Thursday, March 18, 2010

James: Missoula 1990

I didn't know a lot of people who were Indians in Montana, at least not intimately. I did know James. He was half-white and a painter. He was also pretty much an alcoholic. But he was interesting and we got along with each other, we were friends. I think perhaps he was Blackfoot. Maybe he was Salish. Anyway, that's not how I saw him, not as Indian or half Indian or an alcoholic. He was just James. He was a painter.
I met him in the bars. At Charlie B's to be precise. He knew Dennis and by 1990 I was good friends with Dennis, who collected and published books for a living. I know I met James before 1990, but that doesn't matter. What I'm thinking of is a short conversation we had at Charlie B's one night in 1990.
You have to understand that James had bad teeth and big glasses. He had long black hair and was very skinny. He had a crooked grin. He was drunk a lot. His paintings didn't sell much, but he was a real painter. He was poor. So, one night we were with each other at the bar--both drunk--and he started arguing with me, calling me White Man. I was actually interested that he called me White Man--don't know why, exactly, maybe just because I am--and he said his people don't always like my people. Of course, I didn't see it like that but also did see it like that (the fault being in my camp) and I said it wasn't true about me. He asked, "What do you think of me, then? What do you say when you see me?"
And I said I see a painter. I said, "You're an intelligent guy." And right away he smiled. He ducked his head and looked away and gave that crooked grin. He was flattered. And he wasn't flattered because I was a "White Man" or because he was a poor painter or because we were in Montana where people don't often compliment each other--only because I had surprised him by saying he was intelligent.
But James was intelligent. He was a good painter. He was a half-breed and I was a white man. I was glad to have surprised him. I was glad to have said something nice. It pleased me to make him smile his crooked smile . . . I should do that more often.

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