Thursday, July 12, 2007


North American Indian Days is the contemporary version of an ancient Blackfeet rendezvous at the end of the ceremonial season (days of thunder, lightning and rain) which was then in June and which took place roughly where it does now, which is probably part of the reason why Browning is on Willow Creek. In the Thirties Superintendent Campbell, a practical man, did not ban the gathering as previous control freaks had done, but managed to get it displaced to after haying season, which is why it’s mid-July. In the “newer” old days, after horses came, it would have been necessary to wait until there was enough grass to keep them all fed during the camp-together anyway. But failure to cut hay meant the deaths of livestock in winter.

This year the leading edge of the publicity was the Tribal Council’s decision to allow alcohol to be served at the casino, the Glacier Park lodges, local bistros, etc -- in other words, the middle class money-making venues. (“Beer with that pizza? Wine with that steak?”) In 1999 alcohol was strictly banned on the whole reservation for the duration of the ceremony, because of the street drunks and kids’ beer blasts, which often left people damaged or dead. Also, there was an element of abstinence as a religious pledge, a sort of sacrifice in the interest of blessings.

Instead of a rhetorical outcry, the response from those who work desperately against drug and alcohol abuse was to create a Medicine Wheel, not on some inaccessible mountain top, but by the Blackfeet Community College, which is a door to the future. In short, the old and the new are meeting in Browning in a creative and forward-moving way.

At one time NAIS was the hinge of our Scriver year, when we hired extra staff to handle the crowds. The regular staff would look around for float materials and my job was usually to scrub down the horses, putting a little bluing in the final rinse on Bob’s white horse, Gunsmoke. One year I scrubbed Governor Babcock’s palomino, a showy but mean mount, typical of palominos because they are often bred for color rather than disposition, sorta like politicians. One year we provided our renovated spring wagon for some older celebrities and it was pig-piled by politicians, breaking the singletrees. My favorite year recently was when our current Governor Schweitzer WALKED, throwing a football back and forth to members of the crowd as he went.

Now, of course, the Scriver studio is the Blackfeet Heritage Center. The artist of the moment is Jay Laber and he well deserves any attention he gets after his brilliant job of creating from old car parts the pairs of Guardian Warriors at each compass point of the reservation. Also, he made the chiming lightpost silhouettes along main street and a story interpretation for the Blackfeet Heritage Park near the campground. It’s not just that he thought of doing it, but also that he does it so well.

This is the 56th encampment as defined in modern times. I expect Earl Old Person presided at all of them. I began to attend in the summer of 1962 and we actually camped there about 1967 and danced ourselves. Famous anthropologists, old friends, former teachers and BIA people came back to visit. The closest to the amusement park component that is so obvious now was just stick game, which has been unchanged for millenia and persists quietly as feather game year round. (The difference is that when the game is played indoors the markers for wins are feathers. Outdoors, feathers would blow away.)

The Glacier Reporter’s pull-out section for the pow-wow is the best ever: color printing, excellent stories. (You can probably find some of it online.) John McGill, the editor, was trained as an anthropologist and forever imprinted with the Seventies. Without this background he could never interpret so well what’s going on. The newspaper owners live in Cut Bank and their idea of Indians is basketball players.

One of the best continuing features of the Glacier Reporter is the cartoon, which is like no other, currently the work of Bob Tailfeathers. This week’s shows two stout older Indian women watching the dance competition from their folding chairs. One says to the other, “If I were younger, I’d be snaggin’ this chicken dancer. No slow approach like holding hands... or across from each other... sipping a coke... Nooo. I would just grab his braids and say, “Let’s go to my camp, I’ll loosen your sore ankles with some Ben Gay and herbal moisture lotion!!” Ah, tipi creeping! Talk abput an old tradition! The new in this regard is a Scientology tent offering some kind of voodoo on a massage table. No word on whether Tom Cruise will be there.

Coincidentally, the Global Volunteers (who usually paint houses or something) devoted their energy to helping to spay or neuter hundreds of dogs and cats in the high school gym -- cats at one end, dogs at the other. Talk about inspired! These volunteer veterinarians and their helpers have it down to a system that almost amounts to a ceremony. The families of the animals come with them to reassure their pets and keep them warm and moving while they recover consciousness. The humans become deeply invested in the process. This is one of those rays of light from Heaven that makes animal control officers cross themselves and give thanks. Prevention -- another word for Salvation.

I don’t go to Indian Days anymore. There are too many people there, few of whom I know. The carnival/state fair aspect -- with huge inflatable trampolines called “Buffalo Jumps” and all sorts of sales booths -- doesn’t appeal to me and I can’t eat any of the food sold there. All sorts of people are bigger experts than me and have a bigger stake in convincing others of the truth of that. They just don’t need me. I don’t fit anymore. Things change and that doesn’t mean they’re better or worse, just different. Might be a better fit for this individual and a worse one for that. Who knows what the next turn on the wheel will bring?

There’s one thing I’d kinda like to see: tipi races. The idea is that tipis in horse-drawn wagons race around the new track, then stop and the women aboard hurry to put up the tipi. It was a practical skill in the days when it was necessary to strike or put up camp in a hurry, to avoid enemies or follow buffalo. Thus it is in the tradition of rodeos that grew out of the necessity of breaking horses to ride. The best new things sometimes grow out of old things that were a deep part of life. Keeping that as a guide will help the Blackfeet contemporary without sacrificing their past.

In the meantime I’ll just sit here with my Ben Gay and... what was that other stuff? I forget so much these days.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanx Mary, this was a wonderful interpretation of the NAID. I used to dance in my younger days also. I remember alot of what you wrote about. Bob's museum was so interesting and I remember that I used to be so afraid of some of the animals within (cougars, etc.) He was a good man, always took time to tell us kids hello. I miss the "old days" but then, there is the future.....I can only tell my grandchildren stories of life in Browning when I was a little girl. Thanx again. Bless you!