I decide to spend a few days in Livingstone, Montana, once a mining and railroading town. Tourism has now replaced those activities — not always happily, as one local informs me: “You can’t make the same money cleaning rooms that you could on the railway.” Trains still roll through, whistles blowing, making buildings tremble.
Livingston is a chic venue. Over the years, the famous, and well-heeled have dropped by, spent time, or taken up residence. It’s also a friendly place; complete strangers say hello to me on the streets, in bars, at restaurant counters. Perhaps I’m the only one who thinks this is unusual; in France, where I live, such easy camaraderie doesn’t exist.
The red brick buildings in the town center have been beautifully restored, but even back in 1883 Livingston drew the admiration of one enthusiastic traveler:
“The town site is as flat as a billiard table, the streets are wide and straight. Concrete walks cover the entire city, and most of the streets are paved… it’s one of the finest looking towns in the northwest.”
But all that perfection was destroyed by fires in May, August, and November of 1885. When arson was suspected, vigilantes took matters into their own hands, warning the town’s worst elements to leave. Some did. Those who didn’t, were confronted by a posse of armed men dangling a rope: Livingston had no patience with bad boys. Further fires in 1886, and 1903 were caused by faulty electric street wiring.
I trudge through knee-deep snow, take back streets lined by bare trees where wooden frame houses have lovely glass doors, and verandas with welcoming sofas and benches hint at summer nights, crickets, warmth — although such balmy days are hard to imagine at the moment.
“Nice architecture,” I say to one man who is out here walking his fat brown dog.
He nods. “They knew how to build in the old days. Back then, things were different. When rich folks moved in, they lived like everyone else. Nowadays, new folks with money build big pretentious places, vast ugly castles. They’ll only look better as ruins.”
I laugh. He looks more closely at me. “Where you from?”
“I live in France, at the moment.”
He nods, moves off.
On South B Street although there’s nothing particular to see, just the usual parking lots, warehouses, businesses, and, further along, some modest houses. From 1890 until the 1920s, this was the town’s red-light district, where prostitutes, lap dogs on their knees, sat in windows backlit by that famous red glow.
Shopkeepers loved these “fallen angels” who spent their cash on furs, fans, and fancy clothes; but they were the bane of “good” townswomen who watched with jaded eyes, made sure they sat in the last rows in the theatre, and church. But perfumed, decked out in jewels and silks, the “angels” were very well behaved — their madams made sure of that. “Real ladies,” said one admiring (probably male) witness. Some married local boys and became respectable housewives.
The last houses of prostitution were closed at the end of WWII, after protests that they were too close to the local school. Many sadly said: “The town lost its color when the red lights went out.”
Human occupation of this area dates back to at least 11,000 years ago. When white explorers arrived with the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805, the Nez Perce, Crow and Shoshone tribes were in residence, but European American settlement brought disease — almost half the population of the Crow died from smallpox and cholera — and disaster. The shameful Indian Removal Act of 1830, treaty violations, Supreme Court rulings that facilitated the spread of settlers, the encroachment of agriculture, the mass killing of bison by travelers, settlers, government agents — one hundred thousand were killed each year, and they were on the verge of extinction — pushed native peoples onto the hunting grounds of others, and resulted in warfare, and intertribal combat.
When silver was discovered on local Sioux land, prospectors paid no attention to treaties forbidding encroachment on tribal territory. Certainly, it would have been easy enough to get permission to access the mining area, but no negotiations were undertaken. Resentful Sioux finally attacked, destroying smelters, bridges, and stealing horses. The Montana Militia proposed a war on the “murdering savages,” both the Sioux and the Crow, although these last weren’t hostile. As one fur company clerk said in 1831, “The Crow, said to be thieves, rob but would never kill. If they killed us, we would never come back, and they would lose the chance of stealing from us.”
In 1867, a fighting force of six hundred men was organized, but the volunteers were mere renegades, outlaws, and horse thieves. Undisciplined and disloyal, in the first summer, a detachment of one hundred deserted at once, raiding the commissary, carrying off what they could. In winter, when provisions were scarce, and food vouchers useless, the men killed each other in quarrels, until more were murdered by each other than by Natives; their graves can still be found in Livingston.
In 1868, the survivors escaped, and they were replaced by regiments of the United States Army. However, instead of enforcing treaty regulations, the army provided ammunition to hunters who entered Native land and continued to slaughter buffalo.
In 1923, James H. Cook wrote in his book, Fifty Years on the Frontier as a Cowboy, Hunter, Guide, Scout, and Ranchman:
“The American Indians of today who ever lived as their fathers before them, wild and free, are few and fast tottering into the long shadows of the sunset. Most of them are gentle enough now. They will eat almost anything, which the white man cares to give them. Some of them may still be called wild or hostile; but the most they ever do is to plead with the Great White Father at Washington for the little portion of their former land which is left to them — a residue which they see gradually being taken possession of by every means that white men of big and little interests can devise.”
Two and a half hours away is Yellowstone National Park, created by the geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden in 1871 who warned that “vandals who are now waiting to enter into this wonder-land, will in a single season despoil, beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities, which have required all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare.”
One year later, the national park was created, but a swarm of poachers, squatters, tourists, and petty criminals came rampaging in. Army engineer William Ludlow reconnoitered the region in 1875, and reported: “The visitors prowled about with shovel and axe, chopping, and hacking, and prying up great pieces of the most ornamental geyser they could find; women and men alike joining in the barbarous pastime.”
Over the next fourteen years, game herds were slaughtered, trees were felled, homesteads were erected, and hot spring formations destroyed. Finally, the U.S. Army took charge of the park for the next thirty-two years.
Modern tourism — in 2018, over 4 million people visited Yellowstone — is still taking its toll. According to the Idaho News, in the winter of 2000, 76,271 people entered Yellowstone National Park on snowmobiles, outnumbering the 40,727 visitors who came in cars, 10,779 in snow coaches, and 512 on skis. Snowmobile noise could be heard 70% of the time at 11 of 13 sample sites, and 90% of the time at 8 sites. At the Old Faithful geyser, snowmobiles could be heard 100% of the time during the daytime period, and the noise drowned out the sound of the geyser erupting.
Michael V. Finley, former superintendent of Yellowstone, protested against trout illegally dumped into Yellowstone Lake, poachers, and hostile ranchers who continue to slaughter bison for fear they transmit disease to domestic livestock. He also divulged that the Crown Butte Mines Inc., two and a half miles from Yellowstone’s northeast boundary, produces acidic waste rock that, when exposed to air and water, generates sulfuric acid, leaches heavy metals such as lead and cadmium into waterways, and kills all life.
“Where you from?” asks the man with the long beard standing next to me in the bar.
“Well, I live in France at the moment.”
“France, huh. That’s the place where you’ve got all those Muslims blackmailing people. Why don’t you get rid of them all, throw them out of the country?”
“That’s not exactly how democracy works…” I begin, but he’s not waiting for the rest of the sentence.
“I’ll tell you what the problem is over here in the USA. They never tell us anything. We never find out what’s going on in other countries.”
“Yeah,” says another man, short, grizzled, standing beside him. “Ain’t that the truth, too. My friend Bill? He told me he met an Iraqi, a well-educated man, a perfectly normal person. You don’t imagine that kind of thing.”
“You know,” says long beard, “we Americans, we only go to war to help people out.”
“Like in Viet Nam? Laos? Cambodia? Cuba? Grenada? Iraq?”
He chews that over for a minute or two. “Well, we just have our pride, I guess.”
Another man, handsome, charming, runs a local bookshop. He asks where I’m from.
“I live in France, at the moment.”
He nods, not really all that interested. He used to be a high roller in New York, but he threw up the pressure and the success for life out here. “I have my horses and my bookshop. Life is good.”
He specializes in local history books, although none have been written by Native Americans. “The ones who leave the reservations and go to university? They get into the intellectual sphere and don’t come back.”
“What’s life like on the reservations now?”
“The Crow reservation is rich, large, and some of the Crow have traveled all over the world. But, in the end, they come back here. That’s the negative side of close-knit family ties and tribal connections; they make it difficult to stay away, even when life could be better elsewhere. On the reservation, everyone is caught up in petty jealousies and fights — one extended family against another, everyone hating another’s success — so nothing functions the way it should. The nearby Cheyenne reservation is much poorer, but there’s none of the in-fighting so the reservation works well. Over there, they call the Crows apples — red outside, white inside — because of their cow-towing and demands upon Washington.”
I notice that, although everyone is extremely friendly and willing to confide, chat, share their opinions, buy me drinks, and give me the feeling I’m welcome, absolutely no one has asked me a question, other than the one about where I live. No one is in the least bit curious about my life, my interests, my work, my destination, my background, or my pet dog and his fleas. Not that it matters: I’m not here to stay.
A soldier is standing behind me in the line in the bus station where we’re waiting to pass through the metal detector, just in case someone has an itchy trigger finger or is particularly fond of knives.
“Where d’you come from?” asks the soldier.
“I live in France at the moment.”
“Oh, yeah? Me, I’m proud to be an American. Life’s different here. Aggression’s not part of the American way of life. I don’t even lock my door at night. Sure, crime’s just the result of people not getting work, but the criminals all come from other countries. You know, places like South America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East. They’re not Americans. There’s very little violence in the USA.”
I stare at him in pure astonishment. “The gun-related murder rate is twenty-five times higher in the United States than any other developed nation.”
“Where do you get crap information like that? There are far more murders in Germany and Japan than there are here.”
“Of course there aren’t.” Although I have no statistics available, I know that Germany is far safer than the USA, and Japan has one of the lowest murder rates in the world.
“I know what I’m talking about,” he insists. “Japan is ripped apart by gun wars. I’ve been around, I know a lot. I’m a history buff, I eat the local food in all the other counties, I make an effort. I even learn how to speak other languages. For example, I can speak real good Japanese.”
“Can you? Say something to me in Japanese.”
“For example, how do you say ‘hello’ in Japanese?”
He stares at me. Wheels turn in his head, but they go slowly. “Well, I can’t remember exactly. You sort of forget when you’re not there.”
When I finally take a seat on the bus, I make sure I’m very far away from him.
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