A teacher looks back at racism

Essay by Mary Scriver

Racism – May 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN 1961, WHEN I CAME to Browning, Montana, to teach, I emerged from my little rental — all dressed up — to investigate the town. A path headed towards the main street across a weedy empty lot. A tall Indian in a wide-brimmed hat started towards me. Was I going to have to walk into the burrs and ruin my nylons? Not to worry. The Indian swept off his hat, held it over his heart, stepped off the path, and said, “Mawnin’, teacher.” How could he tell I was a teacher? It never occurred to me that I was a white, dressed-up woman in a reservation town.

The next year, I took a speech and drama team to a competition in Havre, Montana. All were Indians, and we did pretty well. At suppertime, I asked the bus driver, also an Indian, to take us to the Main Street cafe. He didn’t say anything, but the kids protested that we wouldn’t get served there. “Nonsense,” I said. We were all dressed up, and clearly the kids were chaperoned.

But we sat for a half-hour without being served. “Now do you believe us?” they asked, and, hungry, we left for the “Indian cafe.” The bus driver, of course, knew where it was.

Havre can be a tough town, even though it is the home of Northern Montana College. James Welch Jr. wrote his bleakest novels about that part of the world. Yet, when my van broke down there late one evening, the auto mechanics instructor who moonlighted at a service station stayed until midnight to put me back on the road. It’s the kind of place where people can be generous but guarded against certain “types.”

Audra Pambrun was a Blackfeet nurse who gathered many national awards and honors during her career. If someone needed help, she put her nightie in her giant handbag and came to see you through. Our white family was helped by her over and over. She told me that as a young woman, traveling across the country by bus with her infant son in her arms, she was refused service in the small-town cafes. Some wouldn’t let her enter or warm the baby’s bottle. I was indignant on her behalf.

Audra brought some white friends over to visit us. We were nicely settled and enjoying the conversation when there was an awful banging on the door.

“Oh,” said I unthinkingly, “probably just another drunken Indian.” Then Audra caught my eye, and I shriveled.

Racism is unthinking. It slips into your head when you’re annoyed or threatened in some way. On the Blackfeet Reservation in those days, the worst insult between the students — even the Cree ones — was “You Creeeee!” which goes back to when the Cree were landless and the Blackfeet were forced to accept them, pitiful and needy though they were at that time. Now, they’re settled on a reservation near Havre. But what the kids meant was “you loser.”

Recently, it seems, racism has become more tied to economics. Poor people are assumed to be different and therefore fair game. As a “wide-waisted woman” who wears jeans and work shirts with the tails out, and who doesn’t sport a real hairdo or bother with lipstick, I am sometimes seen as a dubious character. When I stand in the hardware department trying to decide which hinges to buy, someone is at my elbow to make sure I don’t shoplift.

MY FIRST SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT used to say that when television came to the “High Line” of Montana, it would bring a modern view of the world. It did, but that world, both on and off the reservation, is so mercantilized that we now judge each other by clothes, brand-name belongings and cars. If you have the right things, you can treat everyone else as losers.

Now retired, I’ve changed. I’m no longer interested in “things,” and I stand up for myself and anyone else who is unfairly treated. If I were chaperoning kids today who were refused service in a public cafe, I would raise holy hell and call it a communications project. Today’s kids, the grandchildren of my embarrassed speech team, would surely join me in protest. They are not losers, which they prove by bringing home trophies and scholarships. Their pride is hard-won.

Mary Scriver is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Valier, Montana.