An Opening In Fort Benton, A Bridge To The Past

149 Opening

I first discovered Fort Benton in 1993, on my way to find Vandallia, my grandmother's second home. I dropped down off the high bench into the Missouri River Canyon for lunch. What a romantic setting, nestled in under the Missouri cliffs--the Levee walk, the old buildings, the Fort, Shep's story and the Old Bridge. I fell in love with Fort Benton.

Then in June of 2005, I was selling my photography at "Art on the Levee." It happened to be the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark coming through Fort Benton.

Fort Benton was alive with activity. It was Friday and I'd only been open for a couple hours. An Indian gentleman entered my booth. He told me that he painted like I photographed. I was certain he was famous. I stuck out my hand to shake his and said, "My name is Nancy Greenfield." He replied, "My name is Algie Piapot," shaking my hand back. My stomach about fell out of its container and my heart jumped into my throat. My pulse raced!

Nervously, I asked, "Are you related to a Chief Piapot?" He answered that his great grandfather was Chief Piapot. Boy, I had a story to tell him. I began to tell him what his great grandfather had done for my great grandfather, and how he and I were connected today.

It was the fall of 1881 when Sam Spencer of Sun River gave my great grandfather his first job in Montana. It was to watch Spencer's newly purchased cow camp for the winter, near where the Marias meets the Missouri, Decision Point. He hired my great grandfather and three other men. For extra money they were given sixty three head of horses to break. They would get paid five bucks for each.

Supplies were low and it was now October so my great grandfather rode into Fort Benton to stock up. While there he read an article by Granville Stuart that said the Indians were not coming down from north of the hate line, the 49th parallel to hunt for game. Stuart said there wasn't enough game for that and what the Indians were actually doing was coming down for whiskey and horse thieving. The Indians were starving. This worried my great grandfather. He finished buying supplies and hurried back.

He had a plan. He told the other men that they were going to sleep outside and that he and the three best horses would sleep in the cabin. On the second night of doing this, the 60 horses outside were stolen.

Knowing that his reputation was at stake--horses were worth more than men--my great grandfather and one of the other men tracked the stolen horses into Canada, following the Whoop Up Trail, and then into the Cypress Hills. They got caught in a blizzard and almost died. A buffalo carcass became their shelter and saved their lives. At Fort Walsh, Captain McIllray gave them an interpreter and told them Chief Piapot probably had their horses. When they rode over the horizon to meet with Chief Piapot, they saw my great grandfather's beloved horse, Pedro, and the others too.

Great Grandfather spent three days talking to the chief. Finally, he made headway. He reasoned that it was just plain wrong to steal, and that yes, he was sorry for all the dead buffalo, but he was not one of those men who were killing buffalo for sport and making a profit off the hides. Chief Piapot gave my great grandfather his horses back. This trip took a total of seven weeks, in the midst of winter.

Chief Piapot was an honorable man. I was blessed to meet his descendant and be able to tell him this story. This is how my day started in Fort Benton--rather divinely inspired!

After the day of selling was over I told myself that the evening was mine. I have spent my life doing for others, but that night was different. That night I said to the universe, "Whatever you have in store for me, I am open to it. I don't have to be responsible for my employees, my family or anyone." It was an adventure. I felt free to be me in this place of history. I walked over by the fort and the tipis. I was intrigued by a tipi that had a fire burning inside. I asked if I could go in. "Yes," came the answer.

Inside, there were buffalo hides and skulls lying on the ground. I thought that this must be more like how it really was for the Indians. When I stepped outside again, I was asked if I would like to sleep in my very own tipi. I thought for a minute. Well, I would not do anything like that usually. But then I reminded myself. I am not responsible to any one this evening. What do you really want to do, Nancy? I said, "Yes I would love to." I felt blessed to be given this choice.

Before long I began discussing the Fort's history with a gentleman who has been instrumental in its rebuilding effort. He told me about the mountain men and fur trappers. I have not gone back that far in my historical research; but it opened a door for me to see that there are people who are just as passionate about our shared history, even though our areas of interest and time frames may differ.

Darkness was coming and we were busy talking. The Fort had closed down and I'd never even made it over to go inside. But then a man and woman dressed in mountain man clothes had a key and seemed to be sneaking into the Fort. I asked, "Do you think we can go in there, too?" The man said, "Oh sure, let's go. I'm sure it's ok."

Nine people entered. I was the only one dressed in regular clothes. The fort was lit by a fire burning brilliantly in the massive stone fire place. As we sat in a circle I saw everyone in silhouette with their faces lit by the fire. Where is my camera? I've just stepped back in time. This is incredible, I thought. Then the man who seemed to be the leader (who I found out the next year is actually the fort's tour guide) asked all of us to share where we were in our lives. It became intimate fast. He played music from the 1800's on his guitar and before long I felt like my ancestors were all around me, loving me and urging me on. I have never felt so much love in my life. It was as if they were saying, "Nancy, keep on this photo trail, it is important and you are having too much fun." I believe this happened to me because I allowed myself to be open and to trust. This experience was right up there with giving birth--one of the most blessed things to ever happen to me.

That night, I slept in my own tipi for the first time. When I awoke in the morning I wanted to capture the essence of my experience the previous day. I took a few pictures as I lay there on the ground peering up at the vent where the sun was coming in. It was going to be a glorious blue sky day.

Fort Benton Bridge

What happened to me the night before I will never forget. I learned about allowing myself to receive love and to just let things unfold by trusting and not controlling. With the help of bridging to the past in Fort Benton my heart and mind opened in a way I had no comprehension of. I created Opening, in honor of expanding my concept of God and the universe.