Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Out beyond the fancy tourist Native American artifacts, the authentic, the historical, and the humble ritual objects, is something else that is beyond the intangible: the core of the Native American process and the materials from the land, just as Native Americans would create according to precedent, but without any of it coming from Native Americans.

I tried this once when I was circuit-riding for the Unitarians. When all the Montana people gathered, we created a Bundle of red material that contained Important Objects from the group: a fossil, a fishing fly, a beloved poem, a bolo tie. The idea was that when we met again, we would open the Bundle and tell each other about what was in there to add recollection and community bonding to our meeting. It didn’t work. We weren’t enough alike, the reunions didn’t include the same people and the objects didn’t mean that much. No one could remember who had custody of the Bundle. Bundles arise from intense meaning in a specific community.

Darrell Kipp
used to joke that if “today’s Blackfeet” created a Bundle, the first thing included would be pickup keys, then a TV remote control, and some big rubber sneakers. Of course, now there would be a lot of small electronics, though no one would leave them in the Bundle unless they were considered passe, and that happens so quickly that in five years no one would be able to remember what the thing was. A VC what?

Bob Scriver moved to a slightly different sort of ceremonial, the painted tipi. Again, one began with a dream which he did, seemingly not planning it but certainly hoping for it. Later he made a sculpture of the dream in which he transformed himself into a Blackfeet boy on a horse, looking down at a badger. In the dream the badger has a half a moose hide that he’s trying to pull down his hole. Watching are two crows and two “thirteen-line spermophiles.” (Ground squirrels with stripes: “Striped Squirrel” is a local name.) A wolverine was interfering and the boy defended the badger. It was fall, the aspens were golden and berries were bright red.

These animals became the basis of the Bundle that went with the lodge, each with its own song and gestures. Bob called this a “badger tipi” and associated it with his father. Bob had kept badgers as pets, liking them even more than the pet bobcats and foxes. They’re powerful but droll little creatures. The eerie part of it was that in the coming year the animals themselves seemed to surrender and to reveal their meanings. The badger was a small roadkill I found along the highway when I drove to Browning because Bob’s father had died and I went to be with Bob. (Bob had divorced me in the interval between his father’s major stroke and his eventual death.) The dead squirrels showed up during his daily walks with his grandson which were meant to improve his heart after his heart attack. Of course, as a taxidermist it was easy for him to prepare the skins with red beads like berries for eyes.

The actual canvas “skin” was commissioned from a local tipi-maker. The design and actual painting of it and the association of the songs with each animal was the “enchantment” of it, which made a couple of old-timers from Canada Bob was paying to paint nervous enough to leave halfway through. Tom and Alice Kehoe, noted anthropologists, were there with their children throughout, taking detailed notes, treating it as authentic though they were well-aware that it was not historical. George and Molly Kicking Woman were active participants, as family members. Molly made the ceremonial berry soup while I made a huge pot of spaghetti for lunch.

As is traditional, there is a badger facing the “door” on each side, its alimentary canal and heart marked out. The black top with four stripes and round stars is there. The bottom shows hills and potholes. The back has a false door which is blue because when a badger goes into his hole, he goes backwards so he’s looking out at the sky. The part Bob loved most was that at the top of the back there was a “dream butterfly” which was actually a moth, and in its center was a little decoration based on a badger tail. The badger I had picked up along the road became a “flag” to fly from the end of one of the tipi poles, while another badger hide went into the Bundle. Songs were “found” either from the pre-existing Blackfeet repertoire or from Bob’s “dreams.” This was also true of the face-painting: stripes like a badger face. The whole process was recorded in photos which are included in Bob’s book, “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains.”

After Bob’s death his remaining artifacts, those left over the sale to the Royal Alberta Museum, went to the Montana Historical Society. They had no credentialed curator of artifacts and were totally baffled and confused about what they had acquired. I tried to tell them but was not welcome. Actually, I was a co-creator of this lodge and would have “painting” rights. If someone wanted to make a replica, they would need to compensate me. Officials cannot figure out a category for such an object, which has disappeared. I’ve been told it was in storage with Bob’s art and (by the same person) told it was missing. Many of those artifacts were returned secretly, not to the tribe but to prominent individuals from the tribe. In turn, some of those were quietly re-sold off the reservation.

To the minds of the people who control these materials, the only value comes from identifying a strictly Native American object. They have no way of dealing with things that fall between categories, especially since the categories were invented by 19th century anthropologists informed only by watching and asking (often erroneously) the tribal people who had every reason to be secretive and deceptive for self-protection.

If you think of Native American artifacts as antiquities, that brings them into the present dialogue between nations about classical and other antiquities collected in museums as part of empire building, even though some materials remained in place, concentrated into local museums. Sorting out what to do is very difficult and often passionate. Not many tribal peoples have been included in this thinking. Not many are aware of the Rosetta Stone or the Elgin marbles. Many Americans don’t take NA antiquities seriously -- they are still categorized in a split way, either children’s bow and arrow sets and toy Indians or magical noble elements exceeding all others.

Philosophically there are three sources of principles: origins, destinations, and process. This small essay has discussed all three in a specific case, but there remains a much larger and more significant discussion of the autochthonous materials of people in the Americas before, after, and during the transformation imposed by Europeans.

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