Floyd

Floyd ‘Tinyman’ Heavyrunner

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This retrospective had been originally penned in 2004. It is a chapter from my book ‘Penucquem Speaks’ (graciously ranked five stars by Howard Zinn at amazon.com.) Today it is rededicated to Floyd ‘Tinyman’ Heavyrunner, my friend of 37 years who journeyed to the beyond at the beginning of April. Tinyman was a master of Blackfoot language, including ancient dialect, Oral Historian, Keeper of the Law of the Black Stone, Priest of Okan, and Chief of the Brave Dogs (Crazy Dogs) Warrior Society. Tinyman opened the door to my life in Blackfoot country and a window into its’ ancient past. I wish you safe travels my brother-

Life in Blackfoot Country

I remember the words of my Tibetan friend, Karma Tensem, when he first visited the United States: “Only the sky is the same.”

My first winter in Indian Country was an eye opener. I had never known such real physical poverty, and what greeted me here was the sort of poverty that is a grinding poverty, a gnawing hunger that visits and revisits, month to month. In Blackfeet country, unemployment hovers around a staggering 70%. Some of the luckier Indians still live in the countryside on this particular reservation, and their proximity to the Bob Marshall and Great Bear Wilderness complex on the south side, together with the border of Glacier National Park on the north side, still makes it feasible to supplement the Indian diet with hunting and gathering. But in the winter time, the gathering is not availiable, and the hunting is tenuous at best, because much of the game migrates to more sheltered terrain, and taken together with the storms and snowdrifts, what hunting opportunities, such as there are in the winter, are limited. The more traditional Blackfeet families and clans continue to band together to survive through sharing during this period. Because of the Treaty obligations to the Indians, whereby the Whiteman solemnly promised to take care of the Indians forever in exchange for the surrender of the Indian lands and way of life, these Indians are never supposed to be cut off from state welfare, which is the nominal care given per the treaties today, but the sustenance provided, such as it is, is mean. In the winters, those several that I spent with these people, each season the food would begin to give out, usually beginning around the 20th of each month. On a few occasions, I witnessed entire villages exhausted of food. But these repeated events were just taken in stride by the Indian community.

That first winter I was domiciled in the area of the Badger Canyon, and the village of Heart Butte, my patrons, the old couple Alfred and Agnes Wells, sometimes stayed with their grandson, the young chief Floyd Heavy Runner, on their family’s assigned land near the mouth of Badger Canyon, and at other times, they stayed in Heart Butte village with one of their sons. My income, in those days, was a small veterans disability pension, about $140 per month. I recall it was more than twice the money those eligible individual Indians would receive to survive, so I was well off. I typically put most of my funds into the family pool for sustenance purposes, but saved a little to help the old couple with their travel- to pursue their traditional healing practice. I was a bit like their ‘dog’, which should not be taken in the negative context of the Whiteman, the Indian ‘Dog’ in a traditional context was held in high esteem, a protective soldier of the camp and hard working beast of burden that enabled survival. These old people kept a small handful of cattle on their land, and that first winter I made a better deal for them from a local white rancher, when they bought a few bales of hay against the inevitable storms that would be coming. I also would walk behind the house near Badger Canyon to cut holes in the ice at the edge of a small lake, so those few cows could drink. And I drove for them, whether to shop for better food and clothing prices in Great Falls, or to take them to work their healing practice, sometimes into Canada to the Blackfeet bands of Indians domiciled there.

Our diet was terrible. Often, there was nothing more to eat than white flour and lard, the larger part of the government commodities provided, in addition to the pittance of cash income to the Indians, and on one of these trips that diet caught up with me. I was at Brockett, Alberta, Canada, probably it was in November, where we were visiting the Skinni Pikuni, an identical people speaking the same Blackfeet dialect as the Montana Blackfeet tribe. We were staying with a family that had taken me for a Blood Brother, the Small Legs. I was at my Brother Arthur’s house. Two of my other brothers, Jim and Andrew, were visiting there as well, but we did not see much of Nelson Sr, he was the Band Chief, and was kept pretty busy due to his office. I had come down with severe intestinal pain, unlike anything I had ever known, and was in bad shape. The old folks, Alfred and Agnes, did not work on physical ailments, but attended to matters of mental and spiritual health, basically changing peoples luck, so another old man was brought to attend to me. He conferred with the other Blackfeet present, those that had been with me for the past 12 or so hours of my agony, and then helped me to sit at the kitchen table. Strong black tea was brewed, lots of it. I had an impacted feces, my rectum was plugged, badly, from a straight diet of white flour fried in lard, a diet I was not accustomed to. The old man poured me cup after cup of hot tea and would not let me stop drinking it until I had to go out to the outdoor shithouse. I finally went, and the relief was incredible, better than having sex. Every time I stood to pull up my pants, thinking it was finally finished, I had to yank them down again, after six or seven large defecations, I wondered if it would ever end. When I came back inside, the old man kept making me drink the tea, all morning, until I was pretty much washed clean inside, he wanted everything out. I made trip after trip to the out of doors.

After that visit, I instituted a change in the flour and lard diet at the house where I spent most of my time at Badger Canyon. I realized I could not change the fundamental diet, but what I could and did do, was invest in two gallons of Peanut Butter, the natural variety with oil separation, every 1st day of the month. The new Peanut Butter pre-lubricated, flour fried in lard diet, did not impact anybody the way I had been impacted, after that. Peanut Butter, for the balance of that winter, when there was food to eat, this Peanut Butter was my communion. I had Peanut Butter on every piece of flour & lard frybread that passed my lips, Peanut Butter was my new religious practice.

The next month, December, was difficult, because the money that would otherwise go to food, was largely used up to buy gifts for the holiday season, and some of what food there was, was hoarded to provide for a Christmas Day feast. There were hungry days in the meantime. But this was nothing compared to what happened in January.

The Rocky Mountain Front, where the Northern Plains meet the mountains, can be one of the harsher winter climates in North America, when winter decides a visit with vengeance is in order. It happened in January. The old couples, Alfred and Agnes, were staying with one of their sons in Heart Butte village. I was out at the Badger Canyon property with the young Chief Floyd Heavy Runner, his wife of that time, Bernie, two of Floyd’s younger brothers, ‘Smarty’ and Francis, Smarty’s wife, Doris, their children, Floyd’s kids Josh and Sarah, Floyd’s 1st cousins Jimmy and ‘Spud’, and a few others, probably about 15 of us in total. There were copious amounts of winter snows, and one day from nowhere, in about 30 minutes time, gale force winds had descended on the houses, creating a ‘ground blizzard’ that made it life threatening to go outside, even ten feet from the door. This wind did not let up for nearly three weeks.

Smarty Heavy Runner was the hero of that time, he strung a lifeline between the two houses, about twenty yards of rope, so it was possible to safely find our way and transverse between them and we could check up on each other. Smarty also made repeated and dangerous journeys into the aspen groves close by, to gather firewood. Nobody else dared to do that. Repeatedly, Smarty returned with an improvised sled made from an automobile hood which he had harnessed himself to, bringing loads of wood. But the storm became so bad that the young Chief Floyd ordered Smarty to stop the firewood forays. We made several communal beds to survive the subzero temperatures, getting up only at appointed times, to make a fire just long enough to eat, drink hot tea and go back into the beds, the combined body heat under the covers was helping to keep us alive. When the firewood gave out, we cut up old nylon radial tires with a hacksaw, to make the twice a day fire for hot tea to drink and have a bite to eat. Suddenly I understood the value of these discarded tires that were kept by the house. Then the food ran out. I remember several can of peas were set aside for the smaller children. I remember dividing up the last can of peas among those kids. For the next five days, nobody ate. We still made the brief mid-morning and evening fires, there were enough old tires, and we had the hot tea to drink twice a day. What impressed me most, was how the Blackfeet children put a brave face on their hunger, never crying, never complaining, just quietly stoic.

Smarty Heavy Runner, up to the time he had been shot twice, crippling him for life, was the toughest, and probably the most dangerous and most fearless Indian I have ever known. He was a living legend of danger in Blackfeet country. I once heard a young Blackfeet wonder aloud in Smarty’s presence, which would be worse: to be shot or stabbed. Smarty did not hesitate. “I’ve been shot and stabbed” Smarty stated, “and stabbed is by far worse.” There is a story of Smarty as a young man in the 1970’s when he in lived in a second story apartment at the Yegen Hotel in downtown Browning. On a summer day, sitting on the window sill overlooking the sidewalk below, Smarty noticed an enemy approaching directly beneath him. Smarty put his beer down, and stating to the other people in the room “I will be right back”, he swung his legs out over the sill and dropped out of the window, landing directly on top of this unsuspecting guy who could only collapse under his nemesis who had indeed fallen on him directly out of the sky. Smarty was right back, his enemy lay devastated on the sidewalk below.

One morning we got up, the blizzard had just begun to abate, but only a little, and we discovered Smarty had vanished with his weapons into the storm. Before noon he was back, covered in frozen blood, and dragging a small deer into the house. I had no idea, in those early days I spent with the Blackfeet; 1) how Smarty survived a hunting foray into the aspen groves behind the house, yes the storm was abating, but not by much, and was by no means finished, it was still a dangerously strong storm; 2) made a successful hunt in near blinding conditions; 3) found the strength to do it, not having eaten in nearly a week. But Smarty was the designated Hunter of the family, and took his responsibilities seriously. He was also perhaps the best hunter I have ever known. I have a grown son that is a world class hunter, I am from a family of hunters, and I know what I am talking about. Smarty was just that good. Smarty also could play a very good game of Chess, I had played him on occasion, he made calculated, but clearly dangerous moves, and he approached Indian life and its adversities something like that. Did Smarty save our lives? No, but if the storm had not continued to abate about that time, he might have. That was the winter of 1977-78, before my ‘Big Psychosis.’ This winter had taught me how to go hungry, the Indian way, and prepared me for both my dream fast, and the Sundances that would follow.

Jumping forward a few years, I recall it was during the winter of  1982-1983, I had returned the Riders house on the Two Medicine River to his family that previous spring, and was staying with Pat Kennedy’s clan at Starr School, north of Browning. By now I was deeply involved in traveling with Pat during the winter months, as Pat pursued supervising the ceremony of the very old ghost religion, Give Away Dance. Typically there is a mid-winter break from this activity, during the worst period of the winter storms, from about the 1st part of December to the beginning of February. This period of recess is timed to the disappearance of a particular star on the horizon, and its re-emergence. I was living in Pat’s small 3 bedroom house with a sum total of 29 people. Even floor space had premium locations for sleeping, those areas that doors opening and closing did not allow the winter drafts to disturb your sleep, and people were not stepping across you coming and going in the night, whether to use the bathroom or whatever.

Typical of the poorer Blackfeet, the village inhabitants that early December used up their tiny bit of monthly money, buying gifts for the holiday season to present to their loved ones. Starr School ran out of food early that month, as did the south side (the poverty section) of Browning, and much of Heart Butte. When this happens, the Indian villages become eerily quiet. There is no energy for the children to expend at play and generally the only people out are either fishing or hunting. The streets look deserted. On the edge of Starr School village, small planes would come and go from the pastureland, the Blackfeet Christian Chief Earl Old Person has no problems, these air taxis pick him up at his house and he flies to and fro from Washington DC at his whim, his failed 50 years leadership of the Montana Blackfeet evident in the poverty and starvation going on around him with little relief. Earl gives his peoples hunger a bit of lip service, but he has not personally gone hungry in many years. Most of his endeavors seem associated with failed attempts at industrial enterprises, like the sawmill at Browning, which had caught fire and never ran again, while his administrations have sold his reservations premium house logs to sawmills abroad, and his people live 29 individuals to the small house and worse. Nothing is accomplished for his people and one only wonders how many of those going hungry in his own village could be fed, were the cost of those wasted plane trips converted to food.

I had gone from Pat’s house on a trip to Helena during this period, and riding along with me was a friend, Donald ‘Tiny Man’ Yellow Kidney. On our ride north, returning home, but before we had arrived back at the reservation border, we observed a large group of Mule Deer beside the road. I asked Tiny Man, “Do you have Treaty Rights?” Tiny Man replied “Damn right I do.” I swung my Volkswagen microbus off of the road onto a snow dusted dirt track leading into a wheat field, braked and killed the engine. The Mule Deer stopped moving as they decided what to do, I had blocked the direction they were traveling. I had my ‘Little Rifle’ handy to the driver seat, and grabbing it up, I chambered a round. The deer were moving again, probably 2 dozen of them, but were slowed by the barbed wire fence that they now had to jump, to go in the new direction the herds leaders had chosen. A very large doe hesitated at the fence, and standing, leaning against the open door of the microbus, while using the bottom of the open window to rest my rifle through the portal, I shot her directly behind the ear from 75 yards. She collapsed just like someone had dropped a large sack of potatoes. I jumped back into the drivers seat, started my little van, pulled into the field alongside her and we had her loaded in the cargo area and were back on the road, the whole episode could not have lasted two minutes.

Outside of Browning, in a safe reservation location, where you can be an Indian in possession of a deer out of season, we dressed the deer and cut it into quarters for distribution. We left one quarter with Tiny Man’s family, brought another quarter to a house where there was soon to be a ‘Black Tail’ (Mule Deer Dance, that was apropos) ceremony, where the meat would see a little wider community distribution, and dropped another quarter off to a large family related to Tiny Man that was needy. The final quarter I could have brought on out to Pat’s family at Starr School, but it was stolen while we were still in Browning and visiting at the other families houses. People were hungry. I drove out to Pat’s at Starr School without any of the Deer meat. I sat at the kitchen table with Pat and told him the story. He was philosophical about it all. While we were visiting, one of the neighbor children came to the house, the neighbors had a little bit of white flour to eat, but no lard to prepare it. Pat’s family had a little lard, but nothing to fry in it. Pat instructed one of his grown daughters to give up their last lard to the neighbor child. I had a little money. I drove back to Browning to buy our house some food.

In the spring, I moved out to a ranch on Livermore Creek, north of Browning, off the road to Duck Lake. The Blackfeet rancher and Honorary Council member, John DeRoche, had offered me a lineshack, a one room cabin, to live in. I shot ground squirrels that had overrun the property, for the most part, to stay busy. By now I was really used to living with essentially nothing, keeping few belongings other than a vehicle and a bit of tattered clothing. After meeting my few obligations in the outside world, I divested myself of most of my improved income (my military service disability had been increased to 100%) sponsoring giveaway dance, feeding people, or now, with summer coming, I would become a pow wow Indian, traveling throughout Indian Country in the region to play the Stick Game. So I was not much use as a cowboy on the DeRoche ranch. I rode horseback along the fences a little and kicked stray horses, mostly, off of the ranch property. I only participated in a cattle roundup once, to return a strayed herd.

While I was at the ranch, and without money, there was a stick game tournament in Browning. Old John DeRoche himself was a sponsor of the tournament, he knew and liked me from times we had played the game together, and he told me to come to town for the games. So I was there, observing but not playing. John felt sorry for me (I was not feeling sorry for myself), and offered to let me pick up the aluminum cans littering the floor of the large area where the games were being held, I could turn them in to the recycling people for a bit of money. I told him I would collect the cans, for him, and that I did not need the money. I was given a box of large (50 gallon) plastic trash bags, the task looked a bit big, there were numerous ongoing games over a large area, but I went to work. Now one of the proudest moments of my life in Indian country occurred.

I was a well know stick game player that had a reputation for being crazy. As a game leader, I had led my teams, on numerous occasions, to victory after victory, throughout the night. I was known as a stick game “Devil.” While building on that reputation as crazy, and a Devil, I had always been friendly with the Blackfeet that were ‘special’, the congenitally brain damaged, and when I played in the ‘open’ games and was a team leader, these ‘special’ people knew if they sat in, I would include them in the play, a chance to play they almost never would otherwise have. Stick game requires keen wits and there is inevitably money on the game, and few game leaders would risk their best players money by including these people in a game. But I did not care, these were my friends, and I liked giving them a shot at hiding the bones. Now these special people returned my favor. Here on a day I was not playing, I had no money, they saw me on hands and knees crawling through the litter of that vast event, retrieving aluminum cans, and the next thing I knew, I had a small brigade of these ‘special’ volunteers helping me.

In less than twenty minutes the entire event was denuded of cans, the half dozen or so 50 gallon sacks, all full, were piled in a storage room next to the events concession sales, and I walked away from a surprised, rather make that an amazed John DeRoche, without so much as asking for an Indian Taco in return. Little events like that are helpful for building on a ‘crazed’ reputation. And there was more than a little extra protection for being widely known as ‘crazy’ in Indian Country. Another advantage of being known as crazy in Indian Country is Indian people eventually get over their suspicion of you. If you were me, and wanted an unveiled look at the inside of that world, this is invaluable.

But I must close this story with a warning to any White that reads this and has the not-so-bright idea that they can do what I have done: to pull it off, you first must know how to be crazy like an Indian. To be crazy like a Whiteman will, more likely than not, just get you killed. Somebody like Smarty Heavy Runner could fall on you directly out of the sky. To many Indians, most White people are already crazy in a particularly White way, which is nothing at all like the Stick Game Devil, Ron West, or the Indian ‘special ones.’ That is largely why you are not trusted there. Your people are dangerously crazy from the native perspective and it is considered really poor judgment to trust Whites in many instances. But there is a short amnesty granted to the Whites that are curious. You are most certainly welcome (and safe) to come spend your money at the pow-wows. And at these events, you may meet truly gracious Indians, Indians who are anxious for you to understand who Indian people are, and how they live: their view of the world. You might discover and make lifelong friends. I just happened to stay around Indian Country long enough, under a set of unique circumstances, to get a real idea of what Indian Country is all about. And it could happen to you. But not like it happened to me.

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Note: Donald ‘Tiny Man’ Yellow Kidney is not to be confused with Floyd ‘Tinyman’ Heavyrunner. Tiny man is a nickname shared by several Blackfeet based on having accomplished tasks beyond their years, as children.

Related:

Life in Indian Country

Collected stories, folklore and anecdotes concerning my many years life with Blackfeet Indians and traversing Native American territories