Bad Gun and Four Bears


Mandan Village, George Catlin

Four Bears, Mato-Tope′, is known to history as one of the most respected chiefs of the later Mandan Nation.  Perhaps, by the time white contact with the Mandan-Hidatsa was essentially routine, even the most respected.  I’ve written about him here before, and have just finished a fine book “Encounters at the Heart of the World,” by Elizabeth Fenn, and read of a very moving, and very quiet, piece of history.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

Mato-Tope′, a descendant of Good Boy, chief in the late 1700s, was not a chief in the way we so often, and so wrongly, think of chiefdom.  We can thank decades of bad television and movies and a pervasive cultural misunderstanding for that nonsense.  He didn’t inherit the job, he had no grand powers of command, couldn’t order anyone to do anything.  He wasn’t voted into office or hired by the city council and anointed as Manager.  What he had was influence born of respect, and the gift of persuasion by personal example.  He was trustworthy, he put the needs of others before his own, he was consistent, and his opinions well-considered.  And so when he led in a certain direction, and they followed, it was because the people believed in him.  There was no need for him–and as a practical matter, given cultural sensibilities, no ability, for him to command those around him.


Four Bears, George Catlin

The Mandan, as a nation of people, were hit by numerous waves of smallpox and cholera, whooping cough, measles, and pivotally, epidemics of Norwegian rats that came in on riverboats.  At first, the Mandan and Hidatsa, who had never seen a brown rat, were entranced and even happy to have the rats, because they ate the deer mice that had long plagued their earthen lodges.

Naturally, this changed quickly.  The rats multiplied by the thousands.  Francis Chardon, a fur-trader described by a fellow fur-trader as a “very singular kind of man,” which we are to understand as meaning an Indian-hating jackass, whose outpost, Fort Clark, was co-located near a Mandan village, estimated that the rats ate nearly 250 pounds of corn each day at the post.  If this is accurate, the damage the rats must have done in the villages, where tons of corn were stored in cache pits, must have been completely catastrophic.  Chardon recorded his battle with the rats–

  • June 1836:  Killed 82 Rats this month
  • July 1836:  Number of Rats Killed this month 201
  • August 1836:  Killed 168 Rats this month–total 451
  • September 1836:  Killed 226 Rats this Month=677
  • October 1836:  Killed 294 Rats this Month=971
  • November 1836:  Killed 168 Rats this Month–Total 1139
  • December 1836:  Killed this Month 134 Rats–total 1,237
  • January 1837:  Killed this Month 61 Rats–total 1334
  • February 1837:  Killed 89 Rats this Month–total 1423
  • March 1837:  Number of Rats Killed this Month 87–Total 1510
  • April 1837:  Killed 68 Rats this Month–total–1578
  • May 1837:  Killed 108 Rats this Month–total 1686

Fenn goes on to tell us that “Two years later, Chardon had his men replace the pickets surrounding Fort Clark because the old ones were eaten ‘off at the foundation by the Rats, and in a fair way to tumble down.’  Twenty first century archaeologists call ‘the dominance of the Norway rat’ the ‘most striking feature’ of the trading post’s animal remains.”


Mandan Lodge, Karl Bodmer

This isn’t meant to be a rat post.  The important takeaway is that the tribe suffered a consequent famine, while still constantly at war with the Sioux, Assiniboine, and Arikara, and in early 1837 they were hit by another small-pox epidemic.  Chardon, no friend to the natives, recorded that suicide became common among the Mandan as the death tolls mounted and there seemed no escape from the continual siege of apocalypse.

Through it all, and it is virtually impossible for us, in our comfortable lives, to imagine the kind of repeated carnage visited upon his people, Four Bears had remained a friend to the whites, encouraged continuing trade and contact, and did his very best to stand as a leader of his people, to keep them alive and together.  But in July, 1837, at the village of Mih-tutta-hang-kusch he too succumbed to the disease.  For Four Bears, contracting the disease also spelled the end of his friendship with whites.  This epidemic, indeed, nearly spelled the end of the Mandan as a people altogether.

Fast forward then, to 1865.  Four Bears has been dead since ’37, and in the intervening years the tribe has simply struggled to survive at all.  Decimation, as a practice, would have been kinder to them.  There are very few of them left at all, and those that remain have joined with the Hidatsa.


Bad Gun, left, with Red Buffalo Cow. Photo by Stanley J. Morrow, Fort Berthold Reservation, circa 1870

At Fort Stevenson, in ’65, an Army surgeon and ethnographer named Washington Matthews, a man who had been posted to several different frontier assignments, who married a Hidatsa woman, and who even wrote a Hidatsa ethnography, had among his possessions a book of paintings by George Catlin.  According to Fenn, “When word spread among the villagers that Matthews ‘had a book containing the faces of their fathers,’ the Indians flocked to his Fort Stevenson quarters.  ‘The women,’ he said, ‘rarely restrained their tears at the sight of these ancestral pictures.’

“Mathews at first thought the men had ‘less feeling and interest.’  But he learned otherwise when he showed Catlin’s portrait of Four Bears to his son, a Mandan chief named Bad Gun.  As a boy, Bad Gun had gone with his father to visit with Bodmer and Maximilian.  He may have spent time with Catlin too.  Now the son of the great chief ‘showed no emotion’ but gazed ‘long and intently’ at the image until Matthews left the room.  When the doctor returned, the Mandan was ‘weeping and addressing an eloquent monologue to the picture of his departed father.'”


A Raid For Horseflesh


She Says Goodbye…photo by Jim Cornelius

*This column originally appeared in The Nugget News, 20 April, 2016

Two weeks ago my mother called and dropped a bomb on our house. She asked if I was sitting down. I wasn’t, but I did, quickly, because that’s what sons do when their mothers start a conversation that way. And if you are a mother reading this, please don’t do that.

She was rolling her bed, she said, selling her saddle, and wanted to know if I would take her last good horse. That’s heady stuff from a woman who has been horseback from birth, a natural born daughter of the desert cattle and horse country.

But she’s getting older. She can still ride, still loves it, but the horse needs more than she can muster at this stage. I was shocked by the development, but I was also proud of her. She did the incredibly hard work of facing the world the way it actually is, of evaluating her place in it, and then making a decision without deluding herself, without caving-in to pride or sentimentality. Not everyone does that. Human reasoning can often spring from a poisoned well of motivations. So score a point for introspection.

We talked. She cried. And honestly, it got a little dusty on my end, too. Maybe it was just the abruptness of it, or the suddenly audible and disconcerting friction of sand pouring through the hourglass, that maddening timepiece that ultimately runs out on us all.

When an era comes to an end like that, the light changes. The moon slides in front of the sun, things go dark, the birds go quiet, and we live for a moment in a strange silvery shade. And then slowly, by increments, the world lights up again. That’s how it felt. That’s how it still feels.

But I said yes, of course, I’d take the horse, and give her a home forever. And she will never leave our family, for all that she represents. I didn’t need to think about it.

I don’t think of myself as a great horseman. I’m probably average. Maybe worse than that. I’ve done some incredibly stupid things on horses, been dumped in rivers, on slicks of rhyolite, or pitched without grace into the buckbrush. It’s happened more times than I care to remember, in fact, and probably reached its zenith during my tour of duty on the horseback outfits of northern Nevada. The new guy in the bunkhouse gets the knuckleheads, roughstring horses, a collection of castoffs and chickenfeeders, straight cowboy horses – which usually means rank, dumb, or both, and always leads to magnificent wrecks out in the sage.

But I love them anyway, and I love to ride, and try to do it without pretending to be Buck Brannaman or Chris Cox, or while regurgitating pithy horse-psychology from the lollipop trainer-of-the-day. Maybe I’ve developed my own brand of arrogance, but I despise horse-traders and horsey nonsense and that strange confluence of money and dishonesty and self-deception that seems to surround a growing contingent of the equine universe. I just want to ride, and maybe see some good country from the back of a decent horse.

My imagination is problematic in all this, because I can’t let anything just be what it is. So I had to recast the trip as a raid for horseflesh, because that sounds sexy, aligns with my intellectual conceits, and most importantly served as an efficient let-off valve for the highly concentrated sorrow of watching my mom bow away from her life’s central passion.

And I was lucky. Raiding alone is never fun, and I was able to find an eager partner to ride along. Oh, and he brought his guitar.

We blasted out of Sisters, through Silver Lake and Paisley, down through Lakeview and finally made the old home place, where we scouted canyon petroglyphs, imagined a world long gone, ate like kings, built a bonfire, and Jim played and sang while the fire sawed and the stars came out and I kept one eye fixed on my dear old mom.

In the morning, early, we loaded the horse, mom cried, maybe we all did a little bit, and then we drove out, a few miles of dirt to the hardball where we made the hard turn north, the horse riding quiet in the back, and the sun just throwing light out over the desert.

It was a good winter on the home range. The mountains are still holding snow on the peaks, and the valley basins are greener than I’ve seen them in years. It was so good, so brilliant, that I feel a little possessive of it all, a little guarded about sharing it with anyone just now.

So forget what I said. I made it all up. Whatever plans you might have, don’t go there. The great basin in spring is a horrendous place. The mountains are ugly. The hot-springs are cold. The sky isn’t blue and the meadowlarks don’t sing. And anyway, I already raided the last good horse.

The Back 9


Place Your Head on This, Please.  Anvil.  Ponderosa Forge, Sisters, Oregon

Last night, apparently, the town council in our fair burg passed a “resolution recognizing the 9 rules of civility.”  This was evidently the result of a “toxic environment for discourse,” which is one of the more interesting and simultaneously sickening memes I keep hearing repeated about the state of debate and disagreement in America.  Now we have to make rules about how to discuss the rules.  I don’t know how long this ruling on the discussion of rules was in a committee, which absolutely MUST be a part of that process, or if any amendments were submitted to the committee for discussion before the general session and public input, or even if the fair citizens were ALLOWED any public input on the resolution recognizing the rules, once it came out of committee, was studied thoroughly, voted on, and read into the public record.  I really don’t know.


Some mornings I wake up, look at the world, and feel I have been transported to another planet altogether, as if whatever anchor binding me to the earth simply snapped and I floated away.  I can only imagine this is true:  I feel precisely like an aging, out of work, once famous, but now largely disregarded, hollywood actress who lives in a Malibu Canyon Santa Fe style home she won from a producer in her fourth divorce, takes bo-tox injections, has paid handsomely for a pair of bolt-ons that are sadly lopsided, has three cats that shit in her closet, and overdoses weekly at an oxygen bar in Ojai.  I think I feel like that some mornings.  Truly.  I wake up, read the news, and there it is.  It’s a strange phenomenon.

I would like to propose my own 9 Rules of Discourse.  Of course I would.

  1. Don’t be a pussy.
  2. Know what it is you think you know.
  3. Have at least 3 alternative proposals
  4. Come prepared to be disagreed with
  5. Come prepared to lose the argument
  6. Come prepared to live with losing the argument gracefully
  7. Practice listening before speaking
  8. Know when to shut up
  9. Assume other people in the room are also intelligent, until they prove otherwise

That’s it.  That’s the best I can do without diving off the cliff into a cataclysmic, blood pressure spiking rant, which really wants to come out, but I’m keeping it tamped down.

In other news, my friend Jim Cornelius and I recently made a raid into the Northern California outback to pick up a horse.  It was a grand expedition down to the old home place, with just enough time for some guitar playing, some singing around a bonfire, and a brief interlude to the petroglyph palace at Willow Creek Canyon.  We bombed down, and bombed back, hauling a new horse for the Figure 8, who as I write is happily ensconced in the barn, enjoying breakfast.

It’s hard to imagine the people who created this permanent art installation discussing 9 rules of civil discourse, but perhaps I’m wrong.  Perhaps that IS the meaning of this ancient tableau.  Perhaps, properly deciphered, it says:  “the rules for discourse have come out of the great spirit committee–here they are–also, there is a cougar in the canyon, mammoth steaks are awesome, and you, oxygen sucking hollywood actress, are a jackass.  Just maybe it says that.


Actual Rock Writing, Willow Creek Canyon

In the end, of course, we will probably never know what this graffiti means.  Although I think I see a tomahawk in this one:


At least I want it to be a tomahawk.  I want it to be a Paiute War-Axe, carved after the larger tableau, which was actually used on the barefoot and bark-trouser wearing committee that envisioned the 9 rules.  Not cruelly.  Not in the dismemberment sense.  Maybe just a quick rapping on the skulls of those involved, a reminder to get back to work weaving baskets and collecting pine nuts.  I want that to be true, and since it’s my desert, I can make it be that if I want too.

That’s all I’ve got.  It snowed all day yesterday.  This morning the sky is clear and brilliant blue and there is frost in the shadows.  There are three horses in the barn and a puppy in the yard digging a hole out of the hole I just filled in and replanted.  And when I think about it long enough, that sky and the warmth we are trying to create on our little rancho, against all of the other, my feet come lightly down to earth again.  I’ll take that.  Every time.




Every Clime and Place

***Just received this tremendous dispatch from the hard frontier.  It is reprinted with permission from the author, a warfighter who must remain anonymous for OpSec, as must the precise location.  Enjoy, it isn’t often we get real time information from the world’s nasty places.  This post includes a video of the sinking of the USS Ogden, LPD 5, which is mentioned in the post, and which the author and I once lived on.  Strange to see her go down to Davey Jones.


Old Corps, Vietnam

Czar Rullmanov, keeper of the flame, defender of the faithfull, king of the Willamette and the Deschutes, Earl of the Three Sisters, defender of Lane and true heir of the Cascade Range,

Glad to see you made it back from the border and were not kidnapped or sacrificed to the Cartel Jesus. Of course I’ve had some adventures of my own.

The team is here, on deck at our final location which will remain annonymous. We arrived at the local international airport with all our Marines, Sailors and our stuff… giant pelican cases, double-padlocked shut and containing “things,” enormous backpacks in shades of olive green and coyote brown, each one stuffed to bursting with all the things Marines take overseas; camp stoves and camoflage parkas, windproof lighters and lengths of parachute cord, coffee, gallon tubs of protein powder for building muscle mass, books and playing cards and compassess, compact flashlights made of aircraft grade aluminum, and “bowie knives the size of claymores.”

The Marines are a young organization of course, so even with all the business we’ve gotten lately half the unit had never deployed before; as it was then, so it is now. The new guys felt the usual mix of emotions as they arrived at their first foreign post: apprehension and awe, enthusiasm and fear, a desire to do well and the early stage of culture shock. The veterans moved with the muted and easy swagger that comes from experience, like Glanton’s freebooters riding through old Chihuahua.

Outside the airport our people were loaded into buses and our things were loaded into trucks. A mustachioed Gunnery Sergeant, not the least bit subdued because he was in civilian clothes, yelled semi-intelligible curses and the Marines jumped into their work, they way they always done it because that is the only way it can be. The locals eyed him as if he were crazy, which he is.

Next was a drive through the capital. On the way, the local radio station played a set that started with 90’s Ganster Rap (Snoop and Dr. Dre), followed by a Tracy Chapman song performed in Khartuli, followed by 1980’s Pet Shop boys, then Scandanvian techno, then contemporary hip hop. The rest of the city is just as eclectic. An architecture 101 class can be taught here in the span of a few blocks. On one corner is a building of sqaure cut stone with Roman arches. Its annexes are built of brick, sporting Gothic arches, then basket arches, then half arches. Across the street, cranes labor to build a 40 foot skyscraper of steel and glass. We pass a long building with French inspired iron work, then a restraunt that was once some type of fort, the ground floor arrow slits filled in with poured concrete. On the skyline, Soviet era slab concrete apartment buildings stand hauntingly.

Out on the street you can hear the variety of languages one would expect in this crossroads of empires. Each sign is in English, with the message repeated again in Russian and Khartuli, and sometimes Arabic, Turkish and Farsi. Across the city, businesses advertise Tehran “this” and Tehran “that.” On one corner I spied a pair of Mandarin business men in blue suits (No doubt taking a break from reestablishing the Silk-Road). On another corner sat a bearded man with a child on his lap and both palms out. Based on my gut and his features, my guess is he and his daughter came from Syria not too long ago. Outside each bar and restraunt, young girls shout like carnival barkers, trying to draw in patrons. A blonde girl who looked to be 15 called out in Russian. She caught us out of the corner of her eye and seamlessly switched to English in the middle of her pitch. The girl has “feel.”

Outside the city is our camp and the foreign forces we will be training for their own deployment to a place far worse than where we are now. They are good, better than any others I have worked with, and motivated. (Not the collection of farmers and gymnasts we worked with so long ago after debarking from the U.S.S. Ogden.)

None of these people had to witness their buildings collapse on September 11th, but their contributions to a war that was never even remotely their own cannot be overstated. Other countries come to the coalition with a host of caveats. These guys come to fight, and when they get into the theater, they do.

Of course they have their own reasons. Not too long ago this land was under the thumb of the Kremlin. Nobody here has forgotten that. Outside the capital, past the abandoned collective farms (now crumbling concrete buildings and rusting machinery) and the windswept mountains sits the Russian border and the Russian army. The hope here is that if the bear ever comes back over the mountain, we, the west, won’t forget our good partner through Iraq and Afghanistan. Will things play out that way? I can’t say. We have not always had a good track record when it comes to standing by our allies, and the Western World’s appetite for confrontation right now seems slight. Meanwhile the pressures on the world (economic, ethnic, racial, scocial, nationalistic) seem to grow everytime one turns on the news. For a young Marine, this is a good place to be, just like China duty back in the day. But, just like China duty back in the day, the locals have some very real worries they need to worry about. What is that saying about interesting times and all that?

Well, off to hit the local scene. According to Winston Churchill the best brandy came from Armenia. Time to see if the old bulldog was right.