While living in Northwest Montana for a good long while, I came to know, love and be adopted by Leonard J. Mountain Chief, a well-known and highly respected elder of the Blackfeet or Blackfoot (depending on who you’re talkin’ to) tribe.
I was co-owner, along with my former wife Pamela (now deceased), of Bull Trading Co., an art gallery in Kalispell. We specialized in Native American Art and Collectibles.
Leonard got word of our store through a mutual friend, and he came to visit one late-summer afternoon in 1990.
Through a large picture window in front of the store, I saw two native folks drive up. Something told me Leonard was an important figure, so I immediately began to put together a bundle to offer him when he walked through the door.
Leonard was a large, extremely handsome man, and carried himself tall and proud. When we shook hands and I gave him the bundle filled with sage, tobacco, sweetgrass, turquoise and feathers, he said, “We are to be good friends of long standing, you and I.” I agreed, and we visited for many hours that day.
Leonard was the storyteller and heritage-passer of the tribe. Boy, did Leonard love to tell Indian stories and fiddle on his violin. And I was a welcoming audience for him and his tales of knee grass and the buffalo meat that fed his ancestors for centuries.
Leonard bid me farewell that night by inviting me out to his place, Heart Butte, east of the Divide, also known as Old Agency. “I understand you’re a fly fisherman?” Leonard asked. “Yes, I am,” I replied. “Good,” he said, “my land has the best; you come stay with me awhile.”
The drive over to Heart Butte is incredibly beautiful, along the edge of Glacier National Park. The tall pines, the cottonwoods, aspens, the wild elk, deer, moose and geese flying overhead give one the feeling of being in a storybook. Almost surreal, but, at the same time, very real. And, oh, so peaceful.
I arrived at Leonard’s late one afternoon, headed for Two Medicine River. As I turned left off the cutacross road, as it was called by the locals, I could see Leonard sitting on his porch; I waved and he waved me on, knowing exactly where I was headed. And I knew Leonard wouldn’t be far behind. Leonard could never turn down a cup of my coffee, or my ear to his storytelling.
One of the very first things Leonard taught me was to find a spot. And that’s where Leonard knew I would be headed, to my spot on the river.
I arrived in the bottom of the canyon on the Two Medicine River about 6:00 p.m. Put up camp, my tent, cook stove, coffee and so on, and was anxious to get to the evening bite of rising trout, which, by the way, is plentiful on Leonard’s stretch of the river, because no one ever fishes there except me. Best of all, these fish aren’t fly shy, which is to say they’ll eat just about anything you toss at ’em.
Yes, dear Leonard shows up: “Got any coffee brewin’?”
“Yes, Leonard, of course, wanna cup?” Leonard didn’t drink beverages with alcohol—hadn’t for many years.
“Have a seat, Leonard, let me pour you a cup.” He liked it strong and black.
Leonard began telling Indian stories of long ago. I fixed dinner, Leonard told stories, I made another pot of coffee, Leonard told stories. Please understand: One, these are stories of immense importance to the tribe, and two, out of pure respect, one listens intently. But I did come to fish, too. “Well, you know, Leonard,” I said, “we should get some rest, because in the morning I’m gonna want to fish some.” I looked at my watch and hell, it was morning. “Well, Leonard, sun will be up in about half an hour,” I said. “You want some breakfast?”
“Sure,” Leonard replied, “and how about some more of that great coffee?”
We ate, I got my fly fishing gear together and we were off. Leonard doesn’t fish—never has. We walked the stream for a few hours in the wondrously beautiful canyon, with wild flowers on the cliffs, incredibly clear water in the river and plenty of hungry trout.
I fished, Leonard told stories. We walked, talked, fished, ate, and I listened to pure enchantment and native enlightenment.
We had been on the river for three days and nights. I mentioned to Leonard, “I should think about heading back west to Kalispell in the morning. Pammy will be wondering where I have been off to and want to know I’m OK. And Dee, Leonard? Won’t she be worried about you?”
“No, hell; she knows I go off for several days on my own, same as you do, Jay, and your wife knows where you are and that you’re doin’ what you love.”
We had our last meal of the trip together that night. Some of the stories Leonard told brought tears to my eyes. Some made me laugh. Some made me think—and all were much appreciated because I had Leonard all to myself, teaching me of the Indian ways of long ago. Yes, I caught plenty of trout, let most of ’em go, and Leonard and I enjoyed eating a few together.
When Leonard and I finished our meal, it was about 1:00 a.m. We walked out to the water’s edge, looking northwest up the Two Medicine River canyon. A full moon was rising over the Lewis and Clark Range, just below Glacier National Park. The moon came shining down on the water through the pine trees. There was the smell of cottonwood and pine, sage and clear air, the moon as bright as the sun; we stood there silent, just watching, listening to the night sounds. We stood quietly together for about 45 minutes, neither of us speaking a word. Then Leonard looked over his right shoulder to me and ever so quietly said, “There is nothing else, Jay. There is nothing else.”
Jay North lives in California, where he is at work on a book about his time with Leonard J. Mountain Chief.