The other night I watched what I remembered as one of my favorite episodes of Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" television show. It is S7, Ep 4: Montana. I revisited it because I remembered it as having a great, succinct historical overview of Butte, Montana; earlier in the day, my friend Kathleen—a wonderful writer and suffer-no-bullshit Butte native—had given me a multi-hour, zig-zagging tour of the city and we had a blast and I wanted more Butte.
The fifteen minutes of historical stuff in the Bourdain episode is still pretty great if you want to know a little bit about this city. There is some wonderful old footage, but the best parts are Amanda Curtis going toe-to-toe with a seemingly shit-faced Bourdain (he seems shit-faced through the entire episode, actually) over Butte's history as a stronghold of labor (which it still is), and then the part where he is sitting with my friend (and renaissance man) Aaron Parrett eating what looks like an awful meal at Lydia's Supper Club while talking Butte. When Bourdain actually goes down into a mine is less interesting, but still cool if only to show what being there is actually like ... and the weird realization that it is still happening. That's one of the things that struck me during my drive-around with Kathleen; people think of mining as something that used to happen here, and there is still a lot of it going on.
A highlight of the episode overall of course are the segments featuring Jim Harrison. Harrison is in his final months; he can't move very well and his speech is slurred and when he dies in late March of 2016, it is nearly two months before the episode even airs. But I love to hear his between-segment recitations of poetry, and the scenes of him at his desk writing are particularly poignant to me. Seeing Harrison scrape a pencil over the page is like watching the grace of Kareem Abdul Jabbar lofting a sky hook: genius in the practice of genius.
Other aspects of the episode are troubling. Even triggering, for lack of a better word ... one that is over-used to the point of diluting its importance. But I can't think of any other one to use here, because having certain realities of the world, of history, being white-washed or erased, spikes my outrage.
The first segment of the episode features Kennard Real Bird, a Crow Indian who raises horses. As the camera pans over the beautiful South-Central Montana landscape where the Crow now inhabit, with horses galloping through the grass, Real Bird's voice intones, "General 'Black Jack' Pershing called the Native Americans the 'Centaurs of the Plains." The segment is short, but it has an entertaining part about Indian relay racing, Real Bird talks about the importance of horses to Crow culture, and ends with a bison steak feast somewhere outside that is beautiful. In closing, Bourdain asks Real Bird some limp question about where he sees the place in 20-30 years in the future, and Real Bird says yes, the horse will be part of it. That’s about it. It's a real missed opportunity to talk about what the next segment transitions to: a helicopter view of a vast swath of more gorgeous landscape, all owned by a wealthy white rancher named Bill Galt, owner of the Galt Ranch. From this ranch's website:
While raising cattle, hay, and horses comprises the traditional backbone of the enterprises at the Galt Ranch, providing guided hunts as well as helicopter services are new-generation activities. The helicopter helps to accomplish critical ranch work such as locating cattle, fighting fires, and hunting predators.
Bourdain is out fly fishing with an outfitter on a stream on "Galt's” property, then later meets up with Galt while fancy (i.e. expensive) steaks are grilled and served. He's also joined by an acquaintance of mine, writer and newspaperman David McCumber (who, as I was writing this piece, I coordinated meeting with for lunch tomorrow) and the four men discuss Montana's 1985 Stream Access Law. This is what the law is basically all about:
The Montana Stream Access Law says that anglers, floaters and other recreationists in Montana have full use of most natural waterways between the high-water marks for fishing and floating, along with swimming and other river or stream-related activities. In 1984, the Montana Supreme Court held that the streambed of any river or stream that has the capability to be used for recreation can be accessed by the public regardless of whether the river is navigable or who owns the streambed property. On January 16, 2014, the Montana Supreme Court, in a lawsuit filed by the Public Land/Water Access Association over access via county bridges on the Ruby river in Madison County, Montana reaffirmed the Montana Stream Access Law and the public's right to access rivers in Montana from public easements.
The law is one of those public land use laws that are under constant assault from rich white people, including our current governor acting on behalf of his rich friends. Galt, of course, is opposed to the law. In the next segment, Bourdain is out bird hunting on public land, again with a guide, only he's joined by that shitheel of all shitheels, Joe Rogan. Later, Bourdain and Rogan and their guide are joined around the fire by a couple other acquaintances of mine: Backcountry Hunters and Anglers founder, president and CEO Land Tawney—a guy who back in the day I used to play soccer with and who also came out to see my blistering rock band play a few times—and the brilliant writer Hal Herring.
I can't think of anyone writing in this region that I respect more than Hal Herring. Also, BHA does great work, and while Land Tawney's "rah rah USA!" rhetoric gets a bit tiresome for me I do deeply respect what he's done with the organization. This short segment includes more discussion of public land use, access, etc. It is given short shrift, but does end with Bourdain drunkenly staggering out to lay on his back and look at the stars, which I can relate to. The rest is just a group of mostly respectable white fellas sitting around getting liquored up and talking about public land.1 That it’s without any mention of it being stolen land irks me. Or even that just what is typically discussed about public land has historically been its usage by pretty much white people in general, the exclusionary nature of which is something that’s only been recently added to the conversation.
Ultimately my beef with this entire episode is the usual one: Indian erasure. Even though it features a short segment on the Crow people. Because while Bourdain is talking about land use and industry (remember, Butte is part of this) he never mentions how all this land became available in the first place. This isn't malicious intent, I don't think, it is just blind, white guy privilege. Bourdain, nor most of his guests, even think to consider it because they have probably never had to. Which makes it all the more critical that the rest of us put it into the discussion. Because you can't talk about this stuff, especially all the chest beating over public land, without talking about Indians.
Let's start with Kennard Real Bird's mention of John J. "Black Jack" Pershing. Pershing plays an enormous role in the history of my people and no one knows about it. In 1896 he was a first lieutenant stationed at Fort Assiniboine near Havre, Montana, in command of a troop of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, the "Buffalo Soldiers." These were black troops under white officers. Pershing's wiki page says while garrisoned there "he commanded an expedition to the south and southwest that rounded up and deported a large number of Cree Indians to Canada." That's it, and it's a complete whitewash. I'm not going to go into the details of the real story, but it was under the auspices of the 1896 Cree Deportation Act which essentially identified all landless and mixed-race Indians in Montana as being "Canadian" Indians (we didn't cross the border, the border crossed us) but were really people wandering from place to place because they'd survived genocide and had all their land taken away.2 These are my direct ancestors on my dad's side.
The next segment, as Bourdain and McCumber and the guide and that asshat Galt fellow are debating the 1985 stream access law, in response to McCumber's argument as to the "spirit" of the law, Galt whines, while defending his idea of who should have access to "his" land, "his" stream:
The spirit of it's thievery! We own it, and they took it, and that's not stealing it? Without compensation?
Bourdain tacitly agrees with him, which smacks of typical wealthy white dude humping the leg of a wealthier white dude. It's sickening to hear the truth of what happened to Native people whined over by a rich slob playing the victim, a shithead who patrols “his” land (including hunting predators) by helicopter, who doesn’t want anyone to be able to wade in “his” stream. Fuck every bit of this guy and his ilk. I would like to gather his words like fistfuls of half-cooked mashed potatoes and stuff them back down his throat until he chokes on them. Stolen. What an ignorant bag of offal.
This is the erasure that needs called out. I call out this bullshit as it relates to Indigenous people because this is where I live. And it is happening all over the country to all kinds of different people and it sucks. And it's exhausting to feel like people just don't seem to care about paying attention to it because they've never had to live it. I've lost friends over it and will probably lose more. People just don't want to change, whether it is for the benefit of other people or even just the roasting world we all share. We need more critical thinkers, we need more courage to change.
Finally, here's the thing that often gets lost in the telling: I don't hate white people (well, except for Joe Rogan and choads like him). I'm not ashamed of white people and I'm certainly not ashamed that I have grown up in this white American culture. It's what I emerged into from some other reality way back in April of 1967. Shame is such a stupid concept anyway, but I'd only feel anything like it if I didn't engage with the world in defense of the world. Part of that is working to call bullshit on attempts to erase history from the narrative white supremacy is trying to sell us. Everyone I share my day-to-day existence with is a white person and these are people I love and will stand up for as vigorously as I stand up for Indian people. With my close people I expect to have my bullshit called out, and they should expect the same from me. Good relationships require that.
What I hate is the structure of white supremacy and the way its continued existence sets us against each other and funnels everything to a handful of wealthy individuals while the world burns. It has to stop, even as it pushes back against efforts to bring it out into the open. So if you are a white person and you feel attacked by people like me, or by Black people, or by LGBTQ2S people, or by Hispanic people, or by Women, or by anyone who hasn't gotten a fair deal for decades and decades of how this culture has operated, then you need to take a hard look at yourself and what you really believe. White folks don't all have to be activists but you do have to listen without centering yourselves. If you think I can’t relate to those difficulties, imagine me in the middle of a conversation about how horrible men in general are. Lots of men are horrible. Especially men who look like white dudes, as I do. My simple existence in the physical world draws side-eye, suspicion, and probably a degree of triggering for many, many people. In my case, crying “not all men!” in defense of my pitiful self is just as bad as “all lives matter!” in other contexts. So I keep my mouth shut, which isn’t all that hard, and try not to be one of those men. I hope I’m not.
It bears mentioning the title and subtitle of this edition are Jim Harrison’s.
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Why Rogan is involved is beyond me. It really bums me out that Bourdain even gives the guy a voice here—more even than Land Tawney or Hal Herring, dudes who know this stuff and have devoted their lives to it. Television sucks. Joe Rogan is human garbage and I wouldn't want his opinion on whether the sun is out or its cloudy. People like him only make the world worse.