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The Decemberists light a child’s imagination: A boy and his parents awash in tales of the sea

This column is about the unlikely love of a landlocked Montana family with sea shanties, and how that love grew to embrace an indie band fascinated with the same genre. This first ran in the Missoulian in 2006, a short year before our daughter was born. With the exception of a few edits, the essay below remains faithful to the original.

One of my 8-year-old son’s favorite songs is a gruesome sea shanty about the British Admiral John Benbow, who got his legs torn off by a cannonball in 1702.

We love that sweet and lilting air.

At bedtime at our house, imagine me lying in the dark of my son Josiah’s room, singing about brave Benbow or the sailor who sunk the Turkish Revelee or the wonderful tune about the sailors in the waters off Greenland.

In the dark it’s easy to imagine, encapsulated in the magic of those old lyrics about heartbreak and loss and sailors buried at sea, that we’re rocking in the cozy belly of a wooden ship on the high seas. The feeling between us is one of the things the bland word “love” is supposed to mean. But that word can hardly convey the power of that nighttime ritual.

Yet it helps to explain why the trio of our family will be at the Wilma Theater on Thursday at 8 p.m. to hear the Decemberists sing “bloody and gruesome” numbers about, well, “crazy, weird, exotic imaginative themes,” to use the words of the group’s lead singer Colin Meloy.

We’ll be in the balcony, according to our tickets, and we may be the only couple bringing a second-grade child who ought to be tucked into bed about the same time the show will begin.

Our relationship with the Decemberists began last spring, long after the group– which I know almost nothing about–had begun performing modern songs that echo those classic melodies.

Do you know the term “shantey?” I’m not talking about a ramshackle hut built of cardboard and scraps of tin. Sometimes written “chantey,” it’s a song that sailors once sang while doing work or, I imagine, to while away the awfully long and endlessly boring hours at sea.

As a kid in the 1970s, I listened to “Whaling and Sailing Songs from the Days of Moby Dick” by Paul Clayton. At bedtime, I’d sneak into the living room in our apartment in family housing at the University of Montana beneath the looming hulk of Mountain Sentinel, crouch next to our enormous wooden stereo and lean against the barely audible speakers to hear Clayton’s versions of those lively and, I later learned, often ribald tunes.

I’ve never been on a big wooden ship myself, except once for about three minutes in 1997 when one docked in Oakland, Calif., when I lived there. The tall ship that day seemed rather banal, the volunteer crew too obsessed with trivia about the old whaling and sailing days. I felt like an outsider in a club too lame to join.

Truth be told, I’m an amateur compared to dedicated shantey-ists. I’ve never dressed in flowing shirts to perform at festivals.  If I went to sea, I’d probably lay in bed seasick the whole time, groaning. I don’t know how to tie any fancy sea knots. I’ve never read much about maritime history, except for the liner notes on the Clayton’s yellow and faded album cover.

Really, though, Clayton lays out all you need to know.

“Boney the Warrior” tells the story of Napoleon. “Blood Red Roses” is a prosaic reference to the red outerwear favored by British soldiers going around Cape Horn. (You remember the Redcoats from your school lessons about the American Revolution, right?) I’ve just never understood why soldiers would have been hunting for whales, but never mind.

Most of the remaining shanties are self-explanatory, if you can make out the lyrics, but why bother; the melodic range of Clayton’s renditions are absolutely some of the most beautiful I’ve heard.

Not that I would talk about all this publicly. That’s why it was a revelation when the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” came out in 2003. Turns out there’s tons of us closet, old-timey sea story lovers.

I enjoy “Pirates” as much for its goofiness as for its sailing ships and story line.

That, too, is why the Decemberists’ “Mariner’s Revenge” made me grin.

The ballad is fantastical, ridiculous, really, and it has logical gaps, which is why it’s so fun.

It begins in the belly of a whale: “Its ribs our ceiling beams./ Its guts our carpeting,” I believe the lyrics go.

The narrator then tells his companion, also stuck inside the whale’s belly, why he’s going to kill him. He explains that long ago connection, the companion seduced and defrauded his mother, which led to her death and his life as a desperate urchin in the streets.

And now, trapped with the object of his lifelong hatred, the narrator is poised to wreak his revenge.

This is the perfect sea music for me and my family. It draws from and looks back with a smirk to those wonderful songs of the sea. It’s funny. It’s not too serious. It doesn’t require us to join a nerdy club.

Well, I should qualify that last statement. I don’t think we’ll join any nerdy clubs. The balcony may be crammed with moms and dads and 8-year-olds. If that happens, who knows? Maybe I’ll form the club.


Here’s an incredible, unofficial video of ” The Mariner’s Revenge Song.


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Filed under 2006, Family, Old News Stories and Columns

What’s Up With ‘Brokeback?’ My Relatives Got Pissed

You can gather from my earlier posts that I have a lot of family in Montana. I can name all of my cousins, aunts and uncles, even a few second cousins, but after that it gets fuzzy.

Those relations jumped into focus when I drew comparisons in a newspaper column a few years ago between my grandfather George Meakins and a gay cowboy.

My grandfather, George Meakins. Taken at my Aunt Della’s home in Hall, Montana, by my father in the early 1970s.

One of my mom’s cousins–a woman I don’t know but who clearly lived in the Missoulian’s circulation area–mailed an outraged letter with the clipping to my grandmother.

My mom told me about what sounded like a furor among her cousins. One of her sisters joined the detractors. My uncle and another of my aunts rushed to my defense. It was actually kind of intimidating to learn that distant relatives were lining up against me, some of whom I wouldn’t even recognize on the street!

On the other hand, I do understand that family members can get worked up over representations of our shared history. Yet the letter, with its obvious homophobia, bothered me.

For some people in my family, a column about gayness obviously crossed the line… even though the column itself wasn’t about sexuality at all, but about the hard life of a ranch hand and his family. Yet to an ignorant reader, I had apparently insinuated that my grandfather was gay. Or maybe it’s just that my family’s bigotry couldn’t accept any association with “Brokeback Mountain.”

Additionally, I know some family members expressed outrage at my forthright descriptions of their poverty.

And yet it pained me to think the column might have bothered my grandmother, Lillian Meakins, who came up in a time and place so different from our own that it’s difficult to fathom. She was born in 1914. She grew up on a homestead on the Missouri River in eastern Montana–forty miles by horse or wagon south of Malta. She killed chickens with her hands. She could bake a cake on an open fire. My grandmother was a tough lady, but also soft and somehow uncertain of herself.

Some months after the column had appeared, I sat on the couch in her trailer home near Billings. For years, she and I had had a careful relationship, by which I mean that we avoided anything like a sensitive subject. We talked about regular things, like the weather. Or else I asked her about her life, questions she answered gruffly, as if the answers should have been obvious. “What dances did we do? Well, the two-step!”

It was time, I thought, to be straight-forward. I asked my grandmother if the column had bothered her. I reminded her what it said. I described the movie, “Brokeback Mountain,” including that it was a love story about two men.

She surprised me with the strength of her response. No, she said. It didn’t bother her. She thought I should write whatever the newspaper would print.

I believed her. It was one of her sweetest, most grandmotherly moments.

Here are some things I know about my grandmother. She rejected racism against black and Indian people. About a neighboring Indian family, she said they “had the cleanest laundry in town.” For my grandmother, it was not only a high compliment, because it meant they worked hard.  But it was, in her mind, a direct counterpoint to the common slur of the “dirty Indian.”  She didn’t only tell me that anecdote, or my mom, I imagine, but her coworkers at the cafe and nursing home, or the elderly neighbors for whom she drove errands.

I understand, now, that her acceptance extended to gays.

What a lady.

With my grandmother behind me, I didn’t care about the fuss.

My grandmother, Lillian Meakins, was  more irritated than amused when I used the “Photo Booth” feature on my new computer to capture her image. She was 92.

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Fear of Bears Flourishes While Son Sleeps, Unperturbed


The sound of a large mammal breathing outside the tent interrupted my sleep. It was well after midnight. Snow was falling thick in the high foothills on the eastern slopes of the Mission Mountains. Every now and then a drift would slide from the tent roof with a gentle sound of snow on nylon. I just knew an animal was outside, nosing in the soft powder.

My bear spray, as usual, was propped in my boot near my head. My hand found it in the darkness. I lay still, listening intently, gripping the cold can of spray. My son slept peacefully beside me, comfortable in two sleeping bags. (That’s the way we roll, we like to joke, as we stuff our sleeping bags, one into the other, on our winter trips into the backcountry.)

This time our goal was to chase whitetail deer. We were high by a lake that would have a ring of ice in the morning. It’s pristine country – and perfect bear habitat. (A friend on the trip with us wondered why I would carry bear spray while also packing a hunting rifle. “You’ve got lead spray,” he says, gesturing to the gun. But I don’t want to shoot a bear – unless I have no other choice.)

That doesn’t mean I’m not terrified of bears. I can’t say how many times the night sounds of the forest have taken me from deep slumber to high alert. But it’s something that only happens when I’m in a tent with my son. When I’m alone, bears hardly cross my mind. Surprisingly, I slept like a log a few months ago when our family of four camped in Yellowstone National Park, even though our infant daughter was the picture of sweet vulnerability and a sow grizzly with two cubs had been reported in the area. But as a family unit, we seemed somehow stronger, tougher.

Not so when it’s just my boy and me. A few summers ago I harangued myself into the wee hours for bringing him, then six, into the Bob Marshall Wilderness to a place called Grizzly Basin. In any other place, a name like that would be poetical exaggeration. In the Bob Marshall, it’s an honest description.

It was a horrifying night. Something kept smacking the wall of the tent. I argued with myself about what would be worse – getting out of the tent, spray in hand, to confront the grizzly (I knew it was a grizzly), or staying inside the tent and, what? I realized the spray was useless inside the tent. A bear could collapse the tent and maul us, and I probably wouldn’t get a chance to cut loose with it without giving an eyeful to Josiah and myself. That night, at length, I realized that the slaps against the wall of the tent came from my son, who would roll over in his sleep and throw out an arm to cool off.

My tortured sleep that summer night and my fear of bears in the Bob Marshall prompted me to pick a spot in the mountains east of Hamilton for our backpacking trip this past summer.

I should add that we’re careful backpackers. As usual, we prepared and ate our food – and then hung our food stash – more than 100 yards from our campsite. We don’t even keep toothpaste in the tent.

Still, east of Hamilton in the middle of the night, I woke to hear snapping sounds as an animal walked clumsily through the brush nearby. As I strained my ears, I caught what seemed to me a clear progression: from the food stash and eating area toward the tent. Steeling myself for action, I reasoned that this black bear (it had to be a black) was about to get an appropriate lesson. Unable to get an easy dinner from our out-of-reach food bag, it would now get a solid blast of pepper in the face.

I stepped from the tent to find myself face-to-face with a good-sized whitetail buck. Surprised and chilly in the mountain air, I almost sprayed him. In the moonlight, a string of does was visible behind him, the whole train of them munching on bushes and stepping on twigs.

All these previous scenes flashed through my mind on our most recent trip. A phrase came to me – “obligatory bear noises” – as I forced myself to drift back to sleep. The next morning the snow recorded no bear tracks, no tracks at all.

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Filed under 2007, Old News Stories and Columns

Tracks Across A Landscape

It’s a seductive idea, that yours are the first sentient eyes to see this landscape, that your story will be its first, and that your imprint will be the one to endure.


Even 200 years into the modern American West, it’s easy, especially for newcomers to this landscape, to feel as if the grand open spaces are a blank canvas. It can seem, standing on a hillside of sagebrush and grass, as if nothing has ever existed but the ceaseless wind and sky.

In other parts of the country, and the world, the past is present, in ancient stone structures and centuries-old communities. By comparison, vast tracts of the West seem untrammeled, especially in the springtime when the snow has melted, leaving its particularly soggy mark on the grasses and naked soil. You can watch the imprint of your own shoe fill slowly with the shallowest film of water and, when you do, it seems no shoe can ever have stepped there before.

It’s a seductive idea, that yours are the first sentient eyes to see this landscape, that your story will be its first, and that your imprint will be the one to endure.

The fact that this myth, which I sometimes find myself cherishing, isn’t true is what makes the West so intriguing. So much of the context to our modern lives is subtle, easy to miss. Yet the obscurity of the past does offer a special kind of freedom and solitude in which you can immerse yourself. You can add your own footsteps to ancient trails.

A few years ago, I found myself asking Al Wiseman, a Choteau-area Chippewa and a local historian, about the route used by a band of Indians a century ago who had come back south on foot after the U.S. Army rounded them up and shipped them by rail to Canada. (Another story involves an old Chippewa guy who told me about how he jogged the same route to get to a dance some 60 years ago, where he met his wife.) Wiseman told me details of that old path along the edge of the mountains. He knew its nearby stretches and even marked sections of it with small boulders.

In the pre-dawn hours one early July day, my brother Todd and I jogged away from his small car, parked on a wind-battered slope on the Sun River Wildlife Management Area. We intended to test the trail from there to the South Fork of the Teton River, some 30 miles or so to the north.

We jumped an irrigation ditch and continued down a hill and over a fence. We stumbled across the knee-deep Sun River, numbingly cold and fast. To our left the mountains rose abruptly, almost like a wall. To our right, the land was rough, with long, pine-covered ridges. At times, we followed a pair of wagon ruts. Other times it was a single broad track. We passed the scattered logs of disintegrated cabins and clumps of still-thriving irises. My map indicated a burial ground, which I couldn’t find. We reached a canyon called Deep Creek (the water itself was ankle deep). We paused to fill our bottles with water, filtered through a small hand-pumped purifier.

Later, the going was easy, and it seemed we had the trail nailed. Then, for the better part of an hour, we forced our way through a dense forest of jack pines. In the middle, Todd hollered about all the houses. “What houses?” I asked. Then I realized we had run into a former settlement with remnants of about seven homes. I was standing in the middle of one. It was mid-afternoon, and we had covered more than 20 miles as the crow flies.

The final 10 miles to the Teton River took us across miserable, flood-irrigated fields and a network of broad ditches separated by short, painful hills. Dirt ruts materialized at our feet, leading us to the river and the second car. I collapsed and went into younger brother mode. Todd cooked pasta with pesto and tuna fish over a tiny camp stove. I ate.

A few days later a funny thing happened. I saw distant lumps of mountains on the horizon and, surprising myself, said aloud, “I could run there.” I was alone in the car driving home. It made me laugh—my own silly bravado.

At home, sometimes, I think of those weather-beaten boards I had stepped over without noticing, and about the other places, old homesteads maybe, where irises, those tough and resourceful flowers, were all that remained.

Those homesteads couldn’t have been much more than 100 years old. The shallow wagon ruts and foot paths date much further back. With such small signals of the past, it’s no wonder we retain our blunt sense of illimitable openness. The light touch on the land amounts to a gift, an easy chance for us to hold for ourselves a persistent illusion about the possibility here of new beginnings.

Yet our mountainous and rugged landscape isn’t empty, it just feels that way. As the homogenizing forces of mass-market culture sweep across our broad and empty spaces, let’s do what we can to maintain that sense of openness.

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Amateur Historian Produces History of Old West All-Indian Battle


Elias Goes Ahead at Crow Fair

A amateur Crow historian has completed a history of a pivotal—and mystical—all-Indian battle in which his tribe defended its homeland.

The historian is Elias Goes Ahead, a storyteller and lifelong historian.

“I was brought up among natural historians,” Goes Ahead told me at a table amidst teepees and cottonwoods at an encampment at Crow Fair, his tribe’s annual powwow near Crow Agency on the sprawling reservation of the same name south of Billings. “Ever since I was a little boy, they told me stories, passed on their knowledge to me because I was the one who listened.”

Goes Ahead has had an assortment of jobs, none until recently related to his passion. About 10 years ago, he started leading private tours around the reservation and at the Little Big Horn Battlefield, the famous site of Custer’s Last Stand. He never incorporated as a business, or advertised. Visitors learned of him by word of mouth, tracked him down and paid him to drive around and talk about what he knows.

All that makes his 358-page historical manuscript on “Ashkoota Binnaxchikua (Where the Camp was Fortified)” all the more impressive. Author credit was shared with David Eckroth, Howard Boggess and Mike Penfold of the Frontier Heritage Alliance (a regional nonprofit organization without a Web site) which began to offer financial support to the project in 2004.

All through his life, Goes Ahead heard stories of a decisive battle near the present-day town of Pryor between the Crows and a combined army of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe.

The stories were specific. The battle was in 1863 or 1864 along Arrow Creek about 10 miles north of Pryor. The attacking force was there to push the Crows further westward, off the tribe’s rich ancestral homeland. The Crow families and fighters set their teepees tightly together in a defensive line, and dug trenches underneath the lodges. Old buffalo hides were used to fortify the bulwarks. Sometimes, Goes Ahead’s father or uncles would show him specific spots where Crow warriors fell or were rescued or where supernatural forces had intervened, such as where a herd of elk had stampeded, raising dust and distracting the attacking fighters, who feared that Crow reinforcements raced toward the fight.

Goes Ahead read all the accounts of Crow history and about Indian battles and also got help from a historian at Little Big Horn College, the two-year tribal community college in Crow Agency. Goes Ahead found plenty of oblique references to the battle, as well as to what he knew must have been the factors that led to it.

Yet nothing tapped the rich oral history Goes Ahead knew. Nothing told the whole story or conveyed what Goes Ahead thought was the importance of the battle or its intricacies and mysteries.

“The Crows made a stand, a statement, that we couldn’t be pushed further west, and because of that battle, that grand battle, there wouldn’t be any other intertribal warfare of that size between these tribes,” Goes Ahead said.

So Goes Ahead bought a tape recorder and started interviewing family members who had had bits and pieces of the overall story passed onto them. He combed the papers of Crow anthropologist Joseph Medicine Crow as well as lots of other archived papers and manuscripts.

“I was fortunate that the recordings I made, some of my sources, passed away not long after. It was just in time,” Goes Ahead said. “I kept just a piece of history on tape and on paper.”

Typically, he would make an appointment and then visit his source—Pius Crooked Arm in Crow Agency, for instance—with his tape recorder and notebook in hand. They would sit at the kitchen table and drink sweet black coffee and talk, in Crow.

“I’d ask them to tell me personal recollections. Once they started rolling, I wouldn’t interrupt,” he said.

Oral histories, often rich in detail and colorful flourishes, also tend to be difficult to accumulate into a narrative.

“Each participant, each version, is what they see as an individual and doesn’t cover the whole field,” Goes Ahead said.

It was a trick to piece together the narrative of the battle. He listened to his old tapes, redid interviews when he could, and slowly knitted together the stories. The manuscript was completed this summer, dated June 25.

A history like Goes Ahead’s can be controversial in Indian Country, where culture is a commodity, Indian and non-Indian fakers abound, and where printed histories are sometimes used to justify federal policy and draconian legal decisions.

For this piece of work, Goes Ahead interviewed dozens of tribal elders. He let his references guide him. One source would recommend another. Yet he didn’t get the blessing of a committee of the Crow Tribe’s official historians. In the end, he got help from a non-Indian group, the Frontier Heritage Alliance.

Like most academic works, this is ponderous and cumbersome at times with its abstract and extensive notations. Yet the story of the battle is gripping. And the context is fascinating, describing a landscape where Manifest Destiny and the advance of the American frontier provide the backdrop to these life-and-death intertribal dramas.

So how do you get a copy of this cool manuscript? I’ll post one when it comes available. Otherwise, visit the Plenty Coups State Park at Pryor, the Yellowstone Western Heritage Center in Billings or the Little Big Horn Tribal College in Crow Agency.

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Beyond the Photos, the Real Magic of Crow Fair

Even viewed in the most favorable light, impersonal images from a powwow such as Crow Fair miss the most important aspects of the event itself, and the people and cultures on display.


Grand Entry gets the cameras clicking. Photo by Adam Sings In the Timber

This year during one of the daily parades at Crow Fair, the annual powwow and rodeo held along the Little Big Horn River on the Crow Reservation in southern Montana, one of my mothers-in-law yelled combatively at a professional photographer who planted himself between her and one of her grandchildren on parade.

“Hey, get out of the way,” she hollered. “We’re taking pictures, too.”

The guy knelt down and kept shooting film.

Okay. You’re probably wondering about the multiple mothers-in-law. Not to sound like an anthropologist, but there are certain things you need to know if you intend to spend your life with a Crow woman. Crow is a matrilineal culture with strong extended family ties. This means not only your wife’s mother but her aunts, too, are your mothers-in-law. And that same term often applies across the family tree, at many removes. For me, this adds up to scores of women. It’s one of those things you live with when your family, like ours, straddles cultural lines on a daily basis.

It’s difficult to write about my experiences with my family, because Indians are so routinely objectified by America’s mainstream culture. That’s what was happening when the photographer stepped between grandmother and grandson.

It’s easy to understand why the photographer came to the parade. It provides an excellent opportunity to view and appreciate traditional Crow beadwork and regalia. As powwows go, Crow Fair is also quite large, plus thousands of Crows camp out for the week in teepees, which makes a picturesque backdrop. It’s normal to see whole crews from the Smithsonian, National Geographic or the BBC pitch temporary camps along the parade route.

You’ve seen the end products on television, in calendars and on postcards as well as in art galleries and other public spaces. As I write this, a series of Crow Fair portraits hang on the walls at the Community Food Co-op in Bozeman. As is usually the case, the images are anonymous: “Crow Fair Portrait #7.”

With the click of the shutter, the individual gets transformed from a kid, say, into an impersonal commodity (Indian at a powwow). The photograph, and not the person in the photo, is the work of art.

I’m picking on photography, and not news or media in general, because most news stories and television programs on powwows, loaded as they are with empty platitudes about tradition, are little more than vehicles for the colorful images: a gentle-faced brown-eyed child in a fearsome war bonnet, an aging veteran with a stately visage and a craggy nose.

It’s hard to know quite what to think about this. It would be easy to lay a blanket of disdain on the photographers, but that ignores the broader cultural issues.

To start with, you could argue, from an economic development standpoint, that photography of non-religious Native ceremonies attracts tourists and puts money in Indian pockets. You’d be right. Likewise, you might suggest that those photographs celebrate one of the most beautiful aspects of Native American culture. Hard to argue with that.

Yet the idealized images also contribute to a binary view of Indian culture. One hand holds the noble Indian. The other—reinforced by the flat, two-dimensional quality of the first—has the usual unflattering stereotypes.

And even viewed in the most favorable light, those impersonal images of brown faces and colorful outfits miss the most important aspects of the daily parade and of Crow Fair itself.

In the mornings from Thursday to Sunday in our camp, my mothers-in-law lead the preparation of whoever is going to be in the parade. It’s a painstaking ritual. (It’s common to see people doing beadwork the day before and continuing by kerosene lamplight late into the night, desperately completing a beaded belt or pair of arm bands.) The outfits are specific, each piece assembled just so. The horse gets rigged up. Then horse and rider head for the start of the route.

At 10 a.m., a cannon booms. As at all the camps, we haul folding chairs from beneath the shady arbor at our eating area. (The temporary city of thousands of teepees and wall tents is organized in family clusters, each around a central cooking and eating area.) The parade is one of the few moments when the entire community joins together in one casual, relaxing event.

The togetherness makes it a perfect time to take photographs of the spectators, which is what I like to do. Ironically, it’s actually difficult, when doing so, to avoid collecting images of the non-Indian photographers, who seem to suddenly appear in the shots, most often at the edges but sometimes in the center of the frame.

This isn’t a lamentation. After all, the vast majority of the cameras (especially if you include camera phones) at Crow Fair, as any casual survey of the parade route will show, are in the hands of family members taking pictures of each other.

But I would like to point out what’s missing, aside from the names and identities of the subjects, in those photos in the gift shops and the anonymous tourist albums:

It’s the expertise and labor—usually undertaken as a gift to the wearer—that went into the beadwork and blankets and other parts of the outfits. It’s the tightly knit social fabric that keeps this powwow, rodeo and parade continuing, year after year, for no reason other than the joy and momentum of a long and specific cultural tradition. And it’s the real, complex human identity of people like my mother-in-law’s grandson, which can never be captured in a “Crow Fair Portrait.”

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