Thursday, September 24, 2009


About this time of year Bob Scriver used to start making jokes about shooting ducks in their aggregate, which is the language the waterfowl licenses use to describe the limits on the numbers a hunter can shoot. He’d say, “Now, be sure to shoot those ducks in their aggregates, whatever part of their anatomy that is!” Sometimes I got aggravated by the jokes, to say nothing of agitated! No, I’m kidding.

The word “aggregate” jumped out at my eye from a post called “The Shatzkin File,” which is about publishing. The blog is written by Mike Shatzkin at Actually, he was talking about two concepts. One is aggregation and the other is curation.

He says, “Aggregation, of course, simply means pulling together things which are not necessarily connected.” Making a list. A catalogue.

“Curation is a term that has always referred to the careful selection and pruning of aggregates, such as for a museum or an art exhibition. But the concept in the digital content world means the selection and presentation of these disparate items to help a browser or consumer navigate and select from them. Aggregation without curation is, normally, not very helpful. Curation creates the brand.”

“Brand” is the key for Shatzkin. He means something like predictability, I think, but also something a little broader. Sometimes he seems to mean a category or genre, like “soup” and other times he seems to mean something like “Campbell’s”, an owned and marketable kind.

“No content makes its way from its creator to the public without aggregation.
Because the organization and delivery of stuff — including information — is being realigned into verticals; that is: subjects.”
Some people call this “siloing” to describe the stacking up of something normally spread out.

“The requirements of physical delivery required aggregation across interests that the Internet does not. So enduring horizontal brands of content like newspapers or book publishers but also outside content, among retailers, for example, that thrived across interest groups will find themselves challenged by new brands that are narrower and deeper. Being narrower and deeper permits a much more involved engagement with the audience. It strengthens the brand.”

Well, you could argue with that, because “narrower and deeper” is not always what the person wants, and maybe it’s just “more of the same.” But let’s consider some examples from publishing.

A few days ago I ran into Darnell Rides at the Door, who has always been active as a writer, editor, and television show hostess about Blackfeet. She mentioned that though she had already written a small book of “Napi Stories” published by the Blackfeet Heritage Program back in 1979, she was considering composing a new volume with illustrations. I remarked that I’d rather read the real life story of the Tatsey family, since there are so many versions of Napi stories already in print.

She challenged me to name a list and I was a little surprised myself that there are so many, so let’s look at the aggregate.

The hoary oldster in the group is “Blackfoot Lodge Tales: the Story of a Prairie People” by George Bird Grinnell. This University of Nebraska Bison Book seems almost old as the buffalo, though the copyright says 1962. There’s also a small (in every dimension) book called “Blackfeet Indian Stories” by George Bird Grinnell, that’s an Applewood Press facsimile of a Charles Scribner’s Sons’ 1926 edition.

Actually, the earlier collection of tales is more recently published: “Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians” by Clark Wissler and D.C. Duvall. Wissler was one of the first anthropologists to collect stories here, with the help of D.C. Duvall, a controversial local informant. Alice Kehoe, a contemporary anthropologist, added a bit of comment about him. Darrell Kipp, enrolled, also contributed to the newer editions.

Then there’s Percy Bull Child’s “The Sun Came Down.” Percy is the only full blood Blackfeet writer on the list, except for Darrell.

Walter McClintock was in Blackfeet country for many years around 1900 and included many Napi stories in “The Old North Trail” in particular.

In fact, including Napi stories in a different genre is quite a common practice, a sort of authentification. Richard Lancaster included them in his supposed journal of a stay with Old Jim Whitecalf, called “Piegan.” James Willard Schultz and Adolf Hungry-Wolf slip them into their adventure stories everywhere as what was told around campfires.

“Montana 1911”, Mary Eggermont-Molnar’s translation of the notes of the Uhlenbecks, a professor and his wife, is supposed to be about collecting the language itself, but the means was the recounting of Napi stories which Professor Uhlenbeck struggled to master in actual Blackfeet language.

There might be more anthologies around because to many people Napi stories are the extent of what there is about Blackfeet. Napi stories are understood to be the “way in” to the culture. The fact that the culture was severely broken in the 20th century makes the tales more attractive, more collectible. The fact that everyone tells slightly different versions, means new collections are always justifiable.

Google turns up many Napi stories and includes those from the Canadian side where three-fourths of the Blackfoot nation resides. There are digital versions. And if you go to YouTube, Lance Foster reads some of these stories out loud for you. He’s especially interested in scary stories, ghost stories, and there are always lots of them -- maybe not exactly Napi stories, but close.

Google is an aggregator. A bookstore or library is an aggregator. We’ve got lots and lots of aggregators these days and they gather up huge mounds of “stuff.” What’s missing is “curation.” Who tells you where to start reading, what you can depend on, what it all means? Wikipedia is supposed to do that but because it is so vulnerable to hidden manipulation -- all the time pretending it’s not -- that it can’t be trusted. Individual blogs are more transparent but there are a zillion of them, aggregations of curations.

Editors, publishers, teachers, preachers, and so on used to know “what’s what.” Now they’ve ALL been revealed as serving their own interests or the interests of their institutions. Cultural curators, maybe “meta-curators,” have been stirring up questions about authenticity, entitlement, validation, marketing, and a host of other issues. Who is entitled to tell these stories: pre-contact Blackfeet? Enrolled Blackfeet? Academics with degrees? Friendly writers who come to stay for years? Can they be successfully moved from oral literature to written manuscripts? Should all such anthologies now be on video, restored to orality? And what’s been left out of the aggregations? Are there other Napi stories languishing in archives somewhere? Have any been “de-constructed?” Who "owns" the stories?

It seems to me that we aren’t through with the task by a long shot. Napi stories are not sitting ducks. Unless you’re just shooting them in the aggregate.


Pat Lueck said...

Well! I just returned from a trip to Deer Lodge and Bozeman, where I attended a 50yr (GASP!) HS reunion. Took copious notes re: people, e-mail addresses, books to read, movies to see, people to find, etc, etc.

Was googling for "Blind Your Ponies" when I came across your blog. Blow me away!! Wow! It took me a while, going to linked sites,to get some detail and background.

I follow a couple of Montana based blogs and have added yours to my list, which is now subtitled: "One K of words a day keeps the Weltschmertz away!"

Pat Lueck - Minnesota

Lance Michael Foster said...

Cool post Mary. I myself work with aggregates, mainly the "woowoo" stuff in Montana, my own Ioway tribal materials, and integration of nature-centered religion in Montana. I guess in some ways, we "aggregationists" (aka collectors) are like ravens collecting shiny bits that catch our eyes and psyches.

But the branding thing was a crossover concept from 1990s business trends, where everything was about corporate identity = branding. And that has filtered into everything (here in Montana of course we are always about 10 years behind) because the markets are so crowded and raucous and globally -connected through the Internet that it can be tough to stand out (and standing out from competitors makes you or breaks you economically).

Curators/aggregationists thus have to find a "brand" to find their identity so that people can remember and be attracted to their museum, with matching logos, corporate colors, catch phrases, mission statements, etc. ad nauseum. It is not enough to be a museum or even an art museum anymore. One must "position" one's museum "brand" based on one's "platform" etc. (gag), and become "the community museum focusing on realistic western landscapes for the Mission Valley" or be forgotten (aka no money).

At the same time, such "overspecialization" is also a risk, especially if your "brand" falls out of favor based on trends etc. It's a real balancing act, especially for those small institutions without state tax money (like MHS) or well-heeled and dedicated corporate sponsors (like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation). The Holter Museum seems so far to have found its platform here in Helena, but there are so many "mom and pop" roadside attraction type museums that continually struggle to tell a vital local story no one else is telling, or CAN tell.

For example the Lewis and Clark Historical Society runs a small visitor center here in Helena on not much more than elbow grease, one or two dedicated volunteers and good will. There is no dedicated revenue stream and in fact the lowdown seems to be a strange chilliness from some establishment quarters here in Helena that I am only beginning to see the effects of.