Sunday, October 05, 2008


The Blackfeet Thunder Pipe Ceremony (which I don’t know as it is organized today except second-hand, since I have stepped back from these circles, but did know in the Sixties) is an in-gathering of the Beloved Community and also an in-gathering of the spirits of many creatures of the northern prairie. It is not mysterious, or was not when it grew up within the lives of the People years ago.

How many years ago? No one really knows, but the Thunderpipes that I’ve seen have brass tacks, brass falconry bells, satin ribbons, and occasionally exotic birds that were once mounted by a taxidermist (they have glass eyes) and that are not local. The stem, three feet long, is bored by something similar to the technology for rifles -- in fact, the stem is about the length of a “long gun.” This suggests post-contact. The stone bowl, where the tobacco burns, is not normally put on the stem or calumet because the pipe is not smoked except in times of extremely intense need. The most striking element of the pipestem is an entire set of colorfully quilled eagle tail feathers, usually from a young golden eagle, not a bald eagle. Bald eagles are fish-eaters found around water. Golden eagles live on the prairie and along the mountains where thermals lift them soaring across the sky. Many ermine hides (winter weasel pelts, which are white with a black-tipped tail) hang with other objects, maybe a Metis assumption sash. There are beads and sometimes the red wool cloth manufactured for trade in Stroud, England.

There’s sometimes a secondary pipe, similarly decorated and called “the woman’s pipe” which is really a length of gun barrel that had been taken off a “long gun” the way a shotgun is illegally shortened today. And there’s a smoking pipe, maybe not kept in the Bundle. In those days a pipe for smoking tobacco was something like today’s coffee pot, always hot to pour for guests. It was a kind of structuring device: the guest comes, the pipe goes around while there is talk, at some point people have had enough and the guest leaves. It also makes spaces for people to consider what they are saying while they puff or relight or refill the pipe.

The People gathered according to the seasons, coming from far and wide across the prairie to meet when there was enough grass for the horses and fresh meat for the People. Some think they used the stars as a calendar and others guess they went by the same kind of natural indicators that a farmer might use to decide when to cut his grain. The Thunder Pipe Bundle is associated with the spring storms that sweep across the vast grasslands, booming and flashing as they move, and sometimes striking lodges, people and animals. Prayers are made that storms will not do this, but that they will water the grass and that the sarvisberries will flower, for this is the beginning of the berries that will end up in berry soup.

Berry soup is the ceremonial food, not to symbolize someone’s death, but to work by affinity to encourage a good crop. When handed one’s bowl of soup, one picks out a big fat berry and the accumulation is handed forward to an altar where they are dedicated as examples of what is asked for. If Christian Communion is interpreted as a sharing, a plea for salvation, then maybe berry soup is the same. If Christian Communion is about the Crucifixion of Jesus, then berry soup is not the same thing. There is no priest, but the Bundle Keeper may make prayers. They were for ALL the People of the tribe.

Berry soup is not a store-bought food. In fact, usually dried berries are used and they are the last of the previous year’s crop, so they are more like seed grain than bread. Many different people might donate berries. They might have been cached somewhere, the way a marmot hoards grass underground among rocks, and in fact, a marmot’s underground hay stash might be a good place to hide dry berries in a rawhide container. If you want to be funky, in the old days the seeds of the berries the People ate were returned to the land in the same way that the seeds eaten by birds and animals go back to soil, so sarvisberries grew thick near the accustomed campgrounds. Such elements of the People’s lives traveled through natural feedback loops much in the way that our bodies stay stabilized by metabolic feedback loops in the blood.

If you’re really into it, here’s the recipe for berry soup or at least a recent version: 3 lbs bison ribs with water to cover, 2 1/2 cups dried sarvisberries (sometimes called serviceberries or saskatoon berries) soaked in water overnight, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 flour, 1/2 cup bitterroot. Boil ribs in large pot until done. Remove ribs and let broth cool. Skim off fat. Strain liquid and return to pot. Add sarvisberries, sugar and flour. Simmer until bitterroot looks translucent. Serves six. Old-timers wouldn’t have wanted to lose the calories in the fat and there would not have been sugar or flour. Someone could make a version of berry soup by soaking and boiling up pemmican which is drymeat and berries pounded together into a kind of energy trail mix. Since this recipe comes from Bob Scriver’s book about his artifact collection, “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains,” I can be pretty sure that this recipe is either from Molly Kicking Woman or Cecile Horn, since he was close to both old-time women.

Besides the People and the berries being gathered together, there is another in-gathering within the Bundle, the lesser creatures of the land. Anthros and fans are always dazzled by the big bright objects like the spectacular calumet, but often the stronger meaning is in the humble, scruffy, small sub-bundles. These might include the skins of an owl, a duck, a loon, a spotted fawn, or a muskrat. Each is wrapped in cloth the way a baby would be wrapped, with the head sticking out. They are probably harbingers of spring, such as owls being especially vocal because of looking for mates, the ducks coming back and pairing off, the fawns being dropped by the deer. Blackfeet didn’t eat these creatures except in some kind of emergency, but they watched them carefully to see what they could learn. The land was their text, the animals the writing on it. At the Bundle Opening Ceremony, the men choose one of these little sub-bundles to hold as they dance, often imitating the animal’s movements as closely as they can. Each animal has its own song. I’ve maintained for a long time that if a person REALLY wanted to be a Bundle Ceremony participant, the right way to go about it would not be reading the complete notes of Clarke Wissler or John Ewers, but walking on the land daily in pursuit of natural history.

Today the Bundle Keepers are the more prosperous and educated people who put emphasis on provenance and genetics -- hereditary entitlement. Thus the ceremony has become focused on gate-keeping and conformity to many small rules as remembered by the oldest participants. This is a serious shift and quite similar to the shift in Christian communion away from the valorization of ordinary sensory life towards theological abstraction, away from personal experience and towards arguments over small issues. This is why I have stepped back from both Bundle Opening ceremonies and Christian ceremonies.

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