Tuesday, July 15, 2008


After the Saturday Open House celebrating the premier of the movie called “Summer Sun, Winter Moon,” which explains the genesis of the symphony of the same name, the producer and an education consultant plus Roberta Kipp, Anne DeRosier Grant, and myself met on Sunday morning to think about how to find pathways “in” for teachers to use this movie. We did not exactly stay “on task” and I’m sure Cynthia Newton, the producer, had to use a lot of patience to deal with us.

The day before I’d just made a speech to Leland about how difficult it is for outsiders to “interface” with rez people, esp. Indians. Both Roberta and Anne are low quantum NA’s with MUCH education and experience in the larger world -- though they work with Blackfeet kids all day every day during the school year. (I’ll just note in passing that they’re both beautiful and married to powerful men. Roberta’s rez family connections are through Kipp and Anne’s are through her birth family, DeRosier.) There’s something about our experiences here that puts us out of sync with people who are not from here.

Since I’m reading “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker, the chapters about hot button issues, I was watching for clues. At the same time I’ve been watching BBC generational movies for months now and thinking about their obsession with the two World Wars and the Highland Clearances not unlike the American obsession with the Civil War and the prairie clearances that began with Lewis & Clark.

So, from p.308, here’s Pinker’s quote illustrating the point of view of the left, exemplified by Cynthia and PBS (to say nothing of NPR). “We know what causes violence in our society: poverty, discriminaton, the failure of our educational system. It’s not the genes that cause violence in our society. It’s our social system.”... and then: “We need better education, nutrition, and intervention in dysfunctional homes and in the lives of abused children, perhaps to the point of removing them from the control of their incompetent parents.” At which point the rez folks go “aaaaiiieee!”

Much of BBC movie-making is about class in the sense of money and access to education. But also, and this is different from modern urban America, there is a huge preoccupation with family. Here’s where Pinker’s thinking becomes relevant and nonprofit liberals become irrelevant. What rez people wrestle with constantly is Pinker’s list of genetically connected resistances to fair and rational government. (P. 294) I’m truncating them:
1. The primacy of family in all human societies and the subsequence appeal of nepostism and inheritance.
2. The limited scope of communal sharing in human groups, the more common ethos of reciprocity.
3. The universality of dominance and violence across human societies [Pinker disbelieves the idea of the Noble Savage.]
4. The partial heritability of intelligence, conscientiousness, and antisocial tendencies.
5. The prevalence of defense mechanisms [such as denial], self-serving biases and cognitive dissonance reduction [through suppression].
6. The biases of the human moral sense, including a preference for kin and friends, a susceptibility to a taboo mentality, and a tendency to confuse morality with conformity, rank, cleanliness and beauty.

What we three were talking about, even when we tried not to, were intra-rez problems, which have nothing at all to do with educational media or classical orchestras. The assumption of the urban liberal media person is that “high” art like Kapilow’s symphony would “uplift” the Noble Savages. What we were trying to say was more like, “look, this is a real dog fight here -- so for us, waving around high art in some mystical way has really limited usefulness. What people out there in some unknown place think is nothing to us. But if it means we’re important, we’re in favor.

And I was REALLY in a minority when I tried to suggest that high classical music has ALWAYS gone back to the countryside to see what the simple people were singing and using their dances etc. to reinvigorate their complex court performances. None of us had classical music backgrounds. (Except I listen to NPR all day: “From the Top,” “Performance Today” -- on which Kapilow occasionally appears -- and “Piano Puzzler.” Not that I absorb a whole lot, but a little. And I DO read some of the arts critics who write on music. I was raised in a house where classical music played constantly as a marker of education, but I couldn't tell you the names of more than a few compositions.)

But Roberta, in particular, through her birth family, was extremely sensitive to the prestige, the aura of authority and top-class that permeates the classical music world -- to such an extent that Cynthia said the hardest entity to bring on board was the St. Louis Symphony that had originally commissioned the symphony! No doubt thinking it would be about white domination through superiority and class inheritance from Europe. She said they worried about snippets of their performance being in a movie, for fear it would diminish their importance, their charisma. (If only they could have seen the arrows through the pompous top hat! But then they would REALLY have worried!)

When the performance of the symphony was done in Helena, few local people went-- probably because they didn’t understand the prestige of it all. “This is a marker of being superior? Then why weren’t we there?” They thought it had nothing to do with them. But when I brought out photos of Bob’s Browning High School orchestras, which he always insisted were capable of playing the very most challenging classical music and DID, it was the outsiders who doubted it. Indian kids from this little trashy town? Snicker.

The rez is VERY much like the small ethnic towns across the High-Line of Montana -- the same huge valuing of family connections, the same hoarding of resources, the same resort to violence to maintain “respect,” the same temptation to reach for power in the form of ghetto models or Scientology or movie stars, the same denial and forgetting and blanking out whatever is inconvenient.

The real fight on the rez isn’t even between the tribe and the BIA, which is the Leviathan that keeps order -- sorta. The real struggle is between the high status and the low status tribal members. That’s part of the reason that the definition of what an Indian “is” slips around so much. When high blood quantum is a value, it is the low status people who usually have it and try to defend it. When education is a value, it is the low blood quantum people who have it. One of Darrell’s big strategic advantages is that he’s both. High quantum, high education, high valuing of the old ways including the language. When only the high quantum people spoke the language, they got pushed aside as low status. Speaking Blackfeet was OUT. You were a “blanket-ass.” Then it became a political advantage to speak the language and the low quantum people came grinning to learn some words.

Darrell’s high-quantum/high-education double whammy really works on outsiders like nonprofit arts media people. They put Noble Savage on top of that and then -- well, then they come to Roberta’s house (that’s what Darrell calls it) and walk into elegant, immaculate, cool rooms with fine art that could have come out of Big Sky Journal, even though the house is the standard Tribal housing split-level, and they are convinced they have struck gold. Oh, the prestige of it all! Get the checkbook!

It’s Capilow and Hugo Perez who are impressed by something else: ideas, images, and the power of the arts to reach into hearts, if you can stand that rhyme. The actual symphony does that. This secondary movie and whatever develops from it, is only elaboration after all. Educational materials are tertiary. I really itch for that original CD of the symphony! I want to play it as loudly as I can, over and over until I’ve learned Darrell’s libretto by heart. Then I'll think some more about who's saving whom here.

Trailer at: www.vimeo.com/1305072

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