Tuesday, March 25, 2008


I’m beginning to compile a new self-published book. Below is the first rough-draft of an introduction. If you (I’m talking to Blackfeet and rez dwellers specifically) have thoughts about it, I’d appreciate knowing what they are -- or if you have something that you’d like me to include, I can do that. This is not meant to be about “old-time” Blackfeet, but about today’s world, though a little history is sometimes useful.


This book is not meant to solve the multitude of controversies among and about the Blackfeet or Blackfoot or Pikuni or Amkapi Pikuni or Piegan or Peigan or South Piegan or Nitsitaahpi. (Which are all the same group. You see already how it goes!) Rather it is to plant flags in some of the issues and sketch out a range of positions within those issues. I won’t endorse or discredit any of them on purpose, though I never trust my subconscious, that trickster.

Most of the controversies are about identity: who are these people? Where are they? Where did they come from? Did they exist only between some specific date and another? Who gets to decide these issues? For those who feel they are or may be part of this tribe, the issues are quite sharp.

Once defined, the issues of government -- both imposed federally and developed internally -- begin to form and become troublesome, especially in terms of economics. Who gets to be on the rolls? Who can benefit from tribal profits? Is it better for the tribe to stay a group, a corporation, or would it be better to disperse the economic assets to the individuals and let them manage for themselves?

These issues often hinge on the issues of assimilation. Are tribal members still at such a disadvantage in the modern world that they must be protected and supported by a Bureau of Indian Affairs? Or is the BIA necessarily an expensive, corrupt, and basically suppressive body which hinders the maturation of tribal members? Should the people be encouraged to assimilate into “white” America (whatever that means now since large parts are black, Asian or hispanic) or should they be encouraged to learn their own language, keep their own ways, even if it means less achievement in the broader world?

This points in turn to education. How should Blackfeet youngsters be educated? For tomorrow or for yesterday? How much should they decide their own goals? Are they as good as any other kids? Then why do they fail so much? If they wanted to be something besides basketball players, would that help? Or is it a matter of escaping from white-imposed values and goals?

One of the key concepts I do want to advocate is continuousness and process: a tribe is not a defined group of people on a list compiled by white people at first contact for purposes of legal contracts and the provision of commodities. Rather it is an ongoing group of people who take in others, expel some, and see others simply disappear. I think shifting the understanding of “tribe” in this way will open up new strategies.

Another issue is the relationship with the place and the ecology of the place, by which I mean the economics of survival, getting a living from the land. Warriors and hunters were valued because they were the means of survival in the old days. Buffalo were the economic basis of everything. Maybe now the wind is the new buffalo. The oil has been pumped out and sold, but the world is turning away from oil anyway, yet studying what happened with that resource can suggest ways for the future.

Then there is the artistic heritage of people living on the east slope of the Rocky Mountains over hundreds and hundreds of years, tracing figures on stone, composing songs, dancing to a drum beat, telling stories, painting everything -- themselves, their animals, their belongings, their lodges -- embellishing everything with feather, quill, fur, and shell -- then beads, bells, thimbles, and cones made from the lids of snoose cans. How much do the methods and designs of the early days belong to the people now identified with the tribe? What to do about creatures who are now protected by the very people who made them scarce? What about pan-Indian phenomena like frybread or dream catchers or the modern Pow-wow circuit? Are “49’s” Indian?

What to do about the enormous monetary as opposed to spiritual value of some of the oldest and most religious objects? What about the ceremonies? Can outsiders participate or do they change the ceremonies? What happens when they are considered “magic”? How do they relate to Catholicism and Pentecostalism? What about the use of hallucinogens or dream-fasting or sweat-lodges?

How do today’s people use technology? Books, videos, the Internet, cell phones, and -- disconcertingly -- DNA testing? What medical strategies work for Indians? Are they that different?

I expect this book to go through editions rather quickly because the world is changing quickly and the tribe is changing with it. The book itself has got to become a process and with modern technology, it can.

I can refer to the Canadian branches of the Blackfoot Confederacy only secondarily, since I’m not up there across the 49th Parallel and their governance situation has been quite different for more than a century. But they might have something very useful to say.

These issues do not occur to tourists, but they great preoccupy the People themselves and especially their children. Maybe writing them down, even in the form of questions, will stir up some new ideas or focus attention on some real successes. With fifty years of discontinuous experience in this place, I see hope and growth.

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