23 January 2011

Mailboxes and Old Barns – Sunday Open Forum

Written by Sharon (formerly “undercover” as Emma)
Some who drive through eastern Montana on I-94 today believe it’s a place you go to only to go through, and even those who love Montana understand that. One time my Dad said with a chuckle, “I think we should just give it all back to the Indians.”

The eastern edge of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation was about 25 miles west of our 1200 acre farm which had 500 acres under cultivation and 700 acres pasture. The Assiniboine, Sioux and others who rode these hard prairie hills well into the 1800′s were looking for antelope, rabbit, coyote and fox, or perhaps observing wolves along the bluffs of the Missouri. The historical fact of our farmland being Indian hunting ground was documented by Indian rings in two areas of the pasture and my Dad’s collection of tomahawk heads. He also had a box of nearly one hundred arrowheads that he found in the fields over the years, many of them in pristine condition.

I will never understand how he was able to notice them when he was plowing but he did. He would sit a bit sideways on the bouncing metal tractor seat so he could see the leading edge of the plowshares turning the dirt, mostly to be able to notice large rocks being uncovered that might damage the plow. The arrowheads were almost always dark in color and only one to three inches long, glistening in the light for just a second or two before the dirt in which they had lain for a hundred (or 200 or 500) years covered them again. He’d stop in the middle of the field and get down on his knees, sifting through the pile of dirt where he had seen the glint of polished rock flash and disappear. Whether it took five minutes or 20~~he’d find it. Its workmanship, beauty and unknown history had already identified it as a treasure, so it would be slipped into the deep pocket of his pinstriped overalls to be displayed to the family at the supper table that evening. When we would ask, “Can we look at the arrowheads?” he would spread them on the table where we could divide them by colors, by size, by shape or by type of rock. Then he would tell us how they were made, how they were re-used when possible and speculate about how they came to be left, now to be found.

We appreciated and cared for all the interesting things created by God or worked by man, including rock formations and stones of all colors and shapes. Over in the corner of the yard near the transformer pole there was a pile of chosen rocks that had a real dandy in it. It’s a double geode, also turned up during plowing season one year. That puppy weighs between nine and ten pounds and if it were a rectangle instead of being two perfectly round Siamese-joined spheres, it would measure 5 1/2″ X 5 1/2″ X 8 1/2″. It’s never been opened or X-rayed and never will be. It is right that there are mysteries in God’s universe. This particular one is in our living room by the fireplace .

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When Lewis and Clark came through eastern Montana in 1805 after wintering over in what is now Mandan, North Dakota, they would have found the muddy Missouri much as it is today~~lined with bare, light-colored, grassless bluffs with antelope watching them pass. The riverbed would have hidden agates and shifting sandbars, pockets of quicksand and rattlesnake dens. Then if they had climbed 200 feet up from the riverbed and looked north, they might have been able to see another ridge about 4-5 miles away, rising another 75 feet or so to more prairie beyond. That distant ridge was the point at which our upper pastureland dropped to the lower pastures.

Right on top of that ridge was one set of the Indian rings I mentioned earlier: circles of heavy stones, half buried in still-undisturbed prairie in the 1950′s. There are four or five rings there~~five if you count the one that’s messed up. These Indian Rings On The Ridge are perfect circles of sod-embedded rocks, each about the size of a soccer ball, arranged with a clearly identified doorway and a fire ring in the center of the larger ring, apparently used by hunting parties for easy set up of tepees: the tepee edges were held down by the stones. Based on the history and location of tribes known to have used the area, my Dad reasoned that these were the remnants of hunting camps partly because there were only four or five rings. No Indian village would have been that small, nor would they have located a permanent village on a high bare ridge so exposed to the weather. Such a ridge was perfect for a temporary hunting base, however, as it overlooked the lower coulees where wild game would take shelter while resting, feeding or fleeing.

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Sometimes on a summer Sunday evening we walk out to the ridge to see a magnificent sunset with the shadowy silhouettes of our little farm town barely visible in the evening light, eight miles as the crow flies. By the time we are able to safely wander the pasture by ourselves at age ten or so, we understand that those Indian rings represent someone’s life, someone’s work, someone’s heritage and are a photograph in the earth. Woe be to the child of any age who disturbs them or makes them out to be anything other than a monument to the lives of those who loved this land before we did.

About 1956, the University of Montana found out about them and then Dad got a letter. They wanted to come and put fences around The Indian Rings On The Ridge so they could dig them up and sift through them. They got his response as fast as a three cent stamp could deliver it.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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