Fly Fishing the Little Bighorn River

During our discussion of disembodiment this morning I found myself unavoidably thinking about something that happened in my life during the summer of 2012. What particularly sparked this memory was our discussion about healthcare, and how holistic treatments of both the mind and body can be more effective at treating a problem then a single perspective approach. Although I do not think of myself as much of a storyteller, I will attempt to communicate what happened while I was in Montana during the summer of 2012.

My dad and I were racing across Montana after having spent the night before in Minneapolis. We were making good time, as is characteristic of our long road trips with my father. With close to 30 years of both military and commercial flying in his past, driving a car for long distances is uncomplicated. We were blasting along I-90 with our sights sets on Hardin. More specifically, I was focused on getting in the Little Bighorn River before 5 o’clock for some classic Montana evening fly fishing. I had been on the Little Bighorn before. With a family cabin in Idaho and much of my dad’s family residing on the west coast, it was typical for us to drive through Montana on the way west. I had been to the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn before, but I had not had any experiences with members of the Crow agency.

We stopped in Hardin to get gas and probe the locals milling around for honey holes. With some general advice we started heading down country roads that chased the Little Bighorn south, into the Crow Agency. At the time I was completely oblivious of this fact. From Hardin to the reservation I didn’t notice many differences, unlike the drive through White Clay. After pulling off the road into a picnic area near the river I was greeted by one of my favorite things about Montana: open spaces and no faces. We were the only people as far as I could see, and the black flies noticed. Swarming my head as I bent down to put on my waders, their buzzing bodies seemed to explore every orifice on my face. I couldn’t get in the water fast enough.

I was in the water at 4:46 p.m. Entering into the heavy water of the Little Bighorn, I started my way upstream from where we parked. A thick run of willows was at my back, separating my position in the water from the sight of the parking lot. I was working a riffle section as I waded, slapping a hopper upstream along the willows’ edge. As I started to lose interest in the side stream I was fishing, a car pulled into a space in the parking lot directly behind me. Peering through the willows the only thought on my mind was that I now had an excuse to abandon the riffle section I had been working for better water.

Before I convinced myself to leave, I heard yelling in the truck. Immediately I felt uneasy, especially because the two people in the truck had no idea I was behind the willows. I knelt down in the water, feeling the pressure constricting my legs in the waders. By kneeling I could see through the willows, without risking being seen peering over and into the affairs of those in the truck. I heard a woman screaming “no”, “don’t do it”, “please”, over and over again-sounds that made me even more concerned. At this point I got out my cell phone and called my dad twice, both times with no answer. I was hoping that he could just drive by, and that would be enough to discourage anything drastic from happening. I just thought that if the people in the truck knew there were witnesses there, what I thought was about to happen would go differently.

I heard a door slam on the truck. I looked up from my phone and saw a Native American man walking around the back of the truck with a hunting rifle in his hand.  Wood stock, black scope, with a colorful sling. More yelling from the woman, but louder. She was outside of the truck, probably Native American as well. I couldn’t see her; both of them were behind the truck. More arguing, and then the two of them got into the maroon Ford Explorer and speed off away from me. I immediately crossed the willow stretch to check on my dad.

As my waders splashed water on the dry dusty ground, I walked to where we had parked. I passed right next to the passenger side of the parked Explorer. The woman was crying in the front seat; I kept walking. I then saw my dad and the man, with their backs to me, standing next to the river. I crossed a small side stream and made my way to a sandbar that would give me access to the larger river channel and a better view without spooking them from behind. As I started to cast, my dad gave me a wave and a smile from across the water. I knew that, for the time being, everyone was going to be OK.

It was time to go. We had to be in Bozeman to check into our hotel room before midnight.  We weren’t going to make it. I met up with my dad and the man, who had been talking the whole time I was fishing. My dad introduced me to David. His wife still sat in the car. My dad told me that David was having a hard time, something that I had witnessed earlier but now noticed fully- he was visibly drunk and had been crying, with tears still on his face. Telling David that we had to leave, we asked if he was going to be okay getting back home. He said that his house wasn’t too far, and that he was fine to drive (something that I doubted but would be affirmed of later after he drove in excess of the speed limit to catch us and make sure we were going the right way). My dad and I gave him a hug, reassuring him that it would be okay, and my dad gave him his phone number in case he needed to talk in the future. Before David left, he told us that it was the first time he had ever hugged a white man.

In the car my dad told me what had happened. David had sped past where we were parked, only to spin back around. He approached my dad, saying that something inside he was urging him to go and talk with this white man. David told him that he had come to the river to commit suicide. My dad was able to talk through the situation with David by relating to him through his own tribal experiences with the Nez Perce in Idaho, even dancing some dances they both knew. By the time I walked into the conversation, it was focused on where David and his brothers liked to fish on the Little Bighorn. We had found a true native to probe about promising water.

This experience fed into my focus to become an ally during this block. Suicide wasn’t an aspect of reservation life that we were exposed to directly while at Pine Ridge, but is prevalent on many reservations. The crushing suppression of reservation life coupled with alcohol and drug abuse can cloud one’s judgement. My father is a very religious man, and I believe that, combined with his history with the Nez Perce, David was able to perceive that. The evening was a very powerful moment that I was able to share with my Dad, David, and his wife. I found myself questioning whether or not my Dad and I belonged to be on that river, in the Crow agency in the first place. My affinity for being the water brought me there, but maybe there was something larger at play. Hopefully the experiences and knowledge I have gained through this course will help me to be an effective ally to native peoples in the future.

Reenactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Crow Agency, MT.

Fishing sites along the Little Bighorn River, through the Crow Agency.

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