Sometime in the spring of 1971, my parents loaded two cars – a ’66 Oldsmobile Toronado and my mother’s sporty Ford Mustang hardtop – and headed west to Montana. They were as ill-prepared as those cars for what lay ahead, but they were game for an adventure.
The Blackfeet Nation brought my parents to Montana. My father had accepted a job with Montana Legal Services, a nonprofit that provided legal advice to low-income populations, and my father was assigned to Glacier County. That spring, my parents drove west, they in one car and my Uncle Dave in the other. On reaching Cut Bank for the first time late one evening, my mother awoke, looked around at the broad expanse of prairie and said, “Keep driving.”
I thank God they didn’t. My brother was born the following year, followed by me and my sister. We lived in a small house on the north side of the railroad tracks, and my father commuted to Browning for work. My father relished those days working on the reservation, making lifelong friends in a few short years, and collecting stories that he would carry all his life.
My father had declined a promotion at his law firm in Minneapolis because he longed for the west, for the prairies and the plains and the mountains. Throughout his life, he would read and read again the paperbacks of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, much to the chagrin of my mother who pleaded with him to consume something more substantial, more educational. But my father held deeply iconoclastic views of education, reared as he was in Catholic school, where his probing questions were answered with, “Only God knows,” or – upon more probing - the finality of a smacked ruler. He was often an indifferent student, failing to finish his bachelor’s degree at the University of Iowa – because he refused to take one required class - but then proceeding to graduate first in his class from the same university’s law school. But in law, he found logic and a passion.
My mother grew up on a farm outside of Chicago, the fiery daughter of German immigrants who crossed the Atlantic in the 1920s in the hopes of a better life. One of nine children, my mother grew up poor. Her father -- orphaned at 14 – had dropped out of school to care for his younger siblings, later sending support home as he worked as a machinist in the U.S. What my mother did have was a loving family and space to explore rural Illinois on her horse. She graduated from college and worked as a surgical nurse at U.S. Army hospital in Germany, caring for wounded soldiers from Vietnam, a cache of memories she never forgot. She married my father, taught nursing in Minneapolis, and longed for open spaces and a good horse. Blunt, forceful, and quick with a laugh, my mother’s forthrightness – perhaps a generous descriptor could set people on edge. My dad’s law partners would later christen her, “Hurricane Annie.”
Sometime in the 1970s, he moved permanently to Cut Bank, joining the law firm of two great friends, Rodney and Darrell Peterson. My mother became the Glacier County health nurse, a tenure that sparked the ire of more than a few, sometimes deservedly so, sometimes because her bluntness masked her deep care for the people she served.
My parents loved and lived and raised us here. They retired, built a home in the woods near Essex, and as quickly as they had come, they were gone. My father died first, in 2009, just a year after retiring.
When the cancer spread, we hovered around him, first as he walked with a cane down the path through the woods he loved and longed for as a child; then as he found himself confined to the porch overlooking the creek near their home; then finally in his room, taking turns holding his hand. He never lost his sense of humor. When my mother asked, “What do you think death will be like,” he replied, “I don’t know. I’ve never done it before.” There in the summer pines and the firs, he first drifted to sleep, and then days later, he was gone.
My father’s illness was a homecoming for me. After years away, I returned again and again, first to help care for him, then to see my mother at every chance, and finally to understand them through story – not my family’s story but our shared story as people from a place.
I started with a thread: the most tragic natural disaster in state history – the flood of 1964. In all, 31 people died in the flooding, almost all on the Blackfeet Reservation. In journalism circles, the flood led to a Pulitzer Prize for The Hungry Horse News for its exceptional coverage of the Flathead Valley. What was missed in the national award, though, was almost any mention of the deaths on the Blackfeet Reservation.
When my co-producer reviewed the newspaper’s coverage at the Pulitzer archives at Columbia University, we found almost no mention of the true tragedy – the devastation on the Blackfeet lands.
We began with interviews with survivors, relying on a network of local elders to connect us with those who were often reluctant to speak. Few had spoken previously. As one survivor told us, “Nobody ever asked. Nobody ever wanted to know.”
We made more than two dozen oral histories with community members, bumping down the gravel back roads to the farthest corners of the reservation, opening up a land and people I had never known. I wanted to preserve those stories before they disappeared, but I also sought to understand why we call places homes.
Now, as we prepare the resulting film for its national broadcast on PBS, I find myself reflecting on its origins, a serpentine narrative that began for me with my parents’ choice to move west.
Our film’s muse is a Blackfeet man named Earl “Butch” New Breast. He was 14 years old on the morning of June 8, 1964, and by nightfall he was an orphan. The bodies of his mother and his two-year-old sister were never found. Rescuers recovered the body of his father days later, his arm frozen in a stretch above his head, as if trying to reach for his wife and child.
After the flood, Butch fled the reservation, leading an itinerant life of blue-collar work, scrapes with the law, and his own longing to return home. A half-century after the flood, he did come home, appearing like a specter, riding his horse along the creek, watching for the bodies of his mother and sister.
I wanted to know what brought Butch home because it was a great story, a universal one in which we can find echoes of our own. You must go to a lonesome place to address your memories, and by the nature of memory, you must go there alone. The rest of us can only attend from the fringes.
As one subject said of Butch, “Maybe it took him 50 years to come back. That takes courage, I’d say.”
It is always dangerous and often immoral to co-opt the story of another for our own, no more so than when a white filmmaker tells the story of a Blackfeet man. I cannot pretend to know his story or what binds him to this place, but I can try to understand it.
I hope in that confession, I engender some goodwill or understanding from viewers and readers. You can take a story or you can make a story. The former is a terrible transgression. The latter is more pure, perhaps, an attempt to find resonance in another’s story, to seek out patterns in the narratives that bind us, to revisit once more and with each passing year, what it means precisely to call a place home.
My mother died suddenly in the spring of 2016. The call to come home diminished. You can revisit the past but it is a danger to live there. I think of my parents less often. Their memory fades. You cannot hold them, try as you might. Coming home forces us to memory.
It is natural and essential to see our parents differently as we age, to both understand and to seek to understand the motive forces that moved them, shaped us.
I have my own children now. They crawl through my arms as I write this. We are building our own sense of home. It emerges from the memory of my own.