Alan Running Rabbit sits down at a boardroom table, rummages through a plastic bag and pulls out a sheaf of newspapers — Ronald Smith, the Red Deer man on death row in Montana, is on each front page. “There he is... crying like a baby,” says Running Rabbit of one edition in particular, which shows a near full-page picture of Smith wiping a tear away from his eye as he sits in an American courtroom. Then he pulls out a framed 8 x 10 photo, the colours muted with age — it shows a smiling young man. “And that’s my cousin,” he says of the picture of Thomas Running Rabbit Jr.
By now, 30 years after he died a violent death alongside Harvey Madman Jr. in the Montana woods, the horrific circumstances of Thomas Running Rabbit’s last moments are well known — the pair were marched off into the bush by a drug-addled Smith and his accomplice Rodney Munro, and executed — shot for no other reason than that Smith, as the old song goes, wanted to watch them die.
As Alan’s newspaper collection demonstrates, Smith’s subsequent decades-long legal journey — he initially rejected a plea bargain and requested the death penalty, but later changed his mind — has spilled much editorial ink, including a flurry of coverage this spring as Smith’s final appeals for clemency were denied. As if to belabour the point, on the drive out to meet Alan on the Siksika First Nation, a news-bulletin comes across the radio announcing the latest wrinkle — Smith’s now free accomplice Munro (he accepted a plea bargain and was paroled in 1998) making a public plea for mercy for his incarcerated partner in crime.
The fact that there is an Alberta family, the Running Rabbits, who’ve been actively involved in and affected by the case since day one, is probably the least publicized aspect of the story. They took part in the search party for Thomas and Harvey before the bodies were found and, over the course of the last two decades, travelled back and forth from their home in Siksika, southeast of Calgary, to Montana, attending almost every hearing held over Smith’s ultimate fate.
THE RUNNING RABBITS
Alan admits he’s been reluctant to talk to the media, staying mum since he gave an interview many years ago in which he claims his words were later taken out of context.
Yet to this day the anger and frustration he and his family feel every time Smith graces a front page hasn’t diminished. The news, understandably, has focused hard on Smith’s Canadian kin, but Alan wants it known that there’s another family in this country that has been through a greater ordeal. So, he’s come here today to the Blackfoot Crossing interpretive centre ready to talk. Joining him are his daughters Holly and Rose, sisters Joanne Scout and Colleen Two Horns, his brother Wes, and Joanne’s daughters Teshawna and Taryn. Even Rose’s two young kids make an appearance before heading off to play, dressed in their Sunday best, having come straight from first communion.
“It’s hard to talk about it. I don’t like to. But I’m glad someone is noticing,” says Alan. “Every time they talk about it there’s a big picture of [Smith] in the news, and small, little pictures of Tom and Harvey. And a paragraph about this [he holds thumb and forefinger an inch apart]. The rest is about Ronald Smith.”
“It’s like he’s a superstar,” says Rose. Colleen mentions a radio broadcast she heard where the victims were referred to as Harvey Running Rabbit and Thomas Madman — “They didn’t even bother to get the names right.” Later, Joanne flips through a paper and asks, “Where are the pictures of Harvey and Thomas?”
At one point in our discussion, Alan raises the spectre of race. He wonders aloud if Thomas and Harvey were targeted by Smith because they were native.
“They were playing pool in East Glacier and they were going to give them a ride to the next town,” Alan says of Madman and Thomas’ fateful decision to offer Smith and Munro a lift. “They say they wanted to steal [the victim’s] car.... There’s got to be more to it than that.”
As he tries to make sense of the utterly senseless, I ask if he feels that the victims’ race has anything to do with what he sees as their facelessness in contrast to the coverage Smith has received as a potential victim of American justice.
“That’s beside the point,” he says, gesturing at the pile of newsprint. “Just look at the papers. There’s hardly anything about natives in there. There’s nothing about natives — everything is about the outside world.”
THE FACE OF A VICTIM
So who then was Thomas Running Rabbit?
A father of three, for starters. Sibling to two brothers and a sister. Son of Katrina and Thomas Running Rabbit Sr. The American cousin with whom Alan and his family were just beginning to form a relationship when his life was cut short in 1982, at the age of 20.
“We have a large family — 2,500 or more, mostly in Southern Alberta, and in the States. And you didn’t meet most of them,” says Alan of his extended clan, peppered throughout the Blackfoot Confederacy. It was special, he says, that his family had the opportunity to include Thomas in their lives.
“My parents told us that we had relatives in Browning [Montana] — we didn’t know, we were just young kids. But... we started going down and met up with them. We just got started getting to know them.
“Thomas was around our age and, when he’d come up to Canada, we’d hang around with him. When we’d come down there he’d immediately welcome us and bring us all over the place,” adds Joanne. “He was very... I don’t know what word to use.... Hospitable. He welcomed us. I think he treasured... that he had family in Canada, which he probably didn’t know when he was younger. I think he took that and made it really well known in Browning — that he was proud to have family up here.”
Rose can’t help but wonder whether Thomas’ newfound enthusiasm for his Canadian connection played a part in him being friendly with the Wetaskiwin-born Smith in that East Glacier bar. It’s just one of many questions left in the irrevocable silence that followed shortly after Thomas’ last visit north.
“Thomas came up here one summer to work for me — we’re in the plumbing business — just for a week or two before he had to go back to Browning to get ready for college,” recalls Alan. “His dad came and picked him up and they went home. About two weeks later they started phoning us: ‘have you seen him... have you heard from him?’ We never did.”
As they searched and waited, Joanne says that the family didn’t so much hold out hope as deny the inevitable.
“I think they didn’t want to know. They were getting calls from other people, ‘well, we’ve seen him over here” or ‘they were seen over there.’ So, they’d rush to that place,” she says. “They didn’t want to know — to learn that they had passed. That was the last thing they wanted to find out.”
“It took them about a month to find the bodies,” adds Alan. “When they found that out they called us. They were looking for them and every week or two we’d go down and help them.”
As the family mines their memories of that dark time, Rose recalls an otherworldly portent that occurred just before the fates of Madman and Thomas were finally made known. “Remember when mom got that phone call?” she asks. “Mom was saying, ‘who’s this?’ and [a voice] said ‘this is brother’ and the phone went dead.” (Traditionally, in Blackfoot culture, there is no delineation between the nuclear and extended family — your cousins are simply your brothers and sisters.)
When the truth finally came out, the family, both in Montana and here, began their life sentence of sadness, frustration and anger, exacerbated by the lengthy appeals process. Although a poll around the room reveals unanimous support for the death penalty — they even filed a petition asking the Canadian government not to intervene in the case — one can’t help but feel that had a sentence been carried one way or the other from the start — be it life in prison or a firm date with the executioner — at least those left behind would have been able to move on to some degree. Instead, the case has dragged on and on, causing untold grief for the families of Harvey Madman and Thomas Running Rabbit, as well as, it should be noted, the kin of Ronald Smith.
“It’s been frustrating, because Alan has been the main contact that’s been going to these [hearings],” says Joanne. “Whatever is going on, he goes down there to support the family. I’m proud that he does, because at least the family down there knows we care for them. It’s been tough to see them go through that — Thomas [Sr.]’s and Katrina’s health just went downhill. His other brother, David, he eventually turned to alcohol, which took his life, and the youngest brother, John, got sick. Probably just from the pain from losing his family, because he was the last one alive. Now they’re all gone.
“When we came back from the last funeral, we were all saying, ‘Geez, now where do we go now?’” she adds. “We just visit their graves. But this guy [Smith], he’s still living — making the front page. It still pisses me off. It’s hard not to use harsh language — I’d love to right now.”
I ask Alan, if Smith is executed — a sentence Alan unequivocally supports and wants to see carried out – does he think it would help bring him any closure?
“Maybe to a certain degree. There’s still pain. Talking about it....” He pauses for a long while. “I feel angry.
“He must have had dreams... like anyone else,” he then says of his cousin. “The natives... we have dreams.”
The view outside of Blackfoot Crossing couldn’t be a greater contrast to the sombre mood that hung over the interview with the Running Rabbit family inside one of its boardrooms. In the valley below the centre’s deck lies a golden-green plain full of sweet-smelling sage; outside the front door are gracefully rolling ridges — on the crests of two of these, way off in the distance, you can make out two distinctive markers jutting out into endless banks of cumulus clouds in the prairie sky: a monument marking the spot where Treaty 7 was signed, and the cross over Chief Crowfoot’s final resting place. It’s stunning.
Moments earlier, as our discussion comes to a close, Alan and I head to the lower level of the interpretive centre to take in the displays of his peoples’ history and culture — his family is well represented here: on one wall there is a large photograph of his grandmother, Ada, and other members of the clan; on another sits a picture of another prominent ancestor, Chief Running Rabbit. As we browse, he asks me what I think of Smith’s battle for clemency. I tell him, hesitantly, that I’ve never supported state-sanctioned killing, before adding the old caveat: “But, if it were my family...”
Stepping outside, blinking in the grandeur of my surroundings, I realize there are no words.