Reconciling family narrative with textbook history in Montana's Bighorn Valley

An essay by Joe Wilkins.

  • The ranch along the Musselshell where the author's grandparents, the Maxwells, moved after leaving Mountain Pocket.

    Joe Wilkins (courtesy)
  • Edward S. Curtis photogravure of an Absaroka settlement on the Little Bighorn.

  • Mary Ahern, the author's grandmother, at 18, in 1935.

    Joe Wilkins (courtesy)
  • The author and his grandmother on their last trip there.

    Joe Wilkins (courtesy)
  • Mary Ahern with her brother, Mickey, and Cold Wind during the 1920s, left, and on her horse, right.

    Joe Wilkins (courtesy)
  • Mary Ahern Maxwell with great-granddaughter Edith Wilkins.

    Joe Wilkins
  • The old homestead.

    Joe Wilkins

Page 4

Twenty minutes up the road, I pull to a stop out front of the old mission church in St. Xavier, where my grandmother was baptized. Like the Crow, Michael and Catherine could take Catholicism or leave it, yet they hedged their bets when it came to their children. We open the door and are greeted by a tall painting of a dark-skinned John the Baptist wandering out of the mountains, elk and wolf skins wrapped about him. The sticky-sweet smoke of kinnikinnick incense washes over us. We step into the nave, and a Crow woman walks up to us. She's a parishioner and has been cleaning the church this Saturday. My grandmother takes the woman's elbow, begins asking questions. The woman shakes her head, says she doesn't know the name Ahern. This embarrasses me -- as if we've been trespassing and have just been caught -- but my grandmother doesn't seem to mind. She keeps talking, trading names and dates and places with the woman. In the end, they discover only the most tenuous of connections, the kind you might find between any two people living out in the far reaches of eastern Montana.

Back on the road, we drive by burnt-out houses, coulees littered with wrecked cars and beer cans. I know that my nearly blind grandmother can see none of this. But I can. Even though the statistics do in fact say that the Crow have lower levels of unemployment and higher levels of education than many Native American tribes, their poverty is palpable. Even possession of the Crow homeland is now in question; though the Crow Act saved the outer borders of the reservation, it soon riddled the interior with white inholdings. In the last decades, the Crow have tried to re-exert control over their land, but the project remains a work in progress. When I began my research, I had thought (hoped, maybe) that the tribe's early friendship with the whites would have made their historical and contemporary lives far better, much as my great-grandparents' somewhat scattered lives were without a doubt mended down on Mountain Pocket and made more whole by their friendship with the Crow. Yet, though the Crow's contemporary situation may be different in degree, it is not different in kind.

I drive on and replay yesterday's interviews with my grandmother in my mind. When I asked if she still kept in touch with any of her Indian friends, she said, "Yes, but I have to tell you about one time, just after Jim and I were married. I saw an Indian woman in the train station at Hardin. I looked at her, and she looked away. I said, 'Alice? Alice Leforge?' She nodded, and I sat down. We talked like old times. But she never would have spoken to me first. You see, I was a white woman by then." I also asked whether she felt that being the daughter of an Irish immigrant or growing up on the Crow Reservation had more of an impact on her life. She replied, "When I was little, I didn't know about Irish or Indians. It took a while to know those things. But there was a little Crow girl in one of my classes at school, and she was mixed-blood. She had one blue eye and one brown eye, and she would put her hand like this, to cover her blue eye."

We merge onto the interstate, and I consider my grandmother's books, piles of them on every bare surface in the house. If there's a book about the American West, or Montana or Native American history, she has it. I remember saying once, years ago, on the way home from a trip to what was then called Custer Battlefield, that I wished Custer had won; I thought my grandmother would agree, as a number of Crow scouts rode with the 7th Cavalry. But my grandfather pulled the car over to the side of the road, and my grandmother leaned over the seat and gave me a stern historical lecture concerning the nobility of the Sioux's cause and the slow but steady duplicity the Crow endured at the hands of the whites.

And it occurs to me, finally, that my grandmother has read the same vicious history I have -- yet it has never changed her stories. So, as the thunderstorm that's been following us finally lets loose, I ask why. Why does her family's time down on Mountain Pocket seem to sit outside the historical record? Why have we found no artifacts or connections today? Why -- despite the lack of evidence, and knowing as she does that other wider, sadder history -- does she still claims her stories are history?

In answer, my grandmother offers, of course, another story. "You know," she says, "your mother met Young Tom Leforge at Crow Fair in '73, right after she and your father moved back to Montana. Young Tom was nearly a hundred, but he recognized your mother as an Ahern. He said, 'Itsicootsie. He was your grandfather.' He told her that his children and my parent's children went back and forth. That we were brothers and sisters. He said he was so glad he saw her because he was old and sick, and before he passed he wanted to tell one of the Aherns what good neighbors Michael and Catherine had been."

I don't know what to say. I think of the Crow story about Old Man Coyote, about how he had Hell Diver, the duck, swim to the bottom of the waters and bring up mud. Old Man Coyote took the mud and with it made mountains and plains and men and women. Old Man Coyote taught the people how to pray. He showed them how to dance. He gave them the words in their mouths. Then, he went away. While he was gone, they fought. Old Man Coyote heard the noise and came loping back. He stopped the fighting. He told the people that from then on they would be like driftwood on the river. They would roll and tumble in the waters and lodge along the banks in countless jumbles and piles as the river dried. Their land would be the land that the river gave them to, their people those the river flung around them.

Some 80 years ago, I guess, my great-grandfather and his family were flung like driftwood onto the banks of Mountain Pocket Creek, where they became friends with the Crow who were their neighbors. They shared meals and smoke, they celebrated and mourned, their little daughters ran laughing to the river. This is my grandmother's story. And despite only a story of a story as evidence -- which won't hold up, not by a long shot, to my professor's steely gaze -- I decide I'll take it. If this is my myth, so be it. It's a good one.

This land about us is rain-drenched, wide, and dark. It is where I have lived and loved and lost. It is where my grandmother and a great many people have done the same. I am telling you that some of us have gone away and some of us have come back, though by firelight we study the map, we search, always, for that good country in ourselves -- that far place where the river runs clear and cold, the grass grows tall, and we might ride by one another.

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