(Main blog, daily posts)


Heart Butte School, Montana (Non-fiction, the school and its community.)

Robert Macfie Scriver and Art: An archive. Books by Mary Scriver

ON AMAZON: "Bronze Inside and Out: a biographical memoir of Bob Scriver" and "Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke: sermons for the prairie."

Friday, November 27, 2015


Darrell Robes Kipp

The phenomenon of the reading Indian is one I’ve never seen described.  Usually the readers are women, mixed blood or cross tribal, the product of parents who did well at Haskell or American Indian Art Institute (AIAI).  Sometimes they are male gays who have somehow managed to escape from the macho-styled booze and swagger micro-culture version of the mainstream.  Earlier they were veterans who were exposed to the paperback practice of reading-while-waiting.  And then there were the political movers-and-shakers who flew back and forth across the continent, trying to bring change but in the end mostly reinforcing status quo. There was plenty of time to read.

Poverty discourages reading, both because libraries in poor places are poorly stocked and usually run by overprotective white women and because no families can afford to buy books.  Once when I was relatively affluent, I sent books by the Native American Renaissance writers (most of whom began as readers) to the library of a rez school.  That summer I came by to say hello and the librarian thanked me.  I didn’t see the books on the shelf.  She had locked them up because “they’ll only steal them anyway.”  Darrell Kipp’s response was, “Wonderful!  They WANT them!  Let’s give each kid a whole shelf of books!”)

When I had taught there, I posted big maps of the rez and kept out on a counter a very large atlas of the world.  There was almost always a kid trailing his or her finger along the names and lines.  That was reading.  We composed a story about ourselves, “One Windy Day,” and everyone read it.  The ones who couldn’t read got someone to read it to them.  I ordered enough copies of “The Old North Trail” for a class to read together and gave them time to do it.  Each chapter had a puzzle question sheet asking for details to be written inside circles or as lists or under little sketches.  The girls and the readers did it easily, but some had to ask for them to tell the answers.  They did and I didn’t prevent that, because the non-readers remembered the answers, which was the point.

All persons' circle

Darrell Kipp was a reading Indian and the conventional expectation was that he would write a book, but the only one that got “published” was a small stapled book that a benefactor created out of his talks.  She paid to have boxes of them made but didn’t market them.  Darrell gave them away to people who appreciated them.  You could download most of it at this url.  Rather than books, Piegan Institute created videos.  This one was an opera with a libretto by Darrell and music by Rob Kapilow.

Darrell wrote all the time, long impeccably-typed letters about his doin’s that he mailed from around the country.  (There was no Internet.)  He was known as a poet, but I don’t remember seeing any poems.  He sent the beginnings of a novel once but it was ambiguous and a little menacing -- not about Indians at all, very different from the letters.  I didn’t know what to say.

Shirlee Crowshoe

When Darrell died -- all of a sudden and without a diagnosis for a long time though he faithfully attended the “man clinic” at the Indian Hospital -- I searched for his letters and mag clips and put them into red 3-ring binders along with the bits I’d written about him and his work, which includes Cuts Wood School, Piegan Institute, a summer series of August lectures.  He did not work alone but with a loose assemblage of changing people.  Dorothy Still Smoking was the original impetus, Ed Little Plume was the Blackfeet language expert (not just knowing the words but pronouncing them beautifully), and Bill Grant, an architect from back east with roots here, designed buildings both classic and functional.  Rosalyn LaPier brought in academic skills.  Shirley Crowshoe was an endless and dependable supply of information. There were many more whom I can’t name, and a cloud of kids who included some who stand out in every crowd.  I’m confident that they will be productive, maybe not by writing.

The problem now is what to do with these binders.  Darrell’s family will have a huge body of documents to deal with.  They are college-educated and worldly, but they have political and confidentiality issues to deal with.  He had kept journals since high school, by the end enough of them to fill a suitcase.  I never saw them, but he told me about them and I pressed him hard to find an institutional final home for them so that scholars could use them, but I’m no longer confident about ANY institutions being safe protectors.

I could just hoard my dozen binders.  I could try to publish parts, but that would raise copyright issues.  Publishing is dead.  Anyway, how arrogant is it for a white woman to come along and just capture a Blackfeet man’s work, even believing it’s for his benefit and the benefit of others?  I have no degree in Indian Studies.  Aren’t only Indians supposed to write about Indians?

Darrell’s mom was part of a little circle of Blackfeet women who had done well in school and became officer workers employed by various Indian-based governmental offices and agencies.  They had a steady income and shared resources in emergencies.  His father worked for the railroad.  His best friend at graduation was Joe Fisher.  I never did know why the Fisher brothers had educations beyond the norm.  Probably they were trained in WWII.  They were engineers working locally.  Jim Fisher was the Browning school system engineer. I don’t quite know what Emerson did.  

After military service in Korea, Darrell and his friend got the idea they should go to college and to them that meant Eastern Montana in Billings.  They simply presented themselves and in those days all high school graduates could go to college.  They had no idea where they would live or how they would pay their way, but the college was up to the problem and got them located and employed.

At the first summer vacation Darrell planned to hitchhike home -- this was the mid-Sixties -- but his roommate, son of a Great Falls lawyer, offered him a ride to his home.  This was his first taste of upper middle-class affluence and he never forgot.  Instead of having to thumb his way north to the rez, the roommate’s mother bought him a bus ticket.  (In those days there WAS a bus to Browning.)  The family remained his good friends.  This was the beginning of his interfacing between the poorest on the rez with the well-to-do in the cities.  Eventually he earned a degree from Harvard and also an MFA from Goddard.

I don’t want to just dump these red binders.  I might have time to condense them into something chronological or organized by topic.  But what if I don’t?  Who can I trust?  Who would benefit?  Should I put them in with the archives of Piegan Institute?  Do they belong to an account of Blackfeet insight and progress, or ought they to be part of mainstream dialogue?

How he loved to joke!

Dialogue was the real connection between Darrell and me.  Sometimes he got a letter from me, but more likely I stopped by or ran into him on the street and we talked and talked and talked.  Blackfeet is an oral culture, meant to be face-to-face.  I’ll write about the Blackfeet language revival later.  Is culture meant to adapt, to be personal, to begin on the street, to be full of intimacy and challenge?  Is it meant to die bit by bit as tribes do, so as to make room for the future?  In the beginning the People were afraid to learn their own language because their conquerers punished them for it.  It took courage to shake that off, to stop expecting a blow to the head.   Now they INSIST on learning the language.  Even white people know a few words. It's romantic and politically correct.

But the real recovery has been the ideas under the words.  They are stored in the land, pushing up like grass through the old lumber of the past.  That’s great.  Now what do I do with these red binders?

On this blog I wrote about Darrell on November 23, 2013.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


Father Marquette, early Jesuit

I welcome the advent of thinking about pre-literate history, not just because it is another breakup of the hegemonic world of Western Thought, but also because it is so valuable in thinking about Blackfeet and their history which has been written for such a short time, usually by Others.  Only now -- after the revolution in thinking represented by those slippery “French” thinkers like Foucault and Co. who have legitimated post-colonial ideas -- have the tribal people of the prairies been free to think about pre-contact culture, mostly because contact missionaries used shaming to suppress anything not “civilized”, rather transparently meaning “like Euros.”

Once the graphic marks that are the substrate of “writing” and “math” -- the meaning of literacy in our culture -- are pushed back from their dominance in our education systems, the language of information becomes “trace.”  That is, the stories and relationships embedded (literally) in geology and memory or even the morphology of bodies.  The same subtle evidence used by post-modern thinkers to unmask printed words to reveal their secret meanings can be used to explain the supposedly mute world around us.  What is the grammar of geology?  What is grammar?  To so many indigenous people it’s a burden and an abyss because it is used to force conformity to white ways.  But to many white people it’s just a waste of time.  Or a challenge to break all the rules while not entirely abandoning intelligibility.  On the other hand, many cling to rules as sanity and strictly limit inquiry into anything disturbing.

Maybe literacy is also a ball-and-chain of thought

I was sitting in the break room of a local school when an older boarding school educated woman remarked that a certain white woman in the past had been the best English teacher the school had ever had.  “She really knew the right way to talk and she corrected the rest of us all the time.”  That is, teaching English -- to this woman -- meant only correct usage. 

Another time, soon after Montana passed a law requiring the teaching of Native American history, an educated woman said to me,  “I don’t see why we have to study THEIR history.”  This community has a Belgian origin of which it is proud, but they don’t know anything about the European country (war, King Leopold) except it looks quaint and cultured to them.  Their emigration as a community just before WWI seems to them an arrival in the Promised Land.  1900 is the beginning of time.  

Grammar is about structure, DEEP organization of phrases, clauses, and order that rests on sound thinking about relationships.  Too fancy for high school -- maybe.  But I have yet to come across young people who aren’t enchanted by Whorf’s ideas of Hopi language being founded on gerunds and participles because it’s based on seeing processes instead of our noun-based sentences.  A unit on “Yoda’s grammar,” which is about word order (actually Celtic), was a hit in 7th grade.  I left teaching before I took it much farther.  Taking it that far is part of why I had to leave.

The grammar of the planet is geology, isn’t it?  Sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic, plus the effects of erosion and the subterranean tectonic plates?  These elements have always created and destroyed culture, which is assumed meanings about survival.  Very verby.  Volcano, flood, fertility, earthquake, cyclone, monsoon, the adjectives and adverbs of the land.
CSI lab

Ironically, much of the “trace” of early human times must be accessed by highly technical means in many dimensions and scales.  Analysis of compilations of language over time so that we can see the changes and where they probably originated.  “Bar codes” of the genomes of creatures, diseases, and all other entities dependent on meiosis rather than cloning.  Environmental evidence (drowned forests, clam fossils at the tops of mountains, retreating glaciers revealing Otsi).  The structure of the individual cell and the ports in its wall.  How stars form and now how planets form around stars.  These are traces beyond the ken of early story-tellers.   Much of their ceremony is in the scenes of CSI programs: lab work with mysterious machines but also little containers and eye-droppers of fluid, scrapings from the fenders of cars, analysis of hairs picked off a lapel with tweezers, interpretation of graphic screen evidence.

We know now how much we rub up against each other and our environments and how tiny bits stick to us, just as we leave little dots of ourselves: epithelials.  We’ve figured out that the epigenome is one way the genome is played like a piano and that things like nutrition, trauma, and contagion can imprint a genome for generations to come.  We can methylate single genes to turn them off and on and use light filament to pinpoint which gene we mean.

Lucy Parsons (circa 1853–1942) Labor organizer, socialist, and legendary orator. 

No one is admitting that our writing is a big part of modern consciousness, much of which rests on words.  The underlying concepts are quite ignored.  We begin to move back towards speaking.  Even a person in Africa who cannot write can speak with our clever handheld instruments.  This means primacy has shifted back to story and eloquent spoken persuasion, very much the core of Blackfeet life until a few hundred years ago.  Most of our politicians have not caught up with that yet.  Many of them still can’t figure out a computer.  Our political systems are garroted by words.  We still live in a noun world full of thing-acquisition, instead of a verb world of process, becoming, discarding.

Changing focus to physical remains, maybe you know the story of the first grave opened to reveal neanderthal remains which were "strewn with flowers":

(Wikipedia:  Shanidar Cave (Kurdish: Şaneder or Zewî Çemî Şaneder; Arabic: كَهَف شانِدَر‎) is an archaeological site located on Bradost Mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan.  The remains of ten Neanderthals, dating from 35,000 to 65,000 years ago, have been found within the cave.The best known of the Neanderthals are Shanidar 1, who survived several injuries during his life, possibly due to care from other members of his band, and Shanidar 4, whose body lay beside a flower that can either be explained as evidence of burial rituals or animal contamination.)

Our romantic media immediately summoned up a beautiful woman tragically killed and wreathed with our Victorian "language of flowers".  The facts turn out to be more prosaic, but still tragic since war in the Middle East now has destroyed most of the skeletons.  “Shanidar I” was an “old” (40 to 50) man with a disfigured face and many injuries.  The flowers in the grave were sometimes interpreted as evidence of “religion”, but it turned out there is a little gerbil/pika/hamster that will dig holes and stash both grasses and flowers in loosened soil.  I never did understand why strewn flowers proved there was an afterlife anyway.
Gandhi's body

More shocking to racial purists has been the fossil genetic evidence that modern humans in some places are carrying neanderthal genes, which calls up images of King Kong running off with blonde Jessica Lange clutched to his hairy chest.  Another version of this brute-haunt has been idea of the origin of contemporary persons being displaced from the Middle East to Africa.  Eve was BLACK.  Think of THAT!!!

So evidence of trace and stories by interpretation wind in and out of each other, saturated with emotion, just as they do in the CSI serieses.  Because these crime stories are contemporary, they are gender-inclusive.  Though the lab personnel are one gender or the other, perps might be atypical.  However, the series called “Bones” addresses a unique science problem, which is a kind of person (Asperger?) who is blind to human relationship but able to handle incredible amounts of “trace” information and bring them into meaningful implications.  Technology has overwhelmed their feeling systems. 

This is a sub-cellular medical illustration -- I don't know what it represents.

Another powerful force of the series is the constant and respectful attention to human bodies, vividly illustrated with “medical” cartoons of the rushing around in our flesh as the cell community of eukaryotes goes about their business of trying to stay alive.  We learn how subtle changes can force death as well as horrifying tearing apart of flesh, and then the putrefaction that reduces us to goo and the other beings who ingest and digest us, to their benefit.

There’s a lot more to say.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


The word “religion” is a semantic amoeba with dubious usefulness because it is so ambiguous and yet so few people dare to challenge it.  The ambiguity is part of the nature of the category, because it’s hoped to prevent conflict and because of ideas about tolerance, to be politically correct.  The power struggle over how to define religion for various conflicting purposes is as much part of the problem as whatever “religion” really “is” in all its manifestations.  Unspoken, the premise is that if I can convince others that certain idea-systems aren’t even religions, then I can rule out Islam or Taoism or Plains Indian systems because there’s no need to take them seriously or even try to understand what they’re talking about.  This is only another side of the evidently basic biological drive to define all rival peoples as NOT people, but only animals of some sort, not as elevated as we are. This justifies killing and enslavement, because that’s how we treat animals.

Part of the power of stigma and subversiveness is manipulating separation boundaries to give permission for what we want to do anyway -- which is to get rid of competitors on our turf.  An alternative, but related, strategy is the idea of Evil as inside-out Good.  Much of the interest in Satanic, Dionysian, or depraved cults of death, and other exciting systems, comes from the need for a defensive “religion” that uses the figures of the conventional in reversals.  Upside down crosses, etc.  The idea is to shock and repel attempts at control by mocking them with evil versions of what is conventionally accepted as good or at least powerless.  (The Stephen King strategy: the horrifying prom girl or the homicidal dog.)  One can’t be TOO unconventional, or no one will realize that they are being opposed, which is a different kind of subversive strategy, more dangerous.

People who obey social rules are considered “religious” without religion.  My extended family is a good example of the religious “nones”.  They are entirely respectable: no drinking, no smoking, no cursing, no drugging, no gambling, well-dressed, well-kept nice homes, newish cars always clean, good jobs, achieving kids -- but clearly not the result of attending church because they don’t.  Nor are they this way because of believing in God or any other impossible magic ideas -- though if you had a clipboard in your hand they would tell you they believe in God.  

They believe in not risking, in not inviting criticism, in having nice friends who share conventional mainstream indignations and affinities.  This adds up to something that is more like participating in the dominant culture than what books describe as religion.  If something embarrassing happens, it is soon explained and the subject changed.  If something truly tragic happens, then the talk is of “healing.”  This is the default.  It is no one’s “fault.”  It’s simply what is.  Their worst flaw is protective hypocrisy.  This is not ethics by rule, but “teleological” (controlled by the goal) so as to return to peace and respectability.

Watch out for the following, because it has a lot of unreliable sarcasm in it.  It’s a list of various and sometimes irreconcilable but meanings of the word “religion” accepted in various contexts.

1.  A system for organizing one’s life with the goals of safety and prosperity.  This is often culturally bound, esp. in the handling of topics forbidden to discuss, like abortion, sex outside marriage, same sex relationships, resistance to sexual dyads or variations.  It might be called morality.  The Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule.

2.  Belief in a god or gods, either as a reassurance or as an intimidation.  For some people, god or Jesus or Buddha as a role model.  (Why imitate when you could become?) Conventional mainstream people, like much of our pop media, can only imagine religion in terms of “God,” so the struggle over defining an imaginary being obscures everything else.

3.  Denial of a belief in any god or gods.  (A-theism and science count as religions.)  Or seeing god in everything, maybe including ourselves, or just ignoring the issue altogether.

4.  Complex theologies developed through reflection rather like mathematics, often called “systematics.”  These are very serious, the basis of schools for professional clergy and scholars, and sometimes as much dressing up culture with theory as insights into reality.  They often are related to politics in their role as justification.

5.  Mystic awareness of the sacred.  People do write about this and love to read about it, but it is the ultimate version of something that needs no words: just point.

6.  The sacred as a system of taboos meant to protect, respect, preserve -- like not walking on graves, wearing or not wearing a hat in a dedicated sacred building, and so on.  Not eating other people might be the most extreme example, but there are cultures where cannibalism shows respect and merging.

7.  A theology used by institutions to justify themselves and therefore merged with one particular system by use of terms like “god” in pledges and legal matters.  God as a wax seal of authenticity.

8.  Ultimate authority, sometimes used to justify nations and the claims of their leaders.  A “tie-breaker” or mediator that can avoid violence, like the Pope in medieval Europe.

9.  Magic.  Casting spells and controlling events or people.

10.  Ghosts and dragons.  Escaping to impossible events, a craving for miracles.

11.  Valorization of the naturally sacred: mountains, oceans, trees.

12.  Social efforts to control whatever seems harmful, whether suicide, oppression, killing of children, and other taboos about sex, food, money, clothing, and so on.  This is where morality meets magic.  (Stopping tragedy seems impossible except with miracles.)

13.  The effect of writing on religion is profound.  But the Sacred “Book” is valorized how?  The Bible is “curated,” meaning censored by a committee of old men at the Council of Nicaea.  The Apocrypha is part of the material left out from the same period and reputedly from the same prophets.

14.  Virtue can be an inadvertent plan for extinction.  One reason to protect the stigmatized is that they might be better suited for the bottleneck times than conventionally adjusted people.

My interest in this new field of “Deep Time” is of intense usefulness to me because I think one source of clarification might be going back to a period BEFORE there was any religion.  How did religion form?  How do human brains recognize what is sacred in the terms of Eliade, a felt difference that sets some situations apart?  What, even in our modern brains, still wants to pray?  How can interacting molecules floating in a red soup separated from the world outside our bodies by a thin easily-torn skin, make us feel so convinced that we have a unique identity and that we are making our own choices?

Some, who see religion as “organized” and therefore a matter of institutions with hierarchies and duties, claim religion did not exist before agriculture was invented, because there is no evidence of temples before that.  (Their “definition” of religion requires temples).   But if one goes to the kind of religion we call “spirituality,” which is just about as variously defined as “religion”, that certainly is not confined to agricultural communities.  Pre-industrial hunting is trying to become in harmony with the world and therefore sensitive to opportunities to get prey.  If the farmer’s religion is based on crops, the hunter’s religion is based on sign, and there you have it:  Jacob and Esau.  Still arguing about what to eat.

Luckily, partly because of the new research on how the brain and body neurons function to guide us, what genetic research reveals, and the greatly expanded understanding of the planet’s time-line, there is a body of people thinking about these issues.  There’s still the issue of virtue giving eternal life in some other place, the problem of how a decidedly finite and vulnerable body can live forever and whether anyone would really want to, and just what might a “soul” be like -- a part of one’s identity that is separable from one’s body but imperceptible and possibly not even conscious.  

Have the terms of survival really changed?  Is virtue a waste of energy?  

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Sanctuary of First Unitarian Church of Chicago

At my seminary the students prepared a short worship service as Vespers on Friday close-of-day.  We were encouraged to be experimental, which interested me very much after some eye-opening events when I was a lay person attending a Leadership School. They were simple designed events with deep impact.

In seminary we used a small side chapel at the cathedral-like main sanctuary of First Unitarian.  A firewall normally separated the two spaces, but it was stuck, fully raised open, leaving a dark chasm where one sensed the height of the stone interior even with lights off.  I was struck by this “feeling” of unseen emptiness and remembered a scrap of poetry about facing the void, how what we see is somehow ourselves.  So I organized a conventional sequence of song, reading, lesson, prayer, but all on this theme and with everyone seated looking into the dark past a big mirror where we were reflected.  It was pretty effective.

Years later, when serving a small congregation in Canada that was in love with the UU practice of lighting candles adapted from the Catholic practice by adding words by the lighter to the congregation.  They never got enough of lighting candles on Sunday before the service, so that sometimes the entire hour was taken up with candles lit for things ranging from deep grief to trivia.  One Christmas Eve I decided we’d just go with it.

I arranged the space with rows of chairs on each side and a line of folding tables down the center.  Down the middle of the tabletops, I set up dozens of candles, using Pyrex drinking glasses half-full of salt as candleholders.  The theme was babies: our babies, other people’s babies, dead and lost babies, climaxing with the Baby Jesus.  Each section was begun with a short reading, then the people were invited to light candles.  Soon we were all shimmering in heat waves.  (Do not do this without a good fire strategy, even if it’s only buckets of water ready to throw onto the tables!)  Tears poured down cheeks, laughter met song, and people talked about this for days afterwards.  I doubt that anyone has forgotten it.

Abrahamic liturgies that developed into today’s mass used by various denominations have their roots in sacrifice -- some say human, certainly animal, and gradually becoming less bloody, diminishing to symbolic substances  (water,oil) and merging with communal meals, accompanied with study of written materials that so dominate religious experience even now.  The Christian branch has kept an echo of sacrifice in Communion, shared food considered to be intimate recognition of the life of Jesus.  The Jewish sequence is anchored in Friday Shabbat, a family congregation that shares bread and lights candles.  Muslims ask for prayers throughout the day, wherever they are, but always with their heads pointed to Mecca.  Fasting is their sacrifice.

Blackfeet ceremonies like opening Bundles with song and dance have no written material but rather use songs associated with specific animals whose hides are in the Bundle as prompters.  At the opening of the Thunder Pipe Bundle in spring --  meant to beg for protection from the lightning strikes that walk across the land with thunderstorms, -- a big bowl of sarvisberry soup is eaten after everyone picks out the biggest berry and passes it up to the smudge altar to prompt a good crop.

Heartfelt ceremonies in the face of danger strong enough to threaten survival will have much power that crystalizes into forms that are natural to daily life.  The trouble with designing powerful ceremonies today is that most nice prosperous people who attend mainstream churches slide along grooves without much intensity, mostly controlled by media promotion of events as opportunities to buy.  

Depression, despair, ennui, meaninglessness, skepticism, drug-taking are the result of lack of contact with the fundamental reality of our animal selves: the senses.  Research now suggests that the neurons of the body (not just the dashboard in the brain) provide information about the out-of-skin-world to the in-body self through hundreds of perceiving cells, not just the five senses.  And these sensate codes are stored in other specific cells according to the moments of first perception.

The coded information may be very simple and subtle: the perception of being along the edge of a space, the information that your head (still attached) is leaving the top of your body, where it ought to be, because you are bending over.  Some people have eidetic memories which means they can store so much sensation that they can summon up pages they have seen and “read” them from memory.  Most of us might remember when looking for something written that it was in a book that had a red cover with a picture of a tiger and on a page about halfway through, printed halfway down.   Some researchers suggest there are as many as 200 different kinds of perception, some of them linked to memory more than others.  Mostly never rising to consciousness.

The sensate codes developed by experiencing moments and linked to memory may be the sensing of one’s own interior emotional state, which has its own perceptual system (the autonomic nervous system) operating with both electrochemical strands of nerve fiber and excreted molecules, floating in blood and plasma, from various sources with various effects.  Most people know that twisting squeeze of the guts that goes with high excitement, maybe awareness of danger.  Others are so used to denying, controlling, forcing the appearance of compliance, that they have sealed off awareness.  Many techniques try to recover code in memory or possibly to create new ones.  The line between therapy and worship gets blurred in the process, but that doesn’t seem like a bad result.  It's not the practice but the content that might be disturbing.

Intense awe and the humbling of cosmic awareness are harder to provide, but it seems to be coming to us now through what some have called Mystic Science: the feeling of being part of a whole far beyond our ability to perceive.  No longer do we believe in the protection of a big humanoid ruler, but we still remain vulnerable to the impact of looking at a long vista on earth or the limitless spaces a time-linked telescope can reveal.  I have no idea which organ secretes what (though there are suggestions) or which cells respond to "Eternity", but something certainly seems to make the body respond and since the body is the substrate of felt meaning, the response can be measured by instruments.  

Personal behavior is a little trickier.  If survival is predicated on control and domination, reinforced by a religion’s assurance of the right to domination, then -- unreasonably -- violence and destruction of threats, real or not, the results will be (in my book) Evil.  If the response to awe is an impulse to participate and protect others, it can slip the issue of survival over to the whole complex of the planet, including all beings without worrying about the priority of humans, of living things, or any one “ideal” state.  Then the focus goes to the ongoing torrent of time, which tears everything apart -- then reunites them in transformation.

Our societies around the globe seem to be re-enacting this now.  The imagery of holocaust is nuclear/drought/famine based.  We see the images daily but without a powerful, emotional, sense-coded feeling of belonging and participating.  What ceremony can we design that will provide this?

Monday, November 23, 2015

ON CONTAINERS: A Response to Daniel Lord Small

The building that was created for Meadville/Lombard UU seminary was sold and not just repurposed but also totally renovated to house the Neubauer Collegium, which supports scholars and other thinkers in their work.  One of the recent thinking guests was  Daniel Lord Smail whose current work is "On Containers."

This abstract but “felt” concept is developing at the intersection of “deep time,” which is the effort to understand very very early humans combined with what we are now learning about how the brain forms concepts, metaphors, cultures out of human lives.   Here is a video of the talk Prof. Smail gave last month in the Meadville/Neubauer building.

The following is a blog post, but also a first response to this powerful but elusive field of study.  Professor Smail’s main formal study is in Mediterranean cultures and history.  But I’m adapting his ideas to what I know about Blackfeet.

The first container was the human hand.

This hand made it possible to create containers from whatever materials were in the environment.

Containers represent wealth because they make it possible to isolate, order, carry and store useful materials such a foodstuffs or fuel.

Containers make “wet cooking” possible by holding the food where it can be boiled even if the container is flammable, so long as it hold water.  Closely watching containers beginning to cook gives us concepts: “will this idea hold water?”  This is called “lattices” of thought -- a structuring that allows progress of ideas.

Cooking causes people to gather to eat, maybe in a shelter, and the bringing and sharing of food reinforces communities and families so that they become containers of relationship and a meaningful unit which can be linked in interaction with others.

Hunter-gatherer uses of containers must be light, convenient for carrying, like sacks made of hides, maybe small enough to attach to belts.   Even a shelter, like a tipi or other kind of tent, will be a “soft container.”  Hard-sided boxes don’t appear until people stay in one place, maybe because of agriculture or possibly because of fishing.  In the Pacific Northwest the people make houses out of easily split cedar boards, so there were boxes there, and the people lived on local fish.  They created canoes that were containers. 

In the Mandan villages, the people make houses out of reinforced earth mounds.  On the prairie along the Rockies, the Blackfeet cut lodgepole pine to make a skeleton on which to arrange a cover of skin.  In marshy land the people may bundle reeds into units of building.

The Blackfeet moved constantly and seasonally according to the sources of food.  When the Camas roots were ready to gather, they camped there to process them: burying them in a hole, building a fire on top and keeping it hot long enough to bake the roots.  People still do that by putting potatoes under a campfire to bake.  Though so far no animals have been observed making containers, some recognize natural containers and will, for instance, put a nut into a stone hole that will allow the shell to be cracked open without rolling when pounded.
baking camas roots

Much more elaborately, Blackfeet used “found” containers, opportunistic formations.  When using the technique called a “piskun” or buffalo jump, the people created a pop-up factory. Part of repeating the use of a certain place was not just the cliff that the animals could be driven over, but a cliff that had on the high side enough of a grassy valley (natural container) for a group of buffalo to linger there, grazing.  On the low side there needed to be another meadow where pits could be dug to throw in bones to cook the fat out of the marrow.  The meat was sliced thin, dried in sun and over smoky fires, sewn into sacks of skin, and stashed in caves high enough in the cliffs to keep the sacks dry.  

All of these strategies depend upon close observation and experience.  This makes human beings containers of knowledge for the others.  In that sense, animals who live in groups store knowledge of place and action.  Often it is a female, like a cow elk, maybe because they are not so likely to be killed young, so she remembers the migrations of the seasons, where the water sources are, and the good places to calve.

A responding use of hands is with tools.  A Plains Indian woman carried a digging stick because so much of the food was roots and rhizomes.  It is an humble object and usually overlooked by young male anthropologists.  This was the valuable object considered sacred because of its meaning at the Sun Ceremonies.  Tools -- in our relentless gender-role binaries -- are for men who must keep hands free for the instruments of hunting and war -- bows and arrows, or atl-atls and their use of containers corresponded:  quivers or small belt sacks -- but because everything was made of local materials, it was simpler to go where the supplies were than to remove them to carry along.  When metal knives, awls, needles arrived through trade, they were small and valuable, so the people of both genders made custom containers and sheaths for them.  For materials like hides, the container was likely to be a parfleche -- a rawhide folded envelope that lent itself to decoration, one of the few square objects in a camp.


In places with reeds or straight withy branches, like willows, baskets and woven shapes became containers.  In places with the hard obsidian glassy stones, the people learned flint-knapping, chipping the material into sharp points for knives and arrows and then those could be carried in a sack.  Other special materials that needed containers were paints: red iron ochre, yellow from certain fungi, special charcoals,  or aromatic smudges from dried sweet grass, balsam fir (sweet pine), sage.  No doubt there were medicinal leaves and roots.  The little fossil stones, iniskim,  that look like tiny buffalo were carried along and the advice was to make a little cushion of bison fur to protect them in their bundle.

So, if containers are women’s objects (womb) and tools are men’s objects (like penises) then the two must be brought together in order to create a culture of daily interface with the work of hunting, cooking, and gathering.  Then there are children who can mature.

In the course of this talk called “containers,” Smail presented lists of belongings made for purposes of taxation or inheritance.  On the short lists of poor households, some things were designated as “sad,” which in that area (Tuscany) means something like “tristesse” which means used, worn, shabby, or what in translations from Blackfeet are called “scabby.”  One whole tribal group was called “Scabby Robes” because their tanning was spotty for some reason.  They were a group who did a lot of trading, which meant they were vulnerable to disease from contact.

horsehair bridle

A category of objects that are “restrainers” rather than containers but can do the same work of linking, sorting, keeping at hand, carrying along, is that of the rope.  I once watched a man separate out vegetable fiber by taking tall green weeds between his two hands and vigorously rolling them until the soft green stuff was pulverized and fell away, leaving the tough supporting fibers that could then be twisted together.  Once horses were around, their tail hairs were excellent for fine braiding into beautifully patterned bridles.  Vegetable and sheep fibers are the basis for clothing and linens.  In the Pacific Northwest there was a kind of woolly dog that was kept for its coat, which could be a kind of knitting wool.  That area still produces characteristic sweaters.  

All of these land-based objects, so intimately felt by hands and so constantly in use -- storage is a kind of use -- are a relationship with place that is lost by the kind of urbanization that is made of concrete and plastic.  “Don’t touch,” is a childhood barrier to understanding the world.  

Around “basic” people -- maybe called “paleolithic” -- there is a lot of time in the day to sit doing daily occupations, making and preparing materials, and talking all the while: telling stories, explaining where to find materials, remembering events and who did what, gossiping and criticizing.  In the “anthropocene” the urge is to hurry, to focus on one partial work (one cooks, one sews, one manages money, one makes furniture) and to trust that others are doing their part of the work well.  Relationships are often not intimate, long-term, or in any context but their one duty.

I came to this body of thought (contained) through reflection on designed spiritual experience as in religious ceremonies.  I’ll continue in another post.  It was the subject of my doomed Master’s Thesis at M/L which stalled out in part because this kind of thinking was not done except by Eliade.  But also in part because this new dawn of neurological research had not made a “way in.”  The building itself has become the container that links and preserves my work.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

STEVEN JESSE BARCUS, Quietly Remarkable

Steven Jesse Barcus, 86, of Browning and a Blackfeet Tribal member, passed away peacefully surrounded by his family on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, at Benefis Hospital in Great Falls.

A celebration of his life will be held at Mark Lanes in Browning, Saturday, Nov. 21, starting at 2 p.m. and running until 6 p.m. Bring your memories.

Born in Gardiner to Isaac and Roma (Samples) Barcus, he lived most of his life in or around Browning.

Steve was dedicated to helping his community in any way he could. He served on the school board for over 20 years, many of them as chairman. At the same time he served on the town council as Alderman and five terms as Mayor. During all that time he owned and operated Park Lanes for 38 years and raised a family of seven children. He is remembered as a man who cared about the youth in his community.

Steve grew up on the family ranch north of Browning near the Canadian border which was his mother’s original allotment. He learned to rope and ride for the brand and drive a team and rake for haying. He was not impressed with farming in those days of the steel wheel tractor, but he learned to love farming again when he partnered with his son and began driving tractors with cabs and air conditioning. He had numerous pets from an antelope to billy goats to dogs and horses. 

Steve attended grade school in many of the one-room schoolhouses that dotted the north in the 30s and 40s. He attended Browning High and graduated in 1948. While in school he was active in band, football and FFA. After high school he went to work on a contract crew, putting up poles for the electric cooperative. Steve joined the Navy prior to hostilities in Korea. He became an Electrician’s Mate and went to work on a troop transport. He sailed around the world twice before his enlistment ended. Once back home he became a lifelong member of the VFW.

Steve put his Naval education to use and got a job with Glacier Electric Cooperative as a lineman and worked for them for six years. In November 1962, two months after his youngest child was born, Steve made a mistake after a 58-hour shift that cost him his right arm. Reaching out for a live wire, 14,400 volts shot the last 10 inches and coursed through his body, in through his right hand and out the bottom of his left foot blowing a tightly tied work boot off in the process. 

Steve died there on that pole and would have stayed dead had he not fallen 30 feet to the ground. The abrupt stop started his heart again, and thankfully his apprentice, Ron Zuback, performed CPR and transported him to Browning. His right arm was amputated mid forearm, and his left foot had a two inch crater in the bottom. After months of skin grafts and healing Steve left the hospital with a hook for a right hand that in time he could use as well as his other hand. 

Instead of moving to Cut Bank to work at the Co-op’s warehouse, he took a severance package and bought the bowling alley in Browning. What was supposed to be a 10-year plan morphed into a 38-year, 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, 10 months a year obsession. He and Kathy were great bowlers, both having been state champions.

Steve and Kathy spent 38 years teaching Junior bowling and running adult leagues, but he loved to watch Browning teams compete in all high school sports and hoped to make bowling one of them. He loved to watch his children and grandchildren compete in all levels of sports and encouraged sportsmanship in all competition. “Win with honor. Lose with grace,“ was a familiar refrain from him.

He had many friends in his time here on earth.

Steve is survived by his wife of 58 years, Kathleen; and his children, Steven Barcus (Loyce), Daniel Barcus (Alcinda), Colleen Barcus, James Barcus and Donald Barcus (Johnel); his adopted children Will Wood (Jennifer) and Crystal Wood; six grandchildren, Daniel, Jeremy, Katie, Trecia, Katelyn and Jeran; and 12 great-grandchildren. He is also survived by his sisters Sara Edmo and Carolyn Barcus; a brother, Acel Barcus (Bobbi Jo); brother-in-law, Donald Stevenson (Vicky); and numerous nephews and nieces.

He is preceded in death by his parents, Isaac and Roma Barcus, and his twin brother, Clinton Barcus.


Park Lane, now Mark Lane

The Barcus family was like a lot of us in the Sixties: lived and worked in the business, kept hours from dawn to midnight, and felt lucky if it was work we really liked.  This is not the way people think of "Indians" because they never see the people quietly working indoors.  I'm sure some people thought the Barcuses were "white".  In fact, today they might be classified as "Metis," going on names alone.  Barcus is a Basque name. ( Samples is Scots and before that Norman-French.  ) He was on the school board that hired me in 1961, along with Robert Bremner, Merle Magee, Jerry Rosenberger, and maybe Fred Cobell.  It was a solid panel of sensible people.

Steve Junior married Loyce Pemberton who is now our postmaster in Valier.  I knew her sister back at the beginning of the Seventies when Bill Haw ran the Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop out of the old commodities warehouse.  Dana is now the Human Resource Director.  This is another family very much invested in education.

Loyce and I spent a few moments remembering and smiling over Steve.  She said that if he had a reason to call her, he asked his question, got the answer, and just hung up!  No goodbye or howdy-doo or other fuss.  In his later years he began to say "thank you" at the end and she was startled!

When Steve and Kathy moved to make more room for the family, they were inspired to buy the old square two-story Masonic Lodge on  the town square and remodel it into a unique home.  I was never inside, but even from the outside it was an eye-catcher, full of color and flowers in the narrow yard.

The Park Bowling Alley is now owned by Mark Pollock and called the Mark Bowling Alley.  Only had to change one letter!  Steve Junior is a professional welder who can weld steel frames for skyscrapers, but he and a partner are developing a master welding service at the old Wellman place on highway 89 where it crosses Two Medicine River.  If I remember Loyce right, she said that Steve was born in a little cabin on the Mad Plume ranch and his birth certificate lists his place of birth as "Family."  That meant the closest established place:  "Holy Family Mission" on the river.

Some people travel the world, but the Barcuses stayed home and traveled through time.  1926 is far away now, but Steve didn't waste any time and didn't quit early.