by Ruth Hammond Barrus
When I think of the ten years we spent in Blackfoot a whirl of memories and emotions pull and tear at me, some obviously significant but others so insignificant that I wonder why I remember them. Indians, bare feet on hot pavement... gauze masks over faces...buggy rides.. .high bookcases filled with books and books...music lessons and dancing lessons... laughter and work around a long center table...tears and sighs in the night...births and deaths...scuffed shoes, high-topped shoes...quartets, violins, cellos, pianos, bread and milk...gardens...peas, beans, carrots... a checkered coat ... baseball... "dirty little Mormons". As the centrifuge of memory slows and settles, I am aware that these things I remember are bound with strong arms to a great hub and that it was the power of this center that made these memories both related and significant.
Mother gave a kind of imperceptible preparation for experience to her family that kept us in perpetual anticipation and the resultant understanding and interpretation cushioned the hurts and disappointments, for there was always something better and finer beckoning.
I was four when we moved to Blackfoot from Rigby in 1916 where my father had been superintendent of Schools for twenty-five years and the only recollections I have of Rigby are centered around the school. I remember being wrapped in a blanket and laid on a bench behind our piano which had been hauled into the school for a dance, and I lay there crying with an earache as the long distorted shadows of the dancers gyrated menacingly above me and around me, and the brittle square dance rhythms beat upon me. It was endurable only because mother was at the piano and my brothers were playing their violins, and between each dance they would come back to comfort me and encourage me that soon they could take me home.
It was at a school program that the call "Fire! Fire!" rang out, and pulled by my mother we rushed through the door and down the street to watch flame and smoke envelope and consume our house. Terror rushed down upon me in sight and sound and only the firm grip of mother's hand prevented panic.
There was the time that mother's temper saved me from the switching my father threatened me with because I had played house in the school wagons. The psychological tool of that day was the rod, and my father never hesitated to use it either at school or at home. In spite of this he was respected by his students, but his own children feared his punishment, for he seemed to want to set an example for the whole school through his children. My brothers have since told me that if they had done anything in school punishable, they would run home rapidly and try to coax mother to give them a switching so that father would have no excuse to do so.
"No, Milton, you must not strike her," she cried out. "She is too young, and besides she didn't know she was supposed to stay away from those wagons." Those canvas-covered school wagons were most tempting to play in for the sides were lined with benches that made especially fine chairs, beds, or tables, and the little pot-bellied stove in the front, and the canvas top made you feel like a real pioneer. You could drive the horses, cook your meals, sweep the floors, and make your beds, and cross the plains every day in the most exciting fashion.
Had I realized the years and effort father had worked to get those wagons, I would probably have been more understanding of his anger. Historians have recorded that Rigby was the first community in the West to instigate consolidation of schools and by means of these narrow sheep-camp-like wagons, students from outlying country areas were brought into school each day. It had taken years of determined persuasion to realize a new brick school building to accommodate the added students, and the new school wagons to give them transportation.
My first vivid impression of Blackfoot was the Indians. There was a repulsive attraction about them that was unfathomable, and I never ceased to timidly observe their ways. We had a particularly fine opportunity to observe them because our house, located on North Schilling, was just two blocks from the city park and the fair grounds that housed the Eastern Idaho District Fair. It was a natural route past our home to either place. Occasionally we would see a fat squaw wrapped in a bright blanket, a scarf covering stringey black hair, with a harness over her shoulders to which was attached on her back, an upright deer skin cradle and tightly laced inside would be a plump back eyed Indian baby. In soft deer skin moccasins they would waddle down the side walk like a fat goose and the rocking motion seemed to keep the baby contented and happy.
First would come the big buck Indian with a scarf on his head and two long braids down his back and perched on top both scarf and hair would be a broad flat-rimmed hat. He liked the American levi, but the shirt never seemed long enough to get tucked inside, and the protruding stomach was no anchor for the pants, so it was less worrisome if he wore a blanket. He would walk steadily down the sidewalk, feet slightly spread, eyes and head always forward. Even though he showed no curiosity or interest, I always had the feeling that he was aware of our peeking around the corner of the house at him. Smaller children would crowd around the mother if we were in view, their dark eyes searching their moccasined feet. Always they would be dressed in calico of bright but small design.
Occasionally I would go to the Blackfoot Mercantile where my father worked and would look at the calico that was bought especially for the Indians. The usual color was a bright yellow upon which was a small design or bright red. Bright blues and greens also seemed a favorite combination. I never see those colors in combination today but what I think -- those are Indian colors.
My younger sister, Viola, seemed to enjoy running away to the neighbors without permission, and the family would continually be searching her out. Spankings and scoldings seemed to have no effect on her, so one day mother gathered a few of her clothes together in a large handkerchief and told her that if she didn't like her home she would have to give her away to the first Indian that passed our house. I don't know who cried the most, Viola or I, but we were very relieved after Viola promised over and over again that "She wouldn't run away any more," and we were taken into the house.
The homes in our area of the town were fairly new and were on the fringe of the town. There were several open fields close to our street and over the canal where we used to swim, about a block from home, the farms began. In fall, when I was entering the first grade at Irving School, I had to pass one of these open fields enroute to school. Camped there was an Indian family with a small teepee, an open fire with squatted figures around it and stretched on sticks above the flame would be strips of bacon. Always you were aware of their shyness and their studied disregard of your nearness which tantalized my curiosity.
My mother, born in Grantsville November 16, 1878, had spent her first nine years in quite primitive Indian Territory, and our bedtime stories had included many experiences Grandfather Hale had with Indians as he ran his community grocery store. Some were funny, some sad, and some filled with anxiety, but through them I was made aware that underneath placid dark face and passive exterior was an interesting human being.
As I would pass this family Indian camp, going to and from school, I was made aware of a girl about my age. She would be close to where I passed but she would never look at me directly. I was surprised one day to find her seated opposite me in school and to hear the teacher introduce her to the class as Katie. It was rare then for an Indian to be enrolled in the public schools as the special Indian school on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation absorbed them. We were all curious about her, but I felt that I had a special claim to her as I knew her first. This claim resulted in some problems from which both Katie and I suffered. For many days Katie quietly sat in her seat, her head down and eyes full of fear. The teacher was kind and helpful, but there was a strong campfire odor about her that was not desirable and students soon began to avoid her and openly tease her on the playground and going home from school. They would hide behind trees and taunt her as she would pass. I was somewhat repelled by the smell about Katie, but my open avowal of friendship in the beginning put me on my honor to defend her, and as the boys would torment Katie I would take a long stick and chase them. I am sure this delighted them also, and my older brothers counseled me that this was no way to take care of the situation. So Katie and I endured the torments in semi-silence as we went home. Katie was quiet but she was not dumb. Each day we would note an improvement in her appearance as she came to school. The hair looked cleaner and the long braids became smooth and attractive. The moccasins changed to shoes, and the long calico dresses began to look more like our dresses. We were challenged to keep up with her in spelling and writing, and her shy smile soon broke down animosity and encouraged friendship. Her status change from a curiosity to an accepted classmate. In the late winter Katie, her family, the teepee and all suddenly disappeared, and no one knew where. Had the land of teepees on the reservation absorbed her? Would we ever see her again?
It was not until the following July that I was to see her again. It was an especially warm July and children throughout the neighborhood took delight in going barefoot and in swimming in the canal. Because of a particular allergy I had developed that summer on my feet which the doctor attributed to dust I hadn't been allowed to go swimming or barefooted. This one hot July day I had voiced particular objection to this condition and teased mother beyond her endurance to allow me to take my shoes and stockings off. In weariness she told me to go ahead. I was happily squeezing the long cool grass through my toes running on the soft cushion like a released puppy when mother called to send me on an errand to town.
"You better put your shoes on," she called. But I pretended not to hear her and darted on my errand. The first few blocks were fine, but when I got on Main Street where the hot sun left no shadow and the dry pavement absorbed its heat, my tender unseasoned feet suddenly felt on fire. I danced crazily and swiftly towards the store. I was aware only of the hot stove beneath my feet and I seemed helpless to get away from it. Suddenly I heard a chorus of low giggles to my side and I looked up to see a row of Indians sitting on the pavement in front of the stores, who were pointing at me and giggling at my antics. I felt terribly humiliated, and then I saw Katie. She looked different in her blanket which was drawn over her head and tightly around her, but I knew it was Katie. I ran up to her calling her by name. She looked at me a moment and her eyes denied that she had ever known me or that I had ever been her friend. Then her glance fell to the pavement. Again I tried, "Don't you remember me -- Ruth, your friend?" There was only silence, and the whole row of Indians were silent, and I suddenly felt cold and terribly alone. Forgetting my errand, I turned and ran quickly toward home, tears stinging my eyes.
Mother started to scold, "I told you to wear your shoes..." but she could soon see that the problem was more than no shoes. The story of Katie's denial of me came sobbingly out. Mother's comforting voice subdued the sobs: "We must not judge Katie," she said. "She knew you and probably wanted to talk to you also, but the Indians about her would have mocked her, as they did you, if she had. The Blackfoot Indians are a puzzle to everyone. For many years they have been taken off the reservation into government schools and taught how to talk, cook, and sew -- they have been taught white man's ways; but as soon as they leave the school they wrap their blankets about them and go back to their old ways and language. I don't know how many generations will go by before they will accept civilization."