Something about the wide open space and neutral colors of Montana made me remember myself again. Amidst the joyous chaos of children and marriage, friends and publishing contracts, Facebook chatter and favorite TV shows, a heart and brain can fill up with words and faces and moments that can snatch up whole seasons of your time and you can forget yourself.
Mothers understand this reality very well. Yes, I’m sure fathers do too, and attentive pet owners and small business operators, and people who work for nonprofits, clergy and anyone at all who finds themselves consistently devoted to the care of others. But something about Montana restored my Western sense of space, my need to get lost inside the vastness of nature. Big nature. The kind only the American West can produce. This is where I was born and raised – in the Oklahoma Plains and then at the edge of the Pacific Ocean in southern California. My summers were spent in the high desert of Oregon and its warm sun-soaked Rogue Valley and the steamy outskirts of Houston and my grandmother’s big old house in Oklahoma City and my uncle’s tiny childhood home in rust red Claremore, Oklahoma.
These were my places, the home places that defined me: Oklahoma, Oregon, California, and all the places frequented regularly in between – Albuquerque and Gallup, the Joshua Tree National Monument in Needles, the Painted Desert, that giant crater not too far away from it, the Grand Canyon, the Sierra Nevadas, the Cascade Mountains, Crater Lake, long drives and talks about the Oglala Aquifer and the savior it was to family that had survived the Dust Bowl of the 1930s…You simply cannot be brought up with hours of time to ponder and think and plot and decipher among some of the world’s most beautiful wonders and then, move to the East Coast and forget about it all.
But this is what happens when you go to college, and fall in love and have babies and the babies grow and need good school districts, and the Hot Latin Husband has a stable job and you’re building your writing career freelancing for local East Coast newspapers and magazines. And you sort of try to bury that Western longing for space and nature and look for their substitutes in the best places you can find nearby – the Appalachian Trail, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the Chesapeake, Hilton Head Island, the Everglades…But these places, though beautiful and soul-filling, are still compact and so much smaller than the Rockies or even the San Bernardino Mountains that rarely peak above the smog, but you still try for the reach outward anyway.
Riding through Montana on Amtrak two weeks ago, was like taking a long drink after a 20 year dry spell. “Wait until you step off the train in Portland (our final destination),” I say to the Brilliant 10 Year Old, my train companion. He was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and has never been further west than western Maryland. “The air is different here. It’s crisp and clean, and the sky feels bigger. You’ll love it.”
He was eager, and believed me, because he couldn’t stop staring at the largeness of the view outside our train window. The atmosphere in the upper half of Montana is called “Big Sky Country” and it sprawls on and on in a series of golden wheat fields, soft rolling plains and high peaked mountains carved by glaciers millions of years ago, and huge cumulus clouds that have the space and time to form into massive continents of white mist and rain and make spectacle of the varying splitting rays of the afternoon sun onto the earth, which is the color of warm caramel. At sunset, the sky, just like every other place in the great West, spreads a red-bronze-pink blanket of fire above the mountains. In Montana’s case, it’s the Rockies, and their snow-capped peaks literally glow against the burst of reds behind them. And all of this is snaked by the silvery ice-logged Missouri River, which winds and twists between hundreds of acres of grazing land for wild mustangs, big horn sheep, and bald eagles – all of which we saw during our travels. Montana reminded me of a northern version of that same Oklahoma in which I was born and spent many a childhood summer. Only, Oklahoma doesn’t have the sheep content of its northern sister, I’m pretty sure.
But Montana was not all beauty and big tall glacier carvings. It was reservations and broken down trailer parks and BNSF railroad hubs, too. For every wild American horse, there was a huge American scrap metal dump, a 24 hour Casino with a cartoon Native on the sign, and a two hour hotel.
On either side of the Bear Paw Mountains where Chief Joseph said his famous words, “I will fight no more forever,” lay two reservations. In one of them, I saw a school with plywood doors and a 1970’s era school bus that banged and clattered as it rumbled down the dusty streets to take children to their crumbling, slanting homes. Pasty colored trailers that looked hardly stable enough to stand up against the wind storms of the high plains, what the locals call “blinders” because they can steal a man’s sight with the sharp cut of the dust and the snow.
And, indeed, some of these “homes” were already half leaning into the ground, but smoke still poured out of their pencil thin chimneys. These were not even like the reservations I had seen in Oklahoma, or other parts of the U.S. These were deplorable, at least, from my trainside window. One of the big industries butting up against, or sitting directly inside, these reservations was fracking. Lots of fracking. From the Dakotas to the Washington border, you see these big cylinders sticking out of the ground and creating strange high metal sculptures that look as though they want to hide, but nothing can kind in the Plains, so they try to steal the scenery instead.
These were sobering images for me, and made me think of my own Native heritage, but being pale enough to have nearly see-through skin, I always push that heritage aside, because I inwardly assume – no one will ever believe this. My blue eyes make me a fake, the kind of fake dark-skinned Indians talk about. The wannbees. Except, I don’t really want to be anything different. It’s just truth – that my grandfather was approximately 3/4ths Choctaw and a tad Creek and Cherokee, too, and I share a strong resemblance to his side of the family, and when I see reservations, I always think of him first, and most often, of my cousins who I actually liked. My admiration for my grandfather is questionable. He kept changing his stories. I don’t know who he really was, but now that he has passed on, I believe I have the best chance of finding out.
I know that he was born on the edge of Choctaw land, and attended reservation schools until his father sent him to a military academy, or so he said. His tales were almost as tall as he was. The one thing he couldn’t lie about was his Native American heritage. It was obvious. Even when he tried to pretend he was “black Irish,” it was obvious that that was a joke and everyone in the room was supposed to laugh. My mother seemed to have taken his cue here. After one too many jokes about her being a “blanket butt Indian” after she moved to Oregon in the 1970’s, she colored her hair red, and since her skin is also fair (not uncommon for Cherokees and Choctaws) she can get away with being “just Irish” now, but smart people always cock their heads at that notion. “And something else, too,” they say when she gets excited on St. Patrick’s Day.
The few times my mother drove my siblings and I out to Oklahoma to meet with my grandfather near his Broken Arrow home, he would always teach me a new Choctaw word and tell me something about his mother, Viola, who gave him his heritage and who supported him by running a small general store in the center of her town. I don’t remember any of these Choctaw words (and they were probably 100% fiction), but I do remember Viola. I have her tea cabinet in my dining room and her table next to it. My grandfather’s father was a Cherokee-Irish bootlegger and had the sharp angular face of a man who had spent more years hungry than satisfied, and that’s all I know about him, though I’m searching for more. But Viola, my grandfather spoke of a lot, and he often ended brief stories about her with, “She was a tough old gal. Had to be tough in that environment.”
Seeing the neglected reservations in Montana bothered me in the way the huge billboards in New Mexico always did growing up. My father (not Native at all) said that’s, because I have “white guilt”, but what I felt was something different. It was more offensive than defensive.
“Genuine Navajo Gifts at Reservation Prices!” the signs would read from the beginning to end of the Nation’s borders. After a while of complaining about it out loud to mother, she’d finally say, “Well, what do you want me to do about it? I didn’t put these reservations here. If you think these ones are rough, wait till you get to Oklahoma. Indian Territory,” she’d say, and I could tell by the way she sighed and shrugged that she was thinking of her father and her grandmother, Viola.
Once I brought the billboards up to my grandfather, when we visited with him in a Tulsa Holiday Inn. My mother never took my brother and I to his house for some reason, but my younger sister, she took there years later. She was much closer to my grandfather than I think I was. I asked my grandfather if he thought the billboards and sale of Native goods so cheaply and so openly was offensive to him in anyway, or if I was weird for feeling weird about all that.
“A man’s gotta make a living,” he said and shrugged. “And people want this stuff.”
“What kind of people?” I wanted to hear him say “white people” because I know he never wanted anyone to see him in opposition to that, but he was so dark and so Choctaw looking, and he never burned in the sun.
“People who like that kind of thing. Easterners and such.”
“Did your mother ever sell that stuff in her store?” I asked.
My grandfather laughed. “Maybe.”
“I remember the candy!” My mother spoke up from across the room. “She sold regular country store things, and she used to let me get a little candy from the store every time we visited.”
“So, no Choctaw or Cherokee things for the tourists?” I asked.
“Honey, aint no tourists going to Antlers, Oklahoma.” Laughs all around. End of discussion. “Your great grandmother was not very crafty with a needle and thread. She had other talents.” White lightnin’, I’m guessing. The family trade.
I have my grandfather’s features, almost completely, but I don’t have his coloring, so I will never have the experiences he had being raised in Oklahoma, on Choctaw land, to a mother who, he said, “Tried to hide her race as much as she could, because it was bad for business, and life in general.”
At the train station in Portland, a handsome African American gentleman struck up a conversation with my son, the Brilliant 10 Year Old, and I. About halfway into our 30 minute discussion about his moving from Tampa to Tillamook, he stopped talking and gave me a funny look.
“Greek? Is that what I see in you?” he asked.
I laughed, because this conversation comes up every now and then, but usually only on the East Coast. “No. But I’m a bit of a mix.” Here, I feel like I always need to apologize for not “being something simple”. It’s funny how a Great Train Adventure can bring all that up for you again, crossing borders and nations within nations.
He kept probing. “Not Italian…not Middle Eastern…some of kind of ethnicity though…”
“My father is Jewish.”
“No. That’s not what I’m seeing. It’s…Native. What tribe are you affiliated with?”
“You mean, you can see that in my face?” I looked around the room like someone had just tipped him off or something.
“Oh, yes. It’s in your nose and chin and cheekbones.”
“I look like my grandfather,” I said. “He was Choctaw, mostly.”
“Yeah. You’re not your average white girl,” he said.
I laughed. “Thank you.”
“And my first clue is that this is true is that you find that to be a compliment.”
“Well,” I said, “I think a lot of white people would like to just be considered people.”
“Ha! That’s amusing,” he said. “Well, you’re more than one people. That’s what I see in your face. You should be proud of that.”
Frankly, I’m thankful not to have had many of my grandfather’s or, especially, my great grandmother’s experiences, and not just because she was discriminated against for being Native and being a woman, but because she lived in some backwoods town in Oklahoma, and that has to be it’s own kind of hell, but that’s another blog post.
Montana was beautiful. It made me thankful to be an American. I’m sure Canadians can relate to this kind of space and awe as well. There’s something about the beauty of North America that is unique to this continent, and this is the better half of what I felt while surveying the wide open West of my ancestors for the millionth time. But the darker half of my observation finally offered me the words to articulate the feelings I’d always wrestled with. I’m part of several worlds – the white and the not white. I am part of the immigrants of this land and the Natives. But my connection to the Natives – which is substantial in blood and bone – will always be from the outside in. Skin color still divides America. Them from me. Me from them. Sure, it doesn’t have to, but it does – snaking and winding like the Missouri River through Sky Country, past the Bear Paws and the Rockies and the Great Plains that settle all questions of Intelligent creation.