One last mountain journey with Sitting Wind
COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Bob Bartlett and I sipped our coffee slowly, pensively. A good friend was to be buried the next day, and Bob was reminiscing over the short few months in which he had come to know the Morley artist, actor, chief and genial human being.
Frank Kaquitts, "Sitting Wind," passed away November 19 at the age of 77. When the three Stoney Nakoda First Nations at Morley were united briefly into one political unit in the mid-1970s, Frank was their Grand Chief. When Paul Newman needed a co-star for the Robert Altman film, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Frank played Sitting Bull. And when Bob wanted to ask Frank for a favour, well . . .
Bob, retired, moved to Cochrane from Ontario a little over two years ago. He wanted a taste of the West, and that's exactly what he got this past summer when he set out to get Frank's autograph on a copy of The Song and the Silence, Peter Jonker's award-winning 1988 biography of Sitting Wind.
A friend advised Bob to go out to the mountain-embraced west end of the reserve and knock on Frank's door.
"When I knocked on the door, his daughter answered and called Frank," Bob said. "When he appeared, he was smiling as if we had known each other for years."
Thus began a friendship in which the legendary chief gave Bob a taste of the West beyond anything he could have hoped for.
"We talked about good times and bad times," Bob said, including Frank's memories of the earliest times at Banff Indian Days, visions he had had, his love and pride for his family.
One time when Bob dropped by, he was surprised to find Frank in a most unlikely position for someone who only 12 years earlier had been severely injured when struck by a car.
"I knocked on the door and was told that he was around the back working on the truck and to go around to speak to him," Bob said. "When I reached the backyard, I saw a pair of legs protruding from under a pickup truck. As I walked up to the truck, he noticed me and with the same welcoming smile, said, 'Oh, hi! It's nice to see you again.'"
On another occasion, Bob picked Frank up for a drive down the Kananaskis. They loaded up and headed south on Highway 40, into the mountains.
"As we started our drive, my lesson in history began," Bob said. "Frank pointed to the west across a flat area and told me that Sitting Bull had once camped there on one of his journeys. A little further along, he pointed east to some large hills and said that his people used to use them as lookouts where they could spot anyone coming at least a day away.
"As we drove further along, I noticed that Frank was quiet for periods of time, savouring the memories, but looking at and recording all the scenery. Every once and a while he would excitedly point out that the line heading up the side of the mountain was an old Indian trail that he had traveled years ago. Also, that this mountain or that was a place he had gone by horse when he was younger.
"I was getting a history lesson from Frank's memory trek through these mountains. What a treasure for me and a trip in the past for him.
"A couple of times he looked over at me smiling and said, "What a beautiful drive," and that he thought he would never see this place again. His pleasure was my treat.
"We stopped a few times to look for medicine. We didn't find any he wanted. But he pointed out other small plants that were helpful for other types of medicinal needs. I felt very honoured to have that information pointed out to me so openly and without hesitation. I was getting a lesson that very few others like myself might ever receive."
Over the next weeks, Bob and Frank took other trips together into the mountains. When Frank suffered a stroke in October, Bob visited his friend often in the hospital, though Frank's voice was now silent.
Back at the coffee shop, Bob put his cup down and spoke softly across the table to me: "It is comforting to think that, when our journey on Mother Earth comes to an end and we cross over, there will be a friend to greet us with a welcome smile and the words, 'Oh hi, it's good to see you; come on in.'"
© 2002 Warren Harbeck