Friday, June 12, 2009

Sing an Owl Dance Song for George Chandler

George Chandler, Two Elks, my Gros Ventre uncle, died last week. He was 87 years old. He lived most of his life on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Hays, Montana.

He died on Monday, June 1. That Thursday I flew from Detroit to Great Falls with Dianne, my wife, and my brother Dick. We rented a car and drove up to Hays.

Fort Belknap is the tribal home for both the Gros Ventre (Ah-A-Nee-Nin) and Assiniboine (Nakoda) people. It is located in north central Montana close to the 49th Parallel, which marks the U.S. border with Canada. Native People called this the Medicine Line because U.S. troops wouldn’t pursue them across the border. In 1877 the U.S. army caught up with Chief Joseph, who was on his way to join Sitting Bull in Canada, near here. The last battle of the Nez Perce War took place at the Bear Paw Battlefield.

It has been 20 years since I last visited Fort Belknap and the constellation of emotions, stories and memories I carry about this place are associated with my father and my childhood. I’ve always been interested in the way place resonates in the mind, how we connect to the physical world, how our memories are embodied in the land and then unlock as we pass through it. I don’t think these memories are mine alone. They include what my father remembered, which he passed on to me and my brothers. And there are the stories told to him by people from this reservation.

I had forgotten how vast the spaces are in northern Montana. At first the rolling land seems empty and minimal, but then I began to notice the subtleties and specific colors of the prairie. There are shades of green and yellow, brown and black dirt, red earth, and sage, which is silver.

As we drove in we saw antelope, horses and cattle in the fields, and we passed a few pickup trucks on the road. To our right the Bear’s Paw Mountains float above the horizon.

Around 8 Thursday evening we parked near the Mission Community Hall next to the Catholic Church in Hays. A crowd of people stood near the entrance to the auditorium. George Chandler’s son Raymond was there talking to George Horse Capture, Jr. I hadn’t seen them in four years.

Inside, the big room was filled with people sitting in folding chairs and talking quietly. There were star quilt blankets on the wall behind George Chandler’s coffin. A woman with a guitar was singing Amazing Grace. There were two tables with framed family photographs. One of the photographs was a picture of my father and Uncle George sitting together in the shade of a camper trailer. Carol Kindness told me she thought the photo was taken at a Hays Pow Wow in the early 1990s.

In 1933, my dad drove from Michigan to Montana and worked for the Emergency Conservation Work Organization, repairing roads through Mission Canyon near Hays. He returned to Fort Belknap in 1935 and was invited by Al and Cora Chandler, George’s parents, to live in their home. He went back again in 1937.

My childhood was saturated with stories dad told us about Fort Belknap. We visited the Chandlers in Hays and camped with them at Crow Fair.

In George Chandler’s obituary my father was listed as his traditional adopted brother. My mother, my brothers and I were named as extended family. We felt very honored.

When I think about my father’s relationships to the Chandler family and the Gros Ventre people, the way they connected despite the awful history of white racism and the marginalization of Native People, I think it is miraculous. My dad tried to live outside the box of racism and the Chandlers, the Horse Captures and his other Gros Ventre friends are by custom and their nature generous people.

In January 2005 my father died. Raymond Chandler, George Horse Capture and his two sons came to the funeral in Michigan. George Horse Capture brought along a sweet grass braid and he asked me to put it in my father’s coffin. According to Gros Ventre tradition, when a person dies their spirit travels to a place called the Sand Hills. They should arrive with a gift of sweet grass for their relatives and friends.

George Horse Capture also asked our permission to place a box of biscuits in the coffin. He was worried my dad might get hungry during the long journey to the Sand Hills. We trusted George’s sense that this was appropriate, even if we weren’t steeped in the Gros Ventre understanding of the life cycle.

I saw Margie Chandler, George’s widow, moving slowly through the Community Hall, visiting with people. Raymond walked across the room with us and we greeted her. A young woman approached me as we spoke and offered a paper plate filled with food, which I politely refused.

“Oh, Karl, that’s bad!” Margie said. “It’s not the Indian way to refuse food.”

I was tired and it took me just a moment to realize she was teasing me gently. I begged to be given another opportunity to get it right. Everyone laughed. I was given another plate. When we sat down I ate all the food.

My dad told me that when he was here back in the 30s, some old-time people offered him a bowl of what they said was blood soup. When he declined it, they asked him why.

“I knew it was a kind of test, and I had to think fast,” he said. “I told them I had a taboo against eating in the presence of women and children. They all knew I just made this up, but they thought it was a good answer and they all laughed.”

Ray told us they were going to organize a sing in the Community Hall but we decided not to stay. It was a long drive back to the Super8 in Havre.

On Friday it was cooler and the colors of the land and sky were softer in the morning.

The funeral was held at 11 a.m. in the St. Paul’s Mission Chapel. The place was packed. Father Joseph Retzel, S.J., said Mass and George Horse Capture, Jr., who is a Gros Ventre Medicine Man, gave a fine eulogy. He spoke about Uncle George’s sense of humor. Junior said he couldn’t tell when George was kidding him. Ray Gone reminded people that George was one of the original Fort Belknap singers, and he read out the long list of family members.

Then one of George’s teenage granddaughters came to the front of the church. She spoke at length, witnessing to the ways her grandfather cared for his family and his community. She was amazing. George and Margie raised their own six children and many of their grandchildren. She said her grandfather woke all the children in the house in the morning and got them ready for school. She told us he and Margie never missed a Hays High School basketball game. And she described her grandfather sitting in his parked car in the driveway, beating the door like it was a drum and singing the old time Owl Dance songs he loved. Near the end her voice broke and most of the taciturn, reserved people in the Chapel wept.

George Chandler was buried in the Mission cemetery south of the church. A group of Gros Ventre veterans fired their rifles in a military salute. Then a group of singers from Hays sang two traditional songs. The lead singer had a hand drum. He sang a phrase and the men repeated it and then the women standing behind them joined in. The songs sounded to me like hymns that came straight off the wind and the earth here.

Afterwards people dropped handfuls of dirt into the grave. Then it was over.

We all walked back to the Mission Community Hall for a potluck dinner. We ate boiled meat, tripe, fry bread, salads, cakes and pies. When we said goodbye, the Chandlers gave us sweet grass braids, a camp blanket and the transcript of an oral narrative George recorded in 1981.

On the way back we drove into Mission Canyon, where my father had repaired roads 74 years earlier. There were many markers honoring various Gros Ventre people. We turned around up in the canyon near the marker for Old Lady Warrior (E-Yah-Yea), a member of the Gros Ventre Frozen Clan. Her Gros Ventre name translates as Takes-A-Prisoner. My dad knew Mrs. Warrior back in the late 1930s.

As we drove out I looked at the fine little creek that runs through the canyon. We had been warned the creek was poisoned with cyanide as a result of mining upstream. In his oral narrative, Uncle George said:

The mines are probably the main reason why we don’t have any fish in the mountains today. The biggest source of destruction was the mines up here and that cyanide. Then the greed too. Boy, I just can’t see that greed.

It is obvious to me that Uncle George tried to turn it around, to make the world right again. I believe he did quite well.

Friday evening the wind came up and the temperature dropped. It was raining when we left Havre the next morning and then it snowed hard.

Craig Chandler, Margie Chandler, George Chandler, Raymond Chandler

1 comment:

BDSpellman said...

There are no coincidences. I found your blog by searching for poetry on old age. And then, reading this wonderfully written story, I find a Montana connection as well. I have driven up the Mission Creek Canyon, all the way to the fence guarding the mines. I find it tragic the way we have despoiled our home, and poisoned our waters.

Your portrait of the Chandler family is beautiful and heartwarming. I read the post with moist eyes. Thank you so much for sharing.