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If you’ve grown up in the American West, and specifically Montana, and if you’ve experienced the darkness of Montana winters you tend to seek a certain light. At sunrise in the Beartooth Range, or sunset in the Crazies, the light can be so radiant you wonder at the sheer scale of the wilderness and the mystery of existence. The sky appears more spacious and more intimate, and people an intricate part of the interplay between darkness and light.
In the writing classes I took, however, this light-bearing quality was often dismissed: the world was inanimate matter, singularly immovable, and people bit-actors in a cosmic play that had no design and no playwright. Most of my professors referred to the Western landscape as devoid of human interrelation, agency or animation, calling the land “indifferent” or “coldly removed.” Folks were killed by the weather, or by the work it took to survive. In this stark read of wilderness, people often took their own life or the lives of others, suiciding under the weight of loneliness the West evoked, or harming their neighbors, crazed by the hardness of a desolate landscape.
Each time the conversation went in this direction my discomfort was twofold: one, my personal experience of the wilderness was anything but indifferent, and two, the analysis was too reductionistic for my taste, lacking any notion of the sacred or divine. Consistently, my own experience of the wilderness has surprised me with just how loving or how hateful it can be. I believe the wilderness, steeped in the numinous, makes demands of us. I remember when the Yellowstone River nearly drowned me after beating me against the rocks on a day as filled with light and beauty as any I’d seen. I recall our family’s hunting dog walking a tight circle around her body on a bed of pine needles. She took nearly 20 minutes in a rainstorm so torrential we couldn’t see the lake only a few feet beyond the trees. Finally, she lay down, placed her nose on her paws and slept a deep, peaceful sleep. I’ve seen forked lightning on black skies, and when the clouds cleared a glow of sun that made everything glisten. In northwest Montana, Going to the Sun Road rises from a river valley straight to the top of the mountains. The peaks are sharp and massive, black rock skirted by forest. In early July, you see meadows cloaked in wildflowers—paintbrush and lupine, fireweed, lady slipper and shooting star. Beargrass plumes stand like pale torches.
The Blackfeet named the mountains there the Backbone of the World.
I was raised in Montana mountain country and also on the plains. My father taught my brother and I to hunt, a necessity generated by hunger. Money was tight. He was raised by men who were hunters and trappers. So my brother and I became familiar with skull and horns, the eye teeth of elk, bear claws, the orbital bones of small animals, a magpie’s tail feathers, the notch of color at the shoulder of a red-winged blackbird. We quartered deer in the mountains or on open ground, carving the hide from the body for exchange at the local hide and fur shop, taking the backstraps and the parts that were good for eating, leaving the rest for coyote and crow and other scavengers. My father’s job as a teacher, but foremost as a basketball coach, made us mobile. We moved from Montana to Alaska and back, finally arriving at a coaching position he took on the Tsitsistas (Northern Cheyenne) reservation in southeast Montana.
On the Cheyenne reservation I learned three symbiotic truths: that fear exists in great measure, in me and others; that wilderness is not indifferent but something beloved or sacred, like a loved one; and that people who lack decency live alongside those of great dignity all across America. During the Indian Wars the Cheyenne were called the Beautiful People. Their leadership structure consisted of 44 chiefs, with four chiefs above 40. Leaders were chosen based on their ability to serve the people. In 1864 Cheyenne women, children and elders were massacred by Colonel John Chivington and his troops at Sand Creek. Chivington and the soldiers desecrated the bodies, cutting off body parts, taking pubic scalps, and later parading these at the Apollo Theater in Denver. Chief Black Kettle survived. His wife was shot nine times, and she too survived. From that point forward she was called Woman Hereafter.
After the massacre Chief Leg-in-the-Water said, “What do we want to live for? The white man has taken our country and killed all of our game. He was not satisfied with that but killed our wives and children. Now no peace. We want to go and meet our families in the spirit land. We loved the whites until we found out they lied to us and robbed us of what we had. We have raised the battle ax until death.”
So the Cheyenne warred against the whites, joining Lakota and Arapaho warriors, ambushing U.S. Calvary and Infantry in the Fetterman Fight, leaving not one alive. They cut the limbs from those bodies in vengeance over Sand Creek. The Cheyenne also succeeded with the Lakota and Arapaho at the Battle of the Greasy Grass (the Little Big Horn), piercing yellow-haired Custer until he died, killing every man in the five companies under his command.
When I moved to the Northern Cheyenne reservation as a boy I knew little of this history. My brother and I were white as chalk among 300 Cheyenne and Apsaalooke (Crow) students in the K-12 school we attended. I felt afraid most of each day for about the first year. It wasn’t until I “earned” some nicknames that I started to feel more at ease.
Casper the Friendly Ghost, for example.
“What’s up Casper? How’s life as a ghost these days?”
My best friend Lafe Haugen, Cheyenne and a marvelous basketball player, made me feel at home. Looking back, I think he protected me quite a bit. He was the toughest in our class, and also the funniest in a place known for quick humor. When we came into the room, the older ones nodded at us with their noses, saying, “Here comes Salt and Pepper.” We played basketball every recess, every lunch hour, and every day after school until long after dark. On the court at night we mixed with grown men and it felt like danger. It was some of the finest basketball I’ve ever been a part of, including my years as a Division I player at Montana State and Pepperdine, and in Germany as a professional. Reservations are proving grounds. I was called “honkey” or “white boy” more times than I care to remember. One morning, my father found his office window shattered, and a bullet embedded in the wall near the door. Another night a softball-sized rock was thrown through the window of my parents’ bedroom, breaking glass all over them. My father shouted, “Stay down!” so I scrambled from my bed and pressed my face to the carpet. From the hall I saw him standing in his room in his underwear. He had a rifle pointed out the window.
If, as in ancient Christian mysticism, dust returns to dust and the earth is the body, then topography can be grace, and wilderness, love. Of course, this distinction the soul attains by going through fire: by engaging the crucible with dignity, by giving and receiving mercy, and by transcending one’s own ego on behalf of the other—in effect, by abandoning the self, one gains greater life with the beloved. This sounds a lot like the wilderness—a place daunting and challenging not only physically or geographically, but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, even as it harbors irrevocable intimacy. Of significant note in the Montana wilderness is the painful history between Catholic culture and traditional Cheyenne culture and, paradoxically, the complex and sinewy relationship they still share. Set at the turn of the 20th century, my novel, American Copper, follows the daughter of a copper baron, a gifted Cheyenne horseman, and a white sharecropper’s son, and is to a certain extent about the courage involved in entering the wilderness of the human heart and trying to find a way to the other side.
What I remember most about the Cheyenne reservation was the love my family received. Love, wholehearted and fierce, despite America’s genocidal history and the entrenched inequities of the present day. Not just from Lafe but also Russell Tall Whiteman, Blake Walksnice and Cleveland Bement. Basketball was brotherhood, and life was filled with laughter and friendship. Cheyenne families took care of us, welcoming my family with such generosity it shocked us and left us unsure of how to act or how to be. I recognize their openness now as a central essence of the gift culture, a pure counterpoint to the dominant American way of life so tied to transaction and capital. In a quantum world, echoing Walt Whitman’s prophetic song and Martin Luther King’s dream, mercy triumphs over justice perhaps because on a cellular level individuals and cultures contain multitudes. Justice then is renewed through authentic moral and cultural authority.
Early on I recall my mother complimenting Cleveland’s mother Cecelia about the turquoise bracelet and ring she wore, set in stunning silver arrangements.
“Your jewelry is gorgeous!”
That Christmas, carrying a velvet box in her hands, Cecelia visited my mother.
“Please open it,” Cecelia said.
Inside was the bracelet and ring.
“I can’t take this,” my mother said.
“I want you to have it,” Cecelia said. “From my people to yours.”
My mother cried, and often cried again when she thought of the gift from that day forward. They became friends, and shared another unifying bond: their husbands and sons loved basketball. Cheyenne players are among the most decorated of Montana high school basketball legends, always striving to win the elusive state championship. When great teams form, basketball becomes a powerful expression of the pride of the tribes. Cheyenne teams are known for their speed, uncanny passing, exceptional shooting, and stifling full court defense. In our second year there, my dad as head coach, the team marched all the way to the state tournament. I’ll never forget how the families honored their accomplishment. During warm-ups before the first state tournament game, each player and each coach wore a full-length eagle feather headdress donated for the occasion by the family of a chief. The beadwork was intricate and elegant. The front feathers of the headdresses flared back from the face before trailing from the shoulder blades to the floor. The Cheyenne families used sacred regalia to honor those boys as young warriors who had accomplished great things.
When I think of Lafe Haugen, Russell Tall Whiteman, Blake Walksnice and Cleveland Bement I think of life and death, brotherhood, friendship. All too often, the basketball heroes of the Cheyenne end up dead or defeated by reservation life. Blake, for example, married a Wooden Thigh girl and had five daughters before he was stabbed to death behind Jim Town Bar. On the reservation it can feel as if bereavement never ceases.
Recently, when my father and I returned to put on a basketball clinic with Lafe I was reminded of how great talent sometimes resides in such remote places. It was very good to see Russell and Cleveland again. Blake was an unspoken emptiness and sorrow between us. At the lunch break, Lafe and I played two on two against some of the young high school stars. The passing and shooting was clean as mountain water, the old rhythms with each other easily recalled. When it was over we spent time laughing and reminiscing, and before I left, Lafe and I pledged to play some independent basketball tournaments together in the future. “We’re old,” he said. “But still good.” There was light in Lafe’s smile, and great warmth in his eyes.
Lafe leads the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Housing Authority now, and coaches the new Cheyenne talents. He wants to help them live well and gain strength in this world. We both seek a certain light for our children and the children of all our loved ones. That light, not unlike the light of dawn or the light of spring, dispels some of the chaos of the American shadow, placing that shadow in grave relief. Like people, the land receives light and reflects light, or depending on the weather, it doesn’t. I’m still struck by the knowledge that much of the forgiveness I’ve experienced was first embodied by Lafe, Russell, Blake and Cleveland in the friendship they offered. Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “through all hopes that keep us brave, / farther off or nigher, / love me for the house and grave, / and for something higher.” In my new novel, American Copper, I hope the story reflects the generosity I’ve been given.
The grit and grace of the wilderness is not unlike our most beloved relationships.
In this light, wilderness and humanity are one.