THE POWER OF EMPATHY IN FORT BELKNAP

BY JESSIANNE CASTLE

When I close my eyes, I can see the brilliant yellow of rabbitbrush in full bloom. They’re sprinkled along the sides of a quiet two-lane highway when late summer has already dried the grass rolling across the hills. We’re stopped to stretch our legs on the road from Big Sky, Montana, to Fort Belknap in the northcentral part of the state.

It’s funny, the things you remember; the moments of your life that etch themselves somewhere in the pockets of your memory.

I remember, too, when a tall man asked me to roll up my sleeve. His eyes smile as he brings his forearm close to mine. I see my brown freckles, faint across my wrist. I see my arm, the color of wheat bread, and his, a subtle cinnamon.

He points out that we have slightly different colored skin and that he’s taller than I. He gestures to his face and says our eyes are a little different too. Both are brown, but his are shaped like almonds, whereas mine are round. I’m suddenly very aware of the blonde in my hair.

“You’re from Montana,” he says. The man’s name is Junior. “I’m from Montana.”

I met George “Junior” Horse Capture in Hays, Montana, a community on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation tucked within the buttes of the Little Rocky Mountains. The meeting was by design: the Mountain Outlaw crew threw a dart at a map of Montana and hit Fort Belknap in our search to discover the stories and people of the Treasure State. After a string of phone calls from my kitchen table, I reached Junior and he kindly invited me to visit his home.

Junior is the community’s tourism director and runs Aaniiih Nakoda Tours where he shows visitors the community’s bison herd, wildlife and scenic landscapes. He guided us by car through Little Peoples Canyon—commonly known as Mission Canyon—as he told us his story.

“Accidental timing means everything, I guess,” he chuckled. Junior is a member of the Aaniiih—Gros Ventre or White Clay—tribe. He was born in Butte, the son of late Native activist, curator and scholar George P. Horse Capture. They moved to California after George Senior served four years in the Navy and enrolled in a Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation program that sent him to welding school in the San Francisco Bay area. When Native activists occupied Alcatraz for 18 months beginning in 1969, a teenaged Junior and his father joined the protestors.

The 1960s and ’70s, Junior says, was an exciting time to be young. Cesar Chavez, the Black Panthers, Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army. “I never knew seeds were being planted,” he says. “Then you think, ‘What is changing my view of things?’ It’s the seeds, growing.”

When Junior decided he was ready to set out on his own, he moved to the Fort Belknap reservation where his father had spent his childhood, and for Junior it was a kind of homecoming.

I watch trees pass from view as we drive along a narrow gravel road and I listen to Junior’s voice. We’re entering the mouth of the canyon and aspens shake their fiery orange and yellow leaves, a breathtaking display against the backdrop of ochre limestone cliffs. Peoples Creek burbles alongside the narrow gravel road.

It’s a place where the land shapeshifts, where golden sunlight dances in vast green hayfields and then slips into crooks and folds of the blue-hued Little Rockies. I can see why the Nakoda—or Assiniboine—and Aaniiih Nations of Fort Belknap describe this land as the closest place to heaven you can get.

Junior has worked on and off as a guide since coming to the reservation, and also served as the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council Vice President from 2013 to 2017. “I love people. I love different cultures,” Junior says.

After his council term ended, he was asked to serve as Fort Belknap’s director of tourism, and in this position he hopes to welcome visitors to the reservation and exchange stories with them as a way of bringing cultures together.

“My people’s history, your people’s history is different, but it’s not that different,” he says as the car slowly climbs a hill, nearing the end of the road. “Sure, we have our immense problems, but so does the rest of Montana. So does the rest of the world.”

The vibrancy of the landscape follows me as I leave Hays, having bid Junior farewell. I drink in the quiet charm of the Little Rockies as we skirt the mountains, headed north on State Highway 66. I grew up surrounded by great ranges such as the Spanish Peaks, Bridgers and Gallatins, with heights that stretch and snarl up into the sky, but the Little Rocky Mountains give me pause. They’re intimate, an elevated sanctuary on the Great Plains horizon.

I recall the brief time we spent in Saco, baptized by sulfate-rich water at Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs. I think of our overnight stay in Harlem, population 850, just north of Fort Belknap, where a wave of yellow sunflowers filled the front yard of the little Sunflower Cottage where we passed the night.

At the Harlem grocery store, a friendly woman at the checkout told me that Harlem has struggled like other rural towns—both Native and non-Native—along the Hi-Line, a geographical area stretching across the northern reaches of Montana. The Hi-Line is heavily agricultural, known for intense weather extremes, and seemingly has been ignored as regions like the Greater Yellowstone continue to blossom and boom.

Since 2010, the population of Blaine County, where Harlem sits, has grown a mere 2.9 percent, compared to Greater Yellowstone’s Gallatin County, which has experienced a 27.8 percent population increase. Meanwhile in Phillips County, which encompasses the southeast portion of Fort Belknap, the population has shrunk by 7 percent. Are these communities, rich in culture, rich in experiences of a past life, at risk of blinking out?

The woman at the grocery checkout was hopeful. She’s seen young adults who went away for school move back to start families in recent years, and they’re coming back to share the rural lifestyle with their own children.

I think on what Junior told me about the strengths of the Fort Belknap community, that his people are resolute. “I think it’s the resilience that comes from all the different adversities that we were forced to go through,” he says.

I close my eyes and I’m back in his car, listening to his story.

“We have hurdles to overcome, but I don’t think they’re impossible because even in my short life of 61 years, I’ve seen a lot of hurdles be overcome,” he says. He tells of a diner he and his father used to frequent when they’d visit Havre. George Senior always insisted on eating at the same table, facing the same wall. One day, Junior asked his father why.

“His reply to that was, ‘When I was young, and when I lived in Havre, right there,’ and he pointed at the wall in front of him, ‘there was a sign saying, no dogs, no Indians allowed.’ This was a victory, we were allowed into a place where we weren’t, once upon a time,” Junior says. He chuckles. “So, I could put up with mediocre food at that place. In my mind, [knowing why] made that food a little bit better.”

As the reservation’s tourism director, Junior hopes to garner more community buy-in to develop the region’s businesses and tourism as a necessary way to bolster the economy— and break down the cultural walls erected by previous generations.

“There are entrepreneurship opportunities like a son of a gun. Unfortunately, racism, fear, those types of things really get in the way. We’re in the same boat now. We’re Montanans. We are part of humanity, and what I want for my grandkids—I’m sure every other older person in the state of Montana wants the same darn thing—is there to be a good, secure future for them.”

Junior reminds us that we all share common values and by recognizing these values: understanding each other’s needs and strengths and our own humanity, maybe that can be enough to secure a future for Montana that makes us proud.

A freelance writer and Bozeman native, Jessianne Castle enjoys telling the stories of the West.