Monday, August 24, 2009


The Internet means that often there is a strange echo or maybe it’s not the Internet at all -- maybe it’s Jung’s synchronicity that proposes filaments of connection among us operating through our un- or sub- consciousnesses. At any rate, on the heels of the Kiipippoistoyi (Hundred Winters) history conference about the separation of Glacier National Park from the remains of the Blackfeet Country that was designated a reservation, here came a gift from Julie Terrill Ash, who was once the editor of the Glacier Reporter in Browning and who had found my blog though she’s now in California.

It was the VCR tape of Amy Grant’s “Old-fashioned Christmas,” originally called “Headin’ Home for Christmas” which aired in 1986. It was filmed more-or-less in Glacier Park.

Amy Grant was and might still be the sexiest of the Christian singers: lots of loose hair (which to my mother meant S-E-X, I suppose because in her day one took one’s hair down only at night), covered up clothing, and a boisterous kinetic style. But look at the cover of the tape and it’s pretty clear that her producers and she are playing sex off against virtue. Not that anyone is objecting.

The show is built on the pretense that Amy and her husband are taking an intimate little vacation before they go back to Tennessee for the actual holiday of Christmas, evidently because the show wants images of a white Christmas and Glacier Park is full of snow. (They were lucky. Sometimes it isn’t!) This modest story line is filled out with the idea that Amy is looking for Christmas presents and visiting local emporiums, like a crazy trading post full of taxidermy atrocities and peculiar artifacts, all ballyhooed by a familiar actor/comedian. The reason Julie knew I would want the tape is that it includes a visit to the Scriver Studio to show off Bob’s bronzes of Blackfeet.

Which is the point. The Blackfeet in this tape are the “lawn Indian” type that the Glacier Lodge paid to dress up and look dignified in their white buckskin beaded and fringed suits with full Sioux headdresses, to generally reassure tourists that they are benign and, in some way, primitive royalty. They appear as Bob's bronzes and as audience members when the storyline about touring the country gives way to a glorious concert on the west side of the mountains in Kootenai Lodge. A children’s choir, which pulls in the little girl who has been pretending to be Dennis Weaver’s daughter (Weaver is pretending to be a local rancher), an adult choir, and the local orchestra combine to back up Amy, her husband, and Art Garfunkel in familiar Christmas classics as well as some contemporary Christian compositions.

It’s all very well done, as Bob Scriver -- who had a sophisticated music education as a band leader and music teacher -- was quick to declare. A close-up during the concert found a tear on his cheek, no doubt taken to be evidence of how much he was moved by the music, but which I cynically suggest is grief over having to leave the music behind in order to be a famous sculptor.

But that’s not the point of this blog. The point is that insight I got from the seminar that Glacier National Park and the Badger-Two Med area just to the south are an American Jerusalem. The spectacular mountains are claimed by two different “nations” as a key sacred ground and this double claim can be hard to share. The Blackfeet assert strongly that these mountains, which make winter survivable through Chinook winds and summer survivable through slowly melting snowpack, are their life-source. For centuries they have gone there to built dream-beds and call for visions.

But the white folks of this country, particularly the rather soft-core Christians who have absorbed the transfer of the sacred from the institutional church and the historical birthplace of Jesus to nature in all its most grand and impressive forms, see our national parks as natural cathedrals meant to celebrate the near-religious patriotism of a well-loved “Christian” nation which set them apart for ITS people. Their idea of Christmas comes mostly from Victorian middle-class ideas: withdrawal to the country, gifts, evergreen trees, a certain style of sleigh rides and firesides. Most of all, family. Lacking Balmoral Castle, one seeks out a lodge.

And, luckily, peace and good will to all. This conciliatory attitude means that looking at the Scriver bronzes gives Dennis Weaver a chance to speak of peace and dignity when dealing with Indians, even though the examples in question are all drawn from the 19th century. In fact, Weaver himself was quite dedicated to the idea of peace. This was a feel-good program and had no reason or motivation to take on reservation poverty or to feature a little Indian kid instead of the little white girl.

When these programs are developed, the producers go to the state film and tourist office, at this time occupied by Gary Wunderwald. I wasn’t in Browning in 1986. In fact, I was serving a congregation in the Seattle area, but all through the Sixties when Bill Browning had this job, we worked closely with him. It saves the producers a lot of scouting time for this office to make suggestions and in those years they kept Bob Scriver high on their list. Bob was careful always to come through. One big reason Indians get left out of such programs is they don’t pay attention to the state match-makers and they don’t show what they have to offer. The activist-type demands or the victim-type pitches just don’t work. Media wants a story and good images they can count on.

So I doubt that Gary Wunderwald or the Montana Chamber of Commerce had any awareness that they were presenting an illustration of two “nations” both claiming their Jerusalem and occupying it peacefully together, mostly because the two approaches were so radically different that they missed the content-schism altogether. There are some advantages to being shallow and skating over the differences.

But like the conflict between two kinds of hunting that I discussed in the post about the seminar, Bob Scriver was again a man who had both kinds of religion inside him: oldtime Blackfeet Bundle-Keeping as well as a kind of surface Christianity mostly acquired from the media. He LOVED Amy Grant. No conflict there. Well, except the usual madonna/whore split Americans cherish along with their other mythology.


James Stripes said...

Thanks for illuminating some of the ways that Glacier Park is contested sacred ground. It's been a lot easier to perceive this conflict with respect to Mt Rushmore and the Black Hills: another food store for several Indian nations and an icon of American civil religion. I'll likely spend much of the day mulling over all that you are saying with, the rather soft-core Christians who have absorbed the transfer of the sacred from the institutional church and the historical birthplace of Jesus to nature in all its most grand and impressive forms ....

prairie mary said...

James, check out this book:

Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature
by Meyer Howard Abrams

There's a lot of similar stuff in other lit crit and in the enviro materials.

Look on Comparative Religion or History of Religion shelves.

Prairie Mary

Julie said...

As I covered the filming of this video for the Glacier Reporter, what impressed me most is the way Dennis Weaver (may he rest in peace) made a point to meet with a large group of Browning High School students before leaving the Rez. They gathered around him in a large circle with him at the head and he slowly moved his gaze from one student to the next until he had made meaningful eye contact with each one of them. The producers may have forgotten the Blackfeet but Mr. Weaver most certainly did not.

Lance Michael Foster said...

Another example of the transference of religious feeling from church to nature by the white settlers was often seen in the cartoons of Montana artist Stan Lynde. Hipshot Percussion was always avoiding church at Easter or Christmas to go to his cathedral, the mountains. An example of one of those old trips is at: