Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Earlier in this series I talked about Uhlenbeck and his collection of linguistic material, which he took (without removing) in the form of stories and later analyzed for grammar and structure. He did not publish books of stories for popular consumption like the many versions of Napi stories. (See Monday, October 02, 2006, “WHO TELLS THE TALE.”) Nor was he an anthropologist looking for information about how to hunt buffalo or make horse gear. Another kind of person who loved the early Piegan and recorded their lives was the artist, like Sharp, Schreyvogel, or -- of course -- Charlie Russell.

By now the scientific study of native peoples has specialized in a dozen ways. The study of the plants, which was Walter McClintock’s original training and government assignment, was much of the information ending up in “The Old North Trail” as well as the only published book by John Hellson. (Ethnobotany of the Blackfoot Indians. Canadian Ethnology Service Paper No. 19. 1974 $81.90, "used" at Amazon as I write.) Blackfeet Community College has a faculty member who is also a tribal member and who runs a geodesic dome greenhouse on the campus. For a while he raised sweetgrass to sell. (It’s harder to find these days -- it’s ALWAYS hard to find -- because it requires human tending, if only by being burned over, and the old-timers who used to watch and thin the patches are gone.) More recently Mr. Fish decided it was more important to come into the early 20th century practice of urging people to grow kitchen gardens. Considering diabetes, he’s undoubtedly right. People are aware of the Amazonian jungle being touted as the source of miracle drugs and suspect that old people’s knowledge of medicinal drugs has somehow been taken.

Most people would think of sweetgrass braids as NA “herbs”, which can be bought online at http://www.siyehdevelopment.com/heritage.html They are nice to tuck into a linen cupboard like lavender. I grow my own and use it to smudge as a kind of prayer discipline, which is close to making magic of the ordinary lives of a specific people rooted in a circumpolar ecology. (In some of the Eurasian contexts, sweetgrass is thrown under rugs to scent the house.) When one becomes closely familiar with a culture, shared similarities are as likely as singularities. None of these scientific and semi-scientific bodies of information are what most people would think of as “artifacts,” though that’s what they surely are. To be apparent to most people they need the “value added” layer of scientific or historical interpretation.

A man contacted me on the email because he was writing a novel in which there was a long passage about a Blackfeet man’s ancestors going to war. He wanted my advice about equipment and strategy. I’m hardly any kind of expert, but he rejected all my suggestions about where to go that would be more reliable. Then he said that when he was writing, he liked to play music but he couldn’t find anything inspiring while writing this part. I suggested Jack Gladstone, but he rejected Jack on grounds that he was too modern and too adapted to white men. (I’m not so sure.) I suggested Kenny Scabby Robe’s Black Lodge Singers, who had just won “best” in the national competition among drum societies. He rejected them on grounds that they were too screechy. (Traditional singers sing falsetto.) He wasn’t really that fond of romantic Indian flute music either. I figured he was hopeless and recommended the Grand Canyon Suite.

In fact, there is quite a body of symphonic concert music “inspired” by Indians. Most recently offered is the gorgeous oratorio by Rob Kapilow, “Summer Sun Winter Moon” on the topic of Lewis & Clark, which has a libretto by Darrell Kipp. (It was on PBS as part of Native American Month alongside a documentary about a champion Blackfeet girl’s basketball team.) It’s very beautiful, not particularly based on Blackfeet songs, and about the advent of whites as much as the endurance of indigenous peoples, with the scenery dominating the humans.

Bruno Nettl
is far more the discriminating and technical collector of music. If you look at http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Blackfoot_music#encyclopedia, you’ll find a sketch of his conclusions about the early music which were much derived from recordings collected by earlier people. Nettl’s book is called “Blackfoot Musical Thought,” which tells you right there that is not going to be “stooping” to think of the autochthonous as being simplistic or instinctive in some primitive way.

He points out that Blackfeet music is vocal plus percussion, which occasions require song, what the internal structure is likely to be. Songs are quite patterned in terms of setting the theme, repeating at certain points, and associating the songs with specific animals or actions in ceremonies like Bundle Opening. By the time you’ve read Nettl’s book, you will not be able to sing the songs, but you will think of them in quite a different way. For instance, in old times there were evidently no songs specifically for children except “mice songs” that were associated because of being small. But the Blacklodge Singers have recorded a rousing modern American-subject fusion version called “Kids Pow-Wow Songs” which celebrates cartoon animals like Mighty Mouse. I’ve played that so many times I’ve almost learned it. “Ohmigosh! It’s Mighty Mouse!” The words are English but the style and structure are classic Blackfeet.

The most generous and thoughtful thing about Nettl is that he sent his collection of historical recordings back to the reservation to be put into the care of the Piegan Institute, purely Blackfeet. They immediately set about transferring the material to disc, translating what was said, asking remaining old-timers (notably Joe Old Chief) to comment, and so on. This blast from the past was revelatory and often set everyone laughing because the comments in Blackfeet by bystanders were understood. Patient wives, waiting while their husbands recorded songs for which they were paid “per song,” urged their men to think of more songs. “We need the money!” they reminded. Piegan Institute’s goal is to recover the Blackfeet language. Many on the rez would not understand the jokes.

Faught’s Blackfeet Trading Post (http://www.browningchamber.com/faughts.html
) has a major section devoted to Native American music.

Such intangibles as music or ethnobotany or language or stories are not addressed by NAGPRA though they can just as surely be stolen and marketed. If John Hellson had stuck to plants, he would not have served jail time. When dealing with Blackfeet ceremonial materials, John himself would say, the songs and prayers that carry the “power” of the objects are as valuable as the objects themselves. Both will crumble in time if not kept alive by active use, and yet using them means that over time they will drift away from their roots, acquire deviant variations, and become detached from the lives on the prairie that produced them. It is irresolvable, a human condition.

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