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 2

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.

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