An Old Woman Quarrel by Jay Hansford C Vest

It was an Old Woman quarrel; a time when she wrestles with herself, they say.  “Kippataki,”he said, as we looked into the October night where the prairie lay bathed in a moonshadow while frost crunched beneath our feet.  “Careful,” cautioned the Old Man, “when she kicks her leg out like that, you might get more than you bargained for.”

We were coming back from one of Jake’s gigs across the river on a ranch in the Big Belt Mountains near White Sulpher Springs.  They say the Blackfeet built war lodges in these parts when going to look in on the treatment of horses among the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Crow who were notorious for abusing their ponies.  No self respecting Blackfoot could suffer the abuse of horses so they were compelled to examine the animals and liberate the ones in need of rehabilitation.  Warriors traveled in pairs, nisku they called it – comrades for life – closer than brothers and committed to give their life for each other.  Only two things could break a niskuni bond, gambling with each other and an Old Woman quarrel.

So I mused as we left the Big Belt Mountains where Jake had been playing at a dude ranch owned by some rich Republicans from Florida.  Somehow I could not help but think there were parallels in the story – something to be found like in the business of caring for horses.  Coming down on the big river, I looked out to see the ancient crossing place, imagining Indians and horses sluicing through the waters while evading their pursuers.  The Old Man had pointed out the place, telling me with squinted eyes, “That’s where the people used to cross.  If you look closely you will see the warriors and horses.  The Old Woman crosses there, you have to watch for her in the night.  Her image still glistens on the waters.”

Shortly afterwards, we reached the reservation.  Passing through the cutbanks, I looked for signs of the Isonokops in the earthen slopes.  Huge leg bones had been unearthed here when the highway was constructed, proof of the great wind sucking monster.  I was still looking as we crossed ghost ridge where six hundred Blackfeet had died in the winter of 1883 after the disappearance of the buffalo.  Is this were the Old Woman threw out her leg, I mused.  Clouds had obscured her face while wolves howled into the night accompanied by ghostly shades of blowing snow in the wind when an army surgeon stole sixteen skulls and bones.  They say their sweethearts are waiting in the valley below, down by the river singing and chanting with berry cakes for their loved ones returning from the war trail.

Stopping at the Town Pump in Browning, Polly carelessly let the door fly open.  Released into a gust of wind, it was bent backwards flush with the fender.  Sprung beyond repair, we struggled to close it and make it fast but permanently shut.  After tanking up with petrol and coffee, we embarked on the Duck Lake road past the Thunderbirds and down into the valley of the old Saint Mary’s where the Buffalo Chalet beckoned.  It was more than a cabin, built by a generation of Blackfeet stone masons, there were images of mountains with ancestors referenced in the colored stone walls.  A sacred mural featuring Nitsokan, the dream bringer – reflecting the power of the butterfly it appeared in the motif of an equal distant cross – visioned in the mountains as per the stylized peaks about its base.  Jake had defined it as a communal lodge where cousins and relations of all rank were welcome and uninhibited by superficial self interests and ownership.  His cousin Bret, with his Navajo girl friend, had taken residence in the old cabin – a prefabricated lodge on runners pulled aside at the head of a draw leading down to the lake.  Bret and Lorna were not home, they had migrated south to the Dinetah for winter in the sun to escape a Skinwalker.

Polly approached the door and gave a start with fear echoing in a piercing cry across the lake.  Someone had left the portal open and it was apparent there had been a forced entry.  We accessed the house fanning out to look for intruders and missing objects.  Again Polly gasped, this time upon looking into the bedroom, which had been ransacked and left in utter disarray.  Jake had descended into the basement and I had checked the upstairs.  On my way back to the main level, I noticed all his expensive audio equipment had been taken.  The intruders had broken through the patio door and presumably left the front entrance open after looting the place.  As we stood looking at the loss, I noticed a beaded hair clip in the corner, dusty and dull in its hiding place.  Made with a traditional Navajo sunburst design and for a moment I wondered if it was Lorna’s.

Reaching down, I collected the clip from the dingy corner and handed it to Jake.

“This hair clip belongs to Polly, where did you find it?”

“It was there,” I said, while pointing to the corner, “encrusted with dust and dirt.”

He handed it to Polly without a word and she sheepishly took it to the bedroom to store with her other grooming objects.

It was then I began to reflect on events from the summer; I had come out to the Buffalo Chalet to reacquaint myself with the place where Old Man and Old Woman had created the world.

They say in the long, long ago time Old Man and Old Woman were quarrelling down by the lake. 

     “See I have made light upon the water,” boasted Old Man, “I want to have first say in everything.” 

     Old Woman saw it was true and she responded,

     “In the darkness I will make light in the mountains, everything will glow with a soft silver hue.  It will make the mountains shine and the lake glisten; you will see yourself in a moonshadow.” 

     Old Woman made it so and she decreed,

     “Old Man you may have first say in everything but I shall have last say in everything,” so it was decided.

     Following her somber triumph, the Old Man sought to make her laugh as he determined to play with the design of the peoples faces.

     “Look Old Woman,” he cried, “I will make the people’s mouth vertical so that it opens side to side.  It will be most amusing,” chuckled the Old Man.

     “That is no good,” answered the Old Woman,” when they drink the water will pour out.”  And so she rebuffed the Old Man while making the people’s mouths horizontal and then she smiled at her reflection upon the water.

     With a twinge of self-pity, Old Man again sought to amuse his mate.

     “Look Old Woman lets give the people ten fingers on each hand,” as he mimed his fantasy with a humorous display of ten sticks for fingers on each hand. 

     “That’s no good Old Man,” she again berated him saying, “they must have four fingers and a thumb on each hand so that they may grasp tools of flint, bone, bows and arrows.”

     Cringing at the Old Woman’s rebuke, Old Man retreated to the lake while declaring,

     “Let’s make people to live forever so that there will be no death.” 

     Recalling how Old Woman had mourned the loss of her son, he felt quite smug with this revenge. 

     A plaintive sigh passed through her lips as Old Woman recalled the pain in her heart.  Responding to the Old Man, she quickly recovered asserting,

     “If you do that there will only be room for people in the world and there will be much suffering from hunger and want of a place to live.  Besides without death, there will be no mourning for the dead and the people will not know the value of life.” 

     But then she relented saying,

     Ah well Old Man, if you can make a rock float on the water there, the people will die only for a short time and then return to life.”

     Taking a thin flat rock from the shoreline, Old Man placed it upon the lake and lo it began to float so that Old Woman was amazed at the feat.  It was just then Coyote came walking in the moonlight by the shore.  Seeing the rock floating on the water, he mused to himself – “That is a strange thing, a rock floating on the water.”  In response, he reached out his paw to touch the mysterious rock, which upon contact sank into the depths.  A collective sigh sounded in the mountain fastness and that is why there is death in the world.  So it is said.

Earlier in the summer, upon my arrival, Polly spoke of missing items from the kitchen.  Things being stolen she insisted – kitchen ware, including stainless steel cutlery, cookware, and assorted china – mostly just thrift store items like mismatched bowls, cups, plates, wooden ladles, spoons, and forks, having no pawn value but only the worth vested in them by an old woman.

Two years before Jake had anointed it a communal kitchen and decreed the Buffalo Chalet – “a place for all my relations” many of whom – had helped to construct it.  In those days, Polly had wandered into the place tentative wearing knee pads while helping to put up dry wall and getting by in the makeshift kitchen where she gave no complaints whenever Lorna fluttered about.  Minding the memory, I marveled how quickly and completely Polly had become queen of the Buffalo Chalet.

Having been ceremonially adopted by the old man in Brocket, above the line in the Wild Rose Country, at the near time when I met Jake, there was a long standing bond with the Blackfeet.  Vaguely Polly seemed to understand this relationship declaring, “You are family” when acknowledging my arrival but there was something incomplete, something odd and incongruent in her assessment.  Her notion of traditional bonding was fractured, incoherent within the Blackfeet world.  Hers was more of a popular multicultural sense of modernity.  She envisioned the relationship as some sort of linguistic equivalent where words are simple substitutions for value and coherence like so many replacement parts.  The inner meaning was desolate and vacuous, bound in an empty relativity, given over to “wannabe” cliché.  Polly mimed the insiders desire but never really understood the intrinsic perspective of cultural authenticity.  She compensated for her inadequacy with half-backed tales of an insider’s association.  Her favorite anecdote was to label Jake’s actions of pandering with a reference to “Merton” in an acknowledgment of a womanizing Crow Indian of her acquaintance during study at Montana State University.  It was a cultural relativity lacking in the basics of tribal specificity.

As Polly jabbered away telling me of the kitchenware thefts, she began weaving a sinister narrative bound in stereotype and “wannabe” values.  She told a tale of her Navajo friend who had made a deathbed gift of the beaded hair clip that I had found in the dusty corner.  She explained how her friend in a last dying gasp had wanted her to have the cherished object.  As the dead need their things on the other side, the deathbed gifting rang hollow in my ears as I reflected on traditional Navajo mortuary practices.  Silently I listened to her narrative holding my tongue while recalling Navajo tales of Skinwalkers using personal objects to bewitch the living.  She had cherished the beaded hair clip when one day she took it off leaving it on the communal table while going to the lake to bathe.  Upon her return it was gone, the gifted heirloom had mysteriously disappeared and the only “real” suspect was the Navajo woman – Lorna – sharing Bret’s cabin.

Polly’s persistence in charging Brett and Lorna with thievery began to take its told.  Cousin Harve was over for breakfast, bathed in self-pity, he lamented the loss of his woman but the talk of thieves began to draw him out.  At first he confided to Jake and me,

“Its maybe just a hen fight, two women seeking to rule the roost. “

Within earshot, Polly jumped in saying,

“Jake pays the bills around here.  Brett taps into his power-line.”

Adding to this idea of free loading, Jake remarked,

“Brett’s brain is fried.”

Harve, countered with a story.

After the reservation days came, there was an old fellow who missed his wife.  She had gone off to be with another man. He knew it and he knew where they were.  He saddled his pony and leading his best horse, a white steed, he rode over to the fellow’s place.  She was there just as he knew she would be.  Calmly he explained,

     “I brought you the white horse.  It’s a good horse.  You are going to need that horse.” 

     She began crying and wailing; begging him. 

     He responded,

     “You have your horse.”

     At that, he turned away to mount his pony and rode off.

Jake was enamored and without giving away the meaning, Harve offered another tale.

     There was a guy begging in the street, just a drunk asking for money when the old fellow came along.  Seeing the drunk with his palm up, the old fellow responded,

     “I am not going to give you any money because you will use it to buy more drink.  But I’ll give you this tobacco, you can use it with your prayers.”

The stories produced a profound effect upon Jake; it was apparent, he seemed to look upon Harve as some kind of replacement father figure.

With the tales, Jake got excited; he called the power company and ordered the installation of a new pole and meter so Brett could pay his own bills.  He rushed out to inform Brett of his new decision.  The utter incomprehension was apparent on Brett’s face as he offered something about looking after the place and keeping it secure.

Later while Brett worked nearby my trailer pulling spotted knapweed, Jake came by with a hang dog look and approached him as he prepared to go to the village for ice cream.

“Hey Brett you want us to get you an ice cream bar?”

Looking confused, Brett gasped with a “no thanks,” and turned back to his task.

Polly noted the inconsistent behavior to chastise Jake,

“You don’t send a message by offering to make it up with sweets.”

Next day Polly and Jake were mowing the access road bank, while I worked in my trailer.  My attention was focused on my research when I heard something at my window.  It was a soft rustle of grass moving when she spoke in a subdued voice saying, “Jake wants you to work in the house,” and as an afterthought she added, “he wants you to speak up more.”

In contrast, I had found my trailer comfortable and less distracting to my work as I composed thoughts and research into my book project.  Designed with ample ventilation, the little habitat permitted a breeze to pass through and keep the place refreshed with a gentle scent of the Park atmosphere.  So it began, I was compelled to abandon my genial surroundings and take a place in the house.  Pressed into the duty of a guard dog, I was to keep Lorna out and halt her “stealing ways.”  The prospect troubled me with an anxiety that disrupted my work and gave me an uneasy feeling of being made the victim of Polly’s irrational fantasies.

While the house offered a broadly open and expansive view of the lake and mountains beyond, there was still something confining and daunting in the space that hindered my thoughts and progress.  Practicing a passive solar and thermal cooling regime, they opened the windows of an evening and closed them by mid-morning which kept the space cool and reasonably comfortable.  However, I found the practice confining and it did get warmer than I was accustom to in the trailer where I used a fan during the day to create a cross breeze.  In the house, ventilation was the greater problem particularly with the dogs shut in and generating a canine aroma that was not easy to ignore.  With the afternoon heat, the dog scent became genuinely intolerable.  As a result, I opened the windows seeking some small breeze to evacuate the ugly odor.  Later when Jake and Polly returned, there was a row.  Jake set in on me with a lecture about the role of passive cooling principles used in the Buffalo Chalet.  It seemed rude and demeaning to me as I entered the house to be confronted with his lecture while his children and others looked on.  In response I offered, “It was you who asked me to work in the house and between the rising heat and the smell of the dogs I chose to open the windows.”  There was an edge in my voice that gave onlookers to supply odd glances and whispers as I stood my ground.  Guard duty was not my idea of a summer vacation in the Park.

Following breakfast just days before, I had sat at the table while offering some commentary concerning an important issue.  It was the issue that kept me coming back to the area and in regular contact over the years.  Despite my being in mid-sentence, Polly blurted out, “The talking’s over.”  Her intrusion had caught my words in mid-air as if my remarks had no value.  Having had enough of these interruptions, I made protest commenting upon the rudeness of such behavior particularly since I had been asked to speak up more during our conversations.  The incident created a pallor of unease that haunted my remaining days at the Buffalo Chalet.  Politely thereafter I chuckled at the jokes but I lost my desire to converse and share my thoughts to be dismissed and made light in Polly’s cackle of laughter.

Sensing something wrong on the next day, Jake remarked about my role as his mentor and called it nisku with a failing bravado.  Later I overheard Harve remark, “Now if we can find out what’s wrong with Jace,” as he thought to attend this “social” problem with another visitor.

It was a remark that fairly burnt my ears but I held my tongue and made my way back to the little trailer.  Later Jake came to visit, speaking in a gentle voice he was trying to reassure me.  My response was simple, “if I had my truck, I would leave but I am stuck here and I cannot do anything until I get it back from the shop.”

Jake was quick to remark, “You don’t have to leave,” but the words hung in the air like smoke weighing down the wind.

When Jake departed, my thoughts turned to our first meeting.  It had been way back in the summer of 1988, when I had come to visit the old elders and learn more of their values regarding their sacred places and traditions.  In the process, I had also just published a new article devoted to the role of the wolf in Blackfeet mythology.  Copies were in my satchel as I took a seat in the Babb Café.  Fresh from an adventure in the Badger Two Medicine wildlands that I had affirmed sacred to the Blackfeet in my thesis, I had made a two week foray into the mountain solitudes as a reward to my soul’s academic adventure.  Following the wilderness experience, I had also made my way to Buster Yellow Kidney’s encampment at Mittens Lake.  One of the visitors there invited me to Babb where his wife worked in the café.  She was by profession a school teacher but by necessity worked the café through the summer to keep the family afloat.  The guy was trying to get me to buy a mountainside property as they were going east so his wife could pursue a doctorate in her native Indiana.  Having latched onto my status as an academic scholar, he had little idea of my lack of fiscal well being and prospects at the time.  Yes I had my doctorate and I had worked hard to document the Blackfeet traditions within the sacred mountains, but there had been no money in the work.  So I agreed to see his place and accompanied him to Babb as an act of courtesy but I was not a serious client.  Our visit was nearly over when Jake and his cousin Tom, two tall well presented Indians, entered the café.  They took a seat in an adjacent booth with Jake speaking to my friend.  Jake was discussing a cut from his newly released album, a song honoring wolves that I could not help but overhear.   Having my newly published “Medicine Wolf” article on hand I offered it to Jake.  He began reading it with great interest and soon he took leave to go across the road where he retrieved two cassette copies of his album, as he presented one to each of us.  It was the beginning of a lasting friendship that took us through the marriages, children and an array of travels that always seemed to stand firmly within the Blackfeet Nisku warrior category of relationship.  It had all come to this, an Old Woman quarrel.

Polly made faces in my dreams where I was haunted by her jabbering accusations wherein she condemned Brett and Lorna with allegations of stealing.  She spoke of summer homes being broken into across the lake.  In one case, the perpetrator had lingered over the victim’s cosmetics and other personal items.  Polly just knew it was a woman; she spoke of Navajo pawn being stolen by their own people.  Saying “the poor feel privileged thinking they have a right to take what they do not have,” she cemented her prejudices for all to hear.  Polly concluded, “I just wish she would come and get whatever belongs to her.”  Afterwards, she and Jake went shopping; they returned with new items and marked them with little dabs of paint so as to prevent their theft.

As evening came, Lorna entered the kitchen to collect her kitchenware while doing so she picked up a purple mixing bowl when Jake declared:

“My mom gave me that bowl.”

Lorna answered,

“I bought this bowl in Kalispell.”

Jake then cracked,

“Mom would have wanted you to have it.”

Later this retort became the object of Lorna’s ridicule as he repeated it to visitors while Polly laughed with great vigor.

In the intervening days, Lorna was working on a new job, Polly expressed “worry about those kids,” as if she really cared about them.  In the inner folds of my mind, her remark resonated with hypocrisy.  Earlier in the summer, Jake had been asked to address a meeting of Unitarian leaders.  Surely they had wanted the Blackfeet storyteller and troubadour when they invited him but harkening back to his Catholic parochial education, Jake recounted the wisdom of Saint Francis as if this ecological model trumped his indigenous heritage.  Did the Unitarians really want an Indian’s take on Saint Francis and his lecture to the animals?  Were they themselves not aware of this peculiar insight from Catholic Christianity?  Surely they had invited and Indian to speak of his ancestral ecological vision and wisdom.  Often he had asked me to explain a Native metaphysic of nature and he was very much aware of the traditional stories affirming a Blackfeet organic understanding of the world.  Still when addressing his audiences, he persisted on translating all that I had taught him into a Western imperial interpretation – projecting a Christian theological overview onto his Native ecological heritage as if it could only be understood in these blunt ways of simple location and mind over matter spirituality.

Arriving for the family’s annual climb of Chief Mountain, Jake’s friends began to appear at the Buffalo Chalet.  There was an associate from Alcoholics Anonymous, who found himself surrounded by liberals whom he secretly loathed but yet enjoined for lack of genuine friends from the other side.  An accountant, who played the comic Indian and never knew a speed limit he could observe.  Acting and behaving a lot like the Blackfeet trickster, he reminded me of a clown given to inappropriate behavior, yet Polly adored him as the spiritual master of the place.  As Jake made promises he could not keep, Polly confided to the air: “The man has no boundaries.”  Over the summer, however, it was clear to me she was actively giving him her boundaries and deciding who he should and should not seek as friends.

As I prepared to leave, Polly was again bursting with activity, backing the trailer up and forward to the point of breaking the jack stand, which I forgave with a shrug.  While I awaited with the relief of departure ahead of me, Polly made her best comic imitation of an embrace holding her arm high as if to hug me goodbye.  In that moment, I marveled at the orangutan gesture and waved her off in disgust.  Immediately she ran to the house and soon the cackle of her laughter pervaded the inner sanctum.  It wasn’t enough, however, as she later appeared at the door running to catch us and offering a newly minted glossy magazine devoted to a recreational insider’s perspective on the sacred mountain wildlands as if I was destine to learn something from the shallow outlook of anthropocentric desire.  Gently I responded, “No thank you,” and climbed aboard the pickup for my departure; it could not come too soon in my mind.

 

The landscape fell away open to the prairie vista eastward with a scorching brightness as the morning sun grew upon us.  We drove past Camp Disappointment where Lewis with his intrepid band of explorers ascended the Bear River, he labeled it Marias in honor his fiancé, to quarrel with the Blackfeet over horses.  The encounter led to the death of two young warriors during that long ago voyage of discovery – the only fatalities recorded by the expedition.  It was the sole conflict engaged in by the Corps during the historic exploration of the upper Missouri and Pacific Northwest, but it had come at the expense of the Blackfeet tending to the welfare of horses.

Like so many teenagers of his generation, Jake’s son Luke was head down fixated with his cell phone as I told the story.  Later it was the same as we headed south past the Willow Rounds site of the Baker Massacre where nearly two hundred Blackfeet – mostly old men, women and children – had become victims of an army command decision determined to break the proud warriors from their care of horses.  At the behest of General Sheridan’s order – “Tell Baker to strike them hard” – the cavalry had rode out of Fort Shaw on a January morning in 1870 while temperatures hovered at thirty below zero.

Buffeted by the arctic winds, Colonel E. M. Baker set forth on a mission of punishment aimed at the “renegades” led by Owl Child, son of the plenary leader, Mountain Chief, of the Blackfoot Confederacy.  As the assault commenced, an old man, Chief Heavy Runner came bearing a letter of friendship having been signed by the president while waving an American flag in pleading peace before the “Long Knives.”  Shortly before the breath of Coldmaker had descended upon the Rounds, Owl Child had relocated with his band only to be replaced there by Heavy Runner and his people.  Cut down with the first shot, the old man fell to the frozen ground while the soldiers burned the Blackfeet lodges inhabited with defenseless Indians suffering an outbreak of smallpox; their men away hunting buffalo to slake the winter hunger.  Shameless treachery, I thought, but all Indians have their massacre at the hands of the colonial locusts invading these indigenous lands.  Head down, Luke could only grunt as we passed the haunted site.

We were bound for Conrad, a high plains city named for a trader and dealer in hides.  With the outlay of a half interest in a silver dollar, Charles Conrad had stripped the buffalo from the prairies thereby starving the Blackfeet as the winter came to waylay them with hunger and death.  Abandoning the plains he had left barren, the only trace of his passing was the name and a mansion in Kalispell that spoke to his greed and destruction.

It was the site where my truck had broken down earlier in the summer when I failed to notice a warning light associated with a failed pulley serving the fan belt in cooling the engine.  There I had been hobbled with no escape as I awaited repairs estimated to consume my remaining vacation.  Some kindly folk had towed my trailer northward to the reservation in view of the park at Jake’s Buffalo Chalet.  On a shoe string budget, I was in need of a short-term loan for which there were harsh words bent on holding an invisible line – a boundary imposed upon thirty years of friendship.  Cast in the absolutes of yes and no – my old friend was not himself – even Luke interceded saying “Dad …” but the damage was done.  Hesitating Jake turned back exclaiming – “Niskuni, Niskuni, Niskuni” – while the wind stole away the bravado of his words as our old friendship blew away across the prairie.

Time had come for me to move on down the road, but in the recesses of my mind I thought about what I had learned in the long ago time with the Old Man.  In those early years with the old elders, I had come to know the moon as Kippataki – Old Woman – and that she governs all things feminine.

In the vast spaces stretching out before me, I knew I had seen more of the Old Woman than I had wanted to see.  It was an Old Woman quarrel.