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  • Louisa Willcox

My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power

She could not be dead, I thought, she had survived so much – blizzards at the Standing Rock pipeline protest, her public breakdown, and even flying in the stratosphere as Lois Lane in the movie Superman. Yes, she was a celebrity – but I saw Margie simply as my friend. I had seen her just days before her death on May 13, and often walked her Pyrenees dog Jack, a giant next to the diminutive Margie, when she was no longer able to. But she is gone. And the world is a smaller place for it.

At the family memorial a few weeks ago, Jack recognized me, laying his huge slobbering jaw briefly on my lap. A woman led him past as he served as a sort of maître d' of a sad, strange affair involving several hundred people who knew and cared about Margie.

At the request of Margie’s daughter Maggie, some of us donned the Liberty Belle costumes we had worn in the Livingston 4th of July Parade during 2009 – Margie’s idea of course. Backed up by a truck with loud speakers blaring 60’s rock and roll music (think Aretha's R-E-S-P-E-C-T), we danced down Main Street and all over town. Each of us made a sash that articulated our favorite cause. Mine? Save Bears. Margie’s? Regulate Banks. We won second place.

The amazing thing was that after nine years, some of us could still find our costumes and sashes.

I never thought of Margie as a star, despite being reminded of that fact every time I walked into her house, where her many book shelves were lined with pictures in lovely silver frames: Margie and Jesse Jackson (both with fists in the air), Margie and Pierre Trudeau (former Prime Minister of Canada and one of her many lovers), Margie and Richard Pryor (another lover), not to mention Margie on horseback, and Margie with her baby daughter Maggie. But whatever Margie was focused on at the moment – the Bernie Sanders campaign, the corrupt banks, Keystone XL pipeline – was the topic of discussion that day, usually so intense that I never gave a thought to her numerous roles in movies, most that I still have never seen.

The best education I ever got about certain issues, like some rare nasty details of the US invasion of Iraq, I got on Margie’s living room couch. Often Margie had been up multiple nights doing online research – a tad manic, perhaps, but in retrospect, not unlike the spirit of the dogged reporter, Lois Lane.

For the Love of Dogs

Our conversations were never one sided, as we shared an outrage about the degradation of our planet and treatment of the under-privileged, the under-dog, as well as dogs – stray dogs, abused dogs or animals of any species. We were both nuts about dogs (ours were, of course, rescues), as well as the Wilderness – perhaps the major reason we both wound up, and stayed, in Montana. So, it was natural for us to bitch about the state of the world while walking our beloved canines in the North Absaroka Mountains, one of the largest remaining Wilderness areas in the lower-48 states.

Margie would frequently show up at our house, announced only by the cacophony of barks and yelps emanating from her dog-trashed SUV. Time for a walk in the Wilderness, which lay just a few miles from our place. Sometimes we got skunked by weather, but Margie was tough – and she loved the snow and cold. It took a lot to turn her around – with anything, not just a stroll in the woods.

Some adventures were more than we bargained for, like the time when a dog accompanying a young couple attacked her dog Hank. When Margie started to intervene -- a dangerous move, but typical Margie -- my husband David picked up the aggressor by his back and threw him into the brush. “Don’t you touch my dog,” growled the young, arrogant owner, prompting David to respond with a glare and words that made the girlfriend shrink, then turn around, owner and dog in tow.

But Margie had eyes only for Hank, a hound she had rescued from an abusive home, whose shredded ear left a trail of blood all the way back to, and inside, Margie’s car.

As Hank was being stitched up by the local vet, Margie remarked how our little valley and the Wilderness was changing for the worse. I am glad she was not able to get up here this spring to see what “worse” now looks like. It would break a heart that had suffered too much already.

When her pack that included Hank, Sally and Pierre (named for her Pierre Trudeau) had died, Margie drove to South Dakota to adopt a tiny fluffy white Pyrenees puppy who grew into a stolid beast the size of a bear. She was delighted when I told her that both bears and dogs are, in fact, descended from “bear dogs” that lived for 44 million years during the Early Miocene in Asia and North America. At 220 to 1500 pounds (as much as 15 times the size of Jack -- Margie was so excited about that fact), they were carnivorous bad-asses, especially since they probably hunted in packs. Margie loved all this, not just because Jack was so bear-like, or because she dearly loved bears (and wolves and bison, and indeed, all wild creatures), but because she herself wanted to go out being eaten by a bear. But, as fate would have it, that did not happen.

Meeting Margie

I cannot remember the first time I met Margie. She was a fixture of the Livingston landscape the entire time I have lived here, which is nearly 30 years. She was a character who most everyone said they knew, even if it was only to recognize her and wave as she barged around town on her old bike.

I took an instant liking to Margie, because she was smart, outrageously funny and brutally honest – even about the depths of her mental illness. We shared a lot besides dogs and Wilderness -- a love of politics and books (only rarely had I read a good book she had not perused already), as well as a responsibility to leave the world a better place than we found it. We also shared Quaker roots: it was the Quakers who coined the term “Speak Truth to Power,” which was the title of a 1955 publication that explored alternatives to violence (still remarkably relevant) and articulated a conviction that was/is embedded in our bones.

But unlike me, who spent over 30 years seeking change by working for established conservation groups, Margie did not typically join organizations. She tended to start them. One was Montana Women For (insert any progressive cause you choose). Classic Margie, taking inclusivity to the next level.

It was especially appropriate for Montana Women For to sponsor, last week, a lovely celebration of Margie, with pictures of her in all stages of her life, grinning in the midst of every protest (lots of them), as well as Indian drummers (two were old friends) and singer Frances Stewart with her husband Bob Nell on piano—some of her favorite local musicians. And then there was story after story, many hilarious, about adventures with Margie.

Despite all the public speaking I have done in my life, I couldn’t help choking up – like all the other women who shared something poignant. We were a sisterhood drawn to a flame, which, extinguished, left a feeling of ashen emptiness. I don’t think I was the only one who felt as if it was not just Margie who had died, but the beating heart of the community.

Margie, My Story Coach

I have long been interested in telling ancient stories about people and animals, mostly to kids. Needless-to-say, I am an utter amateur. But after seeing Margie’s magical performance in Vagina Monologues -- she was so much more electrifying live than on celluloid -- I somehow screwed up my courage to ask her to coach me.

Some of my stories were complicated, involving multiple characters and subplots. Nervous to be performing in front of a master, I would go to her living room, with her three dogs sprawled around her feet, inhale, and rehearse. She was unerring with her suggestions. “No, you can’t do those accents, forget it…” Or: “The bear voice has to come from way, way down your gut, like this…” Or: “What’s up with this duke? If you really know his backstory and emotional state, you can start to feel where it is in your body – then move and speak from that place.”

My audiences may not notice the improvements, and her dogs slept through it all. But Margie improved my craft and how I think about story, which can –- as she and I believe --help transform our world.

Of Witches and Mental Health

After her publicized psychotic break of 1996, Margie got serious about understanding mental health and addressing her bipolar condition without the use of conventional drugs, which she said made her feel like she had saran wrap around her brain.

Over the years, I got a grad level course on orthomolecular medicine from Margie. Her refrigerator was crammed with bottles of amino acids and vitamins, but not food. (She didn’t cook much). She showed me the thick text books that she relied on, underlined and tabbed. For many years, with the personal aid of the pioneer of orthomolecular medicine, Dr. Abram Hoffer, Margie’s symptoms greatly improved.

Margie knew well what celebrity status could do for a cause, and she deliberately became a public spokesperson for an alternative, more humane approach to mental health than drugging people and/or locking them up. She was a regular keynote speaker at the meetings of the Institute for Orthomolecular Medicine, which was attended mostly by doctors.

One time, prior to a trip to Vancouver to speak at the society’s annual meeting, Margie invited David and me to her house, because she knew that David had a killer talk on the Early Modern Witch Craze in Europe. He had developed this talk for a policy class at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where he had a teaching appointment, and found it a popular hit among students. (I mean, who is not captivated by witches?) I wondered why she wanted to hear David’s talk right then, and what witches had to do with orthomolecular medicine.

Hunched over her dinner table and David’s computer, Margie jumped right in with questions, often anticipating where David was going. “I was just getting to that,” David remarked to Margie at numerous junctures. He has rarely had a student pull the strands together so quickly.

But in this case, there are many parallels between how we treat the mentally ill and how in the Early Modern period men tended to treat women who were then becoming increasingly economically independent. Such women, many involved in childbirth and medicine, stood at the edge of a male-dominated society at a time of food shortages (driven by climate in the form of the Little Ice Age), the aftermath of the plague, and when “terror entrepreneurs” employed by priests scoured the landscape to keep a grip on power through fear. On behalf of the church, these terror entrepreneurs would go into communities where they would ferret out the names of those who were “different,” plant the seeds of suspicion, and then get citizens to rat them out as “witches.”

The communities were tinder, under stress, and the entrepreneurs lit the match of rage and intolerance. Thousands of women (and a few men) were burned at the stake or drowned after the verdict of “witch.”

Sound familiar? But at least today we don’t actually burn the “witches” using faggots. Instead we burn them less directly, with a certain sinister subtly, including drugging them silly or institutionalizing them.

Needless-to-say, Margie returned from the conference triumphant, her talk a grand success. I wish someone had filmed it, as her interweaving the witch craze with her experiences of conventional approaches to mental health would be fascinating. She never did tell me exactly what she said, and I often thought I would get her to talk more about these connections… sometime.

Arrested at the White House – Margie Elevates the Fight Against Keystone XL Pipeline

Despite her disregard for most organizations, Margie did like a few groups – especially, which is devoted to combating climate change and the continued use of fossil fuels. The Keystone XL pipeline, which is planned to connect the Alberta tarsands to Texas oil refineries, enraged her. When planned a protest involving civil disobedience in front of the White House, Margie jumped at the chance to be part of it.

I was part of the march, along with other representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council in DC, amidst a sea of people from all over the country, many with extravagant costumes and signs. But I lacked the nerve to join Margie as she stood in front of the Obama White House to be arrested in a direct action. I will, however, never forget watching her -- radiant as Margie typically was while doing something really brave -- with her friend and fellow Canadian, actress Tantoo Cardinal, as they cheerfully headed off to confront the cops. Neither were spring chickens. But both showed a depth of courage that made me, their junior, feel the true chicken of the bunch.

Margie, who was born in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, and Tantoo, who hails from Fort McMurray in the heart of the hell that is industrial tarsands development, know too well the horrific impacts of fossil fuel extraction. For them, climate change was and is not an esoteric topic. It has been wrecking their beloved wild country and further devastating cultures that had survived and flourished there for thousands of years.

Undeterred by an uncomfortable night in jail, Margie took on her next pipeline protest at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Here she spent something like five months, staying long after the Standing Rock Tribal government and then the Trump administration had ordered the evacuation of the encampment — forcing protesters to leave in severe blizzards that closed roads and threatened lives.

School House Rock -- at Standing Rock

Margie always wanted to be an Indian, and from her childhood in Yellowknife, where Native people far outnumbered nonnatives at the time, she assumed she had Indian blood. Why else did she so love to hang out with Indian kids – and Native people throughout her life? Why was she so strongly drawn to people like Russell Means, an Oglala Lakota leader of the American Indian Movement, with whom she had one of her many affairs? But only at Standing Rock, where an encampment involving over 5,000 people -- mostly Indian -- protested the Dakota Access Pipeline, did Margie discover some new depths to her connections.

Despite the enormous encampment of sprawling tents, tepees, and yurts at Standing Rock, I found it remarkably easy to find Margie. By the time I arrived, with my stepson, Sky, in shock over Trump’s election, Margie had long been a fixture there. Someone literally escorted me to her tent, so that I would not get lost. Next to her shabby army tent was a newly constructed yurt, where I found Margie and an Indian teacher organizing books. This was the new Standing Rock school – all kids and adults welcome. Margie chatted with some children, as happy as I have ever seen her, always beautiful, but looking 10 years younger than during our last visit in Montana.

Margie was going through newly donated books to make sure that none preached colonial viewpoints. “You know, 1491 [1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus] should be part of every native kid’s reading,” she said, flipping through the stack. I said that I thought that was a pretty hefty read for kids. “But, of course, there is a kids’ version of it.” Duh.

Sky and I enjoyed late Indian summer weather, with blue skies over golden grass, and saw no action, other than Veterans marching on Veterans day carrying an American flag to the rhythm of huge drums. Many wore headdresses. A number were grey and stooped. The police, who were on every hillside surrounding the camp, did not have the nerve to arrest or harass Veterans. Who knows if they knew that native people have proportionally higher representation in the armed services than any other demographic group in the US—including the white males who claim most of the credit in our military and culture.

Margie introduced me to a number of her friends. I saw her explode with joy when some Dene women from the Northwest Territories arrived – sisters in the cause, from her homeland, albeit a tad tired after days on the road. But happy and excited.

Some of Margie’s friends were nervous when they saw my press pass (care of Counter Punch -- and speaking of this great outfit, here is an important and insightful piece they published, by Margie, on the Hillary Clinton campaign). I was there to record interviews for some podcasts. But after the violence of Labor Day, when protesters were attacked by guard dogs and hit with mace, and an October clash with police who sprayed pepper spray -- even into the eyes of protesters -- the FBI had been increasingly infiltrating the camp. No one seemed to know who to trust.

Margie and her friends said the place seemed different, less of the community that it had been. She criticized the shift in emphasis of the camp's leaders to more prayer as a solution, something she just did not believe in for what was essentially a political cause, no matter how honorable the religion. Change, she maintained, came only with relentless political pressure, and often direct action. And without a good education, there was no hope for the future.

Margie was headed back to Montana soon for another big haul of 1000 or so books – donated by her friend, author Sherman Alexie, among many others. And she wanted to bring back Jack, who would be by her side and warm her till the freezing, bitter end. Before I left, I gave her my sleeping bag and sleeping pad when I saw the ratty shape of hers.

One big boost for Margie was her discovery that Kidder County, where the reservation lies, was named after a missionary Kidder, who was, she discovered, a relation. He had married a Sioux woman and fathered numerous children. Kidders proliferated (and still do) on the reservation. Margie delighted in dinners with households full of Kidders who are descended from him. “I am part Indian after all, I knew it!” she exclaimed, even though she was not descended from the Dakota Kidder lineage. Close enough, I say. She was an Indian in spirit, and she paid her dues defending their sovereign rights.

I saw Margie between trips, and helped her with her books, but did not see her again till sometime around Christmas of 2016. Then, she had a terrifying cough and grey skin, nothing like the Margie of a few months before. A handsome young man from New Hampshire – Jeff I think his name was – had driven her rig, with Jack, back from Standing Rock, fearful that she might die there. With the help of antibiotics, her health improved, but she did not bring Jack up our valley much after that.

Life After Standing Rock

What kept Margie going back to Standing Rock was the hope she felt and the connections with people she befriended there. In an interview with her (coming soon on Counter Punch Radio) after her last trip, she said: “I really felt that I was needed there.” In our conversations, she returned again and again to the powerful magic she felt.

Gazing out her window towards the snowy Absaroka peaks, she asked: “Can the wisdom of love beat the most wealthy, powerful individuals… who have coins for eyes, and who basically own our government?” Despite the tragic ending of the protest and ultimately the litigation challenging the pipeline, her question is still as pertinent as ever.

After Standing Rock, Margie’s characteristic toughness waned. Her back pain and arthritis worsened, almost certainly exacerbated by so many nights in a tent and subzero temperatures. Her determined walk turned into a hobble, and she started falling more. And she was, more than ever, reluctant to see doctors. While I had recently undergone successful back surgery, I could not persuade her to explore that option.

Margie had gotten herself off all medications, including pain pills, cold turkey, just a couple years ago – ignoring alarms from me and other friends: “Margie, you could kill yourself doing this!” But her pain became unmanageable and, without surgery, pain meds combined with the help of a local naturopathic doctor and message therapist became her mainstays.

Yes, Margie still was up on all the latest news, especially in the US and Canada, where she referred to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “just a boy – well I babysat him, you know,” and “not the smartest one in the family” – comparing Justin to his brother, Sasha, a noted journalist and author. But the news, made worse by the daily shocking insults of the Trump administration, no longer gave her the energy and indignation that had fueled her in the past.

While the world loved Margie, the star, she had at the end, only a few devoted friends. They were almost all grey-haired women like myself, who came to her home regularly with food or to walk Jack, or just to visit. Recurring mental health episodes drove many away – especially the guys with whom she had once been close (all but her beloved brother John) – something that I find understandable, but unforgivable, for now.

The point, though, is that Margie’s story could be any of ours. We live in a society that does not care about the aged or the mentally ill – despite the fact that millions of people have mental health issues, and all of us are going to die. And the Trump administration’s evisceration of our health care system – not to mention our whole system of governance – is abominable.

Margie’s story raises other questions: how can we gracefully age in a culture that lionizes youth and feeds those who ail into the maw of an industrialized, inhumane medical system? How can we come off the high of vital careers devoted to things we believe in, into the twilight and struggles of diminished physical and cognitive ability? How do we find meaning, worth, connection, and richness at the end of life and in the travails of pain? I know Margie is far from alone in struggling with these issues.

In the US, we often joke that Canada has given us their best rock stars, comedians and hockey players. But in giving us Margie Kidder, they gave us a hero for the underdog, a warrior for justice, an outrageous comic, and an inspiration for all to make this world a better place. Rest in Peace, Margie. We will keep up the fight.

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