HEART BUTTE – There’s a beauty in this Blackfeet reservation town that a sunrise on the Rocky Mountain Front can only match.
It has to do with the proud, fierce and buffalo-rich lords of the plains, their horses and guns and a way of life that once seemed like it would last forever.
But it has to do too with terrible things – smallpox infestations, a massacre on the Marias in 1870, the Starvation Winter of 1883-84, the devastating flood of 1964, the fire that forced evacuation of Heart Butte just two summers ago.
And it has to do with Heart Butte itself, rising stark behind Heart Butte School but hidden from the rest of town. With enough prompting, Jeremiah Hinkle will tell you why.
An soft-spoken high school junior, Hinkle was thinking about that very thing as he rode the bus to school last week at daybreak.
“I don’t really think about what happened on the mountain,” said Hinkle, who sports glasses, a mustache and a goatee. “It’s more a respect for the mountain, a respect for nature.”
In this century the Southern Pikunni huddle here in wooden houses, at a time of year when their ancestors would have been settling in for the winter on the Teton River around Choteau. The arctic winds don’t blow so hard down there.
“A lot of the culture we had came from nature,” Hinkle said. “We learned how to hunt like a wolf, watched how they hunt together in a pack as a team. We got our shelter from buffalo. We learned how to be sly from the coyote.
“That respect for nature. ... It can be powerful. It can be peaceful.”
Those are words to cling to for Sally Thompson and Lily Yeh.
Thompson is an anthropologist from Missoula who has spent much of the past 30 years studying the rich textures of Blackfeet society. She’s convinced that the best way to come to grips with the poverty, substance abuse and hopelessness so prevalent on the reservation is for the people themselves to come to grips with that proud and terrible past.
Yeh is all in.
The diminutive artist was born in China but has spent most of her life in the United States, when she’s not globe-trotting to some of the most destitute and broken outposts in the world. She is a global superstar at what she does, helping communities transform the bleak and ugly into monuments of color and beauty.
And Yeh, who lives in Philadelphia, has the Blackfeet Reservation firmly in her sights.
She shared in animated fashion that vision last week with the students at Heart Butte and at the Blackfeet Learning Academy, an alternative high school in Browning.
In a power-point presentation in the high school science room, and in a creative art activity in the elementary school library, Yeh prodded and postulated, listened and encouraged some 65 Pikunni students grades 7-11 at Heart Butte to break out of their 21st century shells and connect with that proud past.
They can do it with imagination and with art. In Heart Butte’s case the primary goal is a visual memorial of the Starvation Winter, perhaps down near Highway 89 to capture the attention of tourists headed to and from Glacier National. The idea came last spring from a Heart Butte eighth grader, and Yeh and Thompson believe it’s the youth of Heart Butte who can make it happen – or not.
“Art is not just decoration,” Yeah told them. “Art is what your soul desires. That’s what I need you to share with me, with us, so that we can work together and create a project, with your guidance, and to make visible the beauty, the wisdom, the talent and the deep-rooted tradition here.”
“That’s what I need from you.”
This is something that's close to Thompson's heart. Despite a staggering rate of drug and alcohol abuse in Heart Butte, she said there are plenty of signs of hope here. In April, Heart Butte students were on hand when 88 bison calves arrived at the 9,000-acre Buffalo Calf Winter Camp northeast of here on the the Two Medicine River. They were shipped from Alberta's Elk Island National Park, and unlike the tribe's domestic bison herd, these were direct descendants of those that roamed the Rocky Mountain Front and sustained the Blackfeet and other tribes in the centuries before the Starvation Winter.
Each morning at school, six middle school students who make up the Heart Butte Junior drum circle begin the throbbing beat of the Blackfeet flag song. Students and staff alike in the crowded cafeteria stand at attention, and Cliff Eagle Speaker, oversees a smudging ceremony with burning cedar and sweetgrass.
The ceremony has been starting the school day at Heart Butte for about a year, said Eagle Speaker, who started the drum circle last year.
"They didn't know how to sing or nothing a year ago," he said with pride. "They're doing pretty good now."
"We're trying to get more kids involved," Eagle Speaker added. "It's just that we're having a hard time because of their shyness and stuff. They're not used to being around that kind of environment."
Among her other accomplishments, Thompson is a filmmaker and novelist. She teamed up with the Kootenai Culture Committee and Pikunni Traditional Association (PTA) to write “Before the Park: The Kootenai and Blackfeet Before Glacier National Park,” which came out last year.
Even before she retired a few years ago as director of the University of Montana’s Lifelong Learning Center, Thompson knew she wanted to come to the reservation and initiate a program on her own that would help the Blackfeet learn and tell their history in their own way.
She launched “Winter Counts” last year. It's a five-year project in partnership with Yeh and Darnell Rides At The Door of the PTA. Yeh and Thompson first visited the schools last spring to introduce the project. Now students, teachers and school administrators are being urged to help imagine and drive “Winter Counts.”
“Throughout Indian Country the second-most common phrase you’ll hear from elders, after “We’re still here,” is “You’ve gotta know who you are and where you came from,’ " Thompson said in a prospectus.
Through Winter Counts, students in Browning and Heart Butte will "dare to imagine the creative expression of their history through narrative, painting and monumental community art.”
Thompson has collected paintings and narrative descriptions produced by the Jesuit priest Nicholas Point during a stay with the Blackfeet in 1846. She asks the students to study the paintings, share them with their elders and critique them for their cultural accuracy.
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They give hints of a time when the Blackfoot Nation was near or at its zenith. And they’re jumping off points to Heart Butte’s specific project, “From Feast to Famine on the Buffalo Plains: The Truth Behind Starvation Winter.”
“What happened between 1846, when there was feasting going on all the time with the buffalo, and 1883 when hundreds of people starved to death right on this creek and this area of the reservation?” Thompson posed to the high school class.
Winter Counts is unfunded at this point, and to pull it off will take cooperation from a lot of people in the communities, schools, state and tribal governmental and cultural leadership. Most of all, Yeh and Thompson both stressed, the teenagers of Heart Butte and Browning have to buy in.
She could simply publish the Nicholas Point images and narratives and let it go at that, Thompson said. Instead she’s choosing to give the images to the communities through the schools “with an invitation to learn from these and correct the history revealed in them.”
"The images instill pride. This story from 1846 is incomplete and distorted without the input of the Blackfeet.”
The Blackfeet starvation winter occurred just a year after the vast buffalo herds disappeared. It's one of the most overlooked tragedies in Montana history. Some call it genocide.
As politically connected stockmen grazed cattle illegally on Blackfeet land, the government and the Blackfoot Agency failed in the winter and spring of 1883-84 to provide adequate rations to the tribe, which was suddenly dependent on subsidies. A streptococcal epidemic only worsened the situation. One in every four Blackfeet in Montana died, more than 550 in all.
“Probably everyone on this rez had a family member there, and knowing that they all died ... it’s kind of like a big part in all of us,” Shay Campbell said. “It tore us apart, but we’re still here.”
Campbell was the eighth-grader who came up with the idea of the starvation winter memorial in the spring. Now a freshman, she’s anxious to see something come of it.
“I’d like to have a project that everybody puts into,” she said.
Maybe it could entail horses and buffalo, Campbell suggested, or something that honors White Calf, the Blackfeet chief who had a running feud with U.S. Indian Agent John Young. Young is often cited as the villain of the story, though his pleas for more rations fell on deaf ears in Washington D.C.
There’s an interpretive sign on Highway 89 near the agency where the Pikunni were camped that winter, but to Campbell’s mind “it’s like every other sign when you drive by.”
“I want something nice so that when people drive by they’ll say, ‘Oh, let’s stop. We should look at this. I didn’t know this happened,’” she said.
Yeh led the high-schoolers and later the junior high students down the hall to the science room where her slide show was set up.
The global artist and activist for social change has traveled to Ghana, Taiwan, China, Ecuador and Haiti, among others, to work her magic. In 2004 she established the Rwanda Healing Project the next year, working with children through community art projects to villages struggling in the wake of genocide and civil war.
Her presentation focused on two other projects, both relatable to the destitute conditions in Heart Butte and other reservation towns in Montana. She found her niche 30 years ago on the streets of North Philadelphia. Yeh, whose father had abandoned her family, was trying to put her own life together.
With the help of curious children, a small grant and a drug dealer-turned-mosaic artist, Yeh cleaned up a rubble-filled lot and transformed it into an art park with brilliant mosaics and sculpted trees. It blossomed into the Village of Arts and Humanities. Today vacant lots throughout North Philly have undergone transformations under Yeh's lead.
In 1994 she traveled to Korogocho, Kenya, outside of Nairobi, where thousands of people scratch out a subsistence from an immense garbage dump.
“I didn’t want to go in because it’s just repellent,” Yeh told the students. “The smell, pollution – everything about it repels a person.”
She found there were no adequate walls to commit art to, only cardboard huts. The side of a church proved her only canvas.
Yeh began to paint a giant angel, and small children gathered around, poking their fingers in the paint that dripped on the ground.
“I realized that they are so poor they never touched anything beautiful or bright,” she said.
Working with a Kenyan sculpture, she placed a eucalyptus tree in an abandoned quarry flanked by a row of latrines. The smoking dump was just over the fence.
“We were looking for a home for the angels, and I said, 'This is exactly where the angels need to live and inhabit. This is where beauty needs to reside,' ” Yeh said. “When they burn the trash of Korogocho, that becomes the incense for the angels. Everything fits perfectly.”
As angels were mounted on the tree, the artists sensed a shift in “this community of darkness that had no sense of hope.”
“When we were painting the angles one after another, we feel the atmosphere changing, the joy rising,” she said. “The people were singing and dancing.”
A dedication to the park drew upwards of 1,000 people and ambassadors from four nations, including the United States.
“Of course, when they come they’re people with resources, and they brought resources to help the people,” said Yeh. “That was the day I felt that with creating beauty and working together we pushed a heavy hell gate open and the sunlight came in. And everybody who came in, like me, was deeply transformed by the suffering and the depth of endurance and the power of hope in the community.”
“That,” she told the teens of Heart Butte, “ is the reason I come to you. Because I feel there is so much potential, so much creativity held up. If we can unleash that together, we can create something the world has never seen.”