Sunday, October 12, 2008


(This post in a series about Blackfeet rez probs is named in honor of Paul Newman.) The problem reflected upon is that mis-communication is constantly fouling up excellent projects that could have succeeded.

1. The reservation is an intense, pre-occupying environment where just going to the store in winter can be life-threatening and a chance encounter on the street with a relative can raise major issues, maybe about saving someone’s life. This keeps people from paying much if any attention to national news -- indeed, even international news -- that provides context for decisions made about them in Washington, D.C., enforced right there in Browning. The interest in Obama may help get over this.

2. The schools and life experience on the rez do not encourage mastery of abstract concepts and methods of analysis. People tend to accept things on their surface without interpreting or translating them. They don’t look for motives and interactions and parallels.

3. Media sees the rez in terms of appearance and cliches. This is exacerbated when -- as is usual -- the reporters who get sent out to the rez to get stories are young, inexperienced, probably from small towns where appearance counts for everything (so that they say, “Just driving through Browning is SO depressing”), maybe from the urban East, and have very little global context themselves.

4. NO ONE is very anxious to visit the reservation in winter. One of the break-throughs provided by home-composed videos is images of the prairie with snow. Otherwise, all those camera nuts love the mountain vistas so much that their second favorite word after “depressing” becomes “beautiful.” About all you can get out of some rez visitors is those two words: two extremes, no reality. Rarely do they even go into homes.

5. If you’re off the rez and want to ask questions or do business, it’s never clear whom to call. People don’t feel obligated to stay in their offices. People move from one job to another or jobs get redefined all the time. Off-rez people tend to pick up a name -- Earl Old Person, Darrell Kipp, Curley Bear Wagner -- and then try to contact that person, which gets that person so overloaded with irrelevant contacts that they can only defend themselves by going to voice mail. If a person were sophisticated enough to do a little research about the proper place to make contact that would help, but even phone calls asking who ought to be contacted are answered confusingly. “I’ll transfer you” -- into outer space.

6. Forget email. This is an oral culture. It's not a matter of technology. (Blackfeet are pretty good on computers.) Paper letters go onto the pile. Best is getting in the pickup and showing up with enough cash in your pocket to buy lunch. Of course, in winter...

7. The style on a rez -- created mostly by the way outsiders treat Indians, which tends to be aggressive and demanding or overenthusiastic -- is defensive. One might say passive. Don’t expect calls to be returned. Expect to have to make a LOT of calls over a long period of time. Schedule and budget for that. Offer concrete examples and plans.

8. Fear of doing the wrong thing, of blundering, of killing potential for the future or any other kind of threat or ambiguity, shuts down responses entirely. People have been taught, mostly through their education, that there is one way to do things and not doing them properly can be catastrophic.

Given the above, there is little or no willingness to experiment and those who DO act as innovators are harshly criticized by the others, who often stand around predicting doom and destruction. If anyone makes a misstep, the only defenders are usually family members. The others inflate their own reputations by attacking more. Then they sometimes build on the debris with THEIR family. An originally nomadic hunting culture is essentially conservative and only covertly innovative. Success depends upon attracting helpers and repeating effective patterns.

The AIM years built on a century of paranoia which was NOT paranoia because it was entirely justified by massacre, starvation, child kidnapping, livestock removal, financial trickery and so on. But now the problem is how to get past that paranoia, that constant suspicion and blaming. Some tribal people take it on themselves to be judge, jury and even executioner and they are often popular enough to get into office.

11. The 19th century Prairie Clearances have driven guilt and romanticism so deeply into the psyche of all Americans, Indian or not -- to say nothing of other nations -- that way too many people can see nothing else. This leads to a lot of posturing on the part of individuals -- inflated claims and sensational historical twists that can’t be substantiated and make the claimants look foolish to educated people. Alliances with educated people are often the most troubled and that includes anthropologists and historians, because it pushes the people into claiming genetic knowledge. The other side is that "educated" academics are sometimes know-it-alls who themselves have wrong facts and convictions.

12. If you asked people on the rez what an educated person was like, I don’t have any idea what they might come up with. There are very few white people now, since the BIA gives Indian preference and the small businesses that sprang up post-WWII have aged out. But I don’t think most Montana rural people have a very good grip on education either. They think of it as certification for jobs or knowledge-ownership, rather than ability to think.

13. Ghetto black/Hollywood/television (NOT PBS, but English drawing-room banter is not much help anyway) tend to dominate rez ideas of what the rest of the world is like. The increasing number of army veterans may help play against this, since their world is centered on order, discipline, merit-based hierarchy and concrete skills. It has been fascinating to watch the dynamics when Scientology somehow lured a ceremonial family into “gifting” a warbonnet to the dead L. Ronald Hubbard.

14. There is far too much willingness to go to “Uproar” (see Eric Berne’s “Games People Play”) instead of sticking with discussion and research. I’m always reminded of the old preacher’s story. Someone was looking at the manuscript of his sermon and saw in several places the initials AWPP. (He said he didn’t have to use KISS -- Keep It Simple, Stupid -- because his wife sat in the front pew and threw him a kiss when he began to get windy.) But AWPP? What did that mean? The old preacher laughed, “Argument Weak -- Pound Pulpit!”

15. The alternative to uproar is often total withdrawal, abandoning the field. Want to understand the school drop-out rate? Take a look at this factor. After a few rounds of Uproar, few object to Withdrawal.

16. The old-timers understood negotiation. When the government wanted to open a school for Indians at Sun River, they said, “Okay, open it. We’ll send our kids in equal numbers to the white kids attending.” For years the tribal council refused to accept gifted bison because there would be a stipulation that the buffs couldn’t be killed and eaten in the first year. They wanted total ownership, free and clear. On the other side, too many people want to give things to the Blackfeet with all sorts of strings and conditions, hidden controlling methods that show distrust, which is not the idea of a gift.

17. People used to think that if one just stalled enough, Blackfeet would wander off, forget, or settle for five cents on the dollar. Eloise Cobell’s lawsuit has put an end to that. So now the government is stalling until people have died.

18. People both on the rez and off the rez look for interlocutors whom they believe are in sympathy with the goals they represent. One never knows whether the person to whom they are speaking is a cat’s paw or the true initiator. And some people don’t choose their sock puppets very well, ending up with unreliable go-betweens.

Don’t call me! I don't even have voice mail.

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