Tuesday, March 28, 2006

"HOOKING UP" Not "Snagging"

By “hooking up” I don’t mean what is called, here on the rez, “snagging.” (Finding a partner for -- ahem -- affection.) Any snagger looking for help from me would be in deep trouble. What I’m talking about is how one thing attaches to another -- the metaphor rather than the Saturday night dilemma.

I once saw a cell’s surface -- probably an animation. I’d always thought of a cell as being rather like a pingpong ball -- a smooth round object albeit very small. (Of course, I knew about amoebas, but I figured their boundaries just came loose.) The animation showed that the surface of a cell -- round or not -- is bumped, indented, pierced, and flourescing with teeny structures. Ion pumps stick through the cell wall so they can move molecules in and out. There are small “docks” where antibodies attach -- or maybe viruses. And so on. Surprisingly mechanical appurtenances. Little hooks that meet little loops. Some meds are designed to have loops that occupy the hooks that would otherwise be snagged by viruses. The loops and hooks -- docks -- are shaped to accept only certain molecules.

On thought, I realize that a cell is a middling-large structure of the flesh -- underlying it is the structure of the molecule, which is atoms stuck to each other with electromagnetic force. (I don’t know how cells stick together to make organs and muscles -- Velcro? We know that chromosomes are connected to their partners by tiny zippers.) Actually, most molecules are assemblages of other molecules with certain characteristics that make them form chains or balls or jungle gyms.

It wasn’t until prions came along that we learned that molecules had to “fold” a certain way, which arises from the subtle forces among the atoms. Since atoms come in different isotopes, depending on THEIR components (protons, neutons and the circling electrons), the kind of atom used to build a molecule can put the electromagnetic forces -- the glue and dotted lines -- in the wrong places to fold properly. The result, as in Mad Cow Disease, can be fatal to the entity created by the supposed proper coherence of all these little parts. They just don’t do what they’re supposed to do.

Now that I’ve established my metaphorical pattern, let’s move to talking about the creature that is Society or -- with a little indulgence from you -- to a Tribe. The fish I’m after is white people who try to “hook up” with a whole tribe, whether for business or as reporters or just because they want a relationship with “Indians.” My point is that they usually can find no point of attachment that is really helpful to either.

The most common “hook up” is not unlike snagging. A young male writer or adventurer comes to a rez town and goes to get a beer. While looking around, he spots what looks like an Indian who soon joins him to help him drink beer. This becomes the point of attachment and, of course, “our” young man from then on is treated to a beer-joint view of the rez. He hears a lot of jail gossip, violent opinions about the tribal council, and speeches about the need for law and order. Drunks are always in favor of law and order, even as they describe the most ghastly of offenses which they claim to know are overrunning everything.

Or maybe it’s an anthropologist or sociologist who comes and he or she asks around in stores for wise old people who know about the past. Pretty soon they’re bumping around in the country and find someone who looks pretty old who tells them lots of stuff. When the anthro (who is the fiftieth that summer) leaves with a notebook full of colorful information, the “old person” goes to the trunk in the back bedroom to peek in their copy of “The Old North Trail” to see whether they got it right. Hopefully, the anthro left some bucks on the table.

A modern phenomenon is the group “hook-up.” Some church or other service organization decides it would be great to bring a group of teenagers to the rez to do good. So someone local has to make a list of needed “goods” and arrange for accommodations for a bunch of teens who virtually live in the shower. With luck they bring their own supervisors.

In the business context the Tribal Council has finally created a port in its fort, so to speak, by presenting Siyeh (a wholly-owned subsidiary) as their ion pump, the entity that is ready to receive and interpret proposals and even initiate some of their own. These are people with the knowledge and skills to sit down in a conference room and address both the sales pitch and the paperwork that follows. Not everyone will want to use this opportunity, feeling that they should be more entrepreneurial by cultivating their own gatekeeper. More shortcuts.

In the past visiting academicians often had to rely on a friendly white person to get access to personal stories or photos. For one thing, academics rarely have enough money to make a long trip or stay in motels long enough to make contacts. Since the Blackfeet Community College was founded, this has become another way to make contact, but they don’t seem to have any person designated to field stray explorers, anthros, or academics. Instead, such persons come to sit in the Commons and what follows is rather like the beer-drinker’s bond except that it is politically centered. The lingerers -- who are not always teachers -- love politics. These are the people who’ve been sitting together to talk since paleolithic times. Now they often use French theory though they’ve never read the original texts. Deconstruction, post-colonial, the “Other.” That sort of thing.

Now and then a person who is not attached to any rez group will become a focus of inquiry. Sometimes such persons really are historians and ritualists. Maybe promising athletes. White inquirers often fall in love with them and idealize them in books, so that the inquirer -- as opposed to the tribal member -- will seem specially gifted and lucky to have been honored with this person’s attention. Once a person -- often presented as very old -- is the star of one book, soon he or she attracts other authors.

Most of these points of access are meant to fend off curious outsiders, isolate them somewhere so they won’t meddle, and keep their ideas away from the children. They are defensive structures rather than nourishing. Nourishment is brought in by tribal members who go out to conferences, much as hunters once went out to bring back meat. Sometimes -- esp. when dealing with schools -- it’s hard to figure out what happens to that food when it gets back to the tribe. Is it quickly eaten? Is it discarded as unpalatable? Does someone hoard it?

One of my shortcomings (which for ego reasons I maintain are generally misplaced virtues) is that I often let metaphors run away with me, so let me bring this back to reality. Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve clearly allowed Google and Blogger to become hooks and loops of my cell skin, so people who are trying to find out about artifacts, ancestors, and other matters make contact with me.

I’m not a Blackfeet. I try to figure out which people or offices inquiries ought to reach and to guide them there. This is both so that I won’t be accused by the Blackfeet of trying to act like one and horn in on their world, and so the inquirer can go ahead and explore if they are tactful and energetic enough to follow up.

But I love hearing about it. Once in a while there is even something about my own past, like the message from Mildred Colbert’s grand-niece. Miss Colbert, a Chinook Indian, was my fourth grade teacher and the grand-niece sent me a photo of Miss Colbert’s grandmother. I forwarded it to one of my “tribes” -- the Vernon Grade School Class of 1953 -- and they put it in their “medicine bundle,” their scrapbook. None of us is Indian but we claim Mildred Colbert in a way I doubt she ever thought about. We’re hooked up.

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