Saturday, July 21, 2007


I understand people as managing their identities with three narrative lines: one story about their past, one story about what is happening to them in the present, and one story about what they imagine will happen to them in the future. These are parallel to the three arguments about the existence of God: one saying that God is the origin of all things, one saying that God is a dimension of or participant in existence now, and one saying that God is our destination. There is a fancy Latin world for each one of these, but we’ll just let that go.

The past story changes all the time, because it is meant to explain where the present is. Full of re-interpretations -- some based on wishful thinking -- it is hard to grip. This summer I’ve been reading “The Raj Quartet,” plus my grandmother’s journals and my father’s photo albums, and soon I’ll attend the Piegan Institute’s summer conference where Barney Reeves from the University of Calgary will be presenting the evidence for a major shift in the understanding of the origin of the Blackfeet. (Conventional wisdom has been that they came here from the north east, but Reeves is honoring the claim of the tribe itself that they were “always here.” It makes a difference because one rationalization for white industrial Europeans over-running the autochthonous people is that the tribes themselves were immigrants.)

The part of the Strachan family story that my branch claimed was that they were an educated Scots family who took the great gamble of emmigration from Scotland out of an idealistic longing to be Jeffersonian “gentleman farmers.”

The gentlemen farmers in South Dakota.

Their version was that they struggled to homestead, gradually succeeded, came to Oregon as manufacturers of a clever invention, and then flowered into successful middle-class professionals through shrewd hard work. The evidence is that the Sam Strachan’s had some success, but mostly the times were against them. Sam and Beulah ended up broke.

But the times were in favor of the next generation because of WWII, something that Beulah hated and feared. One parlayed his prairie flying into a military and then TWA pilot career.

The pilot and unicycle rider has a flying friend.

One rose through drafting while ship-making for Kaiser. One throve as a real estate man in booming Southern California. My father, originally intended to be the college-boy star, suffered a frontal concussion that was untreatable in those days and which caused him to gradually unravel an ag field man’s career.

A man with a slow time-bomb in his head.

The next generation, the third, has managed pretty well (allowing for some serious losses), and the fourth generation now has children. Or some of them do. When my cousin and I look at the genealogical patterns over the years, we see that as far back as we know, there have always been people who didn’t marry or who married but produced no children. In each generation there have been a few picked-off by alcohol or misadventure. We get more interested in them than in the stable family people! But for the most part they left little evidence. Still, it was Gene Strachan, divorced and childless, who collected our genealogical base of facts and dates. After a wild sojourn in New Guinea as a flight mechanic during WWII, he made his living quietly keeping books for natural resource companies and died in prosperity.

Here in the reservation the proportion of damaged people is much higher because of being dragged through starvation, massacre, violence, alcohol and drugs and so on. This seems to be more true of those who stayed on the reservation: half have stayed, half have gone. (Half the Strachans stayed in South Dakota; half left.) Those Blackfeet who are gone fitted themselves into individual “assimilated” lives, but often return. Sometimes they landed in urban mini-communities with ties to the rez. Their eyes see different things than those who have stayed and reconciling their stories opens new understandings.

The new culture of healing through recovery of memory has changed the way we look at old stories: the Baker assault on Heavy Runner’s camp, the misadventure with Lewis along the Two Medicine River, the Starvation Winter, are not forgotten, but other stories have risen alongside: the struggle of the Tribal Council to understand its duties in a new world, the development of schools, the meaning of incorporation, shared sovereignty. Gradually, individuals tell their stories of injustice, tragedy, and suffering -- some of them nearly unbearable and imposed by their own people on each other -- and telling them changes them.

Once in the Sixties I passed an old Blackfeet man I knew as “Sam” and said, “Hello, Sam.” He scowled at me, drew himself up tall with dignity, and said in his “you crazy tiresome white woman” voice, “My namesh not Sham.” (His front teeth were missing.) “My namesh Shavier [Xavier] Yellow Mink.” I was abashed and apologized. I never knew whether I’d learned the wrong name for him or whether he’d chosen a new name because he felt changed, or whether he’d assumed the identity of an ancestor, perhaps through a dream. But the right of a person to embark on a transformation was strong in the Blackfeet world.

Not so much in our world. The present has always been seen as a “wide place” and a “real place.” Right now it has become more intense but briefer, more crucial as we try to understand what to do as a nation and face the necessity of change. Our politicians writhe under our gaze, the most “moral” and “fundamental” turning into the most corrupt, the most cynical and secret. The history of Iraq -- “where?” we used to ask -- now unfolds into a fabulous tumult of centuries about the Ottoman Empire as much as the Biblical location or Euro-stories. A generation of American young people, clawed at by war but nevertheless surviving, now know the terrain of a place once simply a vague source of oil.

The Raj Quartet” is a looking-back at such a similar situation in India during WWII that I’m often sharply jabbed by recognition. For so many English, the East was the kind of opportunity that America was thought to be, a way to escape a small island rigid with class into land ownership or mercantile empires in small towns linked by the railroad (catalogue towns). Racism abounds, the same attitudes I see around me in my neighbors. It is an opportunity as much as a restriction, the rules of a card game based on skin, a "skin game."

The future depends on what you think the past was and how you interpret what is happening right now. The scale can be individual or very sweeping indeed. In the new Bloomsbury Review, Gary Snyder suggests that our national future may be devolvement into nation-states as the population empties the countryside and thickens the cities. Others have suggested that we will redraw our boundaries -- state, province and nation -- into ecosystems, mostly around the availability and use of water. Some think we’ve already become infiltrated and dominated by multi-national corporations like the devil’s bargain between China and Walmart. A few see total disintegration, apocalypse, perhaps caused by global change and perhaps by the revenge of tiny bits -- flu pandemics or our own genome mis-folded into prions.

So -- in my present -- it’s watering day so I’ve doused my pots and bathtubs of plants. I’ve had my coffee. Stored a jug in the fridge for cold drinking later and in case the village works on the broken waterline up the block some more. (It was off with no warning for hours yesterday -- like Iraq.) It’s cooler than it has been for weeks. Should I file my heaps of papers? Should I look for a photo a friend badly wants? Should I work on my novel or transcribe my grandmother’s journal some more? Or had I better clean house?

What I do depends on what I think the future holds. That’s the third story. Will this diabetes remain manageable? Will an old friend reappear? Will someone entirely new and unexpected suddenly enter my life? Will inflation drive me out of this house, this village? Will the book about Bob Scriver...?

Bill Houff used to have a great quote: “When we step out into the darkness, we must trust that either there will be ground beneath our feet, or we will be given wings.”

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