Henry Real Bird

Poet Henry Real Bird Rides the Last Stanza of His Trek Across Montana

After riding horseback for more than 390 miles over the past two weeks, our friend Henry Real Bird is one day’s ride from his final destination at the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.  Henry is the Poet Laureate of Montana, and he has traversed the state, visiting small towns and Indian Reservations along his route and distributing books of poetry. In this last installment of our conversations with Henry, he explains how this odyssey has given him a new perspective of his homeland, and of America. LISTEN to our final interview with Henry.

[audio http://westernfolklifecenter.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/henryrides_3.mp3]

National Public Radio also interviewed Henry today (July 30, 2010). Visit their website to listen to the NPR story.

Henry Real Bird’s Journey Poem

Henry’s journey across Montana has inspired him to work on a poem that attempts to chronicle the experiences he’s had along the way.  Below is audio and a transcript of the first draft of his poem, which he plans to complete once he’s back home at the Crow Agency.

LISTEN to Henry's Journey Poem

[audio http://westernfolklifecenter.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/henrys-poem.mp3]

(Early draft with apologies for butchering Crow language spellings and punctuation)

Wind blows free upon the Missouri River, a big river, osh geza, where my life began. There is talk of where it is winter all of the time, woodlands and the lakes, but to move out of the earth lodge, gardens of corn, squash maker, thank you, Aho, to let me stand in this Earth lodge again, happiness beyond words, corn woman in a dream, she appeared, riding Paint through a vast sea of buffalo grass swaying in cool summer wind that blows free along the Missouri River from patches of Sweet Sage, happiness fills my glass, traces of where life has been clipity-clap from crescent moon mix sliver.

Oil boom on land of Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara. Life is full, abundant, flow of US currency greasing the edges of their mouths in no flaw. Eating juneberries routine of no urgency. Trail of the Buffalo turned into a trail between elevators to Cirrhosis Park, along the Missouri.

Sweat lodge with Assiniboine, I am one of the ones with the Breechcloth. Story of good health to give from the Smoker family. Smooth, gentle rolling plains, north below, north star with whitish breaks to noonday sun. Juneberry pie from Chief of Fort Peck Tribe, campfire smoke rising into stars, part of spiritual journey, a tear-wiping ceremony. I saddle each day to a prayer.

Young, beautiful families, Phillips County Fair, sparkle of dreams, America’s dream. Promise land. I remember who I am in the sweat lodge. Wishful thoughts and prayers were given to us to become human beings.

The moon in her struggle to be free tossed and turned and wiggled out of her reflection upon the Milk River. She offered dreams and promises. Lavender twilight of morning catches me easing into the day along edges of Milk’s glacier waters. Complete in peace, Christian song done in sign language, the assimilation.

And, on the other side of Fur Cap Mountain, Little Rocky Mountains, water pollution from mine, no money, water restoration. Who is going to speak for the trout, the water being Mission Creek?

We, the ones with the Breechcloth with relatives from across the sea. America’s people stand together against ills of the world. Glaciers shrink. How much longer can the ice hold Polar Bear? We make a stand, fight for peace.

Sitting Bull’s steps ended free life. Moving lodges follow the trail of the buffalo north of the Missouri River where the wind blows where it may. Chief Joseph, “I will fight no more forever,” haunts and rings into a woeful whisper ending in the cool evening moon shadows of Bear Paw Mountains. Riding Paint through a vast sea of buffalo grass swaying in cool summer wind that blows free along America’s Rivers. From patches of Sweet Sage happiness fills my glass. Traces of where life has been, clippity-clap from crescent moon, mix slivers. May we do our hearts will, to no end, Aho, America the Beautiful.

Me, I’m going to get the horses blessed at Rocky Boy.


Hal Cannon What's the contrast of your pace and the people that are passing you by on the highway?

Henry Real Bird Yeah, I just saddle up and I go the pace of my horse and that's what I take care of. And in the morning when it's cool I try to trot as much as I can to cover as much country as I can, and then when it heats up I slow down and I take a break. The movement of the horse, and the movement of mother Earth, and the crescent Moon we just came from. That's when I started out...the crescent Moon on the Missouri River and the Juneberries were just plentiful and to just be eating that while everybody is using the Blackberry or using the phone in an air -conditioned RV pulling a small vehicle, and just cruising down the road. That's their style and that's good. But me, I just wanted to go back, and to be able to go slowly and to meet the people and to see the land, yeah.

Hal Cannon How many miles have you gone?

Henry Real Bird I think I've gone 395 miles, somewhere around there, because I think they said Rocky Boy's is about twenty miles away.

Hal Cannon So what's next for you, Henry?

Henry Real Bird After I do this one here, 300 of my children's books are being shipped out, and I pick them up and distribute them at a youth rodeo on Rocky Boy, yeah. So that's what I'll be doing Monday or Tuesday.

Hal Cannon You're busy.

Henry Real Bird Oh, yeah, I'm lucky. I'm thankful that I'm able to do this. That type of activity that creates the exhaustion to where we can sleep good at night...and to be able to get into...I've had some good dreams here. I saw a dream of snow flying here a few days ago. I say that dream to all the people in radio land to where they will reach that day where the first snow fall is, and to be with their loved ones and to go through many of those first snowfalls upon this sacred mother Earth. And so I was able to be given that dream on the road here and I enjoy that, yeah.

Hal Cannon Henry, how was the demolition derby, by the way?

Henry Real Bird The demolition derby was the best. I haven't seen that since I was a little boy over on Crow Agency. On this one here they changed the rules and they have heats, but back in those days they'd get the infield of the race track and its a free-for-all to the last car standing. But here they have rules and everything else, you know. But it was good. And on that one there, I mean those young families there...beautiful. Women and men with beautiful kids and so full of promise, it made you happy to know that America is so beautiful, so full of dreams. And to put on the best clothes that they have to come out to the fair reminded me of being young. Walking in new boots and new pants going to the Billings Fair, Montana State Fair. So I was able to take in everything there. It was beautiful.

Hal Cannon Oh, that's wonderful. Henry, thank you so much for letting us be a part of your journey and recording this. People have really enjoyed hearing your voice on our blog. It's really wonderful to be a part of it.

Henry Real Bird I'm having a beautiful time. Thank you.

Hal Cannon Thanks, we'll talk to you soon. Let us know how it turns out.

Henry Real Bird Ok, I'll do that. We'll see you later.

Big Sky Birthday, July 24, 2010

In the second of our series of conversations with Montana Poet Laureate Henry Real Bird, Western Folklife Center Producer Taki Telonidis called to wish him Happy Birthday and found him in the town of Malta near the banks of the Milk River. Henry has been on the road for nearly two weeks, retracing the travels of his ancestors and giving out books of poetry to people he meets in rural towns and Indian reservations along the way.


[audio http://westernfolklifecenter.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/henryrides_2.mp3]



Taki Telonidis A couple days ago you said you were doing this ride in part so you could ride horses like your grandfather and great grandfather did...in the same places. And I'm wondering as you're doing this, what sort of things are you thinking about? Is your mind taking you back to those days of your grandparents?

Henry Real Bird Back to those days. Like you get the feeling...not that you have been there before...but to know that your blood has been there two generations before you. Unbelievable! It makes you...it just makes you...you're so happy you just want to cry sometimes, just because you're so happy, you know.

Taki Telonidis That's beautiful. I'll bet you some poems will come out of this experience.

Henry Real Bird Oh no. I'm doing that. I'm doing that. In fact I'm writing as I go along type of thing in my mind I'm putting it all together. And then in the end I'm going to regroup and finish this thing off maybe in one poem. I don't know what I'm going to do. But I see awful things too...good things and bad things. Just like over in Wolf Point, Montana, I saw a lot of alcoholism there. So that was a depressing sight, but that is there. So I'll write a little piece in there to show that. Oh I've been wanting to use this line which I haven't been able to use: what have you done to life, or what has life done to you? And then to wander around like that. I"ve had that line painted on my heart for a long time and I haven't been able to really use it, but I"m going to use it there I think. I'm just working it all out.

Taki Telonidis One last question for you Henry. Today is your birthday and you're spending it on the banks of the Milk River and you're 62 now which I think entitles you to reduced admission to National Parks and all sorts of privileges. But does it also make you an elder? Do you consider yourself an elder?

Henry Real Bird Oh I'm lucky to be an elder, and I appreciate that because of all the things that I have been though, and I'm lucky to be alive and I know that. And I appreciate that. You know they have that saying to where...long, long on the tooth or something like that...

Taki Telonidis Long in the tooth.

Henry Real Bird Yeah long in the tooth, but for us they say when your eye tooth crumbles and your hair is pure white, nobody can outfox you. Nobody can outdo you in thinking. And so for knowledge to turn into wisdom type of thing. I'm nearing that stage in life, type of thing. That's how we see it, yeah.

Taki Telonidis Henry thank you very much. It's great to talk with you again, and we'll touch base with you in a couple of days.

Henry Real Bird Oh yeah, the next couple of days...tomorrow I'm going to stay over in Dodson, and then I'm going to finish off the fair there. So I'll watch the demolition derby there, then after that I'll be into Fort Belknap, and from then on I still have to make arrangements for the other end. But everything just falls into place. You just sort of kick your horse into the day and keep on going, and you run into something nice.

Taki Telonidis And the demolition derby sounds like it'll be a highlight.

Henry Real Bird (laughs) Oh God yeah. Yeah I'm going to watch the demolition derby. I saw a poster here, so I"ll be there for that. And I called ahead over there and they're going to let me stay over at the fairgrounds. So I'll have stables and everything for the horses, and no motel or anything...so I'll put up my tent and slowly drift out into the stars, you know.

Taki Telonidis Henry it sounds great.

Henry Real Bird Good night.

Taki Telonidis Nice to talk to you.

Henry Real Bird Yeah.

Ride Across Montana with Henry Real Bird

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.


[audio http://westernfolklifecenter.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/henryrides_1.mp3]

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.