Recently I devoured a short book of nonfiction with a very odd title: The Committee for the Reburial of Liver-Eating Johnston: Memoirs of a Dyslexic Teacher, by Tri Robinson. It's a memoir, and it revolves around a teacher, his highly motivated seventh-graders, and the remains of a long-dead "Mountain Man."
That man is John "Liver-Eating" Johnson, sometimes spelled Johnston, who was portrayed by Robert Redford in the classic film Jeremiah Johnson. I couldn't put the book down, and despite the brief time I spent with its 128 pages, the story has yet to release me from its grip.
The audacious storyline is accompanied by a commentary on our educational system as it is today. Its message is this: Perceptive and imaginative teachers can turn lives around. Standardized tests have their place, but teachers, administrators and caring citizens need to take charge of our educational system.
In 1973, Robinson tells us, he was a new teacher in a small California town. Nervously facing his seventh-graders, he told them he was going to try to run a different kind of class. Instead of relying completely on dry, standardized textbooks, he said he'd also try to deliver "living history" lessons. To do that, he began coming to class dressed up as various characters from U.S. history, occasionally bringing along three-dimensional illustrations, such as his Bowie knife and muzzle-loading rifle.
Both made it into the classroom — try that nowadays.
One of his lessons focused on the story of the man called John "Liver-Eating" Johnston, who roamed the wilderness alone until a local Flathead tribal chief, concerned about his loneliness, gave him an Indian wife. After Indians murdered his wife and unborn child, Johnston blamed the tragedy on the Crow Indian Nation, launching a vendetta that lasted decades and gave him his moniker — he was said to eat the livers of the Crow Indians he killed for revenge.
Finally, he buried the proverbial hatchet and made peace with the Crow. Robinson ended the lesson with the story of Johnston's death and burial at a veterans cemetery, next to what is now a busy freeway in Los Angeles. When they heard this, Robinson's 25 students became outraged. This was an injustice, they said; they felt he should have been buried in the Absaroka country of Wyoming that he loved.
The class launched a drive to have Johnston's remains exhumed and reburied, a mission that took the rest of the school year, reached the highest levels of the U.S. State Department, and was seized upon by newspapers and television nationwide. After Jeremiah Johnson became a huge hit in movie theaters, a Montana town even resorted to subterfuge in an attempt to whisk away Johnston's remains, rather than see him buried in Wyoming. When Johnston was at last reburied in Cody, Robert Redford flew in with his son to pay tribute.
In 2000, by sheer accident, I found myself at Johnston's gravesite during a visit to Cody, where I stumbled across the Trail Town Mountain Man Cemetery. I remembered the reburial ruckus but had forgotten where he'd ended up. A bronze statue of Johnston on horseback stood proudly above the resting places of all the mountain men buried there. Preserved 19th-century buildings lined the dusty street of Trail Town, next to the cemetery.
Yes, he ended up in the right place. And the students who fought to have him buried there were profoundly changed by their experience. The group remains connected today, 40-plus years after the events Robinson described took place.
Now, as the world unfurls around me each day, I find myself measuring its progress, or lack thereof, against the events set in motion by a group of seventh-graders back in 1973. I think of the experience of many students in school nowadays. I see them walk through metal detectors into crowded classrooms where some spend much of the day staring into computers. I see their overworked and underpaid teachers focusing on test scores; they have no choice, if they want to keep their jobs.
I visualize scenes of Western history coming vividly alive from the book I just read, and I think: There's a better way.
Crista Worthy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org) She is a writer and pilot who lives in Idaho.