Article By: Carina Stoves Special to the Bethlehem Press
Oki! When I moved to Montana, people here asked me if I was used to snow. Was I ready for the winters? I responded that I was from the Poconos in Pennsylvania, a part of the Appalachian mountain range. Sure, I was ready for winter and snow.
Yes, it is true: I am used to snow – snow that comes from the sky and stays put. But in January, I learned about what locals here call a ground blizzard. I knew what a blizzard is. I was living in Allentown in 1996 when a blizzard hit, and we had all the snow piles to enjoy we could handle. I was about 8 years old at the time, and it was amazing to walk to school a week later with the snow still piled high over my head. Here, that same amount of snow is nothing.
A ground blizzard is slightly different from the Blizzard of ’96. In a ground blizzard, you’re not dealing necessarily with new snow from the sky. You do, however, get the same high winds. In February, Browning had a ground blizzard with winds as high as 60 mph on the plains and 85 mph near the mountains. Where does the snow for the blizzard come from, if it isn’t coming from the sky? I am glad you asked.
I am used to snow that you can stomp off of your shoes when you reach a cleared spot of sidewalk, or scrape off on the mat by the door. Here, the snow is a fine powder so when you walk in the snow, stomp or scrape it off, you still end up ice skating when you enter a building. And when the wind whips through it, the snow blows and creates huge, high drifts. I have traveled on a highway and come across drifts that make it seem like the plows were never on that road.
Whiteouts are another matter. I had never encountered one before moving here, but the wind causes them often. In fact, now I find that as long as I can see the posts by the side of the road, the ones my sister-in-law and I noticed back in August, I know where the road is. Back in August, we questioned why there were so many, but now, I wish that we had double the number of posts.
I encountered black ice for the first time while driving. I did have a nasty encounter with it once before when I was in ninth grade heading for the bus stop, and I ended up on my back because of a heavy book bag, “struggling like a turtle” as my older brother put it as he walked past me laughing with his friends. That embarrassment, however, was nothing like the feeling and fear of spinning out of control on my way to school one November morning and ending up in a ditch. I ended up getting a ride to work that day.
What did you learn in school about the relocation and death of multitudes of Native Americans? Have you ever discussed the reservations, the Trail of Tears, smallpox-infested blankets, or the fact that buffalo were killed by settlers and their remains left in piles on the plains? In writing these articles, I do research before I begin. I evaluate my sources. I dig to find the truth. I figure there’s enough half-truths out there, and I don’t want to spread more of them.
Now, let’s go back to the winter of 1883-84. The buffalo have disappeared. The reservation has been set up, and you can’t leave it if you are a Native. A man named John Young is the Indian agent who is suppose to help take care of you. You are expected to farm, but the land is not good for farming. So you go the agent and he requests and gets a small herd of cattle, but it isn’t enough to take care of everyone.
Then in 1884, Agent Young leaves, and the new agent, Reuben Allen, sees and reports that there are 28 lodges and only a single rabbit being cooked and a hoof from a steer boiling in a pot. The winter was a severe one. I can picture the wind, cold and whiteouts. Do I know this for sure? No, but I’m told that the winter we are in as I write is a “bad winter,” and that bad winters are pretty common for this area. Also, the location of the agency in use at that time is in an area on the reservation that is still hammered by ground blizzards.
Back to the winter of 1883-84. You see your people, your tribe, family, friends, starving. What do you do? Some sources say that the agent in charge was being unfair with the food and not distributing it equally. Others say that he was selling it for profit. A few say that he was doing everything in his power to help. The end result was the same.
By the end of that winter, many of your tribe have died. Records differ on the number. According to one of the historic markers, 500 died. Another marker states 600 died. A Blackfoot, called Almost-A-Dog, cut 555 notches in a willow stick - one for each person buried that winter. Which number is correct? Does the number really matter? Too many died relying on the government and the agent to give help. They were buried on a ridge behind the agency in a mass grave that is still known as Ghost Ridge. I have seen the ridge, and it is a sobering sight. I grieve for the injustices that have been done to this tribe. But it is only one of the many tribes and many injustices.
These people have been through so much, yet they are the most caring people I have ever met. With all of the tragedies seen in this community, I am learning why it was stated that I am working in a trauma informed school.
Well, Nii tak ko to mat tsi no. I will see you again.