American Sabbatical 026: 10/3/96

Big Hole


Your intrepid correspondent has been silenced by mal de highway, otherwise known as chicken-fried steak at Papa-T’s. I’ll pick up the trail in sequence, but you can imagine a personal geyser erupting faithfully in the background.

We felt GREAT after a day’s R&R on the edge of the Yellowstone Plateau and set off reasonably early headed north-east up the Yellowstone Valley. (It’s hard to judge morning time by the light out here. Ol’ Mother Sun doesn’t peek into the valleys until the day is well underway, and then the light has a washed out quality that doesn’t give a clue about the hour.) The rangeland in these great upland basins looks like rich pasturage after the sage deserts of Wyoming, and the big ranch houses with their clusters of corrals and outbuildings, seem quite affluent.

Hay Architecture

Somewhere in the Dakotas I stopped remarking on the architecture, probably because it was trying to hide. The barns had turned into quonset huts and the houses were lying low under the prairie winds. You realize that the ranch house fits the plains landscape, and all those misplaced “ranch” bungalows in New England may be just someone’s dream of the wild frontier, where you keep your head down. But over in western Montana the barns stand back up in bold Dutch lines, and the log houses, old and new, rule. Despite the look of affluence, however, the locals say that ranching doesn’t pay. The price of cattle hasn’t recovered from a steep fall in the 70’s. That may be just like the lobstermen saying the fishing is poorly, though.

We cruised up the valley between the Absarokas and the Gallatin Mountains, surfing the FM and admiring the hay art. You can tell that Montana is full of them Liberals, cause every other hop on the scanner is NPR. Back on the plains it was solid Garth Brooks. There were even spots in the Dakotas where FM scanning was a desert of rolling digits. I’d forgotten that AM radio was the longhaulers’ medium of choice, and we listened to sowbelly future prices on the long hop out of Omaha, while deep in Wyoming. It was a jolt to be back in FM-land with the Stanbergs and the Keillors, and I jumped back to the AM where real ‘Mericans know that Clinton isn’t the answer.

Then it was a long climb west over the Bridger Range, through the Bozeman Pass, and a flying descent into the valley of the Gallatin.. and the smutch over Bozeman. Out here in the Big Sky Country we encountered our first visible air pollution. Inversions over mountain valleys, a return to civilization.

We had been told not to miss the Museum of the Rocky Mountains, and despite our increasing museumitis, we dutifully navigated to the University. These Western campuses sprawl over the turf, and there’s no way you could get around them without a car. Hence the smutch. Academic exhalations. The museum, another brand-new building, was hardby a new sub-division of oversized ranchettes, all stained-wood and glass walls. Home of the assistant professors, no doubt.

Montana Skyline

Inside was an up-to-the-minute kinetic display of the geotechtonics of the mountains, and lots of hands-on exhibits for the dinosaur lover. The one about coprolites didn’t grab me. Here I’d made a long noise about wanting a quick course in geology, and the state of Montana was obliging me with an interactive elementary exposition deluxe. Sad to say, the splendid Disney-style dioramas left me just as ignorant as usual. I did read through the intro chapters in the Roadside Geology of Montana in the bookstore, which helped some, but I couldn’t seem to come to grips with the essence of these mountains through textual science, either.

High Country Harvester
The long drive across the plains had thinned out the human resonances, as the land had risen. Now traveling north along the great divide the landforms dominate consciousness, overwhelm sketchbook esthetics, and leave me struggling for a sense of intuitive understanding. And the mountains stand back from you. The paved roads hug the watersheds or cross over the saddles or through the gaps between ranges. Clothed with black pines or snow-capped and bare, they are an inescapable presence, always looming large behind the human-scale artifice. But what are they? Would it help to know they are thrust-faulted Precambrian sedimentaries with granitic intrusions?

We took our orogenic obscurities downtown to hunt for a pot-boiler and lunch. Bozeman is a funny mix of cowboy boots and hats with tweed jackets and birkenstocks. It must be a little schizzy to try and be wide open and stuffy in the same glance. The storekeepers have figured out how to deal with the cowboy academic, though: over-charge. Peggy was looking for a secondhand thriller to compete with motel TV. In Bozemen, books are status items, and you couldn’t get an old Kellerman for much less than its cover price. We shouldn’t complain, I guess. We hadn’t been able to find a book STORE for the last couple of weeks. After nosing the emporia on the main drag, I suggested SallyAnn, and sure enough, we came away with two trashy mindnummers for a buck. The clothes at the Salvation Army, I might add, were sorry-looking castoffs. Maine has it all over Wyoming in the secondhand dept.

In the food category, Bozeman was five-star for us. The Azteka serves the best “Spanish” (Mexican-American) chow north of Santa Barbara. A hole-in-the-wall place, it was packed at 2:30PM, and we soon found out why. Yankee-Mex, for me, has always been tongue-torture with the risk of bellyache, so I risked Azteka with some doubts. We were wowed. Everything was from scratch, tender and toothsome, and the price was modest. Maybe I should suspend judgment on Bozeman. Even so, I was glad to put the smutch and the earnestness to stern.

I had come away with an indulgent purchase for the road, myself. I’d been trying to lay hands on one of Ian Tyson’s cowboy albums since we left the Midwest, and finally found one in Bozeman. Ian and Sylvia apparently split up the act back in the dark ages, and Ian went ranching. He’s been writing and producing western music for decades, but it has never crossed the cultural divide. I’ve tried to match our background music to the visuals, and here was a perfect pairing... high wide and handsome. We jacked Ian into the squawkbox and fandangoed down the trail. There’s a gruff edge to that sweet voice, now, and the mandolin picking sounds like woodshedding (or is it haybarning here?), but it was perfect for yodeling along.

Ian Tyson
(From Album Photo)

But the interstate just doesn’t sing to me. We were aimed toward Missoula, and the sister of a friend’s house. But we had two days to get there, and the highroad was too swift. When Peggy spotted the sign for Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, I wheeled her down the ramp, over the cattle guard, and onto the gravel. Festiva was going to gallop again.

Now you’ve got two choices when running the dirt, either you limp along over the shuddering, and dodge the worst bits, or you nail it and hope for the best. Going up the Granite River we had no choice. There the bony bits were too high and often to run at flank speed, but this was level ground.. so letter rip. Skidding on the curves, pulling a thick plume, with the loose gravel thunking underneath, it was like chasing a herd of buffalo at 40mph.

Buffalo Jump
(Alfred Jacob Miller)
The land had turned back into sear prairie grasslands broken by limestone bluffs, falling suddenly to the west. Was this one the jump? Or that one? Then we were there. The park parking sits on a rise in a semicircle of bluffs surrounded by absolute stillness. The map showed how the conformation of approaching prairie funneled the driven bison to the height before us, and where there had been eagle snaring pits dug into the bluff to our left. You had to catch your eagle by hand, of course. What I caught at the buffalo jump was a bit of the timeless silence. No thundering hooves, no screaming eagles. Just sunwashed prairie and the rustle of the grass.

Then we were far enough down the dirt that we might as well gallop on and see where it takes us. Where was the valley of the Madison River where it cuts through the head of the Madison Range, and we were completely taken. This is premier sport -fishing country, and we began to see dories full of sports flailing away with flyrods. Naturally they call these dories Something River boats, but they’s dories, me son.

The rock cliffs intruding to the river’s edge were almost black, and the contrast with the wheat-white grasses was stunning. We were grinning widely as we yodeled back onto the hot-top. From there we zigged and zagged until we hit Virginia City and mining country. It’s a bit strange to snake down into these dessicated wood towns with their stagefront facades and plank sidewalks, assaying offices and town jails, only to find designer period reproduction clothes in the millinery and outfitting establishments. At least Virginia City seems to be a thriving ghost town. Maybe that’s because there seem to be some active mines in the area. All we saw of them was the devastation they’d wrecked on the river bottom. Just a sea of boulders and gravel and choked willow tangles. We considered malingering in Virginia City, checking out a B&B in one of the old bordellos, but our burritos were settled nicely, and we felt like a few more miles.

Big mistake. When we rolled into Dillon, it was to find one of those gritty industrial burgs thrown up on a dusty flat without even a near mountainscape to draw your eye. There was a wickedgood display of cemented trash-art at the local junkatorium, with a junkyard dog to match, and..greatest charm of all.. a Super8.

River after Goldmining

And Papa-T’s. It looked OK. There were bunches of rancher-types crowding through the doorway, and we’d had such good luck in the food line that day. Inside, Papa-T’s had all the ambiance of the 10-4 Diner in Liberty (Maine). Low, long and wide, with bare wood floors and long wooden tables, a bar down one wall, and the jukebox wailing. But this had it all over the 10-4. This was a Montana Cuisino, with illumination by slot-machine and electronic blackjack. Just the place to take Motha for a little sportin action at chow time.

Two youngsters were hustling the eats at a dead run, serving maybe 50 head. The tables were slick with grease, and the wait staff was shoveling the refuse onto the floor with their forearms between servings. I mean it had charm. The menu had absolutely nothing that your careful diabetic should come within a mile of. But, what-the-hell, this is real man country. We’d been driving past about a million big-macs on-the-hoof a day. Maybe it was a time to loosen up and bite a bit of beef. And I’d never eaten chicken-fried steak.

Could have used some
“On your head be it,” Peggy said, knowing it wouldn’t do any good to chide me. Well, more like: on my shoe. It was a long night in Dillon.

Sometimes you have to wound yourself to see behind things. Around 3AM, I was moaning for mercy and trying to scorch it out in a tub of scaling water, when I began to get glimpses of the mystery of the mountains. I’d heard of crying for a vision, and drumming for a vision, taking hallucinogens, but eating chicken-fried steak....?

In that dissociated state I began to see figures in the landscape. Vast shoulders and backs rising from the plains, immense hands breaking through the fabric of earth, and bony fingers thrusting up as pinnacles in the sky. I’d spent the last week trying to fathom the depths of these mountains with a rational line, and suddenly I was granted an anthromorphology of the hills. Do you think Georgia Okeefe ate chicken-fried steak?

Friday was a long painful day. Peggy did most of the driving while I hugged a pillow and groaned. We drove across Big Hole, land of ten thousand haystacks, where the ranchers build mountains of forage and fence them in until winter. We stopped in Big Hole and walked the site of a battle between the Nez Perce and the bluecoats, but I was too shot full of holes to appreciate it. Like Lewis and Clark we had crossed and recrossed the continental divide in our attempt to discover an historic path over America (and had trouble with our rations). Now we ascended Chief Joseph Pass, up out of the rich grasslands and back into the black lodgepoles and ponderosas, then swooped down the steep slopes into the Valley of the Bitterroot. We were back in the Columbia watershed, and ready to move on. The staggering country looked as I’d imagined Idaho does, and with good reason, Idaho was all of a mile away.

Someone in the Montana Highway Department has a sense of humor. The signs kept saying sixty-something miles to Missoula, for about 30 miles, and they kept stretching the road out in front of us. When we finally stumbled onto Cynthia’s doorstep, all they could do was pilot me to bed and cover me up.

Tipis at Big Hole

(Memo #26)

Oct. 4 - Nez Perce War - Chief Joseph

Who? Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and 750 members of his tribal faction

What? flight of his group and battle with US Cavalry

Where ? Big Hole Valley, Southwest Montana

When? 1877

How? rancorous treaty negotiations created tribal factions and one group (under Chief Joseph) fled the new reservation and were pursued by cavalry

Topics: federal Indian policy, culture contact, culture clash, Nez Perce, Chief Joseph

Questions: Was violence between Native Americans and white settlers inevitable? Were there men of honor and peace who tried to prevent violence?

Chief Joseph
(Edward Curtis 1903)

For two days after we left Yellowstone we meandered through beautiful southwest Montana. We stopped at the a buffalo kill site where Native Americans ran herds off a cliff. All there was to see was a beautiful cliff with grassy slopes sweeping up to i t. We drove up the gorgeous Madison River with river fishermen working from dories. Along the Tobacco Root mountains and then west again up over a high pass to the Big Hole valley where mountain men would spend the winters. We visited the site of the Battle of Big Hole where US troops and Nez Perce Indians fought in 1877.

Scene at Buffalo Jump

“I recognize the fact that the Indian must yield to the white man but power is not justice, force is not law.”

- Major Clay Wood

The Indians of the northern Rocky mountain areas - the Nez Perce, Kootenai, Salish - had a mixed economy when the white man came. They hunted buffalo and elk, collected berries and roots in their mountains and valleys. They would regularly travel east to trade with the Plains tribes. The Nez Perce were known for the horses they carefully bred. The Nez Perce welcomed the first explorers who would bring useful trade goods, they thought. They aided Lewis and Clark on their travels and Marcus Whitman was sent out as a missionary at the request of Nez Perce. (Their name is an inaccurate French label since they never did use nose ornaments, and probably comes from the sign language gesture used to identify the tribe). There seems to have been initial goodwill and cooperation between white settlers and the Nez Perce.

Is it population pressure or flat greed that changes the balance in culture contact situations? In the northern Rockies, it was gold discoveries and the railroad’s extension that lead to white demands for Indian land and for the removal of the Indian population to reservations. The concept of preserving reservations for Indians sounds logical IF the land was their ancestral land and IF their rights were upheld. Neither of these conditions occurred very often.

And then longhorns

A treaty was drawn up in 1855 that reserved thirteen million acres of their original homelands for the Nez Perce. Then gold was discovered. A second treaty was demanded by the whites in 1863 that was to decrease Nez Perce lands by 90%. Fifty thousand dollars were offered in compensation. Both treaties were backed by threats of white violence if they weren’t accepted. The 1863 negotiations split the tribe into two factions, those that supported the treaty and those who didn’t. The treaty was put through despite the opposition of a large number of Nez Perce. The war of 1877 came about when the army finally got to work confining the Nez Perce to the smaller 1863 reservation. Tribal leaders asked for time to collect their widespread stock; it was denied. During the forced removal, Nez Perce killed a few whites that they said had cheated them. The army moved in.

Big Hole
750 Nez Perce decided to flee the confinement and seek asylum with other tribes to the east. They hoped to avoid war and said repeatedly that they just wanted to be left alone. During this circuitous 1,170 mile flight across Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, Chief Joseph became the acknowledged leader. The army dogged their steps and there were a series of small battles.

In early August 1877 the fleeing bands had gotten across the Bitterroot Mountains and camped in the Big Hole valley . Certain they had outdistanced their pursuers, the Nez Perce posted no guards. An army column moved in and attacked at dawn. Men, women, and child were killed before the Nez Perce regrouped. The Indians counterattacked, capturing the one large gun (which they dismantled) and keeping the soldiers pinned down for over twenty-four hours as the bands broke camp, and moved out. This was the Battle of the big Hole.

The army followed the bands and the Nez Perce fought and fell back and fought and fell back until Chief Joseph (with an eloquent speech) surrendered, announcing that he would “fight no more forever”. The bands were just fourteen miles from Canada. Many participants - even army officers - questioned the government tactics in the treatment of the Nez Perce. Could we/should we have just let them go?

Battle Site

The battlefield (which is, ironically, west of the town of Wisdom, Montana) is a beautiful site. There is a small creek that winds through grassy meadows at the foot of steep slopes. Willow thickets grow along the watercourse. The nearby hillside was and is bare of trees, but the farther slopes are heavily wooded. A small visitor building is on a hill to the east. Guides show slides and movies and a small collection of Army and Nez Perce artifacts (the canon seized by the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph’s coat and some reproductions of army gear). I was impressed by the balanced presentation and the sensitivity to the claims of both sides in the battle. A balcony shaped like an arrowhead overlooks the whole area. We drove down to the meadows and followed a trail to the site of the Nez Perce camp, walking for ten minutes through willow thickets and grass. A second trail lead up to the hillside where the site the troops fortified in defense can still be seen. Open tipis constructed just of poles showed the large village by the creek. Small signs identified the tipis’ owners. Small cutouts of army hats and feathers were placed in the grass to show where bodies had been. The signs were small and unobtrusive. I could put my back to the visitor building and see no signs of the modern age. The wind and the creek provided the only noise except for phantom yells and gunfire.

Chief Joseph

“We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life introduced disease and decay among them and it was for this and against this they made war. Could anyone expect less?” - General Philip Sheridan

“If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them all the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow...Whenever the white man treats the Indians as they treat each other, then we shall have no more wars.. For this time the Indian race are waiting and praying” - Chief Joseph

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