Henry Real Bird Is the Real Deal
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
Moments ago, I walked with Henry Real Bird on Living-ston’s 9th Street Island, along a sandy bank of the Yellowstone’s far channel. Earlier, he had spotted the location from the highway. The Absarokas rise there against the southeastern sky, and Henry wanted it that way, so that the mountains named after his people would be revealed in photos.
Distracted by my schedule, though sensing an event in the making, I listened to Henry’s words amplified by the motion of his form framed in my viewfinder, and I impatiently waited for the green light to turn off, meaning my lens had focused.
Henry had no such concerns, and in the setting of the river bank beneath the mountains, stones under his feet, another dimension of the man emerged, more of his soul than he revealed as we sat an hour earlier over breakfast at Clark’s Crossing. Real Bird has led a physical life. He now raises bucking horses on his ranch in Big Horn County, having dislocated his hip while riding rodeos in the late 60s, though he continued riding professionally in the 70s and 80s. And he’s a disarmingly down to earth man, friendly as a puppy, but then before your eyes and in the elements of the moment his muse takes flight from its physical perch. The water, the stones, the driftwood become more real in his hands, but somehow less tangible—symbols and teaching tools of the truer aspects of life.
The Crow are the only Plains Indian tribe with a clan system. Henry Real Bird is of the Crow Tribe, though he shares the Shoshone blood of his great grandmother, and his clan is of the Driftwood Lodge—driftwood being found intertwined on the banks of rivers, as all members of the clan are intertwined, lodged together, and he explained in that moment his poetic sense of driftwood, choosing various specimens from the muddy sand and water’s edge, wiping them down and finding the one that held the words he composed in Driftwood Feeling, which reads, Elk River’s edge, There I am standin’, Floatin’ Down Love River…Lookin’ for a feelin’ in the roar of the water, Come down river lookin’ around, Feelin’ gotta roam…I’m catchin’ a ride, Floatin’ down love river.
He would inscribe for me, he said, the driftwood’s surface. I asked if that was his practise, if he had done that before. He said he had not, but that I could place it nicely on my desk in memory of that day.
Earlier, we spoke of the Crow language, which he spoke often at breakfast to his wife, Elma, and on his cell phone about a mounted ride from North Dakota to Montana this summer that will replicate rides taken in the old days. I asked him to pronounce Absaroka for me, though I have heard it pronounced authen-tically before, yet the tone slips one’s mind, and the phonetics do not transliterate well into English. Still, the sound lingers in memory as spoken for generations at the foot of the mountains and on the Great Plains of what now is Montana. With his generation, Henry said, the Crow language thrived, was widely spoken, but now sadly few of the younger Crow speak their native tongue. This should not be, but he said it was not so easy to craft a remedy, that politics are involved, and that doing so requires transliterating Crow, as expressed in the international phonetic alphabet, to the English alphabet. Let us hope this language indeed survives the relentless influences of the modern world, and that the culture Real Bird shares through his work and presence does also, for from it we have much to learn.
Henry Real Bird is, of course, the Poet Laureate of Montana, and that is fitting, but having met him years before and observed his nature, the title disguises the simple warmth and humor of the man. One could not imagine a more approachable, down to earth fellow, nor one more well rounded.
Within the space of 90 minutes or so, our conversation ranged from his bronc riding in the 70s and 80s, to the recent film Crazy Heart starring Jeff Bridges, which Henry and Elma very much enjoyed at the Empire Twin, to a past event at Living-ston’s Main Street Show in which he recalled Mike Devine playing a memorable version of Strawberry Fields on keyboard. Jeff Bridges himself performed there in 2001, and Real Bird would appear the evening of the day we talked, reciting with tears in his eyes Driftwood Feeling and other haunting works:
I face the sunrise where tomorrow is from… Only wolf dogs to protect me… My blood is mixed with this mountain, Apsuhlugah Mountain. This is who I am, I am a Crow, from the Sun, the Water, the Wind.
That morning the poet in him so easily emerged on the stony bank, even as he pointed the way when I thought it was I who was chosing the spot and the view through the lens. Yet Henry Real Bird’s poetry is a lens—through which to see, to realize the merging of things, that the natural elements we experience exist for a reason, placed before us by the Creator as tools with which to understand ourselves and our place in the world, and to face the sunrise where tomorrow is from.