It always amazes me how many people get on a train just to play cards, for outside their windows, a most amazing world is constantly unfurling. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Southwest Desert, Northern Plains, Cascades or Rocky Mountains, they don’t look up from their miserably dealt hands to notice that Eden is just a glass barrier away, but that’s how it is with the uber domesticated. They prefer a shrunken, airless civilization, as contained in 52 puny pieces of laminated cardboard, to the unscripted richness they’re entitled to at all times. Although it’s free, they don’t take it.
O heaven, often it becomes so beautiful, I just want to kick open that emergency window so I can jump outside, tear off my Ross, brand names for less, sale rack clothes, and run a hundred miles, just so I can see everything a bit better through my cheap bifocals. I want to rub tumbleweed on my privates and feast on anything that crawls or sleeps out there. I want to eat pebbles! OK, Saint Jerome, now I give the microphone back to you!
Sitting on the train awhile you do get weird, for this mode of transportation, like all mechanical conveyances, is a derangement machine. From submarine to bike, to roller coaster, each teases and jerks the mind, and transports it to some place entirely unnatural. We’re only meant to walk, shuffle or hop on our own two feet, grasshoppers. As Kafka writes in “The Wish to Be a Red Indian,” one does not need spurs, reins or even horse, but before we get off this damn train, let’s eavesdrop on this conversation between mother and son.
“We were here. Now we’re about here. Soon we will be here.” With her lavender nail, she pointed at three spots on a map.
Responding, a boy no older than five jabbed at a random place on this nonsensical piece of paper, “And right here is a waterfalls, mom, and if you fall into it, you die!” To show that he was serious, he contorted his face and made a loud farting sound with his mouth.
It was already dusk when I rolled into Wolf Point, for my train was seven hours late. In this town of 2,700, downtown is just three blocks and visible from the station. Flanked by modest, two-story buildings, Main Street was mostly empty, and I encountered no other pedestrians as I passed Missouri Breaks Brewing, a movie theater then the Elks Lodge. That’s two bars already within one block, but after crossing 3rd Avenue, I quickly spotted three more, Dad’s Bar, Stockmans 220 Club and Arlo’s. Though these seemed more promising than the first two, I couldn’t decide, so I asked the only other person in sight, a short, squinting man who was smoking a cig on the sidewalk, “Which one should I go in, man?”
Stockmans had two spooked wagon wheels stuck to its marquee-like false front parapet, and inside, it was spacious, with about a dozen gambling machines at the front, and two pool tables at the back. There were only five other customers. “I just got off the train,” I confessed to the man who had steered me in. “I’ve never been here.”
Mervin Running Bear is his name, he said. Though born in Wolf Point, he has worked in Alaska on crab and halibut boats, and in Washington State as a construction worker.
“So what do you do now?”
“Oh, everything: construction, house painting, roofing, plumbing, whatever.”
“Can you do brick work?”
“I’ve done that too! I’m not a real professional at anything, but I can do everything.”
“That’s good! You’re good! I used to be a housepainter, but I was like the worst housepainter.”
“If they pay you, you’re good!”
Though Mervin’s words are lucidly presented on this screen, and move along snappily, without stumbling, they were actually huffed up raspily, eyes squinting, with quite a bit of strain in real life, as if his tongue was too hungover to move. His brain fluid must have been 100 proof. “I also worked for the Chinese restaurant next door,” he continued. “I did prep work,” and he made chopping motions with his right hand. “Richard Chan, I know him. He died.”
Merv introduced me to Ray, whom he called “the nutty professor,” and Monk, a fat, oafish man with clear menace in his eyes. When I asked Monk if he was married, he roared, “Why get married when you can get it for free! Putang! Suck this helmet off my shaft, bitch!” Over the next two days, each time I mentioned Monk to anybody, the response was invariably “Oh, that guy’s an asshole!”
As for Ray, he teaches sixth grade at North Side, Wolf Point’s lone middle school. A decade ago, this school system got unwanted attention when it was revealed they had padded rooms to confine children, almost always Indian, and that teachers and counselors were prescribing Ritalin, without authority, to countless kids. A white teacher was fired after molesting three Indian girls, and an Indian wrestling star committed suicide after being kicked off the high school team, just before the state tournament, for having chewing tobacco. Though Wolf Point is on a reservation, the tribes have no say over the schools, which are run by a board that is almost always exclusively white.
Scouring several school rating sites, I could find only one review of a Wolf Point school: “There are 4 teachers that actually teach, care about education of students and enjoy and work hard at teaching their field. This school has daily fights in the halls, is a FEDERALLY failing school for 8 years, only looks out for their ‘favorite’ students. These are those from the ‘right’ family, or family owns a business in town, or are personal friends [ . . . ] The Senior year is a year of crafts, PE, multiple shop classes—a joke. There is no preparation for a trade/skills for future, college prep classes are a joke—subject to mood of tired teachers waiting for retirement. Counselors spend time with their favorite students and ignore rest of student population. If students make bad choice there is no due process, just expelled for the year and told, ‘see you next year.’ [ . . . ] Shop class is sit in your seat and you get a C—if you glue something together you get an A. Literally. The district is out of money and can’t make payroll next year 2013. Staff morale is terribly low. I have put 7 kids thru this school, there are more examples, just out of space.”
An indication of the poverty in Wolf Point is that 98% of the public school children qualify for free or reduced priced breakfast and lunch, compared to 40% statewide. For many parents here, this is about the only benefit of sending their kids to school. With Wolf Point being so poor and remote, it’s hard to attract any qualified professionals, so at the local clinic, doctors routinely work on five-month contracts. Barely here, they’re already looking forward to escaping.
Soon a woman nicknamed Chickadee came in. In her 60s, she also appeared groggy. Seconds after we’d been introduced, she leaned her forehead onto mine, “I’m in mourning. My nephew committed suicide two days ago.”
“How old was he?” I asked, our foreheads still attached.
“Twenty-two. Oh, he was a beautiful kid! My son died of exposure in Denver, and my other son was stabbed to death by his girlfriend. Come,” and she led me by the hand to a plastic wrapped styrofoam board hung over the door. On it were six dim photos of Andrew “Gator” Robinson, alone and with family. The largest image, however, was the logo of the Denver Broncos, a blue and white horse head in profile with red, flowing mane and a red, sinister eye.
After serving in the Army for two years, where he was a tank crewman during Desert Storm, Gator returned to Wolf Point and worked in construction, road maintenance and as a part-time firefighter. He had a turbulent, intermittent nine-year relationship with Doran Flynn, but by November 26, 2008, they were living in the same house with their two sons. That Friday, pay day, Gator came home early to take Doran out to celebrate their nine-year anniversary. At Stockmans, their second bar that night, Gator finally fell asleep, however, so Doran drove him home, thinking she would return to whoop it up some more. What happened next is unclear, but Gator ended up with abrasions on his hands and face, bruises on his scalp, contusions on his arms and legs, and a single stab wound to the heart. Charged with involuntary manslaughter, Doran was jailed for two years and now lives on the opposite side of the state. Gator was only 37 when he died.
After half an hour in town, I had become aware of three premature deaths already, but it was just the beginning of a long list of tragedies. “And your other son,” I asked. “How did he die again?”
“On the street, in Denver. He died of exposure after drinking Jack Daniel’s and cough medicine. He wanted me to come see him, but I never did. Now I feel so bad. Had I shown up, maybe he wouldn’t have died!”
“It’s not your fault, you couldn’t have known.” I clutched her hand a little harder.
Suddenly looking shifty, Chickadee whispered, “Mervin is getting jealous because we’ve become friends!” Walking hand in hand, we returned to our stools. After I bought her a Coors Lite, however, she demanded a Jagermeister. I said sure.
“Now that you know about me, what about you? What are you doing here? What do you do?”
I could have said “PayPal-buttoned, reader-supported blogger,” but I opted for the short answer, “I’m a poet. A writer.”
It took two seconds for Chickadee’s face to become flint hard, “I don’t believe you!”
“OK, then,” I Iaughed. “What do you think I am?”
Seeing Chickadee leaning forward, I obliged, so with our foreheads clumped together, she positively seethed, “You are a nothing!”
Poet, nothing, same difference, but it was strange to see it turned into an accusation, so I laughingly retorted, “What’s wrong with being a nothing? Everybody’s a nothing!”
Coming to my defense, Mervin leaned over Chickadee’s shoulder, “I’m a nothing too!”
“See, we’re all nothings!”
Not content to settle with this, Chickadee had to squeeze in a final verdict, “But you’re really a nothing!”
I had not slept in a bed in three nights, so I should have gone straight to my hotel after Stockmans, but I decided to check out Elks. Like Moose International, Elks was founded as a white men only organization, but both have since allowed women and non-whites, excluding only atheists. When not used for meetings and, I don’t know, bizarre or goofy rituals, the Elks Bar/Casino in Wolf Point is open to the public, so in I barged to discover an all-white clientele. It had a much better beer selection than Stockmans, and the atmosphere was also more subdued, with no clumping of heads, suicide shrines or tales of death. I tried to strike up a conversation with the man to my right, but it didn’t go very far. No one was unfriendly, though, and I stayed a while. After learning I had just gotten off the train, a woman gave me detailed direction to my hotel, and the barkeep even offered to call the Homestead Inn to ask if there was a shuttle.
“Don’t worry! It’s only, what, a mile away? I can walk. It’s no problem.”
“It’s after dark now, and the bad types come out.”
“It’s OK, really. I’ll walk!”
Wolf Point is 50.5% American Indians and 42.5% whites, yet its mayor is white, and this is because the Indian population has a higher number of minors who cannot vote, and also because many Indians live just outside the town’s boundaries, so even though they work, shop and drink in Wolf Point daily, and send their kids to school there, they have no say over its leadership. What you have, then, is a white-ruled town in the heart of an Indian reservation, and to show that this matters, consider that two years ago, the Tribal Council voted unanimously to request that Custer Street be changed to Crazy Horse Street. Addressing City Council, a tribal leader, Stoney Ankeltell, explained, “Custer was an Indian fighter and he massacred a lot of innocent women and children. It seems grossly inappropriate to have his name on the Assiniboine and Sioux reservation.” A month later, this was casually rejected, with Councilman Craig Rodenberg announcing, “We decided not to go forward with any change.” Councilman Lee Redekopp affirmed, “The name stays the same.” Mayor Dewayne Jager concluded, “That takes care of that.”
I’ll give you another illustration of who’s in charge. For the nation’s Bicentennial Celebration, a small equestrian statue was commissioned by Wolf Point. Sculpted by Floyd Tennison Dewitt, a Wolf Point native then living in Amsterdam, it was placed in the middle of Main Street and became the town’s focal point. A plaque states that “Homage to the Pioneer,” is the work’s title. Since pioneers were settlers, this means the whites who swarmed in to displace the Indians that were massacred, starved or corralled into reservations. Above the first plaque, however, there is a smaller one with a revised title, “Homage,” and on the town’s website, there is an explanation that this bronze is an all-inclusive “homage to the American Indians and the community’s pioneers and founders.” For this to make sense, there would have to be both Indian and Cowboy, sitting side by side, sideways, on one horse, but, as is, the lone rider is unmistakably white, holding a cowboy hat and wearing chaps and spurs, so no matter how cute the dancing around, it’s clear that this is an homage to the annihilation of the Indian, and not his presence, then or now. If Indians were deciding, this would be a sculpture of Sitting Bull, but save for a clumsy bust over his grave, there’s no public effigy of the great Indian leader anywhere in the US, period. You will have to go to Denmark to find one, and it’s only in Legoland, a novelty theme park.
Although there is no bronze of an Indian in Wolf Point, you can find two wooden Indians inside its hangar-like museum. It’s a matching lamp set, with a stylized eagle on the loin cloth of the muscular brave, and a circular, target like design over the crotch of the sexy squaw.
Next morning, I got up just before dawn to explore. After passing McDonald’s, with its American flag flashing on an electronic sign, Old Town Grill and Lucky Lil’s Casino, I was surprised to hear Cat Stevens singing. At first, I thought it came from a car radio, then I realized there was a speaker mounted outside Albertson’s, the supermarket. All day long, there would be plaintive rock emanating from it. “And if I ever lose my hands, lose my plough, lose my land . . .”
Trailing his labrador retriever, a white man had on a black T-shirt, “TEENAGED DAUGHTER SURVIVOR.” Draped in old military jackets, three middle-aged Indian guys straggled by. The one with a camouflage hunting hat made eye contact and nodded his head. I grinned, “How’re you doing?” A cop car slowed, rounded the corner, then slowed again as it reappeared a minute later, coming from the opposite direction.
Since the bars were still closed, I was forced to enter an eatery. There were three Indian warriors, Duck, Bob Tail Bear and Cloud Man, on the menu’s cover of Old Town Grill, and at each table, there was a red phone.
“What is this for?” I asked the lone waitress.
“Oh, it’s to call me if you need something!”
“Well, shouldn’t I, like, just talk to you?”
“Yes, of course! The owner installed them when this place opened 35 years ago. Can you imagine how exciting it must have been then? I wasn’t there. I’ve only been working here 32 years.”
I had me some boffo chicken fried steak, my first decent meal in a day and half. At the next table, two kids played, drew and occasionally threw a rubber ball around. Once it landed under my table so the boy had to crawl under it. From the kitchen came the music of Eminem.
“What is that noise?” Chuckling, a patron asked the waitress, and no, he didn’t use the red phone either.
“The noise coming from the kitchen.”
“Oh, you mean the music? It’s the cook’s music.”
“That’s music?! It sounds like a rig with a flat tire!”
Eminem ain’t all that, but, all across America, you see rural kids dressing and acting like urban gangstas and hoes, but such is a result of the deliberate program to make us as depraved, and, hence, as helpless, as possible. Stripped of self-control and respect, we’re being hypnotized by our masters into worshiping death, destruction, gross consumption, bright vomit and bestial sex, and we’re even being charged to have these foul and funky effluvia dumped on us. Of course, the ones who don’t pay will still get splattered on. A raging and infantile solipsism has become our national posture.
Speaking of posture, mine would be somewhat altered by a black Doberman pinscher a day later. We’ll get to it. Meanwhile, I left Old Town Grill in great spirit. After walking ten minutes, I hit the Silverwolf Casino, which also doubles as a funeral chapel, I kid you not, with open or closed casket wakes. Among the slot stuffing zombies, occasionally you’ll find a dressed up cadaver, such as that of Dakota’s, Chickadee’s unfortunate nephew. Since every Montana bar is already a mini-casino, a place like Silverwolf faces a lot of competition. Here, many convenience stores are also casinos.
Attention, all of you with the shakes! Each day, the first Wolf Point bar to open is Arlo’s, so under its bucking bronco and cowboy sign I entered, to find two grizzled dudes at the bar talking about fishing, with side remarks about being broke yet not eating just Spam, thanks to what God has tossed into creeks, rivers and lakes. They discussed how this or that fish was jumping, or not, from this or that fishing spot, but as a city fool, I can’t tell a ling fish from a humpbacked whale, so much of this discussion lapped right over me. The electronic beeps, burps, rings, fanfares, cymbal rides and phony cachinks of the gambling machines provided background noises, as did the clashes of pool balls from the half-dark back.
In Arlo’s, it’s either Bud or Bud Lite if you want to go draft. On the wall, there’s a large drawing of an ass kicking a man in the ass and knocking his glasses and beer pitcher from him. Its caption, “WELCOME TO ARLO’S / HAVE A ‘KICK ASS’ TIME!” After one dude left, I talked to the other, Darrel, who’s better known as Cheeseburger, or simply Cheese. Half white, half Chippewa, 57-year-old Cheese has lived in Wolf Point his whole life, save for the 17 years he worked for Union Pacific, when he mostly slept next to the tracks from North Dakota on through Glacier National Park.
“I built those tracks you’ll be riding on when you head up those mountains.”
“You slept outside all those years?”
“Pretty much. For living in a tent, I was paid an extra $700 a month.”
“How much is that altogether?”
“$3,000, after tax.”
“You did well!”
“Yeah, I did great. Fact is, I liked it anyway. One time, my wife and kids came out to see me, and they also had to sleep in a tent. My boys liked it so much, they didn’t want to go back to Wolf Point.”
“How many kids do you have?”
“Six, but only three naturals. The others, I adopted.”
“Two of them are relatives. Nieces. The other one, his dad died in a car crash in Canada. I got along with his mother quite well, so I put him in school.”
“You’re a pretty nice guy!”
“But he’s an asshole!” Cheese laughed. “Little asshole, he tried to beat me up when he was fourteen, but couldn’t. I was thirty-five. He tried again when he was sixteen, eighteen, twenty, twenty-two . . . The fucker, I made him play sports, made him play football. I made him enlist in the Army. He wanted to go overseas, but I put an end to that. You little asshole, you still can’t kick dad’s ass!”
“Are your kids still around?”
“They don’t live around here no more. They’re in Billings, Wyoming; Minnesota, California, Canada . . . They’re all over the world. They want concrete!”
After a sip of Bud Lite, Cheese continued, “I taught my kids how to survive, how to fight, how to kill, how to be good. I showed them how to care for children. Elders. How to care for the animals.” With a pause after each exclamation, Cheese then barked, “Put up your own tent!
“Haul your own wood!
“Start your own fire!
“Dig your own shit hole!
“Your own fire pit!
“You must watch your surroundings.”
Cheese then mellowed, “I’m down by the bend. Sucking on a Bud Lite, I roll me a big doobie. I watch the sun comes up, the sun goes down. The moon comes up, the moon goes down. I listen to the deer playing behind me, rabbits running beside me, but these kids, living on concrete, surrounded by garbage, these kids are fuckin’ spoiled!”
“When you say you’ve taught them how to kill, what do you mean? Who do you kill around here?”
“What enemy? I don’t see any enemy around here!”
“There are always enemies around!” Then, “You have to be careful around here. You come in here, and everyone’s laughing and smiling, but the second you turn your back, they can become the biggest assholes in the world! Someone may be watching you, then follow you as you leave this bar, so you’ve gotta be careful around this shit hole. I was born and raised on the rez. I know.”
Cheese said his sister was pissed off because she didn’t see him in church the previous Sunday, “I did go, but I left early, before mass started. I wasn’t there, but I was there in spirit.”
When I mentioned Chickadee and her nephew, Cheese said, “That’s also my nephew. He hanged himself.” Then, “See that cane over the bar? The woman who carved that hanged herself too.”
In Arlo’s, I also met Jack, a transplant from New York, and Darryl, a white farmer who grows wheat and raises cattle. I overheard Jenn, the bar manager, jokingly speak of a plan to round up five Wolf Point hoes and bring them to a Williston man camp, “Make some quick bucks, you know! It’s all about looks, right? She’s got to be worth pokin’!” Fracking country is only 86 miles away.
Without knowing the context, I also heard Cheeseburger shout, “It’s all my parents’ fault, Goddamn it! I want to be white! I want to be German!” The sarcasm was particularly biting considering “INDIAN PRIDE” was on the back of Cheese’s baseball cap. Also, on his fleece vest was a green button with a marijuana leaf and “It’s 4:20 somewhere.” The Ann McNamee song begins: “I don’t need an analgesic, I am not in pain / Bring me a ritual, a tribal game / Moonlight on the water, shadows on my mind.”
When Ervin, a man with mutilated hands, declared, “I’m a Sioux!” Cheeseburger retorted, “Well, you’re a short Sioux!”
“Fuck you too, fag boy!”
And so it went, with much bantering and laughter, but occasionally also melodramatic accusations, drunkenly delivered. Here, people are remarkably open, but they will also turn skeptical suddenly, as in, “That’s what you say,” accompanied by a sharp look.
When a tallish young man walked in, many of the patrons rushed to the door to give him a hug. While others beamed at his presence, he himself showed no emotions and said next to nothing. His eyes were scarcely more alive than a dead fish’s. A soldier, he would be home for a month before being sent back to Afghanistan. Nineteen, he wasn’t even old enough to drink, so after a minute, he disappeared.
The next morning, I got up way too early, so decided to turn on the TV. Looking for the local news, I stumbled onto a livecam of some bird nest over an orange-lit parking lot, with a road and darkened hills in the background. Every now and then, I could hear a distant car, but mostly there were just cricket sounds. Strange, I thought, why would an entire channel be devoted to this? When the bird finally stirred, however, I realized it was an eagle, and so I watched it shift back and forth for a while. It was pretty silly, I agree, and I wondered how many others doofuses were doing the same. Suddenly, though, the channel went blank without warning, and there was no more eagle!
On my last morning in Wolf Point, I walked south from downtown, and the farther I went, the shabbier the houses became until I was staring at a couple of decrepit trailers. Though no one was in sight, I could hear an old man talking to someone. Suddenly, a barking dog came charging and bit me, hard, on my right thigh. This left a bloody gash and bruise that would only heal a month later. Luckily, though, his teeth didn’t make contact with my skin, as he didn’t bite through my jeans. From the shadows, the old man raised his voice and the dog backed off, and that’s how I met Alfred Comes Last.
“That’s strange, he usually doesn’t do that. You OK?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Is that your dog?”
“No, but I know the woman. She’s inside.”
“I’m just visiting. I’m just walking around to check out this town.”
“There isn’t much to see.”
“And where are you going so early?”
“To the Senior Center. I volunteer there. You want to come? They have free coffee.”
The pain was bad enough, I felt like pulling my pants down to see how my damn thigh was doing, but I sucked it up and followed Al to his destination nearly two miles away. Along the way, Mr. Comes Last told me his life story.
Born in 1942, Comes Last is a pioneer in his tribe, for he was the first to become a welder. After the tribal authorities sent him all the way to San Jose to learn his trade, he stayed in California to work, before moving to Arizona, Colorado and Washington, where he welded ships, rail cars and farm equipments, etc. In Wyoming, he taught other Indians to weld, then did the same after moving back to Wolf Point. With three women, Al has six children, and he’s been with his current wife for 36 years.
“When I was a kid, there was only one frame house in Wolf Point. The rest were made of logs.”
“Each family has just one log house?”
“Didn’t the richer people have more?”
“We were all the same. No one had any money.”
“How big was a log house? How many rooms?”
“Two, a kitchen and dining area, and a bedroom. At night, though, we’d sleep in both rooms.”
“How many brothers and sisters did you have?”
“There were eight of us.”
“Eight?! So ten people slept in two rooms?!”
“That’s just how it was.” Then, “A lot has changed here. The kids today only know how to drink and smoke.” He let out a grunting laugh. “If the grids go down tomorrow, how will they survive?”
By now, we had reached the Senior Center. Each day, it serves over a hundred hot lunches for free. With increasing poverty, there are fewer resources available in Wolf Point, with Basket of Hope Food Bank and several thrift stores shutting down recently, and the Lord’s Table, a soup kitchen, inoperative because of a break in. After Al had introduced me to Sue, the Senior Center’s director and cook, we got coffee and sat on the narrow porch to look at the traffic zoom by. A hundred yards away, freight cars were parked on the tracks.
Smoking an American Legend, Al lamented, “When I left the house this morning, I had nearly a full pack, but people kept bumming cigarettes off me, so now I only have a half pack. They always say, ‘I’ll pay you back! I’ll pay you back!’ but they never do.” Tersely and without emotion, Al then let on that one of his sons had died in a house fire just two weeks before, and a daughter was in a Billings hospital. Having fallen down the stairs the previous day, she had a blood clot in her brain. “My wife is with her. I should hear from her soon.”
“Is your daughter conscious?”
“I don’t know. She wasn’t.”
“I’m surprised at how calm you are. This is pretty serious!”
“I’m praying inside.” Then, “Us Indians have a saying, ‘Deaths come in threes,’ so since my son died two weeks ago . . .”
“You’re waiting for two more deaths?!”
“I hope my daughter doesn’t die. My wife should call soon.”
“I’ve been here a couple of days, and I’ve heard of several deaths already. I talked to this woman, Chickadee. She said her nephew just killed himself.”
“Yeah, he hanged himself in a closet. His mom had just taken a shower. She was getting ready to go to work, you know, and when she opened the closet to get her clothes, she saw him. A lot of people die around here. Everybody’s dying. Most of my friends are dead. They destroy their liver or die in a car crash. It’s the alcohol. Some weren’t even forty years old.”
A small, dark man, Al wore dark glasses and a weathered hunting cap. On his gray hoodie, there was an irregular, black stain near his heart. The steel door opened and Sue came out to hand Al a phone. Without turning away, he spoke briefly to his wife in a small, flat voice, then informed me after he’d hung up, “She’s OK. My daughter’s OK.”
“That’s great news! They did a good job, the doctors.”
“Yes.” Then, “You know, most of the medicine men these days are fakes. They’ll take the people’s money, but they can’t heal them.”
“You’re talking about the Indian medicine men?”
“Yes, the Indian ones. Most of them are fake. When I was a kid, we had a great medicine man. He healed my grandfather. After he had been struck by lightning, they brought him to the hospital in Poplar. My grandfather was all burnt, he had no skin left, but at the hospital, he said he wanted to be taken back here, and so the medicine man covered my grandfather’s body in herbs and oil, then buried him for three days, with just his head sticking out. For three days he just drank water and ate nothing. People didn’t know what was going on, they thought the medicine man was going to kill him!” Al chuckled. “But the ground took the electricity out, and so my grandfather was healed. He lived to be 92, and it was me who dug his grave and buried him. In the old days, the medicine man didn’t even ask for money. People paid what they could, or they would just give him some food or a blanket, whatever.”
Before I left Wolf Point, I’d see Mervin and Cheese again, and Al and I had a few beers at three bars altogether. On the street, we’d run into Kerri, his youngest daughter, and their interaction was rather curious, for it was filled with melodrama. Slurring, she’d fling vague accusations at him. It was not yet noon, yet she was totally clobbered, and when she laughed, I could see that her upper front teeth had been knocked out. In March, Kerri had been at a meth and alcohol party where a man was stomped on the face repeatedly and kicked in the stomach. He died two days later of a ruptured liver.
Any place I go, I gravitate towards the bars, so of course I’d see drunken people, but nowhere else have I seen so many folks so shit-faced from morning until last call. As I mused over these thoughts at the train station, a tall and smiling gentleman approached me and asked if I liked Wolf Point. I said yes, and meant it.
His name was Thomas, he said, and he was grateful for his wonderful life, “After high school, I enlisted in the Navy, and thanks to that, I’ve seen the world. I’ve been to Japan, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Australia. I’m very blessed. I have a great wife and two great children. My son is in college, and my daughter was a contestant for Miss Montana. I’m very blessed. I’ve had a good life.”
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen so many drunken people, but then I thought, The sober people are working and not on the streets!”
“Yes, alcoholism is a huge problem here. My dad was an alcoholic, but I haven’t had a drink in 21 years! A year after I got married, I told myself I didn’t want to drink again, and I haven’t.”
“I didn’t want to turn out like my dad. I’m a businessman. I have work to do.”
“What do you do?”
“I had a convenience store and gas station in Frazer. The tribes lent me $25,000 to open this business, but I worked long hours and made almost no money. It hasn’t worked out. I asked the tribes for another $25,000, but they refused. Before this, I was an assistant manager at the Walmart in Williston. I also opened a bank in Wolf Point, but that didn’t work out either. I’ve worked in various offices. I’ve taught.”
“So what are you going to do now?”
“I’ll figure out something. I have a degree in business administration from the University of Montana. I’m very good at managing people.”
Frankly, it was weird to have such a sober conversation with this perfectly composed man, and one who was cheerful, grateful and optimistic in spite of his own derailments. After the train arrived, Thomas introduced me to his neatly dressed, calm and confident son, then I got on to go further West.
Though much longer than usual, this Postcard is incomplete and would even be misleading had I not met a final Wolf Point character, Candy, and it was entirely by chance that I found myself sitting across from this lady, nearly a week later, as we were heading East from Portland.
Seeing the WPT tag over her seat, I could tell where Candy was heading. As I had learnt by now, everyone knows just about everyone else in Wolf Point, and so Candy cheered up when I mentioned Merv, Chickadee and Cheese, etc. “I was Cheeseburger’s girlfriend for a day!” she laughed. Of Mervin, she remarked, “He had a lot of potential, but it has all gone to waste.” Also, his last name is Garfield, and not Running Bear.
“Twice, I saw him drinking in the morning, before 11, and each time, he said he had already worked that day.”
“He works in the bar! I like that guy, but he has his mean streak. He used to be beat up his girlfriends.”
“I’d never guess. He seemed so mellow.”
“He is, usually.”
“I also met Alfred, an old man.”
“Yes, a short guy in his early 70s.”
“I thought Alfred was still in jail. He violated his daughter!”
“You’re kidding me?! Are we talking about the same Alfred?”
“If it’s an old man, then it’s Alfred Comes Last.”
Pulling out my camera, I found a photo of Al and showed it to Candy on the viewfinder. “Yes, that’s him!”
“Had I not talked to you, I’d go home thinking he was just this sweet old man. I met his daughter, too. She would curse him, then hug him. It was very weird to watch.”
“Yes, it’s a pretty messed up place,” Candy sighed, “but it’s home.”
“How often do you return?”
“About once a year, a year and a half. A friend of mine just got his left leg sawed off, right up to his buttocks, so I’m going home to take care of him.”
“Wow, you’re a great friend!”
“I’ve known him since I was 15. He messed up his leg because he was trying to clean it with bleach.”
“Clean it with bleach?!”
“I’m sure he was drunk. He has diabetes. It’s a huge problem in Wolf Point. Before she died, my mom also got one of her legs sawed off.”
And so on and on it went, a litany of horrors. Her daughter, Sky, is a meth and heroin junkie who for years endured an abusive boyfriend who beat and spat on her face, almost daily, “and big, globby spits too.” One of Sky’s four children is in a foster home, while another has been adopted by an aunt. Candy’s own boyfriend jumped onto the back of her truck. Enraged, he banged on her rear window as she sped away, but suddenly, the banging stopped, and Candy thought the man had merely exhausted himself and not fallen off, his spinal cord snapped. “I haven’t been with a man since he died in 2009. I moved to Oregon. I used to cry all the time, I was a cry baby, so they finally had to put me on medications, but now I don’t feel anything. At my mom’s funeral last year, I didn’t even cry, and that’s not right.”
So what does this all mean, and how has it gotten to this? In the 19th century, the Sioux could amass hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of warriors to fight the US Army, and they kicked Uncle Sam’s treacherous ass several times, with the most humiliating the butchering of vain and foolhardy Custer and over 300 of his troops. Led by Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the Sioux was a tribe to be feared, but now, on reservations from Pine Ridge to Fort Peck, where Wolf Point is located, they are but a travesty of what they used to be, mired as they are in misery and aimlessness.
After the Indian has been killed, only an addicted and defeated American has emerged, but this is hardly the final chapter, for as the US itself becomes broken, the red man’s resilience, resourcefulness, probity, simplicity and toughness will resurface to help lead us all out of this glammed up farce. That is, if they don’t decide to settle some old scores.
Writing in 1782, Ben Franklin observed, “The Indian Men when young are Hunters and Warriors; when old, Counsellors; for all their Government is by Counsel of the Sages; there is no Force there are no Prisons, no Officers to compel Obedience, or inflict Punishment.—Hence they generally study Oratory; the best Speaker having the most Influence [ . . . ] Having few artificial Wants, they have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious Manner of Life compar’d with theirs, they esteem slavish & base; and the Learning on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous & useless.”
I don’t know about you, but it sounds infinitely saner than what we have now, and it’s not like we aren’t heading in that direction anyway as we power down. Of course, many will shake, scream and leak from all orifices as they withdraw from the all-American buffet of Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart, Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus and R. Kelly, a man who once filmed himself pissing into an underage girl’s mouth.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.