|Apr/May 2014 Nonfiction|
Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream
Mariah was telling tourist stories from the KOA campground in the old Saint Mary's Valley up at the Park. It made for good Indian humor as we idled away our after dinner hours. Above the valley there were the countless silver skeletal remains of the Blackfeet timber domain. The skeletal forest had become the number one obsession of tourists visiting the Park. "What happened to the forest?" they would inquire.
"There was a forest fire," responded Mariah.
Never satisfied with this realism, they would cast about for something more. Triumphant in their travel logic, they would insist, "If there was a forest fire, why are all the trees silver instead of charred and blackened?"
Patiently she would reply, "The bark peeled off."
"Why would the bark fall off?"
"In the winter the burned trees are blasted with wind, snow, and ice."
"How is that enough to knock the bark off the trees?" And so the argument would rage as the tourists could just not accept rational explanations for the ghostly forest surrounding the Saint Mary's Valley.
Getting to the valley was no easy feat. Insulated somewhat by the international border to the north, there were only three basic approaches to the region hiding the Lakes Inside as termed by the old Blackfeet legends. From the west the traverse of a hanging mountain cirque called Going to the Sun was a narrow artifact featuring hairpin turns and sheer drop-offs characteristic of the Swiss Alps and ill suited for American RVs. If you managed to pass this way in one of the behemoth pleasure vehicles, your nerves were shot full with mental trauma.
An approach from the south over Looking Glass promised even more trauma. Once, explained Mariah, a woman came into the KOA shaking uncontrollably, quivering as if she had hypothermia. She could hardly speak, and when she did it was near hysterical with terror in her eyes. The Looking Glass highway offered no restraining walls, and the sheer dropoffs were compounded by the high mountain migrating to the valley in a series of slumps and slides. The roadway is uneven with pavement breaks and drops that threaten would-be passers with certain death in the depths below. The hysterical woman had crossed Looking Glass in a mighty RV with her 16-year-old son at the wheel, and now she was a wreck.
If you successfully cross Looking Glass, there remain Red Blanket Hill and Divide Mountain between you and the valley. While the Red Blanket roadway is better, the perils of height remain. From Kiowa Junction, this is the primary eastern approach to the ole Saint Mary's but it has its own trauma. The safest and sanest approach is to go north from Browning on the Duck Lake road and east across the Hudson's Bay Divide into the valley. Short of Duck Lake you could also turn west at Star School and traverse Cut Bank Creek, but then you still have Divide Mountain to cross. In each case, the eastern approaches all have their guardians. Thunderbirds, alien to tourists, have been seen at Duck Lake, and an old man brandishing a red blanket protects the southeast entryways above and along Cut Bank Creek.
In olden times, the Blackfeet tell of a great obsidian outcrop along the western flank of Looking Glass Mountain from which it gets its name. Like peering into black marble, one could look into the depths of this volcanic glass stone and see the shadowy netherworld. It was this property that made the place sacred to the Blackfeet, but the highway engineers cared little for sacred geography and blasted the Looking Glass into oblivion for their sacrosanct roadway, now more perilous to all who would traverse it.
The crossing of Red Blanket is another matter. There are twist and turns with great drop offs and no guard rails, but it is a haunted highway both over the western edge and through the Cut Bank Valley.
We were hauling teepee poles, putting up lodges, and preparing a traditional encampment on a bench above the Cut Bank Creek and immediately beneath Red Blanket Hill. At a break, Buster was saying, "I came by here long ago," pointing to the road below. "We was hauling teepee poles like today. We had cut them up near the Park"—as he pointed toward the upper Cut Bank Valley. "The old man was with me"—referencing his grandfather, old man Yellow Kidney as we knew him by the stories. "We came along the road there"—as he nodded below and across the creek—"and the old man looked up here."
"He said, 'You know son, I can see pretty good today. Pretty good. I can see the people camped up there on the bench.'
"Peering across the creek, I looked up here, but I could see no one—no lodges or anything. Turning back to the old man, I said, 'Grandfather I cannot see them.'
"He said, 'Son, they are up there just beneath old Red Blanket's place.'
"Well, you know," continued Buster, "I did not know what he meant until today. When I come up here and seen you boys putting up these lodges. It made me think of that day and recall the old man's words. I expect you will be okay even with ole Red Blanket looking over you."
Someone in our group asked about ole Red Blanket, so that Buster settled down to tell us more. It has been said you can still see the old man toting a red blanket about the road hereabouts. He tries to flag down unsuspecting motorists. Atop the hill there is an open burial with two skeletons—the old man and his old woman—surrounded by a ring of stones. Don't ever go up there unless you are prepared to make an offering.
The priests used to say that the old couple was evil, and they forbid their medicine. But I'm not sure of all that. Old Red Blanket and his old woman kept a medicine bundle. It was very secret, but I was told young women in need would seek them out. They would take some gift, something of value, and the old couple would give them a beaded leather belt in the shape and resemblance of a snake to wear around their hips. It was made from the belly of an antelope, so that the skin was very thin. On the thin side, they punched many tiny pinpricks so that it was porous. The belt was stuffed with wormwood sage, and if a young woman wore it low across her hips, it would prevent pregnancy. That's why the priests hated the old couple. So they cursed the old people, and ever since his death, the old man has haunted these parts.
Continuing with another account, Buster declared, "See that peak, it looks like a pyramid off by itself on the east flank of the hill? It's a fasting nest, and west of it through the dip and back up on the ridgetop is where the graves are located. They says that young Jim White Calf, who got the Brave Dogs bundle from old man White Calf, went up there to fast. Look over there"—he was pointing west across Cut Bank Creek—"that's the old White Calf place. It's maybe a mile off from the nest up there. Young Jim made his way to the top, but he didn't bring anything for the old couple. Somewhere long past midnight while he fasted there, they say there was a loud cry—something like an elk trumpeting—and it give young Jim a frightening start. He said he jumped 'bout ten feet in the air when he heard that thing. Well he wasn't sticking around, so he ran in hops and bounds down the face of the mountain, across the creek and back home in record time. He never did get that medicine."
With the teepees spread along the bench in a circle, the elders had joined us in a traditional encampment. Old George had showed me how to set up teepees during the year before. Due to the way I had acquired it, my lodge lacked any loops to stake it down, so I paid Susie White Calf to sew some new anchor loops onto it and fix the tie strings on top. The old lady made quick work of it, and I paid her well for all she had done. She seemed pleased, and so was I as I proudly erected my lodge in the circle with the others.
During the next day, I hung with old George preparing a dry meat rack. The old women had butchered a buffalo, and soon George and I had the dry meat rack full with a gentle smoldering fire going beneath it. The camp was singing with activity, and everyone seemed so very happy. It was late afternoon when young Jim White Calf called the Brave Dogs together and they began to seranade the camp, singing with their ceremonial rattles. After the first round, young Jim beckoned me over and, handing me a rattle, he invited me to join in with the warriors. Afterwards I gave him much of the money that I had with me, which was no small amount from my perspective, and he seemed grateful.
It had been a special honor to dance with the Brave Dogs that afternoon, and I was thrilled with my acceptance among the traditional people. As evening came, there was a call to tell stories, and someone suggested we use my lodge. So again I was honored when the children and old man Young Running Crane entered my little teepee that evening. Telling accounts of Kutoyist—Blood Clot Boy—and N'api—Old Man, the trickster—the old storyteller waxed poetically into the night, and I was favored with a hearing like no other. It was indeed a magical night when later I stepped out of my lodge to relieve myself before bed. In the dark, I was amazed to discover a great blanket of clouds with the moon shining through directly above Red Blanket Hill. There was the image of a backlit blanket, and separate to the east there was a cloud shaped like an arrow pointing to the pyramid peak or fasting nest atop the mountain. As I contemplated its meaning, I thought how the Blackfeet sometimes refer to the moon as night red light. Ordinarily she is referenced as Kipataki or Old Woman, representing everything female, but now she was clearly apparent as night red light while shining through the blanket of clouds. Might a night like this be the origin of the reference that is Red Blanket Hill? It had come to me with an invitation to fast atop the pyramid.
In the day coming upon us, old man Swims Under performed a wedding, and I mused while looking upon the happy bride how appropriate the night's vision had been for me. As the day waned, I climbed the hill, stopping four times to pray and offer tobacco. At the top of the mountain there lay the skeletal remains of Old Red Blanket and his wife, visible to the strong of heart. So I took the meat that I had packed with me and staked it out at the head of their last resting place. With a bundle of tobacco, I gave prayers to the old couple and thanked them for their medicine.
It is said the old man is peaceful now, but I like to think he is still watching over all those who care about the old ways.