A BRILLIANT MIX OF RED AND WHITE

Standing in her bedroom with her open trunk before her, Helen wondered what to pack but also whether she was doing the right thing by going to her aunt in Minneapolis. The packing was the easier problem: she had been a student in Cincinnati at the convent for years and though the students didn’t circulate much in society, she had a good idea of what dresses would be required.

She sighed at the thought of going back to corsets. She’d only had to wear them when they went into Helena to some legislative event that involved her father. At the moment she wore only her shift — it was August 18, 1869, and the upstairs room was stifling. A hornet had gotten in because the two daughters had pushed the screen out last night when they escaped from the violence downstairs. Now the insect buzzed angrily. She lifted and shook the thin shift to try to get some air into it. She did not weep.

Oh, Father. Gone. Murdered, So intense no one had ever thought of him as a victim — only a towering figure who forced his own way. “Four Bears” — as fierce as four bears. She could hear her Blackfeet mother downstairs wailing with grief in the old way. She could understand it but she hated it. Her sister had gone the other way: turned to wax, unable to move or think. She’d have to pack that second trunk herself.

The boys, like their father, were running on hatred and vengeance in spite of their injuries. She had no influence on them and, anyway, what else could one do? Her father’s close friend, Colonel Spalding, thought they were absolutely right and was using his influence to make sure the boys had the backing of the U.S Cavalry. Owl Child would pay.

Closing the drawers up one side of the trunk, she lined up dresses on the other side. On her dressing table she lay out her curling iron and her glove box, but the one fancy buckskin dress she owned, never wore, she wrapped in an old blanket and put on a high shelf in the closet. Would the house be rifled once they were gone? Maybe even set on fire?

 

Through the years Helen’s trunk was rarely unpacked for long. After a while in Minneapolis while settling her sister, she left for New York City. In that metropolis her nearly six- feet in height, long sable hair, sweet face and husky voice attracted enough attention that Sarah Bernhardt had invited her to tour in Europe. Then there were the years teaching and being school superintendent in Helena, but she’d only rented rooms in the mansions along the street near the Spaldings, so the trunk made a handy extra closet.

After that was the arduous struggle in Oklahoma to get the tiny tribes to accept the Dawes Act and divvy up their small acreages, a procedure they regarded with great suspicion. Always the double accusation: she’s a woman, she’s a half-breed. Even in Helena where people should have known better, it was women who accused her of being somehow tainted, incompetent. Them and their false arrogance as nouveau riche millionaires.

Now she was sixty and slowing down, things might be different for her brother Horace and herself. Midvale was becoming a fashionable vacation destination. Important people came by rail and THEY didn’t have these strange social prejudices. She didn’t mind living in a tent while the house was built. Then she could unpack her trunk for good. Restlessly, Helen shook out the wolfskin bedside rug and flattened the blankets on her cot. But the tent was small and this would be the first house that was really hers — at least half. She couldn’t hear any hammers, so went to see what had stopped the work.

67

Across the creek the Big Hotel the railroad was putting up was nearing completion with its long gallery porches, the noble pillars of whole trees standing in the main hall, as grand as columns in Greek temples. She DID know what those Greek columns looked like, since when she was touring with Sarah Bernhardt’s acting company they had to go around France as too dangerous, full of invasion and revolution, which was too familiar for a frontier woman like herself. So they had taken a boat to Greece where they were welcomed and she rather disappointed the people by not having a buckskin dress to wear, beaded, fringed and dotted with elk’s teeth. How the nuns would have loved to visit Greece, that storied land!

Hearing a rustling in the open doorway of the tent, she turned to find a small Blackfeet girl, tense with indignation. “Are you the woman who was in charge of all the children in this state?”

Helen assumed she was asking whether she had been the superintendent of schools in Helena. Her hand rose to smooth her hair and she straightened her shoulders. “Yes, I am.”

The girl looked at her solemnly. “Are you the woman who divided up all the land and gave pieces to each Indian?” A reference to Helen’s time working on the execution of the Dawes Act.

“Yes, I did that.”
“Then why are you so poor that you must live in a tent?”

“There’s no shame in living in a tent! But my house will be finished soon.”

“It’s not very big. Where will your husband and children live?”

 

“I have none.”

“Why is that? You’re a very powerful woman — you should have a very big house and a LOT of children.”

Helen was speechless.

“My mother says it’s because you think you’re too good for either a red man or a white man. She’s says you’re pretty proud of yourself.” The little girl looked her up and down, then turned and left.

Helen, stunned, stood like a statue for a few moments. But then she could hear the train arriving and knew that her brother would soon come rattling along with a buggy full of famous artists and big shots from back east. She couldn’t remember whether it was Mrs. Guggenheim or Mrs. Vanderbilt this time. She looked forward to Joseph Henry Sharp the most. They would eat at the Big Hotel, but she needed to compose herself so she could charm them all, pose and tell legends.

She wondered what had ever happened to that old buckskin dress she had left long ago in the closet of the ranch house. The visitors would love it, feel as though they were finally in the romantic West. She tucked in her blouse, brushed off her skirt and braced herself. She could hear the buggy coming over the little bridge between the Big Hotel and her half-built house and started to go meet it.

But the little girl was back, blocking her way. She was holding out a bundle. “My grandmother says this is yours. She saved it for you.” Wrapped in the old blanket she recognized was her old ceremonial dress with the elk teeth.

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