Heart Butte: Heart of the Blackfeet Reservation

Posted on 05 March 2003

Our Towns: Heart Butte Montana

Tiny town on Blackfeet Reservation survives on the old ways


MONTANA LIVING — We arrived at Heart Butte on a cloudless January day with no wind.

Aspen stood like black skeletons in the winter sun, and the wind had blown away any sign of snow, exposing litter and brown grass. The town of Heart Butte, plopped on the southern edge of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, is about the size of a Blackfeet encampment.

rocky mountain front montana near browning, blackfeet indian reservation, heart butte, montana living, david reese

The tipis are gone, and in their place are orderly rows of tract houses. Except for a pack of dogs roaming the streets, the town looks deserted. The dogs walk past two of their dead brethren that lie stiff in the ditch. Smoke billows out of one or two chimneys, the only clue that there are people inside. Living conditions in Heart Butte are tough.

More than half the town's children live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census, and there are few jobs. Diseases like cancer and diabetes are common among the members of the Blackfeet tribe. With low snowpack and rain, wells are drying up around town.

Growing up outside the tiny community of Heart Butte, where directions are given by creek names, Gerald Calf Boss Ribs had no water or electricity in his house. His family would haul water up from the creek, and they used a horse team to drag firewood out of the nearby timbered draws.

"We didn't use a pickup or anything," Calf Boss Ribs said matter-of-factly. Calf Boss Ribs and his seven brothers and sisters had to walk three miles to school, and the family lived in a flat-topped log house until 1964, when heavy spring rains washed down the coulee, blowing out Swift Dam and destroying their home. These hardships were of little consequence to Calf Boss Ribs, 43. It was expected and it was endured. "It wasn't hard or anything. We were used to it," he said.

One of the bright spots in Heart Butte today is the new Catholic church. Built in 1998, the church continues a 93-year tradition of a Catholic presence in Heart Butte. In that time span, only three priests have held positions at St. Anne's, each maintaining decades-long commitments to the community. Their current priest is Father Dan Powers, who has been at Heart Butte for 24 years. He was assigned there for two weeks but never left, vowing that he could do his best missionary work here.

He doesn't wear the Jesuit's traditional uniform of a black shirt and white collar, but a green "Heart Butte" T-shirt, jeans, sneakers and in the fashion of many reservation people, a long pony tail. Behind the altar at St. Anne's is a sweeping mural of the Rocky Mountain front. In the mural, smoke wafts out of brightly colored tipis, while black-bottomed clouds blow across the purple mountaintop of Heart Butte mountain.

Underneath the altar are deerskin drums, burned sprigs of sage and a small leather pouch holding a medicine bundle. A faint scent of sage and sweet grass hangs in the air in the church, which seems as much a Blackfeet church as it is a place for Catholic worship. In Heart Butte, Powers — more commonly known as Father Dan — is part priest, part counselor and full-time friend to the town's residents. He jokingly refers to himself as the Heart Butte dog catcher. Powers stayed on in Heart Butte partly because it provides the challenges of working in a third-world community.

Poverty, alcoholism and disease all take their toll on the community. "I try to help people develop a spirituality that helps them go through life safely," Powers said in an interview at the church. "There is a very thin line, if any at all, between the parish and the community. The focus is the community."

Just outside town, Melvin Running Crane's house overlooks a small lake. There's no water in the lake, though, only a mud bog. Just past the dried-up lake, the towering Rocky Mountains loom. Inside Running Crane's house, five-gallon buckets are stacked in the living room for water storage. Janet Running Crane, Melvin's wife, scoops out some water and puts on a pot of coffee for us, while sunlight pours through the windows into their tiny house.

A home computer logged on to the Internet sits on a cluttered desk below a tattered picture of Jesus Christ. Janet Running Crane grew up in nearby Valier, but has lived in Heart Butte for 24 years. She's the clerk at St. Anne's church, a prized job in a town where the school and post office (with only three employees) are the only major employers. "It's a good little community, but we need jobs here," she said. Powers empathizes with churches in small eastern Montana towns that aren't on the reservation.

The children in those churches' families are moving away to find jobs and education. But on the reservation, the Indians often have no choice but to stay. "Here, if I were sitting on a corner starving, we'd all be starving," Powers said. "If one man starves, we all starve."

"Here, if I were sitting on a corner starving, we'd all be starving," Powers said. "If one man starves, we all starve."

The Heart Butte community is bound by deep ties, especially in times of tragedy, like two months ago, when a local man was stabbed to death in Heart Butte. The man was Calf Boss Ribs' cousin and Melvin Running Crane's brother in law. Maintaining the tribal ways is important for Arlene Grant, who teaches the Blackfeet language at Heart Butte High School.

These children's parents and grandparents were told by the government not to speak their language in public, to abandon their culture. Some children still have a hard time accepting the language as their own. "Too many people were punished for speaking the language," Grant said, as students filed out of her classroom at the end of the day.

"That almost destroyed the language. I tell them, 'Don't be ashamed of your language. You won't be punished any more.'" The sun dropped down behind the Continental Divide as school let out for the day. Grant hurried off to a school board meeting, and children boarded buses outside the high school for the ride home. Out on the highway nearby, two dogs fought over a deer bone.


mary desrosier heart butte doctor montana living

Photo courtesy of UM

HEART BUTTE DOCTOR come home to help her people

Dr. Mary Desrosier cradled four-week-old Scottie Lynn Day Rider in her arms, rocking her gently and cooing in her ear.

A beaded stethoscope dangled from her neck, and with the tiny baby sleeping in her arms, Desrosier looked as if the baby could have been her own. With eight children, lord knows she has the experience. But this baby is not Desrosier's.

The infant, born prematurely, is one of Desrosier's patients at the Heart Butte, Mont., medical clinic, a state-of-the art facility on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

Desrosier left the Blackfeet Indian Reservation after graduating from Browning High School and came back a doctor — the first woman ever from the Blackfeet tribe to become a doctor. She is now the only doctor at the Heart Butte medical clinic, where she serves the community's 1,000 or so residents. The clinic is operated by Indian Health Services, a division of the federal government.

Medical services are free to tribal members and their descendants. Desrosier, a tall woman with long black hair, has been back on the reservation as a doctor for 5 1/2 years — time enough to see the ravages of the reservation's killers. They come in the form of cancer and diabetes, but mostly alcohol-related car wrecks. Coming from the reservation, she knows her patients' grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters and children.

She hasn't gotten used to breaking tough news to those friends and family members. "That's been one of the hardest things about coming home ... having to tell someone we couldn't save their husband, or child, or that they have cancer and it's advanced." But as the only doctor in town the job she does is a vital one. The next nearest one is 30 miles away in Browning, where Desrosier does weekend stints in the state's second-busiest emergency room.

It's here that the maladies — social and medical — hit home for Desrosier. She remembers one year when there were 12 fatalities brought in to the ER, all of them victims of drinking and driving.

That's when she and her colleagues went on a rampage of their own, marching down city streets and pleading to the town members at high school assemblies to stop the madness of drunk driving. The push to stop drinking and driving has helped, but the coroner calls and Life Flight helicopters still come in.

Everything that Desrosier has done in her life has brought her to this point as a tribal doctor. From the time she graduated from Browning high school to enter undergraduate studies at the University of Washington, Desrosier knew she would come back to the reservation. She received her medical degree from the University of North Dakota.

"It's home, it's the mountains, it's family," she says of the things that drew her back. "I left with the idea that I would come back and do this. I just set about and did it." Not long after coming back to the reservation Desrosier received her formal Indian name: Medicine Victory Woman. The Blackfeet Indian Reservation, while located in one of the most beautiful places in the world at the foothills of the northern Rocky Mountains, is also one of the nation's poorest.

Out of 3,192 counties listed in a 1997 Census Bureau report, Montana had three among the top 100 with the worst poverty rates. Glacier County, where much of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation is located, ranked 35th out of 3,192 with 33 percent of its residents living in poverty.

According to the census, the Heart Butte school district 30 miles away was among the 100 worst districts in the nation, with 64 percent of its children living in poverty. Obviously, Desrosier has her work cut out for her. Much of the sickness Desrosier deals with is poverty-related. People can't afford good food like fresh fruits and vegetables, so their health suffers.

"The education just isn't there, and the finances aren't there for healthy food choices," she said. "Pop is cheaper than juice, so people will drink pop." She works on education and preventive medicine to help reduce the incidence of diabetes and heart disease, all ailments that are fairly common within the tribe. Heart Butte priest Dan Powers describes the ravages of diabetes has caused most recently: one man lost both legs to amputation, and a married couple each lost a leg to the disease recently.

Some think that the high rate of diabetes on the reservation is caused by a changing diet for the Native Americans. After being taken off of buffalo and put on government rations, their bodies failed to adapt to the changing nutrition. The malady has been passed down through the generations.

Even as the first female Blackfeet Indian to become a doctor, Desrosier's priority is with her family — eight kids, herself and her husband. "My kids are what keep me sane," she said. "When I go home and have seven or eight kids running up to me wanting a hug or attention, I have to leave my work at the door. That really keeps me sane."

— Writer David Reese is editor of Montana Living

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