business will be successful? Where does financing come from? How does one learn how to plug into the distribution chains and so on.

    The Blackfeet have owned a grocery store in the past. It was a co-op, which failed because of charges never paid and a psychology of “it’s ours -- we can do what we want.” That, plus a far worse economy than now, doomed the enterprise. The business was bought by Buttreys; then they closed out as well. For decades now, especially since the Browning Mercantile closed down in the late 1980’s, the only grocery store has been Teeple’s IGA. As a monopoly, it is a money-maker for the owner and a payroll for the community. Employees are local. Many of the shoppers don’t have wheels. In fact, when I arrived in 1961 to teach, I was totally broke for the first month (never did have either a car or a telephone) and had to beg for credit from Dolly Teeple. She was a little reluctant but saved me from starvation. It is her son-in-law who has built a chain of successful IGA stores around Montana.

    But people grumble about having only one choice and there is a impulse for the tribe to start another grocery store. This time it will be very different. The key is demographic algorhythms. When news of interest reached a Utah-based company, they sat down at the computer and began reviewing public data, applying algorhythms that predict success. The first thing that struck them was that the population on the reservation is growing by leaps and bounds. Just OFF the reservation the population is aging and shrinking for many reasons: drought, CRP, out-of-state college, and so on. What this told them was that basics like food and soap are going to be needed whether or not the economy allows for extras. These are not luxury items but necessities. In fact, by using computer data, the company was able to tell exactly what the people were buying, at what prices and in what amounts.

    The second thing that interested them was whether the Tribe, through Siyeh, would accept a package deal in which the company supplied all the know-how in return for being the sole wholesaler. The company would build the store, but would dictate everything right down to where the electrical plugs were. They would teach the staff how to run this business, according to the practices this company has determined will lead to success. NO credit, NO warehouses full of food, strict accounting, and so on. 

    In the past the tribe’s pride has been hurt by such offers. “We can do it our ownselves” was the cry through the Sixties, “And we’ll do it our own way.” Or even, "What? You think we're too dumb to sell stuff??" At one point the Blackfeet refused the offer of free buffalo because they came with some strings, like not eating any of them for a given period of time. (Since then, agreement has been reached and the buffs are on the rez.) Now the time of counterdependence has passed, and people are more willing to say, “Okay. Teach us.”

    What’s in it for the company? This is like the people who will give you a printer for your computer because they make no money off the machine -- they make all their money selling paper and toner. Judging from the prices of toner, the stuff must have a 200% markup and the cassettes are small enough to avoid high shipping costs. I don't know about you, but I buy them by the boxful. So the company gets the business running smoothly and then they keep the groceries coming, making their own deals with the primary sources. The more stores they supply, the better deals they can make with those sources and the better their profits look. With modern Internet connections, supervision is far closer and more detailed than it was when someone had to drive out in a blizzard to see what was happening.

    What‘s in it for the tribe? The most obvious is creating competition which even George Bush would approve. The next most obvious is training people in an accepted mainstream kind of setting that is all over America -- a good grocery store clerk, bookkeeper, or manager can find a job. And surely it can’t be that different from running other businesses.

    I tried brainstorming for glitches. Might the Utah-based company stock foods and supplies that the people don’t like? Might they refuse to stock local products? Might they be bad bosses? There are probably answers to all this. This is not inventing the wheel. Probably the biggest obstacle will be opposition from the local stores, including the Cut Bank stores who sell to many rez dwellers. There are lots of legal strategies for them to pursue, but the Blackfeet are a lot more hip about such paper skirmishes now. 

    It will be fascinating to watch how this goes, and to look for other consequences of demographic algorhythms.

    1 comment:

    Anonymous said...
    Would the outside company actually own the store, or would it transfer ownership to the tribe once it's completed? I can see a serious risk in the latter arrangement, as the company might overcharge for merchandise and prevent the tribe from trying to get better deals.

    Iron Rails & Iron Weights