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Obituary - John Wesley Contway


August 21, 2018

John Contway

John Wesley Contway's aliens finally came for him on August 7, 2018. I'm sure you saw or felt their gossamer wings fluttering up to the mother ship. He was smiling all the way as he'd waited so long for this final road trip. So long, in fact, that his alien humor for the past few years had begun to wear thin on those of us who love him and wanted him to stay. It was a smooth trip with no interference from Trump or his staff, as some of you may have expected. Now, on to the legend and the man.

John Wesley, son of deceased parents Mayme Contway and John Ball, was born March 24, 1954. His one surviving sibling is Barbara Hansonl of Wallace, Idaho. He is also survived by a stepdaughter whose name I don't know, many relatives, and hundreds of music fans, co-workers and friends. His birth at Fort Belknap set the stage for his hometown legendary musician nickname, "Big John." He grew up with a different perspective on life as the child of an older Lakota woman and a Lakota-Chippewa birth father, neither enrolled tribal members. He watched both the Indigenous and Caucasian worlds from the outside. This would forever imprint who he became and how he reacted to life in general. Thankfully, his lifelong best friend, Victor Miller, found him next door in Harlem when they were just old enough to pee outside.

John shared his family's love of music with Vic and told him they could start a band if he'd just learn how to play an instrument. Victor was a natural orator, but he was destined to play the drums. John found his first love, playing bass guitar and singing. Their first band, Logna, was conceived, and it solidified John's release from the weight of the world he carried on his shoulders. No one expected that pitch-perfect voice from Big John.

John played his guitar, hounded his friends to practice, wrote music, got drunk, smoked, went to high school in Harlem, and worked on the Baker farm until he graduated. College life began ... ended ... began again. It takes quite a few starts, when you are playing guitar, writing music, getting drunk, smoking weed, playing gigs all over the Montana Hi-Line and supposedly going to class. Then John added art classes to his college schedule. Oh, how he loved art. It gave him another way to escape a world full of despair and institutionalized racism. During this time, the band was formed and reformed under different names as members moved on or moved back. They were the Allstars Band and even the Be-Bop Buckaroo Band, but things really came together with the creation of the Freeman Harper Band. With John on bass, Leon Main and Tim Healy on guitar and Victor on drums, they played high school dances, bars and concerts across the Hi-Line, eventually recording some of the original songs John wrote (http://www.lostsoundsmontana.bandcamp.com). They had a memorized play list of over 70 songs, adding 15 to 20 each year.

The years on the road took a heavy toll. Finally, one night in the early 1980s, John and Vic made a bet on who could quit drinking the longest. They both won. Although they were often thousands of miles apart, they always remained the best of friends.

In 1985 John completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts in art therapy at the University of Montana, although the art was more of a gestalt-logotherapy than a career, according to him. He immediately went to work at Fort Belknap as the Runaway and Homeless Youth Program Director. He served on the Fort Belknap Child Protective and Chemical Dependency as well as the Blaine County DPHHS Foster Care Review teams. He also took on the interim role as director and promoter of the Wild Horse Youth Ranch, a group home for homeless Native children. From there, John moved on as ICWA at the Missoula Indian Center where he wrote grants and worked as an intervention advocate. His work gained notice across the state of Montana, and Hill County enticed him away to take the lead DPHHS/DCFS community social worker II position which he held for 10 years.

John provided a full range of treatment services to children placed in long-term foster care through CPS. He also held a board position with Montana Communities United for victims of sexual abuse in a four-county area, where he wrote grants that sustained their funding for decades into the future. On most weekends and weeknights nights, he found another band to play with. US-87 included members Mike Norbury, Mark Bennits and Garret Briere. For Big John it was a great retreat from all the real-life tragedy of his professional career.

In 1996 John moved on to serve as therapeutic treatment manager for severely emotionally disturbed Native American children, only to be recruited again by DPHHS as community social work supervisor for Hill and Blaine counties. John supervised six social workers and three staff members. His area covered not only the rural population in two counties, but also the four Native American tribes of two separate reservations where he coordinated foster care services with direct supervision to ensure compliance and safety for all the children in his care. The job also required the frequent mandatory bureaucratic state and regional meetings/lunches/seminars hundreds of miles away where often golfing or other nonsense seemed more important than the children.

In 2000, John requested reassignment to the Western Montana Region where he could attend the Walla Walla Master of Social Work Program on the Missoula campus. During this time, John had married, divorced, and remarried. Sadly, I only know of these women by their nicknames and am not privy to their actual names. John applied himself to studying but managed to incorporate music, even though his knees began to require him to sit while he played guitar on stage, and he felt the progression of a contracture in his left hand was affecting his ability to play guitar professionally. He loved playing with US-87 and all the musicians who showed up to jam with them, but New Year's Eve 2001 was his last professional performance.

After graduation in 2002, John and his second wife moved to Alaska. She went to Anchorage, and John flew on to the Pribilof Islands for his new job as master of social work mental health clinician, serving the communities of St. George and St. Paul for nearly seven years. He said this native population were slaves of the government until 1982 and lived in a very traumatized culture. He'd tell you to look it up. As John often said, "Every Indian story is a sad story."

John was well-paid for his work under these difficult conditions without hospitals or doctors on St. Paul Island at that time. He suffered two major strokes there. Unable to speak with loss of function on his left side, a conglomerate that owned the island decided it was too risky to fly him out for any medical help. He was told that all he needed to do was sit behind his desk while people came to him for therapy, that is if he could physically get to his desk. John worked out his own rehabilitation plan. He quit his job, his wife divorced him, and he returned to Montana to pursue his LCSW licensure.

John came home a changed man. He had always been sensitive to institutionalized racism and the maddening inertia of most bureaucracies. However, now he'd witnessed "microcosmic transgenerational emotional trauma" in Alaska and realized how that same reality applied to Native Americans here. He worked in Havre at both Northern Montana Hospital and Hill County Center for Mental Health, utilizing his experience, education and training to provide therapy to all individuals and improve the quality of mental health services until 2011.

John continued to suffer mini-strokes and the hand deformity began to affect both hands, making the writing of reports almost impossible until he learned two-finger typing. By this point John had lost his singing voice, his ability to play guitar, his balance was compromised, and his facial features were nearly frozen on one side. John had retired from social work and was overcome by severe depression. Victor Miller was also very ill at this time, and the two old friends supported each other in their mutual suffering. Once Vic was hospitalized, he put John into action and tasked him with the creation of a band and the organization of a grand concert for Victor's funeral. They spent days together planning the songs for this final farewell tribute. Victor also informed John he was not allowed to "follow him" until he wrote a book about their lives. John promised. After Victor died and the concert was over, John found no reason to go on himself. ... But wait ... he'd promised to write that damn book.

John dedicated himself to writing two-fingered, high as a kite most days, a book about his life and his best friend's role in it. John wrote and wrote until he had completed nearly 1,000 pages ... he always was a bit excessive! With the help of friends, he pared half of his original manuscript down to his first book, which was published in 2016 under the title "Red Shadows of the Blood Moon," available through Amazon or Barnes and Noble. We are still editing the second half which will be published ... as we promised.

To sum it up, this Humanitarian, Singer, Song Writer, Guitarist, Manager, OPD (look it up), Artistic, Facebook-loving, Child-Saving Social Worker was a visitor here, and I hope you were lucky enough to have known him.

Written with love, Carlyn Ramsey

Edwards Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Chinook took great care with John and his loved one afterward, thank-you. There are no services planned.


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