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Pink Highway Catholic Church

Easter Sunday road trip on a metaphysical gravel road with Hank

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Char-Koosta News 

Today, Easter Sunday, the sun is out melting winter’s final baptism of spring, charging this portion of Mother Earth with sacred water for regrowth of life-giving sustenance for humanity. It is a good sign for our physical health. Maybe the stars in heaven will soon align to sate our souls need of spiritual health in this time of need. 

During these historic times we’re in and with the shadow of Easter I’ve had a lot of time for recollection and reflection with all the thoughts of roller-coaster yesterday, bumpy today, and prayerful hopes for a calm tomorrow. 

Yesterday is gone, today is now and tomorrow never comes, it is just the new now with each breath we take. 

We are always in the physical now. However, the metaphysical allows for renewed reoccupation of yesterday, including romantic alterations; and the elusive grasp of the Unbroken Circle through prayerful hopes and wispy dreams of time yet to come. 

I just completed my 71st winter on Mother Earth and thankfully under the watchful guidance of the Creator, I’m a couple of cats into my second allocation of cats. Consequently, I have come to a realization about the account of those many cats blown hither and yon by many dry, dusty, wet or snowy seasonal winds.

The Trickster in my mind has no more tricks up his sleeve to detract my ego from the truthful message my body has been telling me for a long time: “You are old.” — “Who, me?” — “Yep. You.” — “Not me. Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.” — “There’s no more kitties in the kennel.”

And as a result of the damage of traveling down rough roads bouncing cats, to-and-fro, according to the Gospel of the Pope of Country music, Hank Williams, “My tires and tubes are doin’ fine but the air is showin’ through.” 

So, hop aboard with me and Hank. Let me vape on you as we cruise without a map down a few miles on bumpy gravel roads filled with blind dog-leg curves in a rusty ol’ Rez pick-up without a spare but equipped with a cat-chasing Rez-dog and a canvas desert water bag full of hot Snake Butte water hanging on the broken rear-view mirror mount on the driver’s side door in search of redemption and salvation. “We’ll put aside a little time to fix a flat or two.”

On this Easter Sunday, I thought a lot about religion, in particular Catholicism, the Christian religion that I, and most Indians in Montana were directly or strongly indirectly connected to. It is a weighty subject but I’m going to deal with just a few pounds out of my lifelong thread bare connection to it.

“The midnight train is whining low, I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

The relationship of religion and me seems to be like two north magnetic poles in opposition being pushed together — the closer it got to me, the more I pushed it away. However, no matter how far I got down the road of avoidance, I never got far enough away from the south magnetic pole. It would toss its long magnetic loop around my ankle and try to drag me back to face up to sins I committed before my birth. Thankfully, I still had that one un-looped leg to dig into the ground of resistance.

My cognizant relationship with religion began at an early age, and it scared me — I was born a sinner, a soulless heathen. And because of its early grasp, like many things learned during the early stages of developmental life, it will never let me go — I walk with a guilty shadow.

“I saw the light; I saw the light.”

Something else back then, unfathomable and weighty, tugged at my soul. 

I wasn’t cognizant of what it was for a long time because it was as naturally a part of me as my ears, eyes, nose and all the rest of me. It was the non-damning Spirituality of Creation piped into my soul through the words of my Ancestors’ genetic whispers in the blood that flows through me. Coupled with the Spiritual Radiance of Old Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Indians of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in the 1950s, I would never walk alone. That other shadow dogging me would now get kicked away before its bite could draw blood. 

The names

The names of many of the multigenerational extended families buried at the Highway Church Cemetery.

The Old Indians were all born in the last quarter of the 1800s. Their dress, mannerism, and talking and signing in the Indian was mesmerizing. I felt I was engulfed in the Spiritism of Indianness — it radiated unspoken lessons that I am still deciphering.   

They had a regal auric presence nurtured by that pure connection of the touching the hands of those who touched the hands of those who touched immemorial time when the tongue of the Indians spoke the tongue of the Creator, and spoke not of judgement but of guidance and harmonic co-existence with all of Creation. They exuded an inspirational reverential shelter-from-the-storm aura. 

Like it still is, there were always big multi-generational turnouts at funerals, powwows, hand games and other social gatherings. It was at the funerals where Catholicism and Indian Spirituality would merge at the send-off journey to the Spirit World.

My mother, may she rest in peace, was a Christian all her life, mostly Catholic. She tried, like those of her generation, to pass Catholicism down to their children. 

Thankfully, she didn’t force it on us too heavily. We only had to attend Sunday Mass occasionally. But Christmas, Easter and summer Catechism were big things back in the day. Seemed like the whole Fort Belknap and Harlem Indian Catholic community as well as the non-Indians were heavily involved in those holy celebrations. 

Every Easter there were fresh haircuts held down with Butch Wax, Pomade, Brylcream or Fitches Rose Oil, and new white shirts, denim jeans — occasionally slacks, and shoes for the boys. Permanent hairdos, frilly dresses and shiny shoes for the girls. One year, Pat Boone white buck shoes kenneled a lot of Indian boy’s doggies. They were dirt-black bucks by the end of the day of ruthless activity in the dusty environs.

The Easters celebrations I enjoyed the most were the ones they used to have at the St. Thomas Catholic Pink Highway Church a few miles east of the Fort Belknap Agency. There is a cemetery there that contains the remains of many, many Fort Belknap Indians. Both sides of my family, the Azure paternal side, and the Medicine Bear maternal side are buried there. It’s getting pretty crowded there so when I go, I’ll get grilled so they’ll only need a post-hole digger, not a backhoe. 

On Easter we would all load up and go for the Easter celebration and feast there. Lots of cars and pick-ups. There would also be horses, teams and buckboards that transferred Indians from throughout the (Milk River) Valley. 

It was a joyful spiritual time tinged with a bit of yearning sadness for our Ancestors in eternal repose in the cemetery. Families would eventually linger with the buried remains of long and not so long-gone loved relatives. There would be responsive sniffles mixed with chuckles in the stories told over the graves.

Nowadays, I probably know more people from Fort Belknap and Harlem that have gone-on than those still walking.

Every time I go back to Fort Belknap and Harlem, I always take time to go to the Highway Church to visit my gone-on family, friends and acquaintances, and those long-gone tribal people that I never knew but somehow are a part of my being. I once again see those long-gone days, and hear the stories, the sniffles and chuckles. I sniffle, mist up and give thanks that I am a part of all of that, and smile. 

I do the same at the cemeteries at the Agency, Pony Hill, Harlem, Hays and Lodge Pole. Windy days are the best for visiting because most of the mosquitos get blown away to Dodson to feast on Coyotes. 

“The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky, and as I wonder where you are, I’m so lonesome I could cry.” 

When we were about nine or 10 years old during the summer, me and my fellow sling-shot toting rang-a-tang homies in Harlem would climb onto the gently slanted roof of the half earth-bermed Spud House on the eastern edge of town. 

The Spud House was used to store the area potato harvest until it was sold. It was pinched between the Great Northern Railroad tracks and Highway 2, and we could easily get onto the roof on the north by the railroad tracks, the earth berm made it just about a three-feet boost climb. We’d get on the roof at night and gaze at the starlit night sky for entertainment.

This was back about 1957 and television was just making its inroads in the town. Some folks, mostly white, had TVs. Some would let us kids come over Saturday mornings to watch cartoons and Westerns. 

Poor ol’ Tonto got his butt kicked every Saturday scouting dusty redneck towns looking for villains for the Lone Ranger to bag. It had to get old, for ol’ Tonto — he probably didn’t have a stunt man. “Uhmm, Kimo Sabe, can we talk? Tonto plenty hurtin’. Lately, I’m thinking hazard pay, and paid time off for some rest and recreation back on the Rez. What you thinkummm, Kimo Sabe?” 

Jay Silverheels, aka Tonto, came to Fort Belknap and Harlem in the 1970s during those breakout Indian Civil Rights years for some Indian doings. From what I heard via the Moccasin Telegraph he got more recreation than rest.

We eventually got a TV in 1959. Every Sunday people would pack our house to watch Oral Roberts, The 20th Century, Lawrence Welk and Ed Sullivan while munching on popcorn and washing it down with Kool-Aid. 

Of course, on Saturdays we’d watch poor ol’ Tonto getting his butt kicked. That didn’t do much for our Indian esteem. We all wanted to be the Lone Ranger in play after the Lone Ranger show was over but our white buddies would remind us, they were the only ones who could be the Lone Ranger. Sometimes we would ditch our white buddies so we all had a chance to be the Lone Ranger. 

The Pink Highway Catholic Church

The Pink Highway Catholic Church on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

Prior to that as I alluded to earlier, the Moon and the Milky Way Galaxy were at times a source of our entertainment and the Spud House roof was our theater. Sometimes during the summer, due dust haze, the Moon appeared so close in its eastern rising we thought if we could hop in a car and drive a few miles east of Harlem we could spit on it. 

We would lie on our backs on the Spud House Roof Theater eating — depending on the time of summer — raided crab apples, carrots or tomatoes and stare skyward.

A nightly double feature was doable by lying on the north facing roof side for a while to watch the Northern show — the occasional Northern Lights shows were awesome — then switch to the south facing roof side to watch the Southern show. 

The Spud House was a couple of blocks away from the best crab apples in Harlem. Due to the climate most crab apples were just a bit bigger than a golf ball, however the ones at the Tubbs’ place were about twice that size, and the crème de la crème of all Harlem crab apples, the least-tartiest of all. They were the pièces de résistance — we didn’t need no stinkin’ popcorn — for any night lying on our backs on the Spud House Roof Theater watching the galactic main feature. 

That part of Montana is where the state’s namesake Big Sky Country slams your eyeballs with 360-degrees views without any earthly protrusions on the horizontal landscape other than minor ones like Snake Butte and the Little Rockies to the south. But they weren’t noticeable at night. It was the real deal natural IMAX Dome view. 

I suppose if we laid there our entire lives staring upwards our eyeballs would have eventually morphed into fish eyes so we could take it all in. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, girls were just a couple of years down the calendar and got us off the roof by casting spells on us that had a bugeye pull on our peepers. Great for the development of peripheral vision, very useful for stealthy eyeing the honeys.

Of course, the first night sky things we easily recognized were the Milky Way, the Moon at its various stages, the North Star, and some constellations like the Big Dipper, Little Dipper and Orion. 

And we would count the falling stars, and eventually wonder at the realization of how insignificant we were in the whole scheme of things.

In our wondering and bewilderment, we would ask those eternal questions written in the stars we were gazing at that have bewildered humanity since the beginning of cognizant existence: “Are we all alone?” “Is there a Supreme Being?” “Is there a hereafter?” “Are Chevys better than Fords?”

As that thought enveloped us it was over whelming and somewhat scary as we realized at that moment in time and space the half-dozen or so of us up on the Spud House Roof Theater were the only ones in the universe.

Spooked, we’d jump off the roof and boot scoot three blocks to the St. Thomas Church where we would kneel on the entrance stairs and pray for forgiveness for raiding crab apples and gardens. If we didn’t have diarrhea the next day, we figured God had forgiven us.

But still there are really no definitive answers those eternal questions but, like us, Hank felt a connection with God.  

He said he didn’t write his songs, he only held the pencil while God wrote the songs.

So, you better embrace the moment and hug your loved ones and adhere to the words from the Hand of God in the Gospel of Hank. 

“Comb your hair and paint and powder. Jump in that hot rod Ford with a two- dollar bill and head for that spot right over the hill. There’s soda pop and the dancing’s free. You act proud and I’ll act prouder, You, sing loud and I’ll sing louder, Tonight, were settin’ the woods on fire, because we’ll never get out of this world alive.” 

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