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Notes from Alvina Krause between 1957-1961 are posted at

Fiction about Indians at
Essays about Indians at

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


There must be a little nexus in the brain about narratives that is especially suited to reading comics, though I suppose in the beginning it evolved to be about petroglyphs -- those stick figures on rocks.  In the good old days my father used to read us kids the comics on Sunday and some of those characters were more vivid to me than some actual people today.  Take Denny Dimwit, for instance, with whom I empathized.  I must not have been the only one, because when I googled, I came up with a LOT of stuff, including a little figurine of Denny.

Denny Dimwit was a member of the RinkyDinks, a boy "gang," one of whom was Perry Winkle, who sort of took over the strip.  He was a boy who rather resented being "improved" by a family that adopted him and he needed the services of a "fairy godfather," a tough and practical character something like Tyrion Lannister -- boy-sized, wearing a derby and smoking a cigar.  He had wings but more like insect wings than angel wings.  When I was in deep distress during my hospital chaplaincy training, the Fairy Godfather showed up in my dreams.  I was flattened in a dark and rainy alley when I smelled cigar smoke and there he was.

The issues of that time, as well as the economic conditions of the time, are eerily like our own.  Bullying, economic status, women who must work, schools that don't get it.  Boys trying to cope.

Sue, my friend in Calgary, is good at finding terrific stuff.  Like me, she loves comics, so she really scored a gold mine when she found a website for online comics.  No more suffering through some newspaper nerd’s idea of which comics to read.  Here’s the link.  (This post is going to be a bit of a link farm.)

She started me off with this inspired comic strip.  Surely Francis I is the first Pope to have his own comic strip!  

You don’t have to draw well to create a comic strip, because often it’s the caption that really makes it work.  In fact, this whole strip below is simply schmaltzy old Victorian art with new captions.  This one seems timely, since I’m watching “Game of Thrones” (which operates on something like the same idea -- that is, fabulous tableaux with new dialogue.)

Orestes pursued by the Furies after leaving the toilet seat up.

This next one depends on good drawing and is pretty brainy, often referring to our shared memories of popular TV series and billed as the "wordiest comic."  (I hope you can "enbiggen" these enough to read.)

There's also a book of these strips to help you cope with life: is good to know about when the prissy regional papers refuse to print something.  Like Doonesbury or something.

This is from "Cyanide and Happiness."  I think.

And this one is from "Dark Side of the Horse"

Both are taken from a blog called "comics I don't understand."  People send comments explaining the very dry humor.  Sometimes the comments are stranger and more inscrutable than the original comic strip. I particularly like this strip about a horse and I know Sue probably does, too.  We share our love of horses.

Native American comics continue the association with thrillers and fantasy.  Some of these strips are supposed to become movies.  I don't know how much these really have to do with Indians.  The local political cartoonist has gone silent -- maybe too hot to comment.

Comics Alliance is quite a bit more edgy than gocomics.  If you're a plugger, you might want to stick with gocomics.

How about a book of comic strips?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014



What if I looked back over my own life with the same level of analysis as I’ve used on the rez and on Valier?  These are “time-line” reflections.  There are two main ways that the time-line matters:  one is the forces that came to bear on the creation of one’s physical genome and family heritage and the other is the sequence of macro-micro experiences that a person has lived through.  Some of them are universal or historic.  It's not a matter of pride or blame.  Just  "is."

So here’s this Scots/Irish person, female, first-born of what I thought was two first-born late-marrying people. (It turned out that my father had an older brother who was premature and died after 17 days, information that was hidden).  I was soon joined by two brothers.  The parents were both raised rural, my mother in the generous but slightly hill-billy environment of the southern end of the Oregon Willamette Valley, and my father on potato farms, first-plantings on virgin prairie in Dakota and Manitoba.  Both families were poor by today’s standards, though they were rather successful on their own terms -- which were mostly that surviving at all was a success.

My grandfather and the residue of living on moose meat.

My father’s life was dominated by his birth family.  Lifelong he made it a point to stay connected to cousins and friends from early life.  My mother’s family was much influenced by a third family line because her sisters and cousin married brothers and cousin for security (they owned a LOT of land) and insisted that their boys stay on the ranch (sheep) while their pretty and popular girls married "up."  (Very Jane Austen.  The third family was English and overwhelmed the Irish strand -- except for my mother.)  The contrast between my parents’ take on life had major consequence:  my father believed women are princesses, my mother believed women were workhorses who must save men.  This separates me from my female cousins on my father's side, though we are all readers.  They have not had the lives of princesses, but they're good at pretending.

My father received his MS with his proud parents attending.

Both parents believed in education.  They just had limited ideas about what it was.  My father’s Master’s was in potato economics just before the Depression.  My mother’s Bachelor's was in teaching, just after the Korean War -- her classmates were veterans on the GI Bill.  Both got a job, clung to it tightly with no intention of promotion, accepting the cramped income, staying in the same house from marriage to death.  During WWII was the only time my father couldn’t travel.  (We never figured out what he did while traveling besides his job.  My mother wondered if there were a second family.)  Everything changed again in 1948 because he was in a car accident that did prefrontal cortex damage.  From then on he was volatile, had no patience with his children, bullied us.  He grew very fat and clowned to compensate.  Both parents knew something was askew but didn’t know what to do about it.  They read a lot of pop psych, but never talked about such matters.

The Depression had pulled my mother out of college halfway through.  Her father had objected to her marriage and cut her off.  (When her younger sister had been killed in a car accident with an older sister driving -- they were in high school -- the father had coped with it by denying it.  He was a powerless controller whose schemes never quite worked out, which made him mean.) My grandmother had been dying of cancer in the early years of the marriage and my mother had been blamed for it.  My mother’s sister had been finishing a nursing degree in Portland at the time and had shared her education with my mother.  They were stoics, impressed with the idea of service to others, mostly female support of males, who were then supposed to protect the females and children.  WWII had reinforced this.

My father’s default religious position was secular progressivism and prairie humanism, but he secretly flirted with Unitarianism.  My mother was raised Presbyterian and raised her children that way.  I went along until college.  All of my cousins on both sides, except for one atypical male, are secular.  They do not smoke, they are faithful, they pay their bills and do well at work, they do not drink to excess, they have never been arrested, they don’t use bad language and they don’t read porn.  But their children are haywire.

Life mostly happened to me while I was busy reading books -- not paying attention.  School was high achievement but high stress.  I took on a lot but mostly got it all done, but was always at the bottom of the top and not quite in sync with the prescriptions of the time.  A semi-finalist for a National Merit Scholarship, a semi-finalist for a National Honor Society Scholarship, but not a finalist for either.  I didn’t date.  I had a pleated Pendleton skirt bought at the factory outlet and a Pendleton jacket that my mother made.  I never got the blouse-under-sweater thing right because I was too generic: never the right kind of collar, never the right kind of circle pin.  But I tried.  Then I’d add one of my father’s plaid ties because I was pretending to be an English school girl.

Dramatics was my thing.  I went to Northwestern University because it was my teacher’s alma mater.  (I was on full tuition NU scholarship.  My mother paid the rest because that's what should have happened to her.) Recently I was surprised to discover that acting classmates had been as interested in religion as I was, taking serious study-of-religion classes from people like Paul Schilpp, a major humanist thinker.  Yet we had never joined congregations.  We just approached theatre as if it were a formal institutional religion, as taught by Alvina Krause.  This turned out to be a major handicap for a high school drama teacher.  I take it much too seriously.  Theatre was everything.  One of my classmates recently expressed indignation because he was a professional actor working with a local community theatre where the others didn’t bother to learn their lines.  I smiled.

Teaching was my ticket to another culture, the Blackfeet, which in the Sixties was mixed with whites, Cree, fugitives from the law, hippies, and alcoholic geniuses.  No blacks, no Latinos, no Asians.  Falling in with Bob Scriver was a destiny I could not have predicted but certainly recognized.  It lasted a decade and then I was stuck about what to do.  Back in Portland I began the strange process of job-hunting and resorted to Civil Service, intending to take night courses in psych, which I did.

The day job was animal control, which was just then trying to be progressive so was in transition between the regime of a handsome Portuguese sexist son-in-law of a commissioner, a tricky guy who also ran a riding academy (which I always suspected was a front for trafficking girls) and a big vital Welshman who had been a California cop.  I was the entering edge of a social transition, which transformed AC just as later I was part of a widening wedge in the UU ministry.  That is, I was suited because I could work like a man on men’s terms, but then the occupation began to include so many women that it changed:  therapy, “making nice”, personal relationships, and then -- more and more -- money raising.  It was no longer a “learned ministry.”  I became unsuited because I refused to change.  I thought.

By the time I finished Div School, all I wanted to do was return to Montana.  The three years of circuit-riding in my forties -- acting like a twenty-year-old in a time when twenty-year-olds scorned such a job -- I proved something, but I’m still not sure what.  Finally it came to a choice between “Indians” and conformity and I chose Indians.  Who threw me out.  I was not what they thought a white person should be and anyway, they wanted all whites to leave.  Most did.  (1988-91)  Much of this was the political impact of half-digested post-modern French theory (1776 returns!) and much of it was simply coming of age.  The buffalo Indians were gone and their greatgrandchildren were AIM.  That is not finished.

When I went back to Portland this time, it took eight months to find work.  Resorting to Civil Service again, I took a clerical job, but this time instead of taking classes I “attended” Powells bookstore every evening.  By this time my father was long dead and my youngest brother was the one with frontal neocortex damage from a fall.  My mother had begun to die from a blood cancer, possibly because by now both were chain smokers.  My other brother left after college and never really returned.  The “third family” and even my father’s family were no longer in touch or in sync.  When my mother died, one-third of her house -- my inheritance -- was enough to get me back to the edge of the rez in 1999.  Here I am.

I am still equipped with willingness to risk, which I got from animal control when I walked into danger all the time and from driving Montana winter highways, and a much greater resourcefulness in thinking, thanks to the Div School.  They have not surrendered the insistence on logic, precedent, and method.  My denominational school has been feminized and trivialized.  (That is not a compliment, but it is probably their route to survival.)  In the fourteen years since I’ve been back here, history of half-a-century has given me a major advantage, as did the abiding friendships of people here -- who have been dying over the past few years.

But now I think global, the macro-patterns of the planet that come from the mini-patterns of a trillion lives stretching back through not just millennia, but aeons, aeons, aeons -- from the first one-celled “animals” that managed to become creatures and plants.  This Consciousness has swallowed religion, swallowed humans, swallowed time, and is gaping wide to eat the Cosmos, which will soon eat me and redistribute my elements.

Oh, did I say that I write?  I’m getting better.  It’s my religious practice.  A religion that is not enacted is not a religion.  Neither is it theatre.  It is participation. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

EARLY DAYS ON THE REZ (Fiction: part of a novel in progress)

The papers in the boxes she was sorting were out of order, not like the sort of archeology dig -- let's say a buffalo jump -- where the layers are dated according to when the evidence was laid down in sediments.  She picked up papers and objects from the box that drove her memories back and forth across time.  One moment she was “just a kid,” though she and society considered her an adult with a finished degree and a certain amount of experience, and the next moment she was at the first major crossroads for a woman: would she marry and have babies or would she . . . what? 

The Egyptologist’s wife she knew, who had no career but was highly educated, explained how marrying a man who would spend his life in the field meant that there would be no children because there would be little medical care and many dangers.  She could, of course, have stayed “home” or even near her parents -- a lonely, possibly infantilizing life.  “If I stayed near my parents, I stayed their daughter.  If I went with my husband, I stayed his wife.  Of course, I could simply turn away to another man, but I loved this one.  And I loved Egypt as much as he did.”

On the reservation in those days local women found their men to be come-and-go, but organized their lives around the children anyway.  Money was the problem, but they didn’t need as much as if they hadn't been tribal.  The small service jobs circulated among them.  One quit -- her cousin applied for the job.  When men came back from welding pipelines or fighting fires, maybe to the same women and maybe not, the women moved the money among them.  There was always public aid to women and children.

Those were two patterns and there were more but she paid very little attention to them.  Beginning in spring she lived like a happy animal, or her body did, responding to weather, food, and the cycle of the day/night while her head spun with ideas, wove ideas, made a fabric of ideas, patterned by the steady flow of people who came to see Joe, the anthropologist.  It wasn’t quite like a campus academic life, this reservation boundary-delineated concentration on what people did and how they did it, what their essential nature was, their material culture, what they thought their tribal past had been like.  But there was a steady stream of colleagues, drifters, novelists, artists, the curious.

The local people went on with their lives, not bothering to think about what all these outsiders were imagining.  The sun shone most days, the wind blew dust most days, and some days were different, maybe stormy and sometimes almost blank -- just gray stillness.  Plants went through their cycles so that some days the prairie was blue with lupine and other days they were yellow with arrowleaf balsam root.  Since the people were not dependent on digging for roots and rhizomes, they no longer paid attention.  They smiled at her childlike gathering of bouquets, put in Mason jars for lack of vases.  (The jars were tinted blue-green in those days and had wire bales to hold the lids on tight.)  

In recent years she had learned not to do that because so many of her bouquets were blooming weeds that she was inadvertently spreading.  She was never an arranger -- just put the handful into the jar as she had carried them, and always intended to sketch them, but often didn’t.  What she did was look them up in guide books, carefully reading the whole entries about how they were grouped, their common and Latin names, what else was happening along the curve of the season when they bloomed.

She walked.  The force logic of glacier-scraping and deposition was easy to see, though most people would have looked at the mountains on the horizon instead.  The town’s settlement, beginning in a small comfortable place and then spreading out over the low hills and marshy flood plains of small streams, had less logic though it was in squares.  A lot of draining and filling was necessary.  Some cabins had been there before plats were drawn.

In evenings she read unless there was company at Joe’s where she would go to make coffee, serve packaged cookies, and listen to the constant flow of talk through theories and stories.  She was his clerk/secretary, but also more than that -- in a proper way.  A hostess.  There was no alcohol served if the indigenous people were there, but if there were none, Joe provided brandy.  A few alcoholic scholars and writers managed to find the supply and covertly put a bit in their coffee.  The Indians added so many spoonfuls of sugar to their coffee that they were nearly drinking syrup.  

They (almost always men) talked about what the old people did, what first contact must have been like, how the people dealt with the new threats like incarceration and diseases like trachoma which made them blind.  How much the old men loved silk scarves around their necks or even tied over their heads like the Queen of England to shield their ears from the wind and how much the women still love small metal objects like thimbles and buttonhooks, though not all of them sewed and no shoes have buttons these days. 

She thought about how, now that there was no need for the constant on-going handwork -- the braiding, beading, rubbing, twisting that used to be on every lap -- people didn’t quite know whether to gesture as they listened in a kind of quasi-signtalk or to pet the children and animals that always crowded around.  The little comfort-seekers climbed into her lap, too, and she accepted them.  But that was when they were in the local homes, the cabins and shacks that were partly supplied by the government, partly built in prosperous times, and partly improvised.  When they were in Joe’s place, either his public space or his private rooms, she wrote notes to type and file later.  By the time video cameras were in use, Joe was gone.  He was much older than she.  But she took the occasional still photo.

Now, as she unpacked the boxes, she would turn up little sketches of weeds and pages of notes, as varied as the Moccasin Flat houses, according to the circumstances.  "Dr. So-and-so says that the difference between Blackfeet patterns, whether painted or beaded, and Cree patterns was that Blackfeet were geometric, which he felt indicated some sort of pre-mathematics and which he tried to relate to the desert Abrahamic people’s invention of geometry", and so on.  The Cree tended to make plant-like patterns, including flowers, which indicated to Dr. S-and-S that they were concrete in their thinking, could not abstract in a more intellectual way, and harbored Euro-ideas about beauty, like symmetry.  He was a great devotee of modern abstract art.

Reading this in the present, she noted in a deconstructing aside to herself that Dr. S-and-S was analyzing to a level that verged on fantasy, first in composing his values (mathematical linearity as a sign of intelligence and superiority) and second in his memory of the materials he was supposed to be describing.  

When she looked at the beading she saw a lot of individuality, a lot of responding to circumstances -- that and the givens of materials.  If the beaders tended to lean to blue and orange patterns, maybe it was because the store had stocked a lot of those bead colors.  She thought about how sophisticated clothing fashions, haute couture, went in cycles, responding to what had been all the rage last season by turning away from it, and taking up something fresh.  So if green beads suddenly appealed to the eye, it was only natural that they suggested stems and leaves, which asked for red flowers.  But they all, sooner or later, went back to that blue.

She found her sketches of beading patterns, the best of the records made with colored pencils but some merely drawn and then labeled with the names of the colors.  That was the real beginning of her art, nothing at all like the oil-on-canvas work she did now, but still the early consciousness of color and shape and somehow, the resistance to linearity, the love of surprise.

Sunday, April 13, 2014


This post is a suggested list of the various forces at work on the Blackfeet Tribe that have caused the present “perfect storm” and keep it going on despite the price being paid and the efforts to intervene.

All indigenous populations, by definition, are creatures of their environment.  The East Slope of the Rockies was never an easy place to live but in the day of the herds of buffalo, it was a balanced and sustaining human place to live.  There was plenty of food, there were “rules” for managing how to get it, how to store it, how to share it, and so on.  Times of hardship still happened, but the great bulk of the population went forward.

However, there were edges and interfaces with other populations: those of the far north, those of the woodlands to the east, those that were partly guarded by the Rockies, and there must have been an ambiguous relationship with peoples to the south, particularly after the Spanish began to arrive, bringing the horse.

There is some evidence that from a planetary point of view, esp. if you look at it from the north pole, there was penetration of the area by various means from people with roots in Asia (I’m not just talking about the Bering Straits, but also about dog-sledders and kayak paddlers) and people from the Norse areas, stepping from Greenland to Iceland to North America.  Climate change had a lot to do with this, since sometimes the Arctic Sea was open (as it is becoming now.) 

Also, there were clearly boat people who managed to cross the Pacific much earlier than anyone has thought.  There were circum-Pacific trade routes that are hinted at by artifacts.  Kon-Tiki showed how primitive those boats could be, functioning on ocean currents and prevailing winds.

For the Blackfeet, the early penetration of explorers came up the Mississippi and then the Missouri.  Lewis and Clark were not the first whites in the area.  But there were not many whites until late and then mostly from “Canada.”

The Blackfoot Confederation was bisected by the 49th parallel, which very much confused relationships and resources, and continues to do so.  The Hudson’s Bay Company injected a population of tough Brits and venture capital that demanded profit.  Then rival French and American companies also began to compete, which meant introducing trade goods of dangerous high value like gunpowder and guns, and esp. alcohol.  The Red River Metis/Cree Chippewa culture formed out of all this.  The occasional Mohawk or Polynesian passed through.

The Euro idea that “tribes” were “races” of people with clear edges who could be detached from their ecological location and treated as units was a distortion.  Various people came and went from small bands who had family relationships at their core, plus a ceremonial unity reinforced by summer rituals.  The intrusion of missionaries disrupted all this.  Then, after the buffalo were gone, the priests become a means of survival.  For the Red River Metis, the Catholic missionaries were easier to accept.

Washington, D.C. has always been a problem -- too far away, too beholden to other people.  Right now they are simply a national version of the same deadlock as the tribal council.  Money, virtue, precedent, status, and coping with international corporations are forces that deserve whole books of analysis.  The main point I want to make here is that MUCH is covert.  Even the legislators who take an interest and try to pass helpful laws have no grasp of how much underground action there is.  Two things to watch: water and the private ownership of rez land -- both limited commodities that will increase in value.  Sovereignty means moving ownership into private and sometimes inexperienced hands just as the Dawes Act was a trust buster.  Very mixed consequences.  And yet we know what happens when the government is the trustee.

Some of this is criminal (both from inside the tribe and from the larger society, including both Montana elements and international networks), but some is law enforcement that represents itself as being against criminal activity and justifies bad behavior that way (which always leads to goals that serve the persons involved, i.e. cops).  Murders, DUI accidents, violence and sexual abuse have gone unaddressed and unresolved.  This serves the interests of some people.  We know what the history of casinos is and who they attract.  Alcohol is only one drug.

Old grudges about jobs, family conflicts, various sorting and subsidies for education or investment, are not forgiven.  Again, the rez justice system is stymied because there is no ultimate "outside" superior court that everyone trusts.   But also there are illicit handshake deals about rez business: contracts, sweet agreements, definitions, stipulated and secret consequences, penalties, evasion of oversight and regulation.  Government desk-riders do NOT want to risk coming to the rez, esp. in winter.  Indians play cats-paw's for whites.

Outsiders depend on personalities more than systems.  In fact, many needed systems don’t exist.  Outsiders can’t figure out how to get statistics or names and addresses.  Addresses don’t mean much when people float around.  Often one needs to know family relationships to locate someone and the relationships will not be tagged by names.  Land line phones don’t work well (the bills run up too easily, the distances are too long) and cell phones have no directories.  Reporters call Earl Old Person because they saw his dancers at the Russell Auction and the media thinks of him as a “chief” as in the movies.  His great strength is personal history with many people over decades.

Schools are state creatures: they run on state law.  In the last decades they have become more hierarchical, more controlling, and more prescriptive. This is the context for Willie Sharp, as a former principal in a time when disobedient kids are sometimes arrested by police.  I’ve taught with two of the former teachers on one version or another of this council.  They have not changed.

The idea of Tribal Councils came out of the time decades ago when “corporations” were being formed in business.  I had always thought of them as democracies controlled by their shareholders, but these days they have become oligarchies everywhere -- mostly because of the greed of the shareholders.  They want profit and will fire any board members who don’t take whatever measures are necessary, regardless of social damage or consequences displaced to the future.  The timeline is today-tomorrow, and no later.  Anyway, half the share-holders are ON the rez, taking the consequences of immediate decisions, and half the share-holders are OFF the rez, without being much involved except to cash their check.  The latter are more likely to be “fractionated” and low “quantum.”  Many have no attachment to the place in an emotional sensory way -- only the entitlement to a check.

Outside but parallel to the “corporation” structure of the reservation there remains a cultural system, partly the remnants of pre-existing ways and partly the product of literature, other media, anthropology, political bodies like AIM, Christian churches with strong pentecostal elements, charter schools based on culture, and university work, including both Montana state schools and elite places that give priority to Indians, like Harvard.  This “virtual” structure doesn’t always match reality.

Another competing but quiet network is that of the Cree Chippewa greater community, which is woven into the Blackfeet rez by history, marriage, and provenance.  Outsiders don’t grasp that a person can be fully indigenous without being enrolled in the Blackfeet tribe. Indeed, they might be without enough provenance quantum big enough for them to belong to any tribe at all, as fractionated as the land. This is because of government schools for people of courting age, the government’s bright idea of pushing the Cree Chippewa onto the Blackfeet rez, and the relocation movement that tried to disperse rez people into the cities but only created Indian ghettoes.  Maybe military service creates another network.


In the opposite direction, both the change to Indian preference in government and tribal jobs and the coinciding “aging to failure” of white-owned small businesses and ranches that were established after WWII has removed a social element that was politically untenable but also stabilizing.  Their children have a sense of entitlement that is more family than tribe-based.  Some are easily able to “pass” and have good off-rez connections that allow them to leave, which is a loss of brains and energy.

In the end all these forces combine to create a “nation” of dissenters, who are invested in maintaining their identity and the status quo by BEING dissenters.  The point of difference simply moves from one resolution to the next problem without acknowledging that anything got done.  There’s a sense of righteousness, separation from the possibility of failure and denial of all experiments or advances.  It’s common in survivors, a reaction to trauma.

Some essential people have died.  We miss them deeply.  They were from a generation of idealists and doers.  Think what they would say.


In addition to posting some things on this blog, I have a small email list to whom I forward selected posts.  I was startled to get this reaction from Sidner Larson.  If you don't know him, he's Jim Welch's cousin, grew up on the High Line where he acquired and managed a successful bar, then became a lawyer, and finally now is a professor of Native American literature.  He is the author of a fine memoir called "Catch Colt," which was published by U of Nebraska Press before they caught the French philosophy fever, and "Captured in the Middle: Tradition and Experience in Contemporary Native American Writing" from the University of Washington Press.  For the past decade he has noted that the boom-time Indian Studies programs of the '70's and 80's have been eroding by underfunding.

Hi Mary, thanks for this, which, in my view, is very significant.

There is much talk and some effort to open discussion of cultural and environmental sustainablility in some areas of Contemporary American Indian Studies, but it often fails to get beyond perpetuation of  old stereotypes of the Noble Savage rather than address actual issues of living communities.

The what-goes-without saying, which is most everything, again in my view, is driven by late-stage capitalism, which cares for nothing except immediate profits.

The profit motive is also systematically eliminating and neutralizing those capable of understanding and articulating essential cultural and environmental issues, such as some scholars formerly protected by academic freedom.

Your post has enormous potential; I hope you develop it fully and that others see the possibility of incorporating it into their own work.

Meanwhile, the weather is just plain weird around here, and, quite excruciating again this morning.

With Best Regards,


Saturday, April 12, 2014


"Christians" earn the term by relating to Jesus as described in the New Testament, believing he is "the Christ." Over two millennia, esp. since the Protestant schism, these groups have split up into various institutions called “denominations.”  (Name = nom in = nomenclature)  "Catholic" which once included most Christians is now one denomination among many others.  

Church institutions are composed of “congregations” who are affiliated with their specific denomination.  Some congregations are free-standing, organized by personal relationships or sometimes by declaring allegiance to the original Christian document, namely the New Testament, though they may put emphasis on different parts.  These are not technically "religions" but denominations of the single religion, "Christianity."  Different religions might be Judaism, Buddhism, Hindu, Islam.  

Different denominational institutions within Christianity are, for instance, Lutheran, Baptist, Anglican, Quaker, Unitarian Universalist.  Some are big and some are little.  Most respond to the secular government, which gives them certain exemptions and protections because of their contribution to the quality of our lives.  Their function is a bit like tribes and a few seem dubious, unworthy of recognition, at least to the government.  Like snake-handlers.  (I refuse to make a joke about professional courtesy.)

Spirituality, which may not be definable in terms of dogma or practice, is a human capacity that some people value as the heart of religion though mediated by various means. Others feel spirituality cannot be captured in any organization because it is a direct relationship with whatever one calls “God” or the Power.  People who have a special feeling about this, which they depict as fire, are called "pentecostals."  In the US this was a movement that started inside Methodism and finally broke away to form a new denomination.  It is an institution that specifically tries to be spiritual, but I would observe that as soon as there are a lot of rules, norms, calendars, named leaders, and so on, the spirit is probably elsewhere.  Nevertheless, pentecostal ability to shift human consciousness towards ecstasy is strong.

Acts 2-3  And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance

Spirituality is not related to wickedness or virtue, though some will insist that it’s about love and others will say -- oppositely -- it’s about detachment.  

Others emphasize the awareness of Some Pure Power that might either be destructive or salvific.  

Spirituality has nothing to do with science but might accompany science.  

Spirituality is sometimes considered emotional but emotion only accompanies it.  

Some object to spirituality being “magic” which implies that it is supernatural and that some privileged persons have access to the control of it, so that they are witches or warlocks.  This is dangerous, as it can invite destruction from several sources.  One of the big human religious issues is control: must we be controlled by some higher power or can we be in control ourselves?  Or OF ourselves?

Scientifically speaking, all we can know is what our sensorium can detect (with or without our consciousness of that detection -- we cannot “feel” gamma rays but they are constantly penetrating us) and how our brain deals with that knowledge, organizes it, and understands it, so as to respond to it.  If the brain can’t figure something out, it might just ignore it.  If the case is that there is too much information to be sorted, then the brain can stall out -- stop functioning.  All of society shows the same patterns.

Politicians and scientists discussing what to do about global warming.  (It's a sculpture.)

But it is true that our consciousness can sometimes intensely feel something that we can’t describe or name but that affects us even to the point of transformation -- a conversion.  Whether you think this is an electrochemical event in the brain or whether you think it is something from “outside” human experience, if you are a pentecostal it can cause you to “speak in tongues.”  That is, to talk fluently in an unknown language which some think is holy, others think is the language of some other world, and some believe is the deeply natural language of human beings before we broke into national languages.  Scientifically, "tongues" have all the structural characteristics of language but simply make no sense, like schizophrenic "word salad."  Pentecostals have specialized in triggering this.

An experiment in which babies were isolated to see what language they would speak without any teaching from other humans failed because all the babies died.  Babies who have no other living beings for interaction cannot continue to grow.  Even rough treatment and bad language will allow them to live so long as there is contact with other humans -- though it is claimed that a conscientious mammal like a dog could also raise a human being.  The child just wouldn’t have any human language.  

One of the capacities that is carried by meaningful human language is the ability to think of something that is only theoretical, or sometimes what is called “virtual.”  We have grown accustomed to constructing new “reality” in our computers, virtual worlds, but we’ve always done it with art (including stories), and -- in fact -- each of us constructs our own reality in our own minds.  Conveying that to others might be pretty hard if the evidence of their sensorium and the lives they have organized from their ecology and society is very different from ours.

Pipe Bundle Keeper

Because the original Blackfeet understanding of their world was highly spiritual, they are often responsive to pentecostal approaches and that understanding slips into all the Christian denominations on the reservation.  Because the practices and theories of the old-time Blackfeet were quite different from baptism, communion, laying on of hands, or a Holy Book, their spirituality was at first not necessarily recognized by Europeans.  For those who can recognize it, there is a bridge between worlds through spirituality.

Persons who are open to the idea of differences might even think the old-time Plains ways were better, but persons who are invested in only one way (usually THEIR way) are intolerantly blind.  Of course, those who were already on the edge of being overwhelmed could not tolerate new practices like the Ghost Dance because it seemed too powerful and scary.

Spirituality is a basic physical capacity of all human beings.  So is speech, so it’s natural to link words with responses to the experience of melding with all existence, acknowledging greater power than earthly cultures, and responding, whether with terror or gratitude.  Culture is a lesser aspect of being human than the capacity to sense “spirit” so it is cannot contain the “spirit” except in conditional ways, each culture according to its understanding.

This doesn’t keep human beings from trying to exceed their culture, to be more, to escape all the boundaries and limits.  But one of the basic personality divisions is between those who yearn for the unthinkable, the ultimate, and those who are content to stay within the known limits.  When there is hostility between the two modes, whether it’s only grumbling or whether it breaks out in a revolution on the scale of the self-destruction of Red Revolutionary China, many suffer.  A few will seek comfort in the spiritual but become secretive.

It’s not so much a matter of whether you believe in something specific or behave well according to the standards of your culture, but whether you reach, try to exceed yourself, honestly look at the cards you are holding and play them with inspiration -- that is, looking for new ways while using the old ways.

Life is a kaleidoscope that presents many aspects through the little window that is your eye, your “I,” your ego, and then keeps rejumbling them into new patterns.  One is not more beautiful than the other, but somehow an underlying pattern persists.  Awareness of that pattern is spiritual because making contact with the cosmos means that the sky echoes your song and the grass accepts the pattern of your feet.  You feel that.

This post is preaching, talk that is meant to give both remonstrance and hope.  It is not institutional, not denominational, not Christian, but possibly a bit pentecostal, presenting shards of thought that mirror each other enough to form a star shape, a mandala.  It is preaching easily spoken to the least of us because what do they have to lose?  But the rich and powerful would be wise to listen as well, or they won’t stay rich and powerful, no matter which church they attend, which religion they accept, how much they tithe or organize.

Friday, April 11, 2014


In Saskatoon I had an ongoing discussion with a geologist about what it meant to live in a new place where the element isotopes were different.  Since a person changes cells constantly and must draw the materials from the environment where they are, or at least where their food originated, would the difference in isotopes gradually change the cells and ultimately the person’s body?  He said no, I said yes.  Eventually he came to my side.  But would a person know they were changing?  Would they feel the difference?

Animal bodies of different kinds accumulate different isotopes of carbon.

To follow this question, you need to know that the body is made of cells, which are made of molecules, which are assembled out of elements.  An element is the most basic atom but it has three parts: neutrons and protons locked together, and then the circling bits called electrons.

"Isotopes are variants of a particular chemical element such that, while all isotopes of a given element have the same number of protons in each atom, they differ in neutron numberNuclides that have the same neutron number but a different proton number are called isotones. This word was formed by replacing the p in isotope with n for neutron.   Chemical properties are primarily determined by proton number, which determines which chemical element the nuclide is a member of; neutron number has only a slight influence.”  Got that?  Science on this level is tough.

An animation of a cell process.  This website is one I often visit because it's FUN.

It always surprises me a little that matters at this literally elemental level are so mechanical: molecules “fold,” have structure, go hand-over-hand along filaments.  But maybe that’s just because we think of them this way, model them this way with tinker toys or ping-pong balls.  We have to envision them SOME way in order to think about them.  The genome is composed of links arranged in a double helix, right?  A cell has a skin and a nucleus, right?  But they move -- they writhe, they dance, they transform.  They take in the atoms of the location, the isotopes formed by forces aeons ago.  And then, yes, we are subtly different.

David Astrachan, MD

Michael Astrachan, animator is a company that produces medical animations of the most teeny and technical structures and their interaction -- not for fun, but for learning and understanding.   (Disclaimer: there are two men on the board who are named Astrachan but they are not related to my birth family “Strachan.”  They don’t look Scottish.  Similarities can be deceiving.)  When you watch these animations, you must remember that they are CGI, as much as sci-fi movie simulations and, in fact, the best Hollywood CGI people (who might not live in Hollywood -- some live in Montana) watch these animations to get ideas.  Even the plot-developing writers who create scripts would be smart to watch these patterns as they unfold.

I have no idea what this is, but it's a bit scary.

If you watch the demo clip at the website, which I just did, you’ll recognize organs, skin, blood, and organic "submarines" called mitochondria which are ancient creatures captured long ago by mammal cells, living batteries that supply energy and come only from your mother.  You’ll see the structure of bone, which changes slowly but DOES change.  But you’ll also see a lot of zany stuff that’s meaningless without technical interpretation. 

This clip is about viruses.  They say that there are plenty of people on this planet who can’t understand things like HIV-AIDS because they don’t understand that there ARE such infectious agents as viruses.  Never heard of 'em.  The piece I was reading referred to tribes where the people know there is reading but have never learned to read.  (Ten per cent of the people in every industrial society don’t read.)  Talking to them about viruses is ineffective if they don’t know the words and the words are not in ordinary use where they are.  Most of us learn fancy medical words by reading.  But anyone can look at these clips and see, conceptually, what a virus does in the body.  All they need is the link I just gave you to call up the clip and watch it if they have a cell phone.

At first the floaty, prettily colored blobs and filaments, accompanied by bouncy sounds, might not mean much.  Even a scientist might need some orientation -- that’s what the Harvard students are getting when they watch these animations.  They are building into their brains some ideas that will serve them for many years.  The main idea is that the tiny world of the cells in bodies are very busy and complex.  You have to keep thinking about them.

The CGI folks who do these animations are not likely to run out of work for a long time, because they will need to revise and revise in response to new discoveries and theories -- which may have arisen out of watching these clips in the first place.  This thinking is hand-over-hand.  Once a person has a firm grasp of the genome double helix, then it’s possible to think about the impact of the epigenome, which can turn individual pairs on or off, or the complex little dance that the pair-partners do during conception that determines which one is dominant or if there should be a compromise.  This is the kind of thinking used to figure out how to transfer the mutated genes that confer immunity to HIV-AIDS from one person to another.

Pretty enough to be jewelry.

Such work is enormously expensive.  Even if the scientists figured out how to do it reliably (without damaging the genes next door to the ones being extracted or added), even if they figured out how to deliver it, let’s say, across Africa to every tribesman and his children, it wouldn’t be possible to get it done for a long time.  Not for scientific or even financial reasons, but for social and educational reasons.  

In the United States a high proportion of people can read, DO understand bacteria and viruses, DO understand routes of infection, and still stubbornly refuse to vaccinate their children or use other personally protective measures like condoms.  In fact, they try to evade laws that require vaccination and they criminalize condoms by assuming that carrying them means prostitution, grounds for arrest.  When it comes to defeating themselves, human beings are very resourceful.

One of the elements of being a smart alec who knows better than everyone else is to contradict whatever official wisdom is going around -- not that officials are always wise.  Emotion gets into the mix -- emotion is the “epigenomic” addition that shuts rationality on and off.  I’m watching “The Outcasts,” not the Western version of the American frontier, but the BBC sci-fi that was too thoughtful and too short on explosions to “live” so got canceled in the first year.  

The idea is based on these CGI-illustrated concepts:  that some people (being forced to emigrate from the planet Earth) had been genetically “enhanced” to make them better suited to harsh planets, but that when the ordinary folks arrived, their babies all died of some virus.  The newcomers thought it was a virus carried by the Frankenfolks and the order was given to kill them all.  But the person who was supposed to do it could not.  So now there are two opposed societies on the new planet and the planet’s indigenous lifeforms are not liking it.

Scottish Madonna (Amy Manson)

Much as we try not be entirely gripped by anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, we want OUR babies to survive.  But many people today, like the illiterates of the world, don’t understand that this is not just a technical problem that can be solved by running the baby over to the emergency room.  The romances and adventures in the media can be like evil CGI that distorts the realities of forming families and protecting infants.  

Where are the cautions against leaving little kids to be babysat by gormless young men with bad tempers so the woman can do some low-pay grinding job?  Where are the endorsing stories about how boys become nurturers, caring for each other as well as the defenseless?  Must they be animations?  Maybe it wouldn’t hurt.  

 Flawed Leader (Liam Cunningham)

Asshole Hero (Daniel Mays)

It’s a step in the right direction that on this BBC show the mighty leader has some serious moral flaws and the “asshole” everyone mocks is the guy who comes through, but simple reversals are not enough.  We need new systems.   And I don't mean solar systems.  But animation would be good.