By: Ellen Thompson
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - When the first Christian minister moved to Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation in 1928, Our Saviour's Lutheran Church became a social center, complete with a post office and school. In addition to the services he is credited with coordinating, the minister left an important artifact behind - two films he made of early Rocky Boy.
The first is a documentary of daily life. The second tells the story of a Christmas pageant. Both are silent films and the quality, after several transfers, is poor. But for the most part, people and their actions are discernible and many people featured in the film have been identified.
Rocky Boy middle school teacher Henry Day Child presented the films at Lewis and Clark Bicentennial events at Rocky Boy this summer and shows them to his middle school Cree language classes. He can point out his grandmother, Shortarms Wolf Child, and mother, Alice Day Child, among others, as well as aspects of daily life he wants his students to know about.
The films were found about 15 years ago in the church attic, Day Child said. His guess is that they were filmed in1935. One of them shows the building of the original chapel there.
The first film begins with a view of Rocky Boy landscapes. Day Child points out the site of Rocky Boy Agency with no buildings in sight. Next in the film are preparations for a sun dance. Men are shown smoking a pipe, firing rifles and chopping down a tree.
The tree was to be the chief stick, or center pole, of the sun dance lodge, Day Child explains. Before the men chop down the tree, they pray and smudge the axe with smoke. The gunshots are to warn the spirits that they will be chopping down the tree, he said.
Next, the film shows a powwow. Day Child identifies Big Knife, George Weasleboy and Tony Gardipee among the dancers. The men's movements as they dance a grass dance are similar to those seen at modern-day powwows.
Bowls of food are served and Day Child guesses the meat is dog, used as a substitute when bear could not be had.
Next, the film catalogs daily life, people picking potatoes, entering and exiting canvas tent homes, stooped over washboards to do laundry.
Picking potatoes was hard work, Day Child said.
“That's what I emphasize with the kids is survival,” he said
A man is also shown softening buckskin, while women cut leather and do beadwork. A display case of beaded purses and wallets is later pictured with the products of their work. Selling the beadwork was for surviving too, Day Child said.
Day Child points out something a casual viewer may not notice in the film. A man, Dave Chippewa, receives a letter in the mail from the church post office. On the return address, Cree syllabics are written in addition to English.
Church services are prominent in the film. In almost every scene of the Rev. Gable, whose first name is not given, a man stands next to him, translating his words. The translator was Malcolm Mitchell, a man Day Child said spoke Chippewa, Cree, French and English.
Mitchell's great-grandson, tribal employee John Mitchell, said Malcolm worked on a farm in the Flathead when he was young and that's where he learned English.
For the most part, the film gives snippets of different aspects of life at Rocky Boy. Only one scene appears choreographed. At one point, the film alternates between a shot of schoolchildren lining up at the chapel and one of a boy riding a horse to the school. As the schoolchildren move closer to the building, the boy speeds his horse, evidently late for class.
“I think it must have been acted out a little bit,” Day Child said.
Day Child identified the boy as John Windy Boy, father of state Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy.
Next on the film is a picnic and then a scene of women setting up a tepee near Parker School.
Day Child said he thinks the tepee was set up for a special meeting with visitors. In the film, a few men are greeted and invited inside, but Day Child couldn't guess at their identity or the reason for the visit.
In another scene, the Rev. Gable is seen with Malcolm Mitchell and a third man, identified by Day Child as Art Raining Bird. Day Child said it looks like the two men are comparing Bibles.
“You can see he's reading the syllabic Bible and the pastor has got a Bible,” Day Child said.
The second film is shorter and has scene titles and occasional subtitles announcing a Christmas pageant and detailing a few interactions between characters. It's not as much of a favorite with Day Child, but it does feature a woman he said is affectionately referred to as “Rocky Boy's first actress.”
The film's star is a young girl, Annie Mitchell. She's pictured helping with chores at the chapel, and a woman identified as Mrs. Gable asks her to be sure to come to the next day's pageant. Annie's leg is later injured in a sledding accident and she's unable to make it.
“This was our first actress and here they tipped her over,” Day Child said of the sledding accident. From the looks of it, that may have been acted out too, he said.
At the end of the film, Annie's brother David brings her a present - a sweater.
Day Child said the reservation had more than 300 people when it was formed, and guesses the 600 presents, 600 bags of candy and 600 lunches referred to in the titles and subtitles in the film were to accommodate a growing population of 600 members.