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 3

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?

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