COMING DAY. A favorite among Fort Belknap Indians is Coming Day, who in 1937 was more than eighty years old and still maintained his reputation for fearlessness. In his prime he rode joyously in the white man’s “devil-bug,” that sputtered and smoked and traveled like the wind without the use of ponies. In August 1936, he boarded the white man’s “thunder bird” during the reservation fair and waved gaily to his quaking comrades. When the plane was at an altitude of several thousand feet he exhorted the pilot in the Gros Ventre tongue to go higher. “As yet,” he shouted scornfully, “we are not to the height where flies the common magpie!”
Montana: A State Guide Book, Works Progress Administration Guide Book Series (1939)
Fort Belknap sat on the lower lands of Montana, but the magpie inhabits the mountain, higher in elevation than the fort. Coming Day spoke to that fact and more. I have seen magpies at 9,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristos of New Mexico as I laboriously put one foot in front of the other, daring to the climb the Truchas Peaks. The magpie is a creature of nature, the plane an invention of man, each finding ways to cut through air and soar. Both bird and plane are worthy of praise, but for me and probably for Coming Day, the magpie will always fly higher.
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Flying on an extended world vacation in the 1960s, Georgia O’Keeffe painted Sky Above Clouds IV after she returned to the United States. It is her largest painting (8 x 24 feet) and is at the Art Institute of Chicago. When I flew to France in 1996, I saw ice floes, glaringly-white, in the far North Atlantic that looked like clouds on the ocean, reminding me of O’Keeffe’s painting and stripes of white on magpie wings.
See also Archie Hobson (ed.), Remembering America: A Sampler of the WPA American Guide Series, New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
In this quote are themes worthy of extended commentary — technology collides with Native American interpretation, native language re-describes new technology in colloquialisms and the valuable capture of local color in the American Guide Book Series by writers in the 1930s.
The published Montana guide book did not have a description of the plane that carried Coming Day into the sky, but the Waco biplane inserted below would have been a possible aircraft since the Waco was being built in the 1920s, a decade before the Gros Ventre fair of 1936.