Henry Real Bird—cowboy poet, Crow Indian and recently named Poet Laureate of Montana—has embarked on a 415-mile journey on horseback across northwest North Dakota and northern Montana. He is handing out books of poetry to the people he meets along his route, which will take him through Indian country where his grandfather rode a century ago.This is not a press stunt, but rather a demonstration of Henry’s life, culture and poetry: a journey of horse and horseman slowly making their way across a vast ancestral landscape. Listen to and read short interviews we’re doing with Henry as he progresses from his start at Fort Berthold, North Dakota, to his final destination on the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation southwest of Havre, Montana, in early August. Over the next year, the Western Folklife Center will explore rural Montana by surveying traditional artists whose work and way of life provide social commentary that holds lessons for the rest of us. This extensive fieldwork effort will culminate in an hour-long radio broadcast, podcast and an exhibit at the Missoula Art Museum that is made possible through the generosity of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
Listen to our first interview with Henry recorded on July 21, 2010, as he rides along the Missouri River thinking of the juneberry pie that he and his riding partner, Levi Bruce, were gifted the day before.
Transcript of Henry Real Bird's Interview, July 21, 2010
Hal Cannon Where are you Henry?
Henry Real Bird I'm over here along the Missouri River. I been ridin' here since Tuesday...so I've been on the road about 9 days. And I stayed last night at a town called Fraser.
Hal Cannon Are you on a horse right now?
Henry Real Bird Yeah I'm riding a horse right now along Highway 2 in Montana. What they call High Line.
Hal Cannon Can you describe what you're looking at right now?
Henry Real Bird Oh gosh, just a vast amount of land...just rolling hills all over to the north, and then on over to the south I’ve got cottonwood trees in the valley floor of the Missouri River, north of the river. Then across the Missouri to the south we've got them hills there..the breaks...just beautiful.
Hal Cannon Henry I'm hearing cars just speeding past you. What's the difference between the way you're seeing what's going on and people going 60 miles an hour?
Henry Real Bird Oh yeah. The slow pace..you see more. I saw hills and creeks that I didn't know existed. I mean I’ve been on this road before but I never paid attention to it but now you see all this beautiful landscape. And uh..I mean this is good traveling here.
Hal Cannon So where did you start out Henry?
Henry Real Bird I started out from the Fort Berthold Indian Revervation. We started out along the Missouri there on the trail of the buffalo, and uh, going through patches of sweet sage, eating juneberries. And I was saying that life cannot get any sweeter than this. To be able to ride a horse for the day and then just eat the juneberries. And when I got over here yesterday, they stopped me on the road and took me over and gave me some juneberry pie. And I had some more again last night and I went over to the sweat lodge over here in Frazer, and prayed. They say the sweat lodge…you use that to remember who you are. But the whole thing is...places where my great grandfather rode over on Fort Berthold and over to Fort Union and then I just wanted to ride a horse right where they rode horses too, along the Missouri. And that's what I'm doing, and then giving out books of poetry along the way.
Hal Cannon What is the reaction when you hand someone a book of poems?
Henry Real Bird They're surprised and they just browse through it right there, and they don't know what to think and so I'm gone by the next day so I don't know what they think. I just put my name on there and everything else. I just want them to enjoy the thought..enjoy the thought and go for the ride into the feeling whatever it is.
Hal Cannon You were made Poet Laureate of Montana, is this part of what you think your job is as Poet Laureate for the state?
Henry Real Bird You know I took it on like that, because nobody else will ever do this type of thing, you know. Nobody has the guts to just saddle up a horse and just go from town to town just giving out books of poetry and stuff like that. And so I figure that I'm not like everybody else and that's why I'm the way I am, and so this is just my style of giving back to the people what I have taken from life out here in Montana.
Hal Cannon Henry I admire you.
Henry Real Bird Oh, I don't know it's just uh...
Hal Cannon I do, I count you as a good friend. I really appreciate what you do.
Henry Real Bird I appreciate you too because you've kept me alive. In the beginning when I didn't want to live any more, you guys kept me alive and that was alright, you know. And so I feel good today.
Hal Cannon You've helped us. You've helped keep us alive my friend. So can we call you along the route and ask you how things are going?
Henry Real Bird Yeah, call anytime and wherever I am on the road if I get good reception we can connect.
Hal Cannon Good luck on your journey and we'll call you in a few days.
Henry Real Bird OK. See you later then, OK. Bye.
Hal Cannon Bye Henry.