There were about six hours where I slept soundly, from about nine until three. My mind was clear and sharp when I awoke. I sat up in a cross-legged position and pulled my blankets over my shoulders. The meditation I’d been practicing so far had been an honest attempt, mostly just sitting there thinking, trying to corral my thoughts and focus on my breathing. The day before I’d just sat there worrying. Now I closed my eyes and listened. There was the sound of the river and the quiet chirping of a few crickets. It was a moment that wasn’t hard to stay in. I could almost see the river, shining in my mind.
When I finished my breathing cycle and said the last of my prayers, I stumbled out of the tent and could hardly believe what I saw. The stars in the sky were so close it was like looking at a city of lights. There was Orion. Betelgeuse. Bellatrix. Rigel. Beyond it, the Pleiades, magnified and throbbing. The light of a satellite crossed the sky. It seemed to be the size of a dime. I was awake in body and awake in mind. The connection between all living things had never seemed so clear, all pulsating cells in one great body.
In the darkness of early morning, I loaded up the car and got on the road. It was three hours to Missoula. By the time I arrived there it was still early. My destination was the Flathead Indian Reservation. It wasn’t far. I took the 90 east to the 94 and then ran into some extensive roadwork that slowed things down considerably.
The Flathead Indian Reservation is home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation. Although cranial deformation was practiced by some of the tribes at the time, the Flatheads were given their name because they didn’t compress their skulls into the peaks that some of their neighbors did. Still, it is a curious name to bear, bound to conjure up some strange conceptions.
The reservation was established in 1855 when the Treaty of Hellgate was signed. It occupies two thousand square miles, with only nine thousand of the population of nearly 30,000 identifying as Native American. Like what had happened with the Nez Perce, this came about when the government began allotting lands to individuals instead of keeping the holdings communal. Like the other reservations I’d driven through, there weren’t many obvious signs I was even on one, just ordinary houses and businesses, the land looking roughly the same as it did outside the borders.
On the Flathead Reservation what I was interested in seeing the most was the National Bison Range. The American Bison, or Buffalo, once ranged from Alaska to Mexico, Nevada to the Appalachians, with numbers in the countless millions. By 1889 they were almost extinct, down to five hundred animals, hunted by traders and settlers, often just shot for sport, and also systemically slaughtered by the U.S. Army as a strategy to strip the Native Americans of their greatest resource. The tribes depended on the buffalo for physical and spiritual sustenance, and were lost without them, left starving and demoralized, without the vital magic needed to infuse their ceremonies or lift their morale.
To reach the Bison Range, I took highway 200 west and then got on the 212. I could see a few bison on the side of a hill leading up to the entrance. When I pulled into it, a man with a limp was walking towards a van. He got in, just as I was passing, and followed me up to the parking lot, where a tribal flag was flying beneath an American one. I went in and looked around. There was a stuffed buffalo on a small, artificial terrain. On a wall were the mounted heads of an elk and a deer. Another wall had a medicine wheel that had been quartered into the four seasons.
It was ten dollars to visit the range, which I was happy to pay. The attendant then explained that the tour was a three-hour drive and could only be driven in one direction. I asked what other animals I might see. She said there were deer, pronghorn, and an area with blackberry bushes where some bears had been spotted. Three hours sounded awful long. My next stop was Yellowstone, and I was spending most of my time in the car as it was.
I went out and got in the car. As I drove towards the wildlife loop, the man in the van suddenly started it up and began driving right on my tail. It felt like I was being followed. I drove until the road became one way and suddenly pulled off. It was too late for him to make an adjustment. I saw him looking back over his shoulder, unable to turn, suddenly committed to a three-hour tour. That made me laugh. What was up with that guy?