Thursday, November 15, 2007

On Big Warm Creek, Living as a Free People

On Big Warm Creek, Living as a Free People

By Brenda Norrell
Special to Navajo Times
Part II of III
BIG WARM CREEK, Montana – Vernie White Cow Main of the White Clay People, remembers the log house where she grew up, the June berries she once picked and the wild horses in the mountains. She also remembers her son Jim Main, Jr., incarcerated in a bordertown for a crime he said he did not commit.
Seated at the table in her kitchen, eating fresh salmon brought toher by friends, the Sohappy family of the Columbia River Indian Nation, Vernie remembers life along Big Warm Creek on Fort Belknap Nation lands.
Seated at her kitchen table, near the huge wood stove for heat and surrounded by family photos and deer antlers, she looks out back at the log cabin where she grew up.
"I was born in there. My whole family was born in there. We had 14 children," Vernie Main says of her childhood, remembering two sets of twins.
Three of the four died in childhood.Remembering her father, she says, "He was always working. He would put in a garden and cut his own hay, but it wasn't like it was today."There were no hay bailers or farm machinery; they worked the land with their hands.
They also hunted. There was dry meat, both deer meat and antelope.
The family hunted sage hens, pheasants and wild turkey.
"I remember a really hard time," she said, asking her daughter Rose Main for the words for those hard times. Rose says those words: "TheDepression."
Vernie remembers, "We ate horse meat. Indians didn't really like to eat horsemeat. They didn't like to eat the horses. We must have beenpretty hungry to eat horse meat," she remembers.
Remembering the mid-Twentieth Century, she recalls the elderly Indian man that lived higher up the mountain, where they went with a barrel for water to the spring. He kept the old ways."
He painted himself red," she said.
With a warm flowing stream near the log cabin, there was swimming and healing."We swam everyday in summer." There were also chores, like picking up wood chips and milking the cows."We used to take turns milking them. We would put that milk in a jar. In the morning, it would be cream. We spread it over our bread in the morning."
There was also wheel bread, skillet-size rounds of bread dough cooked in a small amount of grease. "A lot of times we didn't have enough grease to make fry bread."
There were many hard times, after the fire in the Little Rocky Mountains burned up their food sources in 1936. Even now some of the devastation remains.
Then, there was the cold in northern Montana. She remembers it once being 50 below zero F.Remembering her mother, washing clothes by hand and usually at the cook stove, she said, "I never heard her complain."
The sweet life ended when she was about 10 years old. The federal government took her from her family, along with her brother, and placed them in a far away boarding school in Pierre, S.D. Pierre Indian School forced her to remain there in the summer months, and work the fields.The young girl did not see her family for three years.
"I was so lonely."When they took her away, the government placed shoes on her feet that were too small. The painful shoes kept her feet from growing properly and led to a lifetime of ruined feet. At home, she loved working with her father in the garden and watching their radishes andturnips grow. However, at the boarding school, with mean matrons, there was no joy in working the fields.
"They talked mean."
Now, she remembers her son, incarcerated in the Hill County Detention Center in the bordertown of Havre, charged with a murder he said he did not commit. He had been her full-time caregiver at home, as she recovered from two operations.
"I can't believe they put him in jail and kept him that long."
"He was always laughing and talking, always laughing. He was taking care of me at the time they put him in jail. He kept the fire going all night, he did everything."
She said the boys, her grandsons and his cousins, miss him too. "He took them fishing and to ride horseback. They would ride all day to Lodge Pole. The little one was afraid of the horses, but he is learning."
Her daughter Rose remembers one day when all the men and boys in the family went hunting for deer. While they were gone, she spotted a mule deer down below. She placed a pillow on her shoulder and fired.
"I dropped it in one shot. Mom walked down there and gutted it out. The men came back empty-handed and there was a deer already here."Rose, with a master's degree in public administration, is now caring for both parents. It is a full-time labor of love.
"We were raised a close-nit family. We came from a long line of leadership. My great-grandfather was the last traditional chief before the Indian Relocation Act, the new form of government,” Rose said of her great-grandfather Chief Lame Bull.
Rose’s grandfather Tom Main represented the Gros-Ventre and made many trips to Washington, a stalwart voice for his people. Tom, raised by his Grandfather Chief Lame Bull, was on the first executive committee of the National Congress of American Indians.
With a voice that championed Indian rights, Tom Main told NCAI, "Let us no longer yield or surrender to any force that has ignored andviolated Indian rights for so long."
Vernie White Cow Main, too, was descended from medicine people. Her mother's father was White Cow, son of the Great Chief and Warrior Chief Bushy Head, descended from Chief Blue Bird and Chief White Eagle.
The Gros-Ventre refer to themselves as the "White Clay People,"which refers to the natural mineral along the riverbeds. Their ancestral territory is north of the Milk River, including the Bear Paw Mountains, Little Rockies (known to them as the "Fur Caps") and the Sweet Grass Hills. Chief Joseph made his last stand her in the Bear PawMountains.
Living in the presence of history, place and spirit, the people have maintained their connection to the Earth.
The words of the final journey of one of their ancestor's Lone Fly, was carried in a May 21, 1920, newspaper article in the Montana Idea.
Lone Fly, 86, rubbed his feet into the earth and said, "This is the last time I will see you," Lone Fly told the Earth, and offered thanks and prayers for his relatives and grandchildren.
Eating the huge salmon that visitors have brought from the westcoast, Rose's mother Vernie, smiles remembers the good time along Big Warm Creek. The next day, however, her condition worsened and she was hospitalized with respiratory problems.

Update: Vernie and James Sr. continue to struggle with their health at home on Fort Belknap. Jim Jr. remains in the Havre jail, waiting for the January trial.Continued in Part III
Photos by Brenda Norrell/Vernie White Cow Main and daughter Rose at home on Big Warm Creek. (2) Rose standing by the log cabin where her mother was born, behind their current home, on the path where the wild horses come down from the mountains.
Part I: In Montana, Indians are guilty until proven innocent

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Censored News is published by censored journalist Brenda Norrell. A journalist for 27 years, Brenda lived on the Navajo Nation for 18 years, writing for Navajo Times, AP, USA Today, Lakota Times and other American Indian publications. After being censored and then terminated by Indian Country Today in 2006, she began the Censored Blog to document the most censored issues. She currently serves as human rights editor for the U.N. OBSERVER & International Report at the Hague and contributor to Sri Lanka Guardian, Narco News and CounterPunch. She was cohost of the 5-month Longest Walk Talk Radio across America, with Earthcycles Producer Govinda Dalton in 2008:
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