Tuesday, August 21, 2007


The Evolution of Culture, though it might at first seem quite a lot easier to accept than the kind of physical evolution that creates new kinds of beings, is just as reprehensible to those who wish to believe that the world IS, that it was created that way, that there is one set of operating rules, one set of achievement (the Canon), one set of methods, and that that ideal set of parameters is the one that the person against change has learned. Even if, as in the case of the Pope, it’s quite outdated and impossible to maintain. (The Pope’s edict that Latin Mass can and should again be performed neglects the fact that younger priests have never been taught the necessary Latin.)

Those who see that life is process, time is inescapable, know that even birds develop “culture” when one has a new idea and the others learn it. Recently there was a study in which crows on one island had learned to use tools in sequence: they were offered a treat that had to be retrieved with a long stick, but the long stick could only be reached with a short stick -- so that’s what the crows did, a two-step strategy. The yam-washing monkeys have been famous for a long time. Crows and monkeys from other places haven’t learned this behavior.

One human exception to resistance to change, might be the notion of Progress -- the idea that it is possible to “improve” things (according to one’s own values) -- though we have a tendency to see progress in terms of technological gimmicks. Lately we don’t seem to be making much progress: holocausts repeat, disastrous wars repeat, and the Depression may be on the verge of repetition, both the dust bowl and the bank crashes. These are not phenomena anyone would call progress.

The changes felt in Valier are resisted because they are the negative ones: global warming, loss of the railroad, two-salary families, high gas prices, drying up of the water wells. It’s unclear how to make progress if resources are diminishing.

I talk to Browning people who are discouraged about progress even as I see major advances, mostly because they haven’t been able to remember how bad it really was fifty years ago. People who had to burn their furniture and even their floors in their little shacks -- not just to keep warm but to keep from being frozen as they stood when it was forty below. High percentages of alcoholism. A small hospital, poorly equipped. Few decent vehicles. And -- excuse me -- a BIA and town dominated by white folks. The only school was the public school: half left when legally able and half left during high school. VERY few went to college. Most of the people who think there is no progress are talking about appearances -- shiny new buildings. Or law and order where drugs have replaced booze.

Most of the changes that I see are ideas rather than material objects: an Indian BIA, the corporation called Siyeh that shields tribal business from the Tribal Council, a wealth of organizations for dozens of purposes from diabetes support to tracing down old Dawes Act allotments. Blackfeet Community College staggers but every year it’s a little better. Dozens of kids go to college and succeed. In fact, even now few people have a grasp of the extended history that was discussed at the Piegan Institute History Conference last Friday. Who would have believed Blackfeet professors discussing esoteric paleoarcheological concepts in a privately built school devoted to teaching the Blackfeet language? Fifty years ago we couldn’t have imagined such a thing. It evolved.

The main reason that people don’t realize how much is happening is that they live in a capsule -- even our national leaders. The view from their hamster cages is through media so highly massaged and commercialized that it only amounts to another capsule. No one really has the time -- or possibly the courage -- to look outside of what they “already know.” A major change, like runaway immmigration, terrifies them, even though it’s mostly already happened. Even something as miserable as our healthcare system is too scary to change, so we piece along in misery.

My neighbor remarked the other day that every time she comes over, my furniture is switched around. She cleans houses for a living and assures me that in this town everyone leaves their furniture where it is. It’s just the mindset -- everything as “in its place” as graves.

There have been several interesting books addressing all this. One was an attempt to account for the fact that about 200 years ago people in England created a middle class which for the first time in known history had enough to eat and a comfortable home. Until this period, one was either a miserable peasant or landed gentry. The author’s premise was that the peasants evolved a new culture, possibly related to Protestantism, which valued saving money, working hard over a long period of time, living conservatively, valuing family and trying to leave a legacy for one’s children. His method was an examination of wills, to see whether this happened. Surprisingly, the peasant children were few and died early, not rising in society. It was the wealthy whose spare children -- they had quite a few -- had to figure out how to make a living without inheriting. They were the ones who formed the middle class and brought their values from those despised overlords, some of whom were pretty responsible stewards. They had been educated and were comfortable with writing, contracts. book-keeping and bank accounts. This was a cultural evolution, not genetic.

It was an evolution that recently took place on the reservation. As the middle class has been shrinking elsewhere, on the reservation it has been growing. The birth rate is still high here, but infants are no longer used up as spares by early death. The communal pressure to go to college, maybe even leave the reservation for a while, sends them on something like the same path as the extra children of gentry. Communal social institutions that care for the disabled, the aged, the orphaned, also free up some of those children to go to college. Blackfeet values would never support the abandonment that happens in our larger society -- not that there aren’t Blackfeet who don’t live up to their own values.

The culture of the Blackfeet is opening while the culture of the small white grain towns is closing, aging, getting smaller. Who knows what will happen with the waves of immigrants from coastal cities invading us, trying to get control, bringing their city culture of wealth and alienation to the prairie? Evolution or destruction or just distraction? Too early to tell.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Ma'am. I'm changing my vacation plans to have a visit to Blackfeet country some time soon.

Cowtown Pattie said...

I love the title of this post.

Very interesting observation, and like you, I wonder how this story will end.

Turn, turn, turn...