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'Where the Crow flies': Once at the bottom, woman finds sky's the limit as pioneering Native American pilot

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Shawnee Real Bird 1

Shawnee Real Bird poses next to one of the planes she flies at the Naples Air Center in Florida. She is a "check ride" away from becoming what is believed to be the first female Native American pilot from a Montana tribe. 

BOZEMAN — On her lowest days, when Shawnee Real Bird felt she had nowhere else to go, she would drive to the outdoor basketball courts at Lodge Grass High School on the Crow Reservation, play or shoot until the lights flickered off, then lay on the hood of her dirt-colored Dodge pickup and lose herself in the night sky.

Every so often, she’d hear a distant muted roar just before green and red lights blinked into view and moved purposefully amid the shimmering of a million stars. She'd watch longingly until both sound and light vanished.

“I’d never flown on a plane, but laying there I’d hope and wish that one day I’d be sitting in a plane seat headed somewhere,” Real Bird later wrote in her journal. “I’m not sure of the destination I was hoping for but I know it was somewhere that the death toll wasn’t hand in hand with whiskey bottles and methamphetamines. Somewhere that if an Indian wanted to dream they didn’t have to have a joint in their hand.”

At 16, Real Bird was caught in a paradoxical swirl of rich family love, heritage and achievement compromised by addiction, dysfunction and trauma. She'd bounced from home to home, and from school to school, often raising her three younger siblings and sometimes sleeping in the bed of her pickup to avoid imposing on families enduring their own hardships.

In the summer of her senior year in high school, she had decided to drop out and seek purpose in punching cows and riding horses on her dad’s ranch because, “I didn’t see the point.”

“I was,” she recalls, “at the bottom of the bottom.”

Fast forward five years.

On a recent Friday, Real Bird is sharing her dystopia-to-utopia journey via phone from Naples Air Center on Florida’s west coast, where she is now licensed to fly modest versions of the machines she once fantasized about, or “steel horses” as she calls symbols of the unfettered freedoms her culture once knew. 

Of greater significance, she is a “check ride” from becoming the first American Indian woman from a Montana tribe to earn a commercial pilot's license — a budding success story that begins with fortitude, family and faith but made possible because of a fortuitous basketball-camp encounter with a Red Lodge girl whose family tossed a lifeline when it was needed most.

“It’s sometimes indescribable,” she says now, linking her journey and flying. “In this beautiful moment you’re just completely a part of the sky, a part of something bigger than myself. To be up at 6,000, 7,000 feet … we think our problems are so big and the reality of it is they’re so small.

“Being in the cockpit looking down and seeing it is a feeling of overcoming everything.”

Shawnee and John Real Bird

Shawnee Real Bird and her father, John Real Bird, at a Crow sundance.

It was Henry Real Bird who first saw his granddaughter taking flight. Within the first moon of Shawnee's birth 21 years ago, he named her Horse On The Other Side.

“Blood of the chiefs,” Henry, the former Montana poet laureate, calls a heady Real Bird lineage that includes the Crow medicine man Thomas Yellowtail and the last war chief Joseph Medicine Crow.

Real Bird’s mother, Jeri Lyn Harris, was a track star at Lodge Grass and “as fast as a roadrunner” until her senior-year pregnancy with Shawnee — named for the favorite horse from her own past — forced her to quit. An uncle, Chester “Tuff” Harris, was a star safety at Montana and played six years in the NFL. Another uncle, Jay Harris, is Big Horn County attorney.

Real Bird describes a deep bond with her father, John, a “hard-core Indian cowboy” who nurtured the family's horsemanship legacy. Henry gave the gift of eloquence, and “instilled in me a mysticism about the mountains and the beautiful world beyond what we could physically see,” she says.

As a child, Real Bird picked berries, dug roots, hunted, fished, participated in sundances and “did lots of Montana-girl things that kept me out of trouble a lot.”

Shawnee Real Bird hoops

Shawnee Real Bird started her high school basketball career at St. Labre and also played for Colstrip and Red Lodge.

Even so, she wasn't immune to the reservation's travails or her own missteps, though she says drugs never tempted her for fear of losing control.

John Real Bird struggled with alcoholism, and Shawnee's parents were "off and on" for her first 10 years, eventually divorcing. Often she was left with Harris' parents or friends while Jeri Lyn worked “man jobs” such as firefighting, bartending and construction before eventually pursuing an associate’s degree.

“Those jobs did take me away from raising her,” Harris recalls. “I was just trying to find myself, and in the process I made mistakes, but she has always seen me pushing her forward.”

By her junior year Real Bird had been to high schools at St. Labre, Colstrip, Tongue River (Wyoming) and Colstrip again. Always stoutly built (she’s 6-foot-1), she held her own in AAU football with the boys through eighth grade before shifting to basketball.

“I had roofs over my head,” she said. “None of them were completely stable. The adults raising me were just dealing with heartbreaks or hardships of their own without many resources available to them. When one home became too chaotic or if I felt like I was taking more than I was giving, there was always another to take me in.”

Shawnee Real Bird 3

Shawnee Real Bird flies her Cessna Skyhawk over the west coast of Florida en route to earning her private pilot license. She is a "check ride" away from becoming what is believed to be the first female Native American pilot from a Montana tribe. 

Some days, she said, “it was easiest for me to be on my own.”

Basketball was a passion and, she figured, a ticket to bigger dreams. For a time, Real Bird imagined attending the University of Montana and writing, like her grandfather.

Her path abruptly changed the summer of her senior year, at a Lady Griz basketball camp in Missoula. There she met Mackenzie Morean of Red Lodge and the two became fast friends.

One night, Real Bird cautiously opened up about her life. She revealed she was “pretty much homeless” after moving out of her mom's house and set to quit school.

“Wow,” Morean replied, “that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

Real Bird subsequently was invited for a three-day stay at the Morean family's getaway ranch near Gardiner, “just to breathe it all in.” She hitchhiked from the reservation to get there.

Three days became 10. In that span, after many tears were shed, Morean and her mother, Kelly, approached father/husband Bill Morean to ask if Real Bird could live with them.

"I thought about it for about 10 minutes and I figured ... she could be a little bit of a handful, but she's a really, really good person inside and I said, 'OK, we can do that,'" Bill Morean recalls. "That was the beginning."

Said Real Bird: “The family fell in love with me and I just loved them. I loved the thought of family dinners every night, loved the thought of mom and dad caring about me coming home — not that my family didn’t care; they were just going through so much. (The Moreans) were like, ‘You’ve done so much work on your own. Imagine how much you could do if somebody was there giving you stability?’”

Real Bird planes

Shawnee Real Bird walks to the planes at the Naples Air Center in Florida.

Bill Morean describes Real Bird as "poetic" and "having a little Eddie Haskell" in her, a reference to the "Leave It To Beaver" antagonist who used sweetness to mask mischief. After parenting their own children with leniency to "give them the space to do the wrong things," he said, they had to establish boundaries for Real Bird because she'd known so few.

Before long, the Moreans took custody and Real Bird now calls them "dad and mom,” with the blessing of her blood family. 

After finishing at Red Lodge High in 2017, she parlayed her height into a basketball scholarship at Yellowstone Christian College in Billings, helping YCC finish fifth nationally. Real Bird might've continued there, but this past summer she was invited along as the Moreans toured South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

For 2 1/2 weeks, they rode in bush planes. Real Bird was smitten after sitting in the cockpit for a flight over Victoria Falls. 

“I remember looking down and seeing big misty rainbows,” she said. “It was just an amazing feeling of being free.”

Shawnee Real Bird 2

Shawnee Real Bird receives her pilot's license in Florida. 

By dinnertime, Real Bird had decided to leave Montana “to see what it’s like outside of my tiny corner.” As she and her adopted family sat near the Zambezi River — social-distancing from the crocodiles — and discussed potential paths, Bill, a pony-tailed former Alaska bush pilot who took over the circuit-board company his father started in a Detroit garage a half-century ago and built it into an billion-dollar empire, looked up from his plate.

“You know," he said, "you could be a pilot.”

At first skeptical, Real Bird remembers finally realizing, "I really could do that!" 

A month and hours of research later, she was in Florida, starting at one flight school then shifting to Naples in November for the rigorous training required for a private pilots license, instrument rating and commercial license. After years of marginal study habits, the demands were at first an enormous struggle, but she persevered as part of what Morean called "huge maturity."

At the most trying times, she'd evoke images of her first solo flight: flying a Cessna Skyhawk in view of towering thunderheads, at first white-knuckled but then misty-eyed as a rainbow arced in front of her steel horse.

“It was definitely like a Creator moment," she said. "For me, piloting and culture, the way they come together it’s like hand in hand. As much as I love to work and see the fruits of my labor, at the same time I wouldn’t be able to extend myself if there wasn’t some kind of spiritual component to the airplane like, ‘Wow, I am like a real Indian up here in the sky, riding my steel horse in the air.’"

Financial support is provided by the Moreans, part of a storybook stroke of good fortune Real Bird acknowledges with a tinge of guilt. Back home, she hears the resentment in the words of friends who call her "white-washed", to which Bill Morean, whose participation with Crow friends in sundances and sweats predates Real Bird, reminds her to "look inside and remember where you came from."

Colstrip 7-8 girls (copy)

Shawnee Real Bird pictured in the middle of the back row on the Colstrip girls seventh/eighth grade traveling team after winning a tournament in Glendive in 2013.

“I am no different than any other kid growing up on the reservation,” Real Bird said. “I wasn’t the only one going through hardships, but for some reason out of the few thousand Indians at home whose hearts were mirrors of mine, that family chose me. They're an amazing family that's entirely selfless to the point where there's never a moment I don't believe I'm their blood.”

Real Bird's blood family, some wary of her flight initially, now celebrates her rise.

“We’re so lucky she grabbed onto that," Henry Real Bird said. "It's a beautiful life.”

Adds Harris: “She never ceases to amaze me, because she’s been through a lot, and coming from a reservation where … kids do get out and make it, but she’s a pilot! That’s crazy. I told her to reach for the stars and now literally she’s up in the air.”

She is also on the cusp of Montana history (the first Native commercial pilot in the U.S. was Mary Riddle, a Clatsop/Quinault from Washington, in the early 1930s). Next in the process is becoming an instructor to acquire the 1,500 airborne hours required to fly for a commercial airline. 

Eventually Real Bird, who chuckles at her classmates' amusement over a Crow named Real Bird making a living flying, envisions a flight school on the reservation or “whatever it takes to get (Indians) up in the sky”. Inspired by the Himba women of Namibia, she also pictures using Real Bird land where they reenact the Battle of Little Bighorn each summer as a preserve where tourists immerse in Native culture.

A passionate writer, Real Bird already has a title for a future book about her journey and the people in it: “Where The Crow Flies.”

“The struggles for me were definitely common struggles on the reservation — drugs, alcohol, poverty, those kinds of things,” she said. “We're all the same, going through the same hurt. But even though a lot of people raised me and took care of me, I got to see love in so many dimensions. I got to see all these peoples’ values. I got to be a part of so many families. There was this beautiful patchwork of people I get to think of and thank for my successes.”

That includes the Moreans, whose own lives have been enriched by the family's newest member.

"She's very spiritual, very articulate, very smart," Bill Morean said. "Her background has been a difficult one, but it's also shaped an independent character. There's a lot of facets to her. She has a good heart and is a very wise person for her age. I've had fun with that. Not all of it was a walk in the park, but it doesn't matter when somebody is truly a good person."

Morean gave Real Bird her first ride in a steel horse in December 2018. As she looked in awe at the landscape below, she recalled laying in her pickup at the basketball courts in Lodge Grass, gazing at the stars and pining for the purpose those planes symbolized.

“Now here I am, sitting in a plane,” she later wrote. “I look at that map that changes and shows the location as we fly … it reads 'Crow Reservation'. I start to wonder if maybe someone is sitting at the courts looking up and sees me. I look down and say a silent prayer in hopes that they too will one day make it out.”

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