Les Davis had a fascination with paleoindians, or the first Montanans. For nearly the last fifty years of his life he trapsed the vast and arid landscapes of the Big Sky country imagining the early peoples who lived and died on the land. He was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge on the subject, a thick erudite skin wrapped around a soft and chewy nugget of gentle humanity.
Being a native Montanan to the core, Les had a knack for commiserating with landowners who sat on treasure troves of artifacts including spear tips, arrow points, stone knives, scrappers and hammers, and bone sewing awls, the tools of survival for generations of Montanans. He would befriend the ranchers and farmers and convey the importance of preserving the clues of the past through systematic excavations of native campsites and habitats.
Then, with a grant from one organization or another, he would assemble crews of young and strong students to spend long summer weeks under the scorching Montana sun to meticulously scrape and delicately brush grids of paleoindian campsites and tool factories. As the days went on, the student enthusiasts would become bronzed and muscled in the image of those whos countenances they pursued. His team would map and catalog each artifact like a thousand pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Later, he would write it up and publish - all in the name of someday assembling the puzzle into a coherent picture of what life was like for those who came before.
Early and Professional Life
Les had a very humble start to life in Cutbank, Montana, near the Canadian border. He was born to Wilma and Beryl Davis on Dec 7, 1935. His dad, Beryl, moved the family to Kevin so he could work in the oil refineries there. It was an austere post-depression existence where the family lived "west of the tracks," as Les described it, in a tarpaper shack, "where my best friends were scarce library books and second-hand comic books." It's been said he was "fascinated by rattlesnakes, pronghorns, bobcats and all the creatures of the wild rimrock country." Later the family moved back to Cutbank where Les attended elementary and High School. He sang in the school choir and was editor of the yearbook. In the summers, he worked on his grandfather's farm in Shelby where he grew to love the land. He was to be the frst of his family to attend college.
Though his initial interest was in chemical engineering, he soon found the work oppresive. "In engineering," he said, "I felt I was being trained to be an automaton and I don't have that kind of mind. An english teacher sparked his interest in anthropology which led to an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Montana in 1965, and a Ph.D. in North American Archaeology at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada in 1972. He went on to become a Professor of Anthropology at Montana State University, and Curator of Anthropology and Ethnology at the Museum of the Rockies. He taught for 37 years and along the way inspired many students and associates.
He was prolific in field work and publishing, receiving many awards over the years. Les probably knew more about the paleoindians of Montana as an academic than anyone. But he also had a mission to convey his knowledge to the general public through popular articles, films and presentations. "I am a professional humanist," he once said, "I see the humanities and arts going together. They're what makes us human. They're not secondary to life. Without the humanities and art, you might as well be an automaton." In 2011, the Montana Archaeological Society honored Les with a Lifetime Achievement Award, the only one they've ever given! In April of 2012, he was honored by Humanities Montana as a Humanities Hero. "Humanities is how we appreciate, how we understand one another - how we accept one another, how we enjoy one another," he mused, "It's absolutely fundamental for human beings co-existing on this crazy planet."
My Experiences With Les
When I first met Les, I was doing graduate work in geology at Montana State University. Being a lifelong photographer and documentarian, I decided to add a minor in Film and Television. I became fascinated with the Sheepeater Indians of Yellowstone and decided to do my Senior Film on the Sheepeaters. It wasn't a far reach to tap into the knowledge of Les Davis to learn all I could about the only Indians who made their home in Yellowstone. At that time, Les was a Professor of Anthropology at Montana State University and the Curator of Anthropology and Ethnology at the Museum of the Rockies. He was so generous with his time and knowledge and became a significant part of my film The Sheepeaters: Keepers of the Past. Our relationship grew from there and we went on to create a number of videos depicting the lifestyles of paleoamericans in Montana.
In the early 90s, Les and his crew excavated an amazing 9400 year old site in southwest Montana at Barton Gulch on a tributary of the Ruby River. He had unearthed an amazing complex of 37 family hearths with large central fire pits and smaller pits surrounding them. In the pits they found evidence of various animals including cottontail rabbit, hare, mink, porcupine, and deer. They also uncovered an impressive number of tools including stone knives, flake tools, end scrapers, abrading stones and points, and a rich array of edible plant species in the fire pits including charred seeds, stems, spines and other elements. From these rich and exciting findings was born Les' idea for the film, People of the Hearth: Paleoindians of the Northern Rockies, produced for the Museum of the Rockies. We spent several days shooting live re-creations of the hearths and interpretations of how those distant Montana residents might have used the hearths to cook their food. Acquiring a road-killed deer from the Montana Fish and Game Department, we staged an atlatl hunt and used stone knives and scrapers to butcher the deer and prepare the hide for tanning.
Author's Note: Les Davis was a good friend and associate. I was shocked to hear of his passing in October of 2014. I knew he had not been well, but his unbridled enthusiasm would see him through to complete the projects we had been working on for many years. Unfortunately, this was not to be. But we had made much progress, and, in the coming months and years, his work will come to life in video, imagery and Les' own words in the pages of ThisIsBozeman.com and soon to be launched ThisIsYellowstone.com.