In Great Falls, Montana, the airport is on top of a bluff and is used by both civilians and military. A woman with long braids under a billed cap with the logo of Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife called to her daughter, who had the dog named Imitah on a leash crossing the snowy airline terminal lawn. Just then an F-15 jet went shrieking overhead, so loud that the woman had to laugh at the futility of calling.
She shrugged and turned to the man next to her on the sidewalk. He also wore a billed cap, but with an expensive black leather bomber jacket, jeans and a long black ponytail. She couldn’t make out the logo on his cap. He had luggage by his feet.
“When does the airport limo come?” he asked.
“There isn’t any.”
He looked stricken. “Well, then, taxis?”
“You could rent a car inside.”
He looked sheepish. “No driver’s license. In the city I never need to drive.”
“That’s my rig.” She pointed with her chin to a GMC Jimmie with the Fish and Wildlife logo on it. “Where you going? ”
“Browning, Montana, the Blackfeet Reservation.”
She sized him up, considering. “Lost Blackfeet,” she thought. “A city Indian. Poor guy.”
Aloud she said, “Me, too. Want a ride?”
He didn’t hesitate. With a big grin he said, “Definitely!”
Margaret put her daughter and the dog into the back seat and the hitchhiker into the front. “What are those square wooden boxes way in the back?” he asked.
“Well, that’s why I’m down here. The boxes contain the bones of ancestors and I’m taking them home.”
“That’s it. They’ve been stuck in the drawers of museums for long enough.” She had not seen the insides of the boxes, but in her mind she didn’t see detached bones and skulls. Rather she saw ancient, curled up people, more like mummies. The faces wouldn’t come clear for her. Instead she thought of their hands, gnarled and bronze, wearing fine copper wire rings, blue beads on thongs for bracelets.
“Where you from?” she asked the young man, judging that she was not quite enough older to be his mother.
“L.A. I’m Blackfeet — at least partly — so I’m sort of coming home, too, but I’ve never been here. Do we have far to go?”
“Depends on the weather. Anything can happen this time of year. It’s a little late in the day — early in the season.” He didn’t notice that she’d answered in time rather than space. The Jimmie swung onto I-15 and started north through low hills.
The daughter hung over the back of the seat. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“It’s sort of embarrassing — Lance. I know, it’s corny.”
“I don’t think it’s corny. I’m Tug.”
“That’s sort of unusual.”
“Actually,” said Margaret, “She’s Margaret Two, but her dad always called her Tug.”
Tug said, “My dad was my Man o’War so he said I was his Tug o’War!”
Lori Piestewa, Hopi – KIA
She saw the question cross Lance’s face — “Where’s her father?” — but he didn’t say it. She answered anyway. “Died in combat in Iraq II. That’s where we met — both of us in Desert Storm. He was Blackfeet, too. We knew each other here on the rez, but it wasn’t like being two Blackfeet far from home. Though, you know, the Middle East was kind of like the way Montana was a century or two ago.”
Tug said, “My mom has a master’s degree.”
“Biology,” said Margaret. “GI Bill.” She looked sideways again. “And you?”
He was uncomfortable, pushing his gear around. “Kinda hard to explain. I’m a lighting technician for shows. Dance troupes. Rock concerts.”
They traveled parallel to the Rocky Mountains some miles to the west. The sun slipped behind clouds pushing over the mountains. Sunset bleached to silver and side-lit the contrails left by jets across the darkening sky. Lance thought, “I must remember this.”
“I’m driving back on the freeway to get us home a little faster, otherwise I’d go up highway 89 the whole way. It’s almost built on the Old North Trail, you know. In places you can still see travois ruts from the old days. Not from the road, but if you know where to look.” The dog was scrambling around in the back seat and began to bark.
Tug yelled, “Stop, Mom! Stop! It’s Timmie Old Pipe!”
Away from the city the dark was gathering quickly, but they could make out a slow tall figure in a long black coat and a muskrat hat so big and shapeless it looked like the actual animal on his head. Maybe two of them. He was walking, carrying a staff. It was illegal to walk on I-15. “Omigosh! Illegal and everything else!” Margaret pulled over and waited for the ancient slow figure to catch up. He saw them but didn’t move any faster.
“What’s happening,” asked Lance.
“Oh, he hitch-hikes everywhere even though he’s practically a hundred years old. They made ‘em tough in his day. He knows he’ll always get a ride but… maybe some day he won’t.” She checked the mountains again. “This storm could catch us.”
Timmie got into the back with the girl and the dog, nodding to all of them. “Eekso kahpi,” he said, signing “very good” with the blade of his hand sweeping horizontally out from his heart. Margaret nudged the heat up. He smelled of wool, woodsmoke, sweetgrass, tobacco, and ranker things. They passed a rest stop but when Margaret checked the backseat in her rearview mirror, all three riders were asleep, leaning against each other. Imitah — stretched across the laps of the girl and old man — opened one eye, sighed, stretched and went back to sleep. Then a super-elevator grain-loading station.
“The railroad never gives up,” explained Margaret. “Now they want the farmers to truck their wheat for miles to make it more convenient for trains to load at these big elevators. The little elevators will shrivel up and so will their towns. Some day the farmers will go.”
“Sounds like Indians.”
“We’re all Indians now.”
“Then who are the white people?”
“International corporations. Beyond nations, beyond governments. Not real people.”
Lance thought, “Whoa. A political zealot. Better leave that alone.” Aloud, he asked, “What are these places with high fences and floodlights?”
“Missile silo emplacements. Ever hear of Minutemen missiles? Nuclear warheads. Once I passed by at 3AM when they were loading a new missile. Tall, white, slim, gleaming in the floodlights. Very beautiful. Wipe out civilization as we know it. THEN we’d all be Indians!”
It was dark enough now to see the lights of small towns just off the highway. “What’s the deal with the strobe light over each town?”
“Cell phone relay towers. We gotta talk to each other.”
Margaret turned off to cross an overpass, now heading west. She was pleased to hear that the four boxes in the back were braced so they didn’t shift. She’d stuffed moving pads between them. Snow was beginning to spit on the windshield as they drove towards the Rockies. “We’re on the Valier cut-across now. Normally we’d stop in Valier for coffee, but I think we’d better keep going.”
Panther Cafe in Valier
The rearview mirror showed Timmie, Tug and Imitah still sleeping. “What made you want to come back?”
“My mom died. She was Blackfeet. She wanted me to do it.”
“What about your dad?”
“I never knew him. I don’t know where he is.”
“What was his name?”
Laughing, Lance had to admit another embarrassment. “Hernandez.”
She wasn’t surprised. “Not Blackfeet then.”
“He was — half. His own dad was some kind of Mexican Indian. His mom, my paternal grandmother, was almost full-blood Blackfeet. Went to the city on relocation. Her name was Eats Alone. I never knew her.”
“Heck, that’s a whole band name! What was your mother’s maiden name?” Then she joked to cover what felt like rudeness. “This is not a password confirmation quiz!”
“Child. Her name was longer but that’s the part she used.”
She laughed, clearly pleased. “It is, if you know the whole thing. Was it Surprising Child, maybe? Was she a lawyer?”
“Yeah. But towards the end she did more consulting than law. Why?”
“My cousin is Jay-Jay Saint John. She acted as his lawyer once, got him out of a scrape.”
“I don’t know anything about it. She never had much time to talk.”
“How did she die?”
“Diabetes. She had pretty good medical care, but she never ate right and forgot her shots. She was really driven to try to change the world. Traveled all the time, even overseas. An infection got out of hand.”
“You’ll find, Lance Hernandez, that you have friends and relatives on this rez.”
They were past the village of Valier, past the big Hutterite colony, and now turning to the right so they were going north again. Just past the Birch Creek bridge they passed two tall horseback figures in warbonnets welded together from the parts of wrecked cars.. “What was THAT?”
Jay Laber, artist
“The Guardians. An artist made four sets, one for each entrance to the rez. Using our natural resources — junked cars. Smart, huh?”
“They’re spooky.” He turned his head to keep an eye on them while they passed.
“Power figures. Now we’re on the Reservation.” Margaret didn’t hear the muttering and jostling in the boxes, but she did realize that Timmie Old Pipe had begun to sing Indian under his breath. His eyes were closed. Imitah whined and muttered. Tug was smiling, her eyes moving as she dreamt, maybe about the Nitzitahpi, the old-timers.
The snow was thick now, accumulating on the road. Margaret was really concentrating. “Watch for livestock, Lance. This is open range.” They crossed a second bridge. “That’s Badger Creek.”
The snow was too thick to see scenery. The headlights made a wall of hypnotizing swirling white dots. By the third creek, Two Medicine, they were engulfed in a serious blizzard, especially slippery and heavy because it was relatively warm, right at the point of freezing. Visibility was near zero. Slush grabbed at the wheels. “You can start praying now,” said Margaret.
The Jimmie fishtailed going up the hill out of Two Med valley and barely had enough traction to make it to the top. Then they were on flats for a while. “The Y is always the worst.”
“What’s the Y.”
“Where the east-west Highway 2 joins north-south Highway 89 — or just before that actually — on Spring Hill — there’s a cut that snows shut. They’ve tried to flatten it out with bulldozers, but it still happens sometimes. It’s where all the repeaters and relays and microwave dishes are — a big communication crossroads. Should be right along about… Uh-oh.”
Margaret saw the massive snowbank, decided in a split-second to hit it as hard as she could in hopes of breaking through, and the jolt woke up her passengers. Even the boxes shifted a bit and if she hadn’t been preoccupied with the state of the vehicle, she might have heard murmuring. Old Pipe heard it. He kept singing.
“Are we stuck this time, Mom?” asked Tug.
“Sure seems like it.”
Snow piled up on the windows and when Margaret pushed her door open a bit, she could see they were embedded over the hood.
“Should I get out and shovel?” asked Lance.
“Naw. Just get hypothermia. They’ll come dig us out when it’s light.” She dug around under the seat and pulled out a thermos of hot coffee and a couple of hard candies she passed back to Tug. The old man shook his head at both coffee and candy. “Sorry I don’t carry booze. Some do, but I don’t hold with it.” Snow whispered against the dark rig. The old man in the back said something in Blackfeet.
“What did he say,” asked Lance.
“Dunno. Didn’t catch it.” They were both slumped down in their seats, unmoving, the dash lights barely lighting their faces. Even in the greenish light, Lance definitely looked Indian.
After a while he said, “Tell me something about what you do.”
“I work with the bear management team.”
“What does that mean?”
“This is one of the last places on the planet where grizzlies can be. We study them. Bears are sacred to us, so we want to know them and help them.”
“Do you dart them with guns? Put radio collars on them?”
“Yup.” She didn’t like thinking about that part. She hated thinking about the powerful animals gone limp and drooling, their eyes staring and unblinking so that one of her jobs was squeezing ointment into them to protect the corneas. But she realized that she had sounded curt, so she tried to think of something better to tell him. It really was important work.
“Once I held a little small cub while we worked on his mother. I put him inside my jacket and he didn’t fight me. They usually fight, you know, even when they’re so tiny. But this one just curled up against me, right over my heart. That might have been the secret, my heart beating. Sounded like a bear’s heart, maybe.”
“Braveheart,” he said without thinking.
“Yeah. I saw the movie. But I wouldn’t like my supoostsies torn out! White people are so darn drastic.”
“Guts. Supoostsies are guts. The old folks used to like to eat ’em. Buff’lo supoostsies, anyway.”
“Oh.” He tried to think ofsomething intelligent to say. Then there was noise outside the Jimmie. “Hey, someone’s coming! We’re rescued!”
“I don’t think so.”
Huge shapes loomed up against the snow, more a change of density and temperature than of darkness. The vehicle rocked a bit as the shapes passed by, brushing against the metal skin of the Jimmie.
“What is it? What’s happening?” Lance tried to keep the panic out of his voice.
“Buff’lo. We must’ve called ’em up. This is a strong medicine night.”
One great shape stopped by Lance’s window. Margaret groped for her flashlight and shone it. There in the window, like the eye of the Tyrannasourus Rex in Jurassic Park, was the eye of a bull buffalo. The round dark eye blinked, unperturbed, and then moved on out into the whirling snow. Margaret explained. “Buffalo walk into storms because the huge mass of insulating hair on them is in the front. Cows are driven from the rear until they are pinned against fences, where they get trapped and die. Buffalo walk through barbed wire. The ranches couldn’t be fenced until the buffalo were gone.” Ranchers would be struggling to keep their calves alive in this storm, taking out tractor loads of hay and straw for bedding and bringing back newborns to warm in the kitchen.
“Am I dreaming? Is this science fiction? I thought bison were gone.”
“Tribal herd. We were wondering where they went off to. Must have been down along the Two Medicine bluffs.” She stowed the flashlight
“Could you put on the headlights? Maybe we could still see ’em.” But they had gone on. All they could see was the huge snowdrift that had trapped them and the plowed places in it where the buffalo had pushed through. She shut off the heater to save gas.
The two sat quietly, hearing behind them the soft song of the old one and the shallow breath of the young one. Margaret groped around for a blanket in the back seat and pulled it over them. Both their minds turned to the ancient remains in the boxes.
He thought, “If this were a movie, I would cut in a montage of the People in their village. The smoke rising from the lodges, the women going about their work, the men smoking and boasting… all those people belonging together and knowing what to do. And then the camera would go to a young woman in buckskin, cradling a baby bear in her arms. Her face is soft…” He looked sideways at Margaret.
She was thinking about what it must have been like to grip a running horse with your knees and ride up alongside a buffalo, close enough to drive an arrow into its side. As a girl, she made her father angry by riding her pony up on cows. “Don’t you know you’re just runnin’ the money offa them cows?” he would demand.
“We can’t go back to the old days, can we?” said Lance.
“No.” She meant both the old times and her childhood.
“How do we go forward?”
“I don’t know yet. Just beginning to figure it out.”
A voice came from the back seat. “Follow Star Boy,” said the old man. The wind was dying down. The clouds had torn and begun to clear away. “Gonna be cold,” said the old man. “Better run the heater.”
Margaret turned the key to start the motor. In the sky was the Morning Star. “See, Lance. There’s that Star Boy. He’s the one who walks in the morning.”
Lance looked and laughed a little. “The planet Venus. Follow love.”
“Could do worse,” remarked the old man.
The front seat people looked out at the stars gathering between the clouds, seeming to push them out of the way — so many stars so close together there was hardly room for darkness.
“It’s ironic,” said Margaret. “The whites came swarming over the west and smashed our way of life because they thought they were so right, so progressive, so scientific, so enlightened — in the end it turned out it was the Indians who had it right.”
“What do you mean?”
“Their science, the kind that has given us so much technical and amazing stuff, that was so based on experiments and experts, now says that the world is made the way the Indians always knew it was made — not just for humans, but for all life, interwoven, cycling, and always changing. They were so sure we were savages and here we are, at the cutting edge of the future, using the genome and exploring geology while they’re still stuck on Creationism. Do you know that the human genome includes the genomes of every creature that has gone before? The genome of that dog back there is very close to being the same as our genome.” Lance looked dubious.
“We’re brave enough to challenge the United States Government to straighten out our trust funds, which they managed because they said we were too stupid to do it.
“Not only that, because we got so good at fire-fighting with our teams of hot-shots, now we’re called on to do things that the National Guard used to do. We recovered the debris from the space shuttle that disintegrated on reentry. I went along with the team to New Orleans to help those people. We’ve always known how to recover from disasters, how to accept loss and go on, to call our families back together, to rebuild, to fit ourselves to the new lives and yet not abandon the old. Now it is the Indians who take care of the whole country, who show them how.”
“I didn’t know.”
“You know what they said about the Blackfeet in New Orleans? They said they loved that we joked while we worked. And that we knew how to rough it without a lot of fancy stuff.”
Soft voices, almost too quiet to hear, came from the boxes of bones. An old woman said, “I knew them horses would never last.” An old man whispered, “That bird could talk.” Another, “His hair was bright.” More voices, braiding together. “So that’s where the buffalo went.” Old Pipe and the dog could hear the talk, but the others only felt it. They sensed all of time and space stretching out there, an unthinkable vastness that nevertheless included them all in dancing complexity.
Then Tug was saying, “Old Pipe has gone!” She was right. He wasn’t in the rig but there were no tracks leading away, no sign the door had been opened. None of them heard it open or felt a burst of cold air.
“We’d better go look for him before he freezes to death!” cried Lance.
Margaret thought a minute. “I’m not sure he was ever really here. I mean, he’s always HERE, but I’m not sure in the same way we’re here.”
“There are no tracks! Is he a ghost?”
“Probably the wind blew them away,” said Margaret matter-of-factly. “His son lives just over that way.”
When the lights of the big BIA plow began to work towards them through the drifts, the sky was barely beginning to pale. By the time they were dug out and past the Y, around the curve and crossing the railroad track overpass, the sky was steel blue, then straw, and finally amber shading into rose. The little town of Browning with its water towers stood on the snowy prairie before the Rocky Mountains as pure and new as they ever looked.
“The Sun comes up,” said Tug. “Natoosie.”
“Be green again by noon,” said Margaret.
And Lance breathed, “So this is home.” Imitah barked, meaning the same
The bones grinned, but they always do that. Wherever they are.