Town with a heart: Heart Butte, Montana

horse on highway browning

Residents in Blackfeet Reservation town live a hard life


We pulled into 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 in the ditches. The town of Heart Butte, plopped on the southern edge of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on the Rocky Mountain Front, is about the size of a Blackfeet encampment. The tepees 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 recently. "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." The 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. 

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