I was thinking recently about poet laureates, and wondering what it really means to be one. In 14th-century England, back in Chaucer's day, the poet laureate entertained the royal court for an annual allowance of wine. The U.S. poet laureate receives $35,000 a year and is expected to promote poetry. But what do you do as the Montana poet laureate?
As it turns out, it's an unpaid honor, and one that was only created in 2005, with three laureates crowned so far. Henry Real Bird is the current Montana poet laureate, and he's about to relinquish his position in a month. A Crow American Indian who lives in the Wolf Teeth Mountains, he's a surprising character—and strangely suited to the job. This cowboy poet has filled five poetry collections and 12 children's books, and been included in six anthologies. Last summer he traveled 415 miles on horseback to pass out books of poetry in rural towns.
When I call Real Bird to ask what it's like being Montana's poet laureate, he calls me back from the town of Gary Owen, 32 miles from the ranch where he raises bucking horses for rodeos. He's in town getting his mail. It turns out a poet laureate like Real Bird has to deal with everyday disasters like the rest of us; he's in the midst of cleaning up his flooded land. With patience, he tells me about his horseback journey, ranch life, the dying Crow language, and living in the now.
Indy: What are you tasked to do as Montana's poet laureate?
Real Bird: Oh! Well, to spread poetry throughout Montana and encourage it—from the ones that aren't yet born to the old folks sittin' and staring in space.
Indy: Last summer you rode 415 miles by horseback through Montana and part of North Dakota. Why?
Real Bird: Because nobody else can do it. I've ridden horses all my life, and when I became this poet laureate I wanted to go ride with my people, the Hidatsa, over on the Missouri River, to stand in the earth lodge and then to go through Northeast Montana—the arctic circle of Montana—and talk with people and give them books of poetry from horseback.
Indy: What was the most surprising part of that?
Real Bird: The surprise was how the people took care of me and my horses. This old lady over in Fort Belknap didn't have any money but she brought over Bannock bread and made elk tenderloin. She cooked that in lemon salt and seasoned it just right to where it was the best piece of meat I've ever had. People just offered to take my horses and feed them and water them—the good side of the people in America.
Indy: That sounds amazing.
Real Bird: Yeah! You wouldn't believe it! On the Hi-Line you have motorcycle riders and bicycle riders going from Seattle to New York...To eat Juneberries right along the side of the road in North Dakota and to pick flowers and ride from patches of sweet sage to sweet sage, to be alone on the Missouri river for 10 days and the Milk River for another close to 10 days too, you know, it was unbelievable. At the end, I gave out 300 of my children's books to the children at the youth powwow they had in Rocky Boy. My bucking horses were bucking there too, and that's where I hooked up with them and brought my two horses back home.
Indy: What have you done since that ride?
Real Bird: They wanted me to come to Fort Peck College and the grade school at Wolf Point—places that I'd been and wanted me back. I went over there in blizzards, 15 below. There was snow piled up about three feet. Cold, you know. I just enjoyed that: The risk and the danger of driving on a sheer bed of ice from Glendive clear on past Circle to Wolf Point. Amazing! I was only going 10 or 15 miles per hour. I wasn't going to do if it was too dangerous, but there was nobody on the road. To be able to go to these little schools is nice.
Indy: What is it about poetry that you love?
Real Bird: I used to have a psychiatrist and he would say, "Henry, it's cleaning your heart out when you write about that emotion." Like, today, I saw the adult child of an alcoholic standing on the road with her child. The heartache you see, and then the joy and everything else. When you get to be this old—I'm going to be 63—I want to document the past like a museum and move on from there.
Indy: What is your daily life like?
Real Bird: I just take care of 20 cats and a dog. And then I raise bucking horses, and my riding horses and everything else. The dream is still alive of being out there and having the best bucking horse that anyone can produce...that's what I'm after. I get other horses and gentle them down, get them ready to work at the rodeo. I take care of my grandkids, put them on safe horses. And so my life is just around horses.
Indy: The Crow language is important to you. Is the younger generation learning it?
Real Bird: No, no, no! We have to change the alphabet first before we can go anywhere. In 1968 there were 86 percent Crow speakers. In this day and age we're learning to read and write in English, and so to learn another alphabet is proving to be detrimental. From that 86 percent in 1968 it's dwindled down to 1 percent over in Crow Agency. In 1954 when I went to Crow Agency grade school, there were 100 percent Crow Indian speakers.
Indy: What are you focused on now?
Real Bird: I'm putting on this battle of Little Bighorn, the Indian version, on July 24, 25, and 26 on the actual site. I own the land where Custer tried to cross the Little Bighorn River and so I just decided to do this. I'm struggling now with the flood that wiped out my stage, but that's where I've been getting things ready.
Indy: What about your writing?
Real Bird: I'm putting together legends of the Crow and pulling them out into the now-time. As far as poetry goes, it's with me every day. I don't just sit there, I live, and then things come by and I see them. That's what I do: I hang around in the wind. My whole life is about dreaming. Yesterday I spent about two hours looking for rocks with holes in them, new rocks that the flood brought up from the river—and I found one. I don't have retirement or anything, but I've never lived for tomorrow. I'm just living today for the way it is, and when the snow is all gone from the mountain we start all over again.