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Know the West

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

An essay by Joe Wilkins.


The Bighorn River slips from the rocky clutches of the Big Horn and Pryor Mountains, going deep and muddy on the valley plains. Two hundred years ago, John Colter, enchanted by tall grass and great herds of bison, received permission to leave the Corps of Discovery early to hunt and trap the good country along the river. Though the bison and beaver are gone, my 87-year-old grandmother, Mary Ahern Maxwell, who spent her girlhood on a tributary creek called Mountain Pocket, has often told me that the Bighorn Valley holds the best land in all Montana. And this windswept October day, as we drive south toward the mountains, I believe it: Thick grass lines the roadway, the foothills slope down into coulees knotted with chokecherry and wild rose, and though it's as gray as stone, the sky is wide.

Years ago, before my grandmother's family settled down on Mountain Pocket, before Colter, the three bands of the Crow people lived in a vast tepee. One of its corner poles sloped up from the west, at the meeting of the three rivers. Another sat far in the south, where the Bighorn River begins. The third pole was anchored to the east, near South Dakota's Black Hills. And the final pole rested where the Yellowstone gives itself to the Missouri. The fire of that great tepee was here -- along the banks of the Bighorn, in the mountain shadows.

In the late 1850s, a young Crow warrior climbed deep into the Pryor Mountains. There, he did not eat but prayed and paced the mountain. Desperate for a dream, he cut off the tip of his left index finger and beat his wounded hand on a fallen log. As his blood wet the wood, he slumped into a deep sleep. Then a storm rose up, and the young man saw himself as a chickadee sheltered in a high nest. The other birds did not seek the safety of their nests. They flailed against the wind and soon were lost. As the sun split the storm, the young man looked into his dream, far out onto the Plains, where a great herd of buffalo ran. The earth cracked open before them; the buffalo fell into the earth and were gone.

That young man, Plenty Coups -- knowing the buffalo would soon be gone; knowing that against the white men, who were as strong and as violent as the four winds, the Crow must hunker down in their nests -- urged his people to continue the early truce they had made with the United States and proved himself adept at peacetime leadership. He journeyed to Washington, D.C., many times to argue against seizures of Crow land and for fair negotiations. On the reservation, he moved into a frame house and took up farming, began practicing the Catholic faith alongside his traditional beliefs. In 1920, Plenty Coups -- who had once declared, during an earlier attempt to reduce the size of the Crow Reservation, "If you white men put in all your money to buy that land, you would not pay all it is worth. …  I want my country to remain" -- acquiesced to demands from younger Crow leaders and supported the Crow Act, which parceled up the reservation into individual land allotments, a move that preserved its outer boundaries but would lead to complications, because the land allotments could then be sold or leased. As these negotiations came to a close, Plenty Coups was invited to stand with President Harding at the 1921 Armistice Day ceremony at the Arlington National Cemetery. There, Plenty Coups wore beaded buckskin and a headdress of eagle feathers; he brandished his coup stick and laid it on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Though he had been instructed not to speak, Plenty Coups prayed for peace as the coffin was lowered. And he prayed in Crow.

Plenty Coups' aggressive peace-making, a survival strategy philosopher Jonathan Lear has dubbed "radical hope," was formulated to ease his people's transition into a new way of life, a way of life he didn't ask for but was powerless to stop. And, in at least one respect, it worked: Open a map of Montana and you'll see that the Crow Reservation is the biggest in the state; though treaties were bent and broken over the years, the ancient heart of Crow country remains in Crow hands.

My grandmother is nearly blind. She tells me to drive slowly, so she can feel the turns of the land. As a girl, she rode every swell of this country horseback; she mapped it in her blood and bones -- she knows where she is going. We cross Soap Creek and drive down to a few scattered farms my grandmother calls Mountain Pocket. "It was one of these trees here," my grandmother says, pointing to a stand of cottonwoods. "The little one died, and they set him on a plank of wood in a tree. Then Grandma He Does It died. I could hear their cries as I rode to school. When someone died, the Crow mourned and mourned. It was spooky, but we were sad when old Grandma He Does It died, too."

My grandmother and her brother were the only white children who attended the area school that year. Her parents, Michael and Catherine, had moved the family to the Big Horn years before, leasing land made available by the Crow Act. Michael was born and raised in County Kerry, and Catherine's mother and father were both Irish immigrants. Though there were Irish towns and neighborhoods all across the West, they chose to raise their family among the Crow, where for years the closest white family was in the mission town of St. Xavier, nearly 20 hard horseback miles away.

They'd arrived some years earlier, my grandmother's father, Michael Ahern, sneaking into the country through Canada in 1900. After working for an uncle in Minnesota, he headed west, eventually landing in the rough-and-tumble frontier town of Seattle, where he took up with a gang of Irish toughs. Though the details are slippery  -- something about a poker game gone wrong -- Michael soon found himself in deep trouble. Scared for his life, he fled. But rather than skedaddle back to Minnesota, he split the difference and got off the train in Billings. There, he met Catherine Dinnan, who was on the run as well, from a bad first marriage in Michigan. Together, it seems, they ran off to the farthest, best spot they could find, to a place where there would be few reminders of menacing Irish gangs or the disapproval of an Irish Catholic family: They drove their wagon out to the Crow Reservation, to a little creek called Mountain Pocket. And there, my grandmother tells me, they farmed watermelons and wheat and raised their children. There, my great-grandmother made pots of stew to share with their Crow neighbors. There, my great-grandfather, who was called Itsicootsie, for his full beard, sat on the porch with young Tom Leforge, Cold Wind and the other local Crow men and smoked his pipe.

When we finally find the old house on the creek where she grew up, my grandmother totters out into the wind with stories to tell. Though her eyes are gone, her mind is quick; her stories move and leap with purpose, with grace. I watch her bend to the earth, work the dirt of her girlhood through her fingers. "The He Does Its lived down on the Big Horn, and Cold Wind was over the ridge. The mixed-blood Leforges were up near old Fort Smith. Oh, I remember the day old Tom Leforge died," she tells me, "because Alice Leforge, his granddaughter -- she was my best little friend. We spent all our days together, playing along the river, reading the books my mother brought from the library in St. Xavier. There weren't many whites out here, so we were friends with the Indians. That's just the way it was. I didn't know any different, and my parents didn't seem to mind."

I lean down and scoop up a handful of earth as well. I walk around the weathered house, stare up into the sky-shot rafters. My grandmother has often told me that her stories aren't just stories; they're history. For a long time, I have taken her word for it. Yet today I stare into gray sky, sift dust through my fingers -- and I wonder.

Let me explain:

Some months ago, in a graduate school history class called Immigration in America -- a class I signed up for with my grandmother's stories in mind -- I listened as a young man raised his hand and asked our professor why we hadn't talked about Native Americans yet, why we just started in with the English and Dutch. Our professor gently reminded him that Native Americans are native to this country; they didn't immigrate, at least as we commonly understand the term. He told us that most of the information we would cover concerning Native Americans would have to do with conflict: Immigrants move onto the frontier and provoke the Indians; the Indians defend their land; the U.S. Cavalry rides out to protect the settlers; and the federal government officially takes away more Indian land. Wait, I thought, it's not always like that. I even started to raise my hand -- but I stopped: What was I going to do? Tell him one of my grandmother's stories?

I needed evidence, evidence that showed immigrants and Indians could get along, could live as neighbors and friends, evidence that proved my grandmother's stories were indeed history. So I went to the library and checked out every book I could find. I searched various archives. Finally, after a dozen dead ends, I went to see my grandmother. We sat in the front room, sipping tea, and she answered some of my questions and ignored the others. Mostly, she told her stories. Late in the evening, still searching, I asked my grandmother if she'd drive out to the Bighorn with me the next day. She said she'd like that, said she'd like that a lot.

But that's only the half of it. Let me go back even further:

When I was 9, my father died. Then, three years later, my grandfather sold the family ranch. So there I was, a boy without a father and without land in a place that was all men and territory. I had to make up for it somehow. I started telling stories. And in the telling of those stories, I felt I had reclaimed my birthright, my lost inheritance. The stories became maps for me; in the unfolding of the words I found my way home.

And none of the stories mattered more to me than my grandmother's. Her stories had the ring and shine of honest-to-God history. Plenty Coups and Custer's Crow scouts, Cold Wind and Tom Leforge: I was linked to this place through events and personages that most everyone in our far corner of the West was familiar with. What's more, my grandmother knew the land and the traditions; she read the books and took me to Crow Fair and wagged her finger at me, telling me to listen up. I did. I readily, hungrily accepted my grandmother's tales. I read and memorized names and dates and believed, through my grandmother's stories, that I was part of it all.

But as I grew, as I traveled off to college, and then graduate school, as I read and studied, I learned another set of stories, a history that cannot be denied: The American West is, at its deep heart's core, a society built on genocide and thievery and sustained by the denial of both. Before 1800, an estimated 16,000 Crow controlled much of what is now southeastern Montana and northern Wyoming; by 1920, as Michael and Catherine were settling in Mountain Pocket, around 1,700 Crow struggled to survive on a fraction of their original homeland.

Where in the world might there be room enough for this sickening history and for my grandmother's heartening stories? What land, if any, is big and good enough to hold both narratives? I have studied and read and interviewed, and for all my research have little to show, which, I am afraid, as my history professor would surely point out, forces an answer upon me. The official history is true; my grandmother's stories are simply a sanitized, nostalgic look at what was, surely, a world of racism, anger and want.

Still, here I am, wandering the ruins.

Though there are no more stairs and the floor sits some feet above the prairie, my grandmother has somehow scrambled up into the old house. She runs her fingers along the wall of the back room, feeling the grooves of the wood. She calls, "Joe, come up here. Let me show you this -- this was my bedroom. Mickey slept in my parent's room. So this was all mine." She gestures and slowly moves to the southwest wall. She finds the corner of the window frame and traces the space of it with her hands. I hoist myself up into the house. She speaks again. "Now look through this window -- can you see them? The mountains, the river?"

And I do see, I see everything, but as if on cue the wind comes whipping a notch colder, that much harder. I take my grandmother's arm and help her down. Once she's situated in the car, I turn and take a final look. This is the first time I have seen my grandmother's girlhood home. It could well be the last. Yet, from as far back as memory fires behind my eyes, this house and this patch of earth have loomed large: Together, they map a mythical first place, a green valley sliding down from blue mountains, where watermelons grow and a creek rushes past -- a garden in the wilderness. How can this place, which I have known only in story, matter so much?

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.