To Live Like an Indian
I remember growing up, attending a parochial school back east as a child and suffering under the duress of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Life wasn’t always pleasant under the watchful eyes and heavy-handed supervision of the nuns. It would be a lovely spring day, eyes wandering out the window beyond the school yard to treetops, blue sky and open fields. I remem-ber thinking to myself, this isn’t necessary, all this discipline and rigidity—the Indians didn’t have to live this way. They lived out in the open air, free, unencumbered by the arbitrary rules society (and the archdiocese) had placed upon us like psychic chains. Then wham. I’d feel that punch, and smell the smell that emanated from Sister Anita Cecilia's starched black habit as I hit the floor. Owing to her follow-through, I’d soon see the large brass crucifix swinging from her waist like a pendulum metering the days of my tortured existence. I guess we all have crosses to bear—a right cross in this case. Yet Sister Anita Cecilia reinforced what I already believed, that none of that was necessary, that there were other lifestyle options and God had obviously made a mistake when he made me a little white boy.
I wanted to be an Indian.
Arikara Chief, Sitting Bear, Edward S. Curtis, circa 1908
So maybe it’s an unfulfilled childhood dream that brings so much native lore to these issues of the Montana Pioneer, and our affinity for the stylized depictions of Edward S. Curtis (see left). Or maybe it’s issues that bring a dream to the native lore, which is more likely. Our white conceptions, after all, of how it must have been to live like an Indian, before we made them live like us, are often romanticized, owing to sentiments that derive from scenarios like the one just discussed; a desire to escape the modern world, the sense that the grass must be greener elsewhere. Yet Indians (it’s okay to call them that) had their own problems to deal with, it’s just that paying taxes and insurance weren’t among them. Many of those problems, and they are natural to human existence, were resolved by civilization. Ironically, though, at least as it appears, we now aspire to attain one commodity Indians had plenty of—leisure time. Don’t get all PC on me now, but according to my sources Indians laid around a lot, at least the men did (the women carried firewood, stripped jerke, tanned leather, and so forth). After necessities like hunting had been taken care of, the men kicked back, unbridled by things like a work ethic or an arbitrarily set eight-hour work day or forty-hour week. And who’s to say such a life isn’t valid, even preferable. In the scheme of things, it’s just as challenging to have time on your hands as to compulsively fill that time with activity. We call it being unemployed, to which a stigma is attached, but what if it were just being—contemplating the wind, the moon, and the stars.
The thing is, it wasn’t always easy for Indians to just be. They had conflicts, tribal and personal, the same way other human beings do. In what is now Montana, the winters were cold. Imagine living outside when one of those arctic blasts came through. And some native women suffered at the hands of their men. It’s tempting to project an ideal alternate reality from an existence riddled with petty annoyances, especi-ally if as a child you had Sister Anita Cecilia to deal with. That’s not to say the projection isn’t fun, and in some way realistic as it pertained to the Crow, Arikara, and Nez Perce, or that it doesn’t represent something genuine in the soul. It’s worth observing, though, that our culture has its own ideal, one to which peoples of the world have been drawn and that has changed the nations of the earth. I believe there are reasons for things, and that there are reasons for the proliferation of Western values—as time and reality plod forward in an inscrutable but meaningful evolutionary process. We have lessons to learn through our way of life, lessons that can be hard and which would not come to us any other way. At least I keep telling myself that because nihilism is unaccep-table. The scary thing is that may mean I had something to learn from Sister Anita Cecilia, as much as the Crow did from earth and sky. And I did. She taught me long division—and how to take a good right cross.