Reservation Dogs

An “apple”—red on the outside, white on the inside—ages out of spending summers with his Blackfeet relatives

I once described Browning, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s most populated and centrally located town, to a Balkan friend of mine, and he said it sounded like parts of war-torn Bosnia. The reservation is adjacent to Montana’s Glacier National Park; if you’re coming from the southwest, it starts just before you reach East Glacier Park Village. As you drive north toward Browning, there’s a great wall of mountainous peaks off to the west. Chief Mountain stands alone at the end of the range, signaling the border between the United States and Canada, and the end of the reservation. These mountains, which tower above the Great Plains to the east, are known to the Blackfeet as the “Backbone of the World.”

Powerful winds—sometimes even hurricane strength—sweep down from the mountains year-round. The general seediness of the reservation towns is due in part to the lack of any strategy to ameliorate the effects of these winds, which are strong enough to rip the stucco off the side of the casino. Every field is strewn with trash, which eventually passes through town and collects in the western faces of chain-link fences. Everywhere, the stop signs, mile markers, and other street signs are surrounded by broken Bud Light and Twisted Tea bottles, thrown by passing drivers testing their accuracy.

• • •

My mother and I belong to the Blackfeet Nation, and my father is white. I was raised in Missoula, a few hours south of the reservation, but until I was about eleven, I regularly spent summer and winter breaks staying with relatives in both Browning and East Glacier. It was a temporary reprieve from life with my mother, which was fraught with partner violence and alcoholism. I like to think that my leaving was a chance for her to try and find steady ground, though it’s more likely that my absence only worsened things. Still, I can remember a feeling of comfort when I was on the reservation. I felt protected by my large family. I felt at home being around other brown-skinned people, as opposed to being one of only a few in Missoula, and speaking with a Native accent rather than my white-guy accent.

The summers were busy with tourists, and the winters brutally cold and dark. The Browning area holds the record for most significant temperature drop recorded in a single day—from 44° down to -56°F. It snows a lot up there, which meant snow forts and snowball fights. If you got lucky, you might find a neighbor willing to pop the hood off one of the old cars propped up on cinder blocks in their front yard, flip it upside down, tie it to the back of a car with wheels, and tow it around town, letting kids pile on and wrestle each other off the makeshift sled . . . all with a pack of dogs chasing you.

In “Browntown,” as we often refer to it, I always paid close attention to the dogs. They did as they pleased, as if just going about their business, running their errands. If you were to follow one, you might see it make its rounds in search of its owner or the familiar face that fed it and took it in for the night. It would check outside the casino. It might stop outside Teeple’s IGA on its way to Ick’s Place, the town bar and hole-in-the-wall liquor store. Then the dog might hit the two convenience stores on SE Boundary Street before doubling back past the casino and finding its owner walking home, down Cemetary Road. These dogs—much like some of the people in this town—both impressed and scared the living shit out of me. You never knew if one was going to attack you.

To this day, Auntie Mary tells the story about the time she saw dogs commit murder. I remember this, as well, as it was one of my last extended visits. I was in the backseat of her GMC Jimmy, and we were pulling out of the IGA parking lot when we saw two very mean-looking dogs chasing another dog. We could see the wrinkles on their snouts as they snarled and nipped at the small long-haired mutt. They were driving him right toward a busy intersection, and the little mutt had two options: he could slow down and be attacked by his pursuers, or keep running. He kept running, and as they neared the curb, the two attackers slowed down then came to a full stop, to watch the mutt get hit by a car. Then, they turned around and went about their business, back the way they came.

In summer, we would drive an old golf cart around, back and forth between “the white store” and “the brown store,” nicknamed for the colors of the buildings’ exteriors. We would taunt the dogs that were chained up behind people’s houses. These were the really vicious dogs, which I assumed were too far gone to be allowed to run loose—too angry at being chained up and too angry at people for taunting them from afar. We knew what made those dogs mean because we could see it happening in the homes of our neighbors. We also knew kids—underfed at home and ignored at school—who were being made mean by neglectful and abusive parents. We knew that, in a lot of ways, we were lucky.

When we got bored, we threw rocks at the empty houses in town or huffed gas out of the tank of a dirt bike. One day, my older cousin Zach and I egged the house of the gay mailman, Harvey. I regret not having apologized to him before he died.

July was fireworks season, and if anyone had cared, they would have directed a public service announcement at our parents about our dangerous misuse of explosives. The tiny town of East Glacier was a small grid, the perfect size for bottle-rocket wars. At night, most of the kids in town were running around in small factions, hiding, waiting to ambush one another with Roman candles, bottle rockets, and artillery shells. Sometimes, Zach was able to get his hands on quarter sticks of dynamite. Fortunately, we were unsuccessful in destroying trees and losing limbs.

But we did cause trouble. The summer I turned eleven, I shot fireworks at two girls my age who were riding a motor scooter. They turned too sharply and crashed, and one of the girls had to get her knee stitched up. I avoided a trip to the reservation’s detention center, White Buffalo, only because my uncle happened to be hunting buddies with the policeman who responded to the accident. Staring White Buffalo in the face forced me to realize I wasn’t all that tough. My uncle pointed out that kids like me, meaning a part-time rez kid, didn’t fare well in White Buff. I began to realize I was not always as fully protected as I thought.

The day after the scooter crash, there was another incident. My cousins and I were hanging out by the elementary school in East Glacier when a neighborhood kid, Scotty, and his group of slightly older friends stopped by to show off their enormous bag of fireworks. Someone had given Scotty’s younger brother, Robert, a Roman candle. Everyone saw Robert throw it, saw the candle send a screaming fireball right into a large bag of fireworks. There were fireworks shooting in every direction for what seemed like an hour, and everyone blamed Robert when it was over. Ten of us were hiding behind cars and a dumpster, and all of us but Scotty were laughing uncontrollably. I ran home quickly, though, fearing another encounter with that policeman.

Later that evening, I took my cousin’s Huffy and started riding to meet my cousin Zach. I made it only a couple of blocks before I saw two of Scotty’s buddies running behind me, yelling for me to stop; apparently, in the few hours between the fireworks fiasco and my ride, Scotty had started telling people it wasn’t Robert who started the explosion, but me. I hid and, after an hour or so, went out and found Zach playing basketball at the school. He told me Scotty and his friends wanted to kick my ass over the fireworks, but that he would make them back off. Zach was well over six feet talland quick to the first punch. Because we were so close, I never had to deal with any potential threats.

But I didn’t stay on the reservation for much longer; my Auntie Mary drove me back to Missoula the next week. It wasn’t only that Scotty and his friends had had it in for me that day. I had realized that as long as I was on the reservation, I would be a target. I was simply a part-timer, a tourist who came to town to enjoy the few seasonal amenities every year. I would never fully belong, and at eleven years old, I had reached an age when that started to matter. To the year-round residents, I was an apple—red on the outside, white on the inside. I decided I wouldn’t go back if I could help it.

Over the next three years, my cousin Andrew landed in the ICU after being attacked by a pack of dogs. His older brother, Zach—my protector—was murdered by a fellow Blackfeet when he was eighteen years old. I was fourteen, and I attended his funeral, but after that, I didn’t go back to the rez for nearly a decade. But when I was twenty-three, my Auntie Grace died, and my mother asked me to attend her funeral.

My mom stayed with relatives, but I got a room at what is now called the Glacier Peaks Casino in Browning. I convinced my cousin Aubrey—who was my age and the relative who most frequently visited me in Missoula—to join me there the night before the funeral. Aubrey stopped me before I wasted too much money gambling and told me she was taking me to a house party. This seemed like a bad idea, but I kept that opinion to myself.

On the way, I asked her to stop at Ick’s Place so I could buy a bottle of whiskey for the party. It was late, and kids were hanging out in the parking lot—the girls dressed in knockoff Pendleton jackets, turquoise with red and yellow pyramid designs, and the boys in Carhartt coats and red, white, and black Nikes. There were also a lot of drunk and homeless people in the parking lot. One of them followed me as I walked into the liquor store. I gave him a dollar on the way out.

At the house party, I stuck out like a sore thumb in my knee-length pea coat, V-neck sweater, and button-down shirt. I got very drunk on whiskey and tried to mind my own business. Being with Aubrey, who had grown up in East Glacier and went to high school in Browning, and who is also very tough and very pretty, kept me from getting my head kicked in, unlike two other poor bastards at the party.

Aubrey and I got back to the Holiday Inn at 7 am, which was just enough time to sleep for an hour, but not to shower or change clothes, before the funeral. My mother and Auntie Mary came to the hotel to pick us up. In the hotel room, just before we left for the church, Mary said she was too emotional to read the eulogy and asked me to read it instead. It suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t really know Auntie Grace. I had met her a few times as a child, but she and my mother were usually feuding about some perceived slight from long ago, and anyway, I hadn’t seen most of the family in a decade. I politely declined, and Aubrey got stuck reading the eulogy. I read a passage from the so-called Good Book. As I half-drunkenly stumbled through the reading, self-conscious of my white-guy accent, I felt naked and embarrassed, like an imposter. Only a couple of my ten aunties and uncles could actually figure out who I was.

When I finished reading, I sat down behind Aubrey at the end of a relatively empty pew. My mother was at the opposite end of the aisle, and her sobs from down the bench stung me and made me jump. They erupted from her in short, tumbling yelps, and in between, I could hear the quiet sound of her panting for breath. I focused on the drummers and the way they sang; their nasal chanting that went from a near moan to intense, soaring howls, and back again. One had arrived late, mid-song. His left shirtsleeve was empty, and it was folded where his elbow would have been, the cuff tacked to his shoulder. He pulled a chair up to the drum, carefully chose one of the three drum beaters he pulled from his back pocket, and fell in perfectly with the other three drummers, all singing in unison. It was around this time that I started sobbing as well. I cried because my mother was crying in remorse for the bitterness between her and her dead sister. I cried because the howling of the drummers was so overwhelming. I cried because I was ashamed that I wasn’t crying for Grace, but because I felt sorry for myself and my sudden identity crisis, and embarrassed for crying at all.

I left the funeral as soon as I could; dry and leathery from the hangover, I was starting to feel as if I was made of beef jerky. Aubrey and I went for a drive around Browning. I thought about how relatives I had once been close with not only didn’t expect to see me but didn’t even recognize me. I thought about the singers and their songs, and how my Great Auntie Vivian had sung those songs to us when we were little. I thought of The Stick Game that the Blackfeet play, a guessing game that involves hiding a dowel of sorts behind your back. I cannot elaborate on this game because I cannot remember how to play it. I thought of my cousin Jake, who reminded me that a tribe’s culture is forever tied to its land, where tradition was created, and it is that culture which is constantly calling for us to return home. I thought of my grandmother, Geraldine, and how she was forced to suffer the abuses of boarding school and assimilation, the denial of her own culture, and how I had essentially just walked away from it all. I had let my own reservation scare me away from my culture and family. I began to rethink my best interests. I thought, maybe it’s not only the meanest dogs that endure the rez, but the most cunning dogs as well. At the very least, although I had been most careless in my decision-making the night before, I had still made it out okay.

We were driving down Duck Lake Road when I saw a dead dog on the side of the road. It’s not so uncommon on the reservation, a bit like seeing dead deer on the side of the highway; you don’t see it every day, but it’s not exactly a rare sight. This dog was half-black and half-white, and looked like a shepherd of some sort. It had probably been hit by a car. But my first thought was that a pack of dogs had killed it.

About the Author

James Riach

James Riach lives in Missoula, Montana, and was a Welch Scholar at the University of Montana. He's tried his hand as a musician, filmmaker, and writer. Every Monday he returns to his desk at Submittable, where he works.

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