Friday, October 30, 2009



“Lith” means stone. Sometimes American indigenous people are called “stone age people,” though we used to kid each other in the foundry that the Blackfeet present were now up to the “bronze age.” The truth is that much of the early material culture must have been organic: hide, bone, wood, ivory. For the most part, such things go back to where they came from unless circumstances were unusual. There is, for instance, a bog on the west coast of Chile where meat was found preserved with a rope around it made from vine. The vine did not grow there: it was knotted. The date is VERY early. I’m thinking way before the usual ten thousand year horizon. It was always thought that the glacier over the northern half of the continent prevented access to the Americas, but that doesn’t consider the “boat hoppers” in kayaks or more elaborate designs that probably probed along the coasts and up the rivers in search of food.


Stone objects endure seemingly “forever.” Mauls, mortar & pestles, rollers, flat surfaces with rolling pins for making flour, heads of hammers or weapons with grooves chipped in them so they can be mounted on handles or spear shafts -- in some places they are easily found. And then the sharp edges of obsidian (really glass), they say sharp enough to perform surgery, and handheld blades for flensing hides.

The most familiar of the stone artifacts is the arrowhead, iconic in our thinking about Indians because arrowheads mean bows and arrows. The design of arrowheads, the source of the stone, and means of attachment to arrow shafts -- all these subtleties have meaning. They are hunter/gatherer basics. If you go to the top of a high ridge and look in the grass, you’re likely to find arrowheads, discarded products of flint-knapping gone wrong, and the tiny flakes pressed off the edges of the stone. Someone on lookout up there filled up the time by working on his arrowhead supply.

I’m not enough of an expert to explain all about arrowheads. The point is that they are so ubiquitous, so many people have carefully arranged collections of beautiful arrowheads under glass in their studies and playrooms, and arrowheads are so easily picked up on a walk and carried in a pocket, that they are a kind of “everybody’s artifacts.” Other “made” objects, like pots, when fragmented, become to most people’s minds very much like arrowheads. The scientific information that could have been derived from them is not perceptible to the casual person who picks up a shard. They are not as “pretty” as an elegant arrowhead. To many people they are debris.

Every time and place has its own style of making a pot, baking it, decorating it. I once read a study by a scientist who made a string grid over a former village site so that it was divided into squares, carefully mapped every tiny piece of pottery and its period, put it all in the computer, and produced what was essentially a map of the development of the village. It took enormous patience. No one is going to do that at every site. But at some sites it may be crucially important.

This seems innocent enough but can become very troubling when, like so many things, the collecting of arrowheads and potsherds becomes industrialized. It’s bad enough when archeologists mark off squares and dig up the area, sifting the dirt through screens to find everything. It’s entirely over the top when a backhoe comes in to move huge amounts of dirt in search of something valuable. (Even apart from the likelihood that they’ll leave the hole unfilled.)


Another class of “lithic” material is fossils, which are not manmade, but sometimes slightly modified. The “people’s fossil” is what the Blackfeet called Buffalo Stones, Iniskum. The accompanying manmade story is about a low-status wife (Sits by the Door) who finds a buffalo stone and is able to call buffalo for her starving village. They are actually the remains of the mud inside the sequential and graduated chambers of a sea creature called a baculite, which once grew in great numbers in the shallow inland sea that once covered the prairie.

There is a protocol that goes with iniskim. They are rubbed with fat and red earth until they are shiny, wrapped in a bit of buffalo fur, and kept in a bundle -- sometimes they are added to a pre-existing bundle. Sometimes the baculites have the original mother of pearl lining from the little creature, which makes them prettier but then they don’t break apart into the sequence of little “buffalos.” When they do have the mother of pearl, they are said to be “fat,” because fat can be shiny and rainbowy like that. Those are luckier. Pom-iniskim, supposed to bring prosperity! Easy enough to buy at a rock shop. Maybe sixty bucks for one to hold in your hand.

The trouble with something like an iniskim as a “found object” is that unless you’re Blackfeet, they have to be explained. Unless you know the story, even if you see the stones in a ancient bundle, they don’t mean much. If you’re looking for one, they are even less obvious. Mine looks like a handful of cement, squeezed when still wet. Yet they’re quite common and in some places where there used to be colonies of the creatures and where the topsoil has eroded back to expose them, they are thick underfoot.

But iniskim are minor. The big law-suit provoking items are dinosaur fossils, which the Blackfeet mythology identify as coming from Water Bulls and Thunder Birds. The stories here are about terrible battles between water and air creatures. The Blackfeet idea was to leave them alone, but until a few years back there was a company on the rez that bought dino fossils from locals and sold them to the “trade,” however that works. For a while a casting of “Leonardo,” a particularly striking and detailed fossil of a young dino, was displayed at the Blackfeet Heritage Center. One tribal enthusiast went so far as to suggest throwing out all the old materials from the Museum of the Plains Indians and devoting the whole place to dinosaurs instead.

It’s true enough that dinosaurs can be worth a lot of money but it is only a geological accident that they are here. Like baculites (which were much earlier), dinosaurs once found conditions very favorable along here and after their bones and eggs were deposited, covered in volcanic dust and glacial debris, they lay hidden until now when the wind and water are reversing themselves, taking away from the fossils what they once laid on top of the bones, now mineralized. The Blackfeet benefit from them in the way they benefit from oil or coal deposits, but they are not created by indigenous people and have nothing to do with their culture except as stories. Still, it is illegal to remove fossils from the reservation without permission.

(to be continued)

1 comment:

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

This response comes from Tim Barrus via Prairie Mary:

My grandfather, Conrad Stegenga, was a farmer. He plowed.

The East forty, was rarely used mainly because the farmland North was so productive; next to the Grand River, just north of Portland, Michigan, where my parents and I lived in a chicken coop from 1950-1952. The East forty was plowed when I was five, and the family needed the income from the barley that would be grown there.

Con would often come home with his pockets filled with artifacts the plow turned over. Most were granite axe-heads and large spear points the size of a paperback book. The spearpoints were pink quartz. My sister stole this collection so I have no idea where it is.

We assumed these implements were Chippewa/Ojibwa. We were wrong. I had them evaluated at MSU's Archeology dept. At first, the people at MSU thought they were of Hopewell origin. But the pink quartz is rare. In 1974, they were evaluated as Paleo-Indian: 12,000 BCE. Apparently, there was more pink quartz used at that time for spears to hunt large mammals.

The east forty acres was rich farmland. It also yielded a trove of artifacts so numerous, you still can't go out there without finding them; they're everywhere. Western Michigan is rich in Indian history. The Hopewell mound-builders seem to me to be very much like some of the Bolivian communities today that exist in the Andes at around the 300 mile marker from La Paz.

Where, ironically enough, I was able to observe these South Americans using pink quartz knives to construct/cut designs in the leather halters they made for their horses and mules. They were chipped exactly like the pink quartz spear points the Stegengas had collected in Portland, Michigan. Although these had been made in 12,000 BCE, they still remain razor-sharp.

I have walked many of the Anasazi trails of the SW that follow ancient river washes, now dry desert. These seem appropriate for hunting deer and are like deer trails. Many of these same types of trails can be found alongside the Grand River around Portland where deer are still numerous. These trails are not designed by humans because they zig zag about every four feet even when there is no apparent demographic to suggest the advantage of zigzagging such as one finds on inclines. They do however resemble rabbits on the run and they still contain the occasional coyote. They are not fun to walk and feel perpetually redundant if you are not hunting game. The Stegengas hunted game for food. I grew up on fish and pheasant. I would bet the Indians ate much the same.

One field (more woods than field and never was farmed) we called the hollow still grew Indian corn which has a STRONG taste totally unlike the domestic corn most Americans are used to. The typical American corn plant in August can be ten feet high. The Indian corn was never more than chest height. Planted between the corn stalks (which were wild now) there were small yellow squash and pumpkins. The hollow was also thick with pussy willows and black walnut trees. We gathered walnuts in September (and spent hours shucking them) from which my grandmother made a vast variety of recipes and cooked with game in her woodstove oven, especially rabbit. The farm did not have electricity until the 1950s, or refrigeration. There was an ice house next to the main farmhouse where river ice was stored in sawdust. My play area was in the corncrib in the barn. It was entirely another way of life which has definitely disappeared. It was a shock to move to Lansing where milk had no cream.

-- Tim Barrus