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http://prairiemarylongform.blogspot.com

SHORT STORIES

NOW ACCUMULATED AT prairiemaryblog.wordpress.com

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

Robert Macfie Scriver and Art: An archive.

www.lulu.com/prairiemary: 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."

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

WE TURN AWAY FROM CATHARSIS.

http://www.davidludwigmusic.com/shop/haiku-catharsis
 MUSIC PLAYS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WEBSITE.


Whether it was due to serendipity or synchronicity, a totally unlikely source I found by following tags has brought me exactly the insight I wanted about the neglect of the humanities, esp. by the hegemonic English speaking world.  Timothy Haase is a classicist loosely related to Wheaton College, of all the unlikely places for an eclectic lefty like myself to go looking.  His essay was on Medium, of all unlikely places, and addressed a video game called “That Dragon, Cancer.”  The video, consciously breaking with the swords and sorcerers conventions, recounts the real death of a boy in simulacrum terms that are like conventional video-games, but then again, raise the stakes and methods to access true tragedy.


It constantly bugs me that church services and supposedly thoughtful writers’ platforms are so trivial and predictable.  I search for some response to the overwhelming cultural devotion to “therapeutics” in terms of healing warriors missing half their bodies, always in wrenching pain while having no impact on events; or in terms of balancing a child’s death with a trip to Disneyland.  “Backrub Medicine.”  

It seems clear that we are a culture intent on making the humanities into nursery rhymes or Harlequin novels.  Or an economic bonanza for the medical and indemnity industries that have become the real SuperPowers.  It seems part of the feminist agenda to replace catharsis with soothing, as a way of maintaining control and the status quo, now that women have a rhetorical foothold strong enough to fire presidents of Alpha universities.

Beyond that, it bugs me that a certain sort of woman is so tone deaf to what T. tells in his boy-stories over and over, that she will deny tragedy in plain sight without any mitigation or much discussion.  At most the atrocities strike them as “sad” and they offer to “help” in some irrelevant way by saying how much they love the sufferers.  They have no dimension, no stature, or “gravitas,” if I have to use that word.


Reading Haase, I realize they have an education deficit.  They were not asked to read Edith Hamilton or even Greek drama in high school as I was in the Fifties.  In my high school (1953-57) we discussed formal “catharsis” rather than PTSD neurotheory.  And if catharsis came by way of whores, then that’s the truth.  It never occurred to them that Iphigenia may have been sacrificed for nothing or the price Antigone paid in order to sustain moral order was too high.

Humanities have been so overrun by science and math that the high dimensions have been lost.  What ought to be a partner and restraint on the science/techie world has been gut-shot to cripple its hold.  It’s so easy to just de-fund the arts.  Sometimes real tragedy is ignored and sometimes it’s diminished to cuteness, like calling a major anthro journal “Peeps.”  (Coming soon to your neighborhood, “Jehovah.”  We already did Jesus, but we could call a new version “Geez” or “Gee Whiz!”)

Newly hatched baby sea turtles

Science has provided transactional technical expertise that has lifted many a techie into prosperity (immediately sucked up by rent and investment gambles).  They are like the baby new-hatched turtles scuttling for the moonlit sea, in Tennessee William’s “Suddenly Last Summer” image, while the black and ragged predators descend on their cubicles from the sky.  “They” (?) tell us that commerce and social platforms are what keep the peace, because they make us stay in our pre-frontal cortex mode of rules and principles.  Some peace.  More like pieces.

Haase enumerates definitions of tragedy and catharsis:

“Tragedy is a representation of an action of a superior kind — grand, and complete in itself — presented in embellished language, in distinct forms in different parts, performed by actors rather than told by a narrator, effecting through pity and fear, the purification (catharsis) of such emotions.  (from Aristotle’s “Poetics”, Ch. 6, 1449b; Trans. Anthony Kenny)

Isn’t it obvious that much of T’s writing is “performed by an actor,” adding a layer that allows contraction, repetition, irony, oxymoron — and requires empathy?  He has always told us he is a performance artist, a dancer, sometimes “nue”, a primordial practice.  Why is it assumed to be narcissism and deception when we all know Greek theatre was performed wearing masks?  Print is ALWAYS a mask.  But then, so is vid.
"Orestes" by Euripides

The verbal noun (catharsis) derives from kathairo, “to cleanse, purify, purge” and katharos “ritually purified, cleansed” and can operate in multiple registers: RITUAL (as in the cleansing of guilt or defilement), MEDICAL (the cleaning of wounds, the evacuation of fluids), and INTELLECTUAL (the clarification of problems.)  

Sometimes the problem is in the receiver: a filter like a bag over the head.  Think of these three meanings in terms of unwanted immigrants and whether they are thought of as offending, defiling, guilty beings; or whether they seem wounding to our lives, carriers of infection, draining pus and sewage; or whether they fatally burden economic problems that were already difficult.


Now think of the three aspects in terms of boys with HIV: offending, defiling guilty beings doing sexwork, taking drugs, defacing buildings, wounding us and each other, carrying fatal viruses, being naked and needy.  And yet finding love between each other.  An analysis of all the mass shooters of recent years concludes the shooter is likely to be male, unable to form a sexual partnership, resentful because of believing something is deliberately being withheld from him, mistaking violence for power.

Now consider the failed imperative need of society to purify, cleanse and purge whether it is through the misguided punishment by clinics meant to cure, or through the refusal to rationally allot public funds according to need, or the incarceration of suffering youngsters.  Because we can.


Survival is the driving force of life.  Survival of the individual, of the group, and of us all.  That’s not the tragedy.  We know we will all die in the end.  That’s not the tragedy.  The tragedy is in the knowing and ignoring.  If we pretend that we don’t know, that’s a diminishment.  And tragedies at least deserve some scale, some grandness, some ennoblement.  And witnessing.  This is a humanities issue, not technical or scientific.

The boys of Cinematheque are a Greek chorus.  “You saw us and pretended you did not.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

WHAT I LEARNED THERE




UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO DIVINITY SCHOOL

For thirty-five years I’ve been following out the concepts related to “felt meaning” as contrasted with (not opposed to) prefrontal cortex, print-based, Greek and scientific method reasoning. This last was the main product of my seminary experience (1978–82) in Chicago. I had no idea it would be. They did not intend that it would be — quite the opposite.
The decision to attend came from several ambitions, not least of which was to amount to something, to understand the world, and to be irreproachable. Arrogant. Doomed! But it was the kind of stupidity that a lot of people shared, took advantage of, and thought was worthy. Computers and the internet were just dawning. The order created and imposed as a result of WWII (which was based on male thinking and nations as power-bases) was at the very edge of challenge from a newer generation thinking of Vietnam and violence. And about to learn coding and hacking.
Doves and kisses: girly religion

We went from conventional mainstream religious denominations (even treating Catholicism and Judaism as denominations and totally ignoring Islam) to a revaluing of Eastern religions and indigenous concepts smushed into one “spiritual” blob, ignoring their differences. Now the idea was to experience “spirituality” which walked hand-in-hand with magic.
When people got deeply enough into this new/old approach, they began to find the old dark evil that was also in the seminary-informed, rational, power-mongering theologies. Past water-mingling ceremonies, the shadow of sacrifice arose and then forced sacrifice. Like blood and human death. And now sex rolled out into the world — not the reality of bodies but a power-porn domination that said it was stripping disguises but was actually removing all defenses. By this time people were so numbed by confusion and contradiction that they were grateful to feel anything at all. They cocooned.
The flip side
Sitting at an array of screens — using one’s brain to find patterns, connections, if-then relationships — is not the same as learning law, theology, and academic precedence-guided disciplines. Programming offers access to a cleaner, less-doubtful world but it also removes humans, who are the point of courts, churches and universities. At their best, these last real professions are meant to march on evil, torture, the discarding of whole populations, the monetization of the basics of life, and to nail their hides to the barn door.
It turned out that the contemporary crusaders were easy to buy off. They had also turned robotic, meaning they can now be programmed and switched off. Individual “great men” are embraced and restrained by an election system that puts them at the center of a blinding web of dependence with no knowledge of the world except getting in and out of limousines and private airplanes, reading papers produced by others. They live in a web of show-runners. If they object, they begin to be slipped narcotizing substances — like money and admiration. The model is no longer Presidents, but rather what we imagine Caliphs must be like.

What is the work of religious institutions in a world like this? I would argue there isn’t any. They’re part of the problem. But what is “spiritual,” which is pretty much colored Jello so far? I would argue we need to turn to the secular, meaning the work of the world.
Number one is the necessity of preserving it as a place we can dwell. Our increased sensitivity to the tiny details has been a true revelation. Except for our instruments, how would we know that the fibres released into the world’s water from washing our fleece jackets is killing fish? How would we know that Roundup Ready seeds create Roundup Ready weeds, and that chemical fallow fields create cancer, autistic children, and sterility. Sterility is the point. It is not a salvation. It is literal death.
Chemical fallow
Secularism must concentrate on disempowering the sterilizers, the eliminators, the efficiency-imposers. I would disperse all regional hospitals, all state universities, all private armies and prisons and water systems, in the interest of returning them to the ecological relationships they ought to be serving. I’ve been the victim of medical practice managers, denomination promoters, school system denominators, and alphabetized federal law “enforcement” agencies and art cartels. Therefore, I give precedence to the local, the ecological, and what is called “transparent.”
This is not a transparent planet, even though what is simply apparent is often ignored. We don’t see what is there. As it turns out, with our augmented but barely-beginning-to-be-understood information about things like the unimaginable cosmic waves that wash through every part of our planet from crust to core, or the ability of brainless creatures to “make decisions” and assert preferences, we are gob-smacked. The continuousness and yet the fragility of all our evolved coping mechanisms and sources of energy, and the vulnerability to our own corruption and a plethora of eager parasites make us tremble. (And that’s just looking at the social world!)

Deleuzeguattarian thought (and I don’t claim to really get all that these philosophers say) talk about nodes and nomads, which in the vegetable world would be rhizomes. They are places of concentration and then pathways that connect them. Our brains are patterned this way and so are our societies. They are pruned by apoptosis (voluntary death) when they are not used, when they don’t get enough water, when they separate too far for the paths to be cleared by our passing feet.
Much of the Western world has been kept together by biological relationships: nuclear family, inherited land, male priority, and the deep flesh drives of jealousy, possession, desire, and terror — managed by loops of molecular interactions in bodies who believe they are thinking.
This has only been reinforced by our prioritizing of logic, law, boundaried disciplines, nodes of learning too esoteric for the larger population. Now that the biological kernel of committed couples raising their biologically validated children has been made untenable by economics, unfulfillable desires, government unreliability, and gender politics, much of the world as we knew it has simply dissolved. Men do not make the shift from sex competition to protection of family. Women do not make the shift from allure to nurture. Children are as much free-floating particles as the tiny free-agents of sea molluscs and meet the same fate.

What does a religious/spiritual feeling-and-reasoning person have to say to these sprats in their struggle? Can it be put into print? Can it be put into words at all, or can it be conveyed in images? Or must we go there, experience that, embrace everything? Who has arms long and strong enough? What progress, Pilgrim?

Monday, June 27, 2016

DOES AN OCTOPUS HAVE A HIPPOCAMPUS?


Sy Montgomery’s book, “The Soul of an Octopus”, is both seductive and astounding and yet it only describes close interaction with the creatures in an aquarium, the latest target for PETA.  Reading this story will convince a person that just eliminating aquaria is a dumb idea, like forbidding artists to paint pictures, but also make it clearly imperative to protect captured creatures with diligence and understanding.  I’m going to quote quite a bit to keep from being inaccurate.

The understanding part is not easy.  These octopuses (mostly Pacific Giant species), scary as they can be, have followed such an entirely different evolutionary path that our assumptions can’t possibly fit, and yet interacting directly with them feels personal, both in their impact on the human and in the projection of individuality from each of them.  They’re quite distinct from each other.


An octopus has no brain like ours, though their “head” has “eyes” quite a bit like ours.  Each tentacle has its own brain and can continue to live when separated, at least for a while.  The nose/mouth complex of a human (taste and smell) is in each suction cup ranged in rows down the arms: they taste with those suction cups but also can vary the suction through a little hole in the center and can fold themselves enough to pinch up small things, one cup separate from another.  When they are handed the little fish or crab they eat, they accept it at the tip of the tentacle, and then pass it down the “arm” to the mouth which is a venomous beak.  Their siphon can blast a person with water.  When they “ink” with a cloud of obscuring darkness, they need to leave because it will suffocate them as well as their enemy.

Sy explores all this with adventures, including her own struggle to learn to scuba dive, and with her empathic reaching out and sharing the reaching out with others.  She picks up on a multi-armed starfish that lives in the same tank as the octopus and which has NO BRAIN AT ALL, but constantly tries to sneak over to steal the octo’s fish, except that it gets hosed with a blast of water from the octo.  It has no eyes, nor ears, so it must be picking up its sensory information from molecules in the water or maybe vibrations.  The starfish is “thinking” — or at least reacting — with its whole body.

Sy likes chickens, too.

Somehow, that’s easier to understand than eight brains.  How do they interact to achieve consensus?  Sometimes it has been observed that an octo seems to have dissension in the ranks: some arms want to retreat and some arms want to advance.  Octo’s also have favorite tentacles, something like being right-handed.

From wikipedia:  Fish intelligence is "...the resultant of the process of acquiring, storing in memory, retrieving, combining, comparing, and using in new contexts information and conceptual skills" as it applies to fish.  According to Culum Brown from Macquarie University, "Fish are more intelligent than they appear. In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of ‘higher’ vertebrates including non-human primates.”  All bony fish have a hippocampus.

Bony-eared assfish
They hide -- wouldn't you?

“Fish hold records for the relative brain weights of vertebrates. Most vertebrate species have similar brain-to-body mass ratios. The deep sea bathypelagic bony-eared assfish, has the smallest ratio of all known vertebrates. At the other extreme, the electrogenic elephantnose fish, an African freshwater fish, has one of the largest brain-to-body weight ratios of all known vertebrates (slightly higher than humans) and the highest brain-to-body oxygen consumption ratio of all known vertebrates (three times that for humans).

Elephantnose fish

The fancy language (bathypelagic and electrogenic) refer to the depth in the ocean they occupy and what their source of energy might be.  By the time discussion turns to things like “electrogenic” the real subject is ions and atomic dynamics in molecules.  But those esoteric subjects are what explain how brains work, all those acquiring, storing, retrieving, combining, comparing and using functions, interacting through the various evolved cells and their structures.  

One whole category of research is called “the Hippocampal Indexing Theory.  It’s about those two little seahorse-shaped blobs just above the ears (inside— you can’t see them) which we’ve known for a long time are about memory.  This field of study wants to know how it is that a particular smell, slant of light, tone of voice, can summon up a strong memory of a whole situation.  So now I want to know whether an octopus has a hippocampus or eight hippocampuses or what precursor of a hippocampus might be like.  The animals clearly do remember.


PZ Myers, writing in “Pharyngula” says:  “We know that the octopus is amazingly smart. They are capable of associative and observational learning, they are curious and adaptive, and can invent new solutions to problems. They have a large brain relative to their body size, containing about 500 million cells, and they have condensed the classically distributed invertebrate central nervous system into a dense, discrete brain. One of the problems that stymied Young was that, rather than retaining the very large and accessible identifiable neurons we associate with invertebrates, the cephalopods have paralleled the vertebrates, microminiaturizing neurons to pack more cells into a given space. They’ve also built layered structures into their brains, and thrown the tissue up into folds that increase surface area, much as the vertebrate cortex has.”

It appears that a part called the vertical lobe handles long-term memory, similar to the hippocampus.  “What does the VL do? Octopuses are tough and resilient, and as it turns out you can do some fairly invasive surgeries, stitch them up, and they recover just fine. The VL can actually be extirpated, and VLless octopuses, once they’ve got over the surgery, seem perfectly normal in swimming, feeding, and other ordinary behavioral functions. Deficits show up, though, when they are tested on learning and memory tasks: long term memory function is lost, and learning is greatly impaired. The VL and the median superior frontal lobe (MSF) together form a structure that is functionally analogous to the vertebrate hippocampus.”

The octopus eye is like ours except for a slot pupil.

“The findings emerging from recent electrophysiological studies in the octopus suggest that a convergent evolutionary process has led to the selection of similar networks and synaptic plasticity in evolutionarily very remote species that evolved to similar behaviors and modes of life. These evolutionary considerations substantiate the importance of these cellular and morphological properties for neural systems that mediate complex forms of learning and memory. In particular, the similarity in the architecture and physiological connectivity of the octopus MSF-VL system to the mammalian hippocampus and the extremely high number of small interneurons in its areas of learning and memory suggest the importance of a large number of units that independently, by en passant innervation, form a high redundancy of connections. As these features are found in both the octopus MSF-VL system and the hippocampus, it would appear that they are needed to create a large capacity for memory associations.”

Comparisons are a strong scientific method of investigation.  Odious as comparisons between the worth and accomplishments of people, including the scientists, may be, looking for difference and sameness can reveal much information.  So the octopus, which has evolved with no skeleton at all (it cannot develop Avascular Necrosis which in humans causes bones to disintegrate since it has no bones) might possibly reveal something about how to cure bone diseases.
The octopus named Octavia and her friends.

In the meantime Sy and her friends create attachment and intimacy with creatures pretty much like silk scarves afloat in sea water with long arms buttoned with rows of suction cups and eyes they can pop up out of their heads to look at us.  What they see makes them change colors and skin patterns, a sight-vocabulary that Sy learned.  The original divergence of species comes back together in a confluence of interactions.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

ALL ORCHESTRATED -- NOT


My plan was to time it so that everything would end at once:  ramshackle house, worn-out little pickup, too-fat cats, and me.  Just naturally happening together.  When I came back here in 1999, I thought I probably had twenty more years, half of them still pretty young and then another decade of sliding downhill.  Now we’re up to a total of 17 years in residence.  The cats were 14, the pickup is 27, the house is 86, and I’m 77.  All sliding.

The cats slid first, a little earlier than I anticipated but they were in pain and unhappy.  The vet was skillful, had a good helper, and the cats did not protest.  They just relaxed.  I’m not quite through grieving yet.  Finnegan and the Bunny were relieved, since Squibbie beat them up all the time.  Now they can sit in the good cat window.  This was not part of the plan.

I went to get a forecast on the pickup which was pretty pessimistic. The seal job that cost $400 last time was estimated at $2,000 this time.  The Ford dealer is on the main street of Cut Bank which is being entirely rebuilt right down to substrata, storm sewers, electrical line, and fiberoptic internet.  It is a failing town, just like all the rest of the high-line villages, but it is attached to the federal blood supply of the Blackfeet Reservation.  It has political clout.  

Entering Cut Bank
Southern Boundary of the Blackfeet Reservation


Internet and good drainage are keys to the future.  CB is the only part of Glacier County that is outside the rez.  It used to be a lawyer’s haven, but now the tribe has produced indigenous lawyers, not that they're so different.  If you like 3-D chess, you’ll love speculating about the boundary games one can play as the Cobell Buy-Back money flows onto the rez.  Anyway, in the long run this dealership is probably as doomed as my pickup. Access was confusing, threading through narrow gaps -- bad for business.

An evening or so ago I went to close my front door, but couldn’t.  Looking at the frame I noticed a fourth hinge.  But it wasn’t a hinge.  It was a very good imitation of a hinge -- growth achieved by a fungus.  I had not known how resourcefully a mushroom could disguise itself.  The most vulnerable parts of the house shell is at the creases where the front room was added on.  Both have been penetrated by water.  If this weren’t such dry country, the walls would have fallen out — or in.  

Of course, underground out front is another problem.  Because of a leak or a blockage, the access sewer was renewed last fall but only halfway, the side by the street, because we are waiting for Sullivan the backhoe man to get around to the rest.  In the meantime it works, most of the time, and I just limp along.  The bill is estimated at $1,000.

I’m sure the UU minister who recently came to visit —her name is also Mary — was grimly horrified by my bathroom.  Crackers was still trying to get into the litter box but missing so she squirted the floor and Finnegan delighted in throwing litter over his shoulder to create desert dunes of grit.  Then there was the toilet seat, which some genius made “easier” to install except that his invention doesn’t work for old ladies with weak hands.  It comes detached at unpredictable moments.  

Some people can’t recognize the vicegrips that serves as the flushing handle.  All they have to do is push down on it, but they think they have to do something complicated and soon it IS complicated.  They get all embarrassed and fish around in the tank, unable to decode the situation. 

I’m not sure that all those middle class people we keep hearing about have a very clear idea of what it is to live poor.  Fewer machines, more of them second-hand or quirky to operate, little compensating actions and wedges and sidesteps.  And if you try to explain, their faces go blank.  On the other hand, recently I felt a little edge on the metal frame of the glass shower door, pulled on it, scraped a bit, and discovered that it was a film of plastic meant to come off after installation.  No wonder the door has been hard to open and close all this time: it didn't fit by a millimeter or so.  I’ve been operating it that way since we installed it in 1999.  It’s ME who is not middle-class.

Not only that, I’m a fugitive from the law.  Parking was very tight at the Ford dealer but I thought I was safely backing around a corner.  Not.  I collided with something, got out to look and thought I’d bumped into a big post guarding the corner of the building.  I looked at a golf cart, didn’t see damage (with my squinty dry eyes), and went to the grocery store.  Pretty soon I’m being paged, though I barely recognized my name on their PA system.  It was The Law. 


A woman had seen me back into the golf cart and its fiberglas shell was cracked.  I never saw her but she followed me down to the store and called the cops.  He was a nice guy.  I had most of the proper documents (one was missing, the Title, but the signifying sticker was on the license plate).  

He helped me load up my groceries and we went back to the dealership where everyone was very calm:  “Oh, accidents happen.  No problem.  It’s tough to maneuver through this construction.”  I didn't realize for a day or so that the reason he helped with the groceries was to see whether I were buying alcohol.  Not.  Just cat food.

The officer, who had begun by saying I might be ticketed, let that go.  It was clear that everyone — except the woman who was determined to nail me — was seeing a befuddled, half-blind, old woman still in shock from what the shop foreman had told me.  I was not about to question that.  Anyway, the evidence was against me.  I had insurance, the dealer had insurance, the golf cart had only a crack hardly visible but would probably need a whole section replaced.  Middle class people in dying villages demand perfection.  Their demands are what they have.  They consider themselves as "having standards."

I got home without incident, shelved the groceries, and went to bed to restore my head and eyes.  I was wakened by a cold-caller from AAA wanting to know whether I were getting the stuff they mail me.  I turned the tables on her.  I’ve never put in an insurance claim before, so I asked her to tell me what to do next, which threw her all off stride.  She had trouble picturing how I could collide with a golf cart.

Such are adventures of someone just trying to get by  with the minimum domestically, because the payoff is the time and freedom to write.  Lots of people do it.  You never read what they write — publishers are middle class.  They have demands that real writers can never meet.  Standards!  Publishers demand safety and prosperity.  I don’t have any of that to give.  I deal in risk.

Twice in the last few days I've had company, people I knew but far enough in the past that I didn't recognize them at my front door.  One was Tony Bynum, who takes the remarkable photos I sometimes use, and the other was a woman I once taught with.  Both were sad, almost panicky about the state of things on the rez: drugs, bullying, corruption, alcohol, deaths from hard drugs, Browning town is in receivership -- things all too easily seen when driving through.  The real progress is invisible, indoors.  I feel two ways about this:  on the one hand a person wants to yell, "Hey!  This situation needs help!  What can we do?"



On the other hand the way to travel on thin ice is carefully, slowly, without making a lot of commotion and, well, sober.


Saturday, June 25, 2016

DELORES MAE BIRD (BUTTERFLY)

St. Anne's, Heart Butte, MT

The last time I saw Delores Mae Butterfly Bird, whom I knew as Delores Butterfly, eighth grade student in my first classes when I came in 1961, it was about 1990 and she was teaching in Browning.  She laughed her musical giggle and said,  “You know, when I married I went from being Butterly to Bird, so I kept my wings!”  As far as I’m concerned, she’s still got wings whereever she is and probably a halo as well.

In the buffalo days there were women like Delores, small, quiet, very smart women who were devout, diligent, and loving centers for their families.  The People honored them and made them the Sacred Persons who fasted and prayed at Sun Lodge ceremonies.  Their behavior would assure the safety of the People through the coming year, so the most reliable, irreproachable, and respected elder women were chosen.  The outside world is impressed by warriors but the Inside People knew who was strong: grandmothers.

A version of Guan Yin

The parallel honoring of a woman in Christian terms is Mary the Mother of Jesus In the Asian context she is called some variation of Guan Yin - Bodhisattva/ Goddess of Compassion.  The fact that she is a recurring image in so many places shows how universally this sort of women is valued.  As the Bible says, her price is above rubies.  This is not to be mawkish or sentimental, nor does it take away from the uniqueness of a special person.  No one can “try” to be like this — they are simply born that way.

If the Darrell Blackman in the obituary is the son of Mary Blackman, then I will say that he was also deeply religious and an informant for Bob Scriver’s understanding of Blackfeet ways.  Mary, who was like Delores, was also a helper.  Because there were valuable things in the household, Bob would hire Mary to clean.  She took a pan of soapy water, a soft cloth, and — with great dignity and thoroughness — she went through the rooms.  If there were coins on a tabletop, she picked them up, cleaned the tabletop, polished the coins, and replaced them in exactly the pattern she found them.

Delores, Gerald and Geraldine, and Roger were boarding school kids because their home allotment was in the country near Heart Butte along Badger Creek and inaccessible in winter or if the weather was wet.  The soil out that way is gumbo and no roads were paved until after the Flood of ’65.  These sibs were vivid personalities, full of energy, and if they suffered from living in boarding school, they didn’t complain.  The sociological principle that families were broken and relationships were lost was not obvious, though they are the only witnesses who can say.  Maybe boarding school WAS a family.

The obituary says nothing at all about Blackfeet ceremonial practices and that is as it should be.  Father Mallman, the strong old priest who ran St. Anne’s in Heart Butte was a fire and brimstone preacher, but even he was known to turn his eyes away sometimes.  The Methodist presence out that way was Chief Bull, one of the pair of Sandoval or Sanderville brothers who were political translators.  Mike Swims Under was the first Blackfeet ceremonialist to surface, but he was only quietly known in the Sixties.  If Delores was true to form, she honored all religions that were good for people.

It’s unusual for a woman to sponsor feasts and I don’t know where Big Badger Grotto might be, except that it is on one of the river-based communities near Heart Butte.  An inquirer is always divided between knowing about things and not prying or even asking, because it can change the dynamics and effectiveness of human relationships.  But the obituary does note these things as points of pride.  Maybe someone else has picked up that devotional work or maybe this is the end of it.

Delores Mae Butterfly Bird



Formal obituary:
DELORES MAE BIRD (BUTTERFLY)
June 22, 2016  Glacier Reporter

Delores Mae Bird (Butterfly), 67, passed away on June 11, 2016.

A funeral mass was held Monday, June 20, at Little Flower Catholic Church.  Burial followed in Big Badger.

She was born on Oct. 5, 1948, to Dorothy Mae Yellow Owl and Henry Albert Butterfly in Browning.

Kenneth Leo Bird and Delores Mae Bird (Butterfly) were married Nov. 10, 1968, in St. Anne’s Parish located in Heart Butte.  Kenneth and Delores were married for 48 loving years and together had five children: Douglas Wayne Bird, Kenneth Allan Bird, Kendra Mae Wesley, Dana Leigh Bird and Karla Denise Bird.  Together, Kenneth and Dolores raised their family in Big Badger.

Delores loved spending time with her six grandchildren: Tiahna Rose Bird, Sabrina Marie Bird, Jonathan Wesley, Philip Sure Chief V, Jaden Sure Chief and Ethan Sure Chief.  She enjoyed reading books, singing songs and telling stories to her grandbabies.

Delores valued education and instilled the importance of learning in her family and community.  She received her Associate in Arts from Flathead Valley Community College in June 1971 and her Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education at Rocky Mountain College in August, 1974.  Delores began her professional endeavors as an educator at Heart Butte Public Schools  and then transitioned to Browning Public Schools for the remainder of her career.  In addition, Delores pursued her Librarian Endorsement from the University of Montana-Western and became a librarian after several years of teaching at Napi elementary school.  Delores served as an educator within the public school system for over 40 years.  She loved working with children and was very passionate about teaching.

Delores’ siblings include Darrell Blackman, Henry Butterfly, Harold Butterfly, Gerald Butterfly, Geraldine Butterfly, Roger Butterfly and Kayla Schafer.  Her brother-in-laws were Winston Bird and Rodney Bird, as well as two sisters-in-law, which included Audrey Williamson and Mary Aimsback.  Delores has numerous nieces, nephews and cousins and friends that she held dear to her heart.

Delores loved taking care of the Big Badger grotto, after the passing of her mother-in-law Rose Bullshoe-Bird.  She would host celebrations at the grotto to honor three feast days:  The Sacred Heart of Jesus in June, The Immaculate Heart of Mary in May, and Our Lady of the Rosary in October.  Delores loved her family dearly and enjoyed raising her children and grandchildren.  She dedicated her entire life to children, throughout her personal and professional life.  Delores loved to sew, crochet, read books, tell stories, and travel.  She spent her life praising the Lord and instilled faith into all she encountered.

Delores will be dearly missed by her husband, children, grandchildren and extended family; however she will now be a peace with the Lord in Heaven.



Friday, June 24, 2016

Patricia Nell Warren's "GENTLE BEING"


Patricia Nell Warren declares convincingly that she got this story from a Montana M├ętis who heard it from Cree relatives living far to the north.  It is not the usual “my-cat-is-so-clever” story and hit me dead center because of two things.  

One was from increased familiarity with the far north country that comes from commenting on the Twitter tweets of Paul Seesequasis who posts old photos from the northern country of Cree/Blackfeet on up into the Arctic world of the Inuit.  There was a brief exchange not long ago when several different tribesmen offered the names for domestic cats in their languages.  It turned out they were all variations on the English word (I GUESS it’s English!) “puss.”  The name came with the animal.

Namibian wild cat

Cats evolved in northern Africa which accounts for their love of warmth and their dislike of being wet.  Just the same they are enormously adaptable, esp. if there are humans in their lives to take up the slack.  But there were none domesticated in North America until ships brought them over from Europe.  Even then the prairies had no domestic cats until the wagons began to travel west, carrying family pets and pest-eliminators.  

There’s a wonderful short story somewhere about a widowed and solitary pioneer woman on the prairie who made her living by raising kittens and geraniums, both much treasured.  There’s also another one about a woman in these circumstances who was brought a live chicken to eat — live because there was no refrigeration.  The cowboy who brought the chicken stopped by a year later and discovered that she hadn’t eaten the chicken because it made a pretty good pet!  And it cleaned her garden of beetles and worms.

In Warren’s story, called “The Gentle Being”, the tale came as trade as though it were an object, in exchange for several lesser stories.  But the cat herself came as a gift.  A whaling ship off Point Barrow was caught in the ice and finally crushed with no survivors.  Except a cat.  The Inuit people, who came to see whether there were anything worth salvaging in what wreckage came to the surface, were surprised by a little Being coming towards them.  It had “little round paws” and was a bit like a lynx but without ear tufts.  “It’s pelt was painted with white and red and black, in the same way that the northern Crees painted their faces sometimes.”

Whaling Ship

The cat rubbed against their mukluks and cried out to them.  Until then they had thought — since it was strange — that it might be dangerous.  But strange things can go both ways and the difference might be one of Holy Power.  So they picked it up, causing it to purr, snuggle and close its eyes with bliss.  She became part of the treasure of that little group of people.  They fed her bits and since their food was almost exclusively meat, the cat was pleased and thrived.  When the weather warmed enough for small rodents and ground birds to be about, the “Gentle Being” caught and ate them and occasionally brought the humans an example of her success.  They pretended to be grateful because meat-gifts were also part of their culture.  

The cat came into heat but this is one of the few accounts of a female cat calling for a lover that didn’t bring a tomcat out of nowhere.  When white traders came on ships, the People hid the cat for fear of it being claimed back into the ship world.  No other cat ever left a ship.

Then Warren adds an element from contemporary news, the recognition that cats know when someone is ill or suffering and will go to sit by them, often by the ailing part of them.  People interpreted this as potentially healing and asked to have the cat present at healing ceremonies, which brought many practical gifts to the people, like flints and needles.  Even today nursing homes say that their cats will begin to sleep alongside old people who are slipping over the edge of the world.


The cat herself lived another ten years.  By then she couldn’t trot along the trail with them so a woman would take the cat into her hood as though she were a baby.  We’ve all seen the photos of little faces peering over the mother’s shoulder.  I’ve never seen a face that was a cat.

Warren tells us that when the Gentle Being died, they carefully skinned and tanned “that wonderful soft many-painted pelt with the greatest care.  From it they sewed a Medicine Bag, in which to keep all of their most precious healing things — teas, crystals, feathers, whatever was needed.

Crackers and Squibs

Squibs and Crackers, my two cats, were fourteen before they became too miserable for me to force them to go on.  I did not skin them and make a Medicine Bag.  Warren’s version of contents sounds a little more California that the Blackfeet Bundles I know.  But’s that’s okay.  We each draw on the world we know. 

Once Bob bought a domestic cat hide, raw, at a fur sale.  I handled it after it had been tanned but Bob said it was nothing like it had been when it was still raw — it had gone flat and -- well -- dead, without the active musculature under the skin to make the fur rise and fall, fluff and shrink.  So much of a cat is its jeweled eyes but they were gone.

Without Squibs and Crackers, the house was immediately claimed by Finnegan and his Bunny, a strange little blue female who has attached to Finnegan so tightly that he sometimes gets impatient with the crowding and pestering and bites her throat and kicks her stomach until she gives him space.  Finnegan is a skinny, long-legged, gray-striped tom with an arrowhead face and a coat so flat and short it’s like velveteen more than fur.  These are cats from this spring and I will likely be dead before they die.  They are climbing cats and love the tallest bookshelves which gets the tops dusted at last.  They are feral.  If I moved away, they would quickly adapt and I have no intention of letting them become too dependent or attached.

Bunny hugging Finnegan

The terms of life are often harsh, even insupportable, but we all do the best we can.  If another little life comes along to walk and sleep beside us, we should be grateful.  This is what the Inuit once knew very well — probably still do.