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The braided histories we shared

August 30, 2016
Martha Wolfname

Lloyd Yellowrobe’s mother lived to be an old woman.

Dave Means was activist Russell Means distant cousin.  Dave had a rare gift of quiet humor and self control that made him well suited to his demanding job as Indian Health Clinic Service Unit Director.

I remember sitting in his office at the clinic.  He told me he was successful because he studied theater at Montana State University.

We liked each other immediately and he is the one who hired me to be the Chief Pharmacist at his small clinic in 1988.

No he didn’t.  I worked for the Chief Pharmacist, a guy named Miller, who quit when I told him I would wait for him to leave, then do everything my own way.  That’s when Dave Means promoted me.  I already told the tale of the pharmacist I hired to be my assistant.

Ultimately my boss, Dave Means, and I lived in each others’ apartments and had identical, albeit opposite, commutes 106 miles each way, between Billings and Lame Deer, Montana.

Thirty years ago, most of the doctors and nurses of the Indian Health Service lived in a neighborhood a block away from the clinic.The rent was about $200/mo, but the price of electricity to heat the houses was high in the winter.   Anyway, I always planned to commute the 106 miles from Billings to Lame Deer because nobody in my house wanted to move from Billings.

In the beginning I had old cars that broke down.  That plus the last 40 miles of the road to Lame Deer was tortuous and narrow.  In the winter the road had ice.  I did a complete spin once when I lost traction.  Scared me, so I asked Dave Means for a place to stay in Lame Deer during the week, especially in the winter.  Dave asked me to write a letter to the housing committee.

They offered me a basement apartment at the fitness center for about $100, which I took.  It had one bedroom and combined living/dining/kitchen room.  Oh yes, a bathroom.  My apartment was right beneath the fitness center treadmill.  I remember Dave Means was running on it when I went up to complain that the light fixture was about to come loose from the incessant “clomp clomp clomp.”

There were two of the basement apartments, the other was occupied by a BIA policeman named Mike Oldmouse.  I think that was his name.  Later Mike had a roomie named Lonnie Spang, a young man who could play the guitar.  Lonnie moved in with me when Mike kicked him out.  Lame Deer has a truly socialist style society.  Other times Lonnie stayed with the school superintendent’s family.

I had been glad to move to the furnished basement place with a load of stuff I carried in our old volkswagen van.  Ultimately, the field mice that played in the walls near my bed drove me from that basement apartment.  Turns out Mike had left a box of commodities with split peas and such in the back room between our apartments and that was feeding the mice.

I tried controlling the mice with a cat, but the animal ended up spraying urine throughout my apartment.  I ended up “selling” the cat for a $1 rebate to a woman named Gladys.  She told me a day or two later the cat ran away from her.  I did not ask for my dollar back.

I had a mouse trapline I set twice or three times a day.  I caught many mice but the scratching in the walls did not abate.

This was 1989.  At first, when I wanted to use a telephone to phone home, I had none, so I walked downtown.  The “big store,” the IGA, had a pay phone out front, but there was quite a line of teenagers standing there to use it.  I asked around and the only other pay phone was at the police station, so I walked over there.  In the vestibule I found no competition.  I called home.

In those days the Rosebud/Bighorn county phonebook was quite thin.  Even thinner was the Lame Deer section.  Most of the numbers were tribal and federal government agency listings.  The entire town of perhaps 3500 people with BIA, IHS and tribe had only enough phone listings to make up one page (front and back) plus half of another.  In fact, nobody knew for sure how many lived in Lame Deer.  My 3500-person figure was a wild guess.

Like I said, famous American Indian Movement activist leader Russell Means was Dave Means cousin, but they were distant, one from another.  Dave was a man of few words, so I didn’t find out more.

Here is how things worked out:  In 1990 I ended up quitting my job in Lame Deer when a staff pharmacist job at the hospital at Crow Agency opened up.  Cut my commute almost in half.

Said David Means when I quit:  “Well fuck you then.  There.  I said it.”  Then we shook hands and he wished me well.

During the next five years the BIA redid the road between Lame Deer and Crow Agency, straightening and widening.  In the meantime Dave phoned me to see if I wanted to return to Lame Deer to work in the pharmacy again.  Well, I did.  I missed the people there.  So I quit the hospital at Crow Agency.

The Lame Deer clinic had changed.  More patients, more doctors, three pharmacists and two technicians.  Lonnie Spang had moved to Billings and worked in a car repair shop.  I hardly ever saw him again.

Dave Means was still Service Unit Director, but shortly thereafter, the clinic burned to the ground.  He was arrested on a Friday afternoon on a charge that he had once, long ago, molested a young lady.   Dave protested his innocence.  Turns out she had been to one of those therapists who help bring forth “repressed memories.”  Although the charge was ultimately dismissed, Dave had to go to jail and he suffered damage to his pride, his reputation, and to his health.

Soon we were taking up a collection to buy Dave some clean socks and underwear for jail.  That’s what you did.  People in jail ate a lot of chicken pot pies.  Turns out that being arrested in Lame Deer isn’t even a very big deal.  Most adults there have been arrested at one time or another because of changing tribal politics.  Oh, and before that Friday when they took Dave away in handcuffs, Dave lived in the same basement apartment where I had once lived.  I don’t know why he lived there, perhaps because of the chaos that ensued when the clinic burned.

By then I commuted the 106 miles five days a week.  By the time I retired, we had bought and worn out a Ford, three Nissan Sentras, three Honda Civics and a BMW.  Well, the BMW has almost 300,000 miles on it and still runs fine.  Almost fine.

The fire’s cause was never certain.  My friend Lloyd Yellowrobe may have stacked too much rubbing alcohol near a faulty light fixture in the supply department.  On the other hand I always thought I had left the coffee pot on through the weekend.  However it happened, the clinic was a total loss.  All of the medical records burned.  Monday morning we met at the Lame Deer Boys and Girls Club.  Linwood offered his building to the pharmacy.

I had always been on great terms with Lynwood Tallbull, Community Health Representative Director, and he and his people moved out of a nearby double-wide trailer during a busy morning and allowed our pharmacy and administration to move in.  The physicians were not so fortunate.  They had to work a block away at first.  We dispensed our first prescription within 48 hours of the loss of the clinic.  Oh, I think I dumped out a bottle of Tylenol and put the prescription in there.

Remarkable how things change.  I ended up lending, the guy who hired me twice, several hundred dollars for his legal defense.  Like I said, the charges were ultimately dismissed, but he had been replaced by another for Service Unit Director.  A string of them, actually, before they found a strong woman, Debbie Bends, who has held the job the last dozen years.  Dave repaid me.

Dave commuted from Lame Deer to Billings to work at the IHS Area Office while I continued to commute from Billings to Lame Deer.  Five days a week we’d wave to each other as we passed, usually over by Busby, somewhere.  He drove a little white pickup.

Lloyd Yellowrobe got into a car wreck, broke his neck.  He pretty much healed up and takes care of his grandchildren over at Busby.

Lynwood Tallbull was replaced as CHR director, but now teaches traditional medicinal botany at Chief Dull Knife College, the best place to get a meal in Lame Deer.  I don’t know what happened to Mike Oldmouse or Lonnie Spang, as I haven’t seen either one of them in ages.

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