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Missourian Newspaper



HEART BUTTE – There’s a beauty in this Blackfeet reservation town that a sunrise on the Rocky Mountain Front can only match.

It has to do with the proud, fierce and buffalo-rich lords of the plains, their horses and guns and a way of life that once seemed like it would last forever.

But it has to do too with terrible things – smallpox infestations, a massacre on the Marias in 1870, the Starvation Winter of 1883-84, the devastating flood of 1964, the fire that forced evacuation of Heart Butte just two summers ago.

And it has to do with Heart Butte itself, rising stark behind Heart Butte School but hidden from the rest of town. With enough prompting, Jeremiah Hinkle will tell you why.

An soft-spoken high school junior, Hinkle was thinking about that very thing as he rode the bus to school last week at daybreak.

“I don’t really think about what happened on the mountain,” said Hinkle, who sports glasses, a mustache and a goatee. “It’s more a respect for the mountain, a respect for nature.”

In this century the Southern Pikunni huddle here in wooden houses, at a time of year when their ancestors would have been settling in for the winter on the Teton River around Choteau. The arctic winds don’t blow so hard down there.

“A lot of the culture we had came from nature,” Hinkle said. “We learned how to hunt like a wolf, watched how they hunt together in a pack as a team. We got our shelter from buffalo. We learned how to be sly from the coyote.

“That respect for nature. … It can be powerful. It can be peaceful.”

Those are words to cling to for Sally Thompson and Lily Yeh.

Thompson is an anthropologist from Missoula who has spent much of the past 30 years studying the rich textures of Blackfeet society. She’s convinced that the best way to come to grips with the poverty, substance abuse and hopelessness so prevalent on the reservation is for the people themselves to come to grips with that proud and terrible past.

Yeh is all in.

The diminutive artist was born in China but has spent most of her life in the United States, when she’s not globe-trotting to some of the most destitute and broken outposts in the world. She is a global superstar at what she does, helping communities transform the bleak and ugly into monuments of color and beauty.

And Yeh, who lives in Philadelphia, has the Blackfeet Reservation firmly in her sights.

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