I am sitting at my kitchen table, eating oatmeal with blueberries and walnuts. My back door is open to let the blue October sky inside. I have plans later to run the dogs down by the river. I don’t want to spend another day inside cyber world. I’ve had it in my head for awhile now that too much cyber blurs the reality of my days. But then my Blackberry sounds its bing — an email from Dad has arrived.
Apparently, James Parker Shield is filming a documentary today and Dad is taking photos from across the marsh, into the back of the stage set. I click through a series of photos, wondering who Shield is. Before I can google him, my phone rings — a friend who lives eight diagonal inches away from me (if you were to spin a globe) is calling to discuss the day.
I tell him about the photos and immediately hear click- tap – clickclick across the cell phone wires. He googles faster than I do. In moments he is telling me Shield is part of the Little Shell Tribe. The Cree and the Chippawea once navigated the Medicine River, today’s Sun River, all the way down to Black Eagle, the series of water falls upriver from where I grew up. Shield is filming a ceremony on these grounds. As he reads on, I find myself knowing what he will read out loud even before the words arrive across the miles:
” . . . derelict shacks made of scrap wood, cardboard and tarpaper; ankle-deep trash covering frozen alleyways. The treeless, grassless village was situated next to a dump, from which residents scavenged scrap metal and rags. Two hundred people shared a single water pump and were crowded fourteen or fifteen to a room.”
I know this tribe, the Hill 57 Indians. For twelve years we shared a rural school bus. Time and distance blur, this is what the cyber world feels like. I am no longer at my kitchen table eating Irish oatmeal — I am back on Bus 16.
Our father taught us that people who start fires
aren’t the ones to put them out. Burning trash
was illegal, but a gully-load of tires had been lit.
When no one cares to stop it, heat can flame
for years in the chambers underground. Through
the smoke of burning rubber, we rode
a school bus along the Missouri River shore,
past the county dump to our squatty white house
in the down-spray of the falls. Two bedrooms
for eight of us, with the baby’s crib in the hall.
The oldest boys had a bedroom town kids
called a porch. These kids in town were lucky,
we thought, to ride bikes to corner candy stores.
Nickels in their pockets. Smooth pavement
for the games they played while the five of us
spent hours on the country bus with thirty-three
Hill 57 Indians. We stood out with our Irish freckles
and front porch house against their darker skin
and homes built from scraps mined from the coulees
around the dump. We learned who could be
friends, who would never be. Mary Little Cross
lived in a shack with a two inch gap
around the front door. Dark winter mornings
kerosene light leaked out. She stayed warm
by wearing her three dresses while she slept.
She told me she switched them so it seemed
as though she changed her clothes. We’d smooth
our skirts and huddle in the fourth row of our bus.
Knees pressed together, the paper keyboard
we had made spread across our laps. I showed her
how to read music from a book I brought from home.
Mary taught me how to chant for rain.
* * * * *
I haven’t perfected the balance between the cyber and the real, between sharing something like this and knowing when to stop. Everyone on Bus 16 was and is real. I knew these kids — which kids had moms and who was related to whom. In high school I researched the issue
, wrote papers in English class, gave rides in my ’63 Rambler to the nun who was helping the landless tribe gain a better water system, some sort of plumbing, the right to attend classes in night school. But still . . . I moved away. It was easy — I was young and had my mind on other things. And now I learn the subject of Hill 57 Indians
Pocket lake in the old river bed. Today’s river is less than 1/4 mile away.
— W. O’Keefe