In the Midst of a Warm Spring, Remembering Winter on the Rez
Growing up on the Rocky Boy Reservation in north-central Montana was, I think, a character builder. One does not enjoy a Great Plains winter as much as survive it. Yet, winter was a time of adventure for rez kids. At least it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Of course, the winters were colder then, there was way more snow and distances were much longer. Alright, the last part is a little bit exaggerated. Poverty, hardships and adult drama aside, winters were fun.
Winters on Rocky Boy centered around a couple of common activities. The first was playing in the snow and on the ice and, of course, and those activities that were work, such as gathering wood, hauling water and shoveling snow. (My dad used to say that we worked harder playing in the snow than we ever did moving it for a real purpose.) We would complain about having to go out on a snowy, cold winter evening when it was already dark to gather wood which was our only source of heat unless my dad was able to keep the fuel stove working and was able to buy fuel. My dad would cut up old tires to burn in the wood stove. We gathered wood in the dark because it was dark before we got home from after school activities, like basketball (the major indoor activity). Gathering wood was a “daily” struggle and it was a rare occasion that we were able to have someone bring us a load already sawed and ready to split. If we did get a load it was in “pickup bed” length and had to be sawed. These lengths would be set up vertically to keep them from getting wet during thaws. They looked like wooden teepees. We had to haul water in also. That meant a quick 75 yard trip to the spring to fill up the buckets.
When we hauled water (or wood) for our grandparents it was harder, because they had their log house on a hill, high above the creek. Their well was about 150 yards down the hill. I hated having to haul water alone in the dark as our spring was located up in the brush and I imagined all manner of night creatures were back there in the dark. More than once I slipped and both buckets were spilled, sometimes on me, necessitating a return trip. I sometimes think my long arms came from hauling two five-gallon cans of water all those years.
It’s hard to imagine now, but only a small number of houses on the reservation had running water, let alone sewer. There was not one house in the “lower road” district where we lived that had a working indoor bathroom. Not one. This was pre-HUD. I was a junior in high school before we got a house with indoor water and bathroom facilities. Showers at school were a luxury. At home, baths were in a galvanized steel tub with water heated on the electric cook stove. (We had electricity! We weren’t complete hillbillies.) The kids who were lucky enough to live in “government” house at the Agency (as in BIA Agency) had running water and a bathroom. The BIA Schools located in a half dozen areas on the reservation also had indoor facilities as did the Indian Health Service and BIA offices and employee housing. The Lutheran Mission did also. In one of the planning documents I have seen from the 1960s, it was estimated that over 60% of the houses on the reservation had no indoor facilities. I remember some houses that did not have electricity. Some of them had dirt floors. Not many, but some, especially on the east side of the reservation which was called the “full blood” side when I was growing up. Up until the mid-1960s there were no paved roads and by the late 1960s only the main road from the Agency to Montana Highway 87 was blacktopped with the Box Elder Creek Road, where we lived, shortly thereafter. I know it’s hard to imagine, but this was the way we lived. By the late 1960s the U.S. would land a man on the moon and some Indian folks were just getting indoor plumbing.
Play time meant a lot of sledding, especially on moonlit nights. We would build a “jump” which was usually just an old car hood with the front pointed downhill and snow piled on top of it. We then cut some wood and built a small fire on the downhill side and proceed to ride our sleds, pieces of corrugated tin (tintaboggans in the local vernacular) or old car hoods over the jump and over the jump. Yes, there were a few accidents, but not many, and our parents or grandparents usually only heard about them when stiches were required. If you have never ridden an old car hood down a snowy hill, you had a deprived childhood. We also loved the ice on the creeks. It was our “highway” and we drug the little kids up and down and had imaginary garages and parking areas by our imaginary houses. We played hockey with a piece of ice and sticks. When we got older and we were lucky enough to get ice skates for Christmas the hockey games got a little more intense. I don’t remember anyone owning an actual hockey stick and there were no penalty boxes. There were no penalties.
Hooking up a sled or toboggan to a horse was a blast. At a full gallop with a rope tied to the saddle horn there was a tendency for the sled to sunfish until everyone was shaken loose or a wreck incurred. Once in a great while we were allowed to hook our sleds to a car bumper and be slowly pulled down the dirt driveway by our grandparent’s house to where my parents lived. This was done usually by an older sibling or relative who was risking the wrath of our mother or grandmother for doing it. Some of the activities we engaged in were downright dangerous such as digging a snow cave out of a large snowdrift and actually playing in it. We also went ice fishing on the local reservoir, but that was usually with an older relative. It’s scary to hear the “cracks” as the ice expands or contracts. By the way, Birch and Quaking Aspen trees also send out large “crack” when they expand, especially after a deep freeze. These cracks were usually accompanied by a cascade of snow off the tree branches. One of our cultural stories is about a warrior who runs around smacking the trees with a war club. I can’t tell you why he was doing it, I just remember that part of it. I think he was angry about something. One can imagine.
My family lived in one of the largest houses on the rez. It was part of a farm operation from the turn of the century and was one of a series of farm houses in the Box Elder Creek drainage. They may have been part of a “haying” operation as far back as the time that Ft. Assiniboine was manned by the all black (Buffalo Soldier) regiment under the command of General “Blackjack” Pershing who would later distinguish himself in World War I. There was a reservoir and a series of earthen gravity flow irrigation ditches running for some 7 miles along Box Elder Creek. The remnants of this system are still visible. There were, to my knowledge, perhaps a half dozen of these houses including the headquarters house that was located near Box Elder in an area we call “Hay Project”. When this land was purchased and made part of the reservation sometime around the mid-1930s, some of these houses became part of “land assignments” which were 160 acre plots assigned to a head of household. Assignments are like a life estate that can be passed onto a family member.
This is how our family came to have this large old farm house. (Rocky Boy was never an “allotted” reservation and, to this day, is wholly owned by the Tribe with the exception of a couple school sections.) The big white farmhouse we lived in was perhaps the largest house on the reservation. It was a “Victorian” type structure with a large porch running the east facing length. At one time it had railing on the porch but most of those were gone. It was old and during the time I remember was never re-painted and when we climbed up in the attic we could see daylight though several cracks. It had 4 bedrooms upstairs, but two were unusable in the winter because they were on the weather (Northern) side of the house. My parents' bedroom was in what used to be the dining room. The original master bedroom on the main floor became a pantry and cold storage area because it was so hard to heat in winter. The upstairs had a wide central hallway or landing where we played a lot. The upstairs floors were wood and after decades of use without re-varnishing or painting, they could yield some slivers. The lower floor “had” an entrance hall way that at one time separated the kitchen from the rest of the house. For better heat circulation, that hallway was taken out by my dad. All of the bedrooms were utilized in the summer.
My parents had 12 kids and we would have additional assorted cousins living with us, especially when the older kids returned from Indian Boarding Schools. There were actually plumbing and bathroom fixtures in this house, but they never worked as far back as I can remember. My dad said that they once worked on “gravity flow” from the spring up in the brush. That spring fed into a cistern that was located in the foundation of what we used to call the “milk house” because it had a milk separator that was permanently bolted to the floor. This shed was in pretty bad disrepair already when I was a kid. I always wished my dad could fix the bathroom to work again, because those trips to the outhouse in the middle of a winter night were frigid and, when it was 30 below zero, you could easily freeze rather essential parts of your anatomy. Occasionally we had to “borrow” fuel or diesel from the BIA Road Department machinery that was parked for the winter at some remote location. I can remember going out in a blizzard with my dad and brothers to “borrow” some BIA fuel. I, as the littlest, would be in charge of keeping my foot on the gas so the car would not stall. They would come back with a couple five gallon cans of diesel to put in the trunk and reeking of fuel. I suspect that this use of diesel caused the stove to malfunction which eventually led to our house burning to the ground one fall. It was during the day, so luckily no one was there but we lost everything except the clothes on our back in that fire. Our new HUD house was being built close by and the volunteer fire crews and BIA crew kept it from burning. It took another 4 months to finish it. It was the first house I had ever lived in at Rocky Boy that had an indoor toilet, a washer and dryer, a kitchen sink, and best of all, a natural gas forced air furnace.
By contrast, the upstairs in our old house was heated by a couple of “heat registers” which were just open grates in between the downstairs ceiling and the upper floor that let heated air flow into the upper rooms. There were 3 of these in various parts of the house. They were made out of heavy rather decorative cast iron and could be opened and closed. As a result of the lack of a real heat source upstairs, bedtime meant a rather quick dash upstairs and into the covers and the last one in bed had to get up and turn out the light. I remember getting used Army (tan) and Air Force (blue) quilts. Boy, we were glad to have those. We also got blue hooded parkas from Malmstrom Air Base and military knee high “mukluks” that laced up.
There were no storm windows, frost would build up on the windows to about a quarter inch thick in some places and would take on patterns of whatever natural shapes blocked sunlight for part of the day. The frost was more prevalent upstairs in the one bedroom all the boys shared in the winter. It may have been due to condensation because the frost was on the inside. The morning dash downstairs was fast, especially when we knew there were hotcakes or hot oatmeal waiting. Mornings were a calm subdued time with little speaking, just the radio supplying background noise, mostly the morning stock and crop price reports.
One of the absolute high points of winter on the Rocky Boy Reservation was the annual trip to the Lutheran Mission to get our Christmas packages. These were usually wrapped in plain brown paper, sometimes taped and sometimes secured with twine. Later on “the Mission” started using regular Christmas wrap. The mission would sort the gifts in stacks according to gender and age and when your name was called you stepped forward and accepted your gift with a “thank you”. The knitted stocking caps, mittens and winter scarves were always welcome, as were the “Big Chief” tablets, coloring books and crayons. The occasional wool socks or wool shirt or sweater were looked upon as something special. The other highlight was the annual Christmas Programs at the schools. These usually centered around the Nativity as the ACLU hadn’t yet gotten around to filing lawsuits on schools that incorporated religious themes into school Christmas Programs. The trip home was quiet because everyone was munching on hard candy, peanuts and oranges out of the brown sacks passed out by Santa Claus who looked suspiciously like the school janitor.
I probably don’t exaggerate much when I say the winters were colder back then. That might be a scientific fact. I remember week after week when the temperature did not rise above zero, mornings when tires were frozen out-of-round and days when my dad had to actually build a fire under the oil pan of the car so that it would start. Even oil has a freezing point. Car tank heaters were not the best and were somewhat ineffective in minus 30 degrees with wind chills of minus 50 to -70 degrees. Car fuel lines were prone to freezing in these temperatures and getting stranded on rural roads was rather dangerous. Chains were a must a lot of the time. When we were outside playing we could hear a car with broken chains slapping against the fender wall several minutes before a car came into view. Snowplowing was sporadic and rural driveways were almost never cleared by the snowplows, so we shoveled. I’m not sure if it’s a nostalgic thing, but I do not actually mind shoveling snow to this day. You can do some of your best reminiscing while shoveling snow.