Saturday, August 21, 2010




OPENING PRAYER: Emmett Dusty Bull, Cuts Wood School student
(In Blackfeet. Stay seated.)


Piegan Institute is an immersion school for teaching the Blackfeet language. It was founded in 1987 so the first students have graduated from college. They have done exceedingly well. This was a privately funded school without tribe or BIA or any other “ownership” except for sixty people who thought learning the Blackfeet language was a crucial thing to do. Of those sixty, only Darrell and Dr. Dorothy Still Smoking are left. But many of the people who predicted it would never work or even that it was a bad thing to do, have now converted to the idea. Many schools try to teach indigenous languages but it is far harder than they realize at first, so some quietly shut down. But this school has persisted.

Part of the reason is the actual school building. The present Cuts Wood School was designed to provide space for sacred doings and many Bundle Keepers and affinity societies meet here. The old Blackfeet ways are saturated with spirituality. To take that out of the school would be to destroy its purpose, which is to explore the language.

In that exploration, inquiry is made into records and memories to discover what the earliest recorded meaning of Blackfeet words might be. They found that in the oldest definitions of imitah the words mean “the spirit that moves with us.” NOT the animal that moves with them, though the dogs were indeed carrying the materials for the camps or pulling them on travois or traveling alongside the people as they walked so they could be sentinels and scouts. The SPIRIT -- not the ghost or the beast or any of those English words, like domesticated (domicile, ownership). So Piegan settled down to sort through the facts of relationship to dogs, the dependencies, the reciprocities, the companionships. They found these things as well as others: protection, hunting, objects of love, trading items, and (controversial) food. (The Sioux admit to eating white dogs as a ceremonial dish.)

Darrell and his “talking circle” have been pondering the “dog days” for quite a while now, trying to figure it all out. They come to something that the scientists agree with: that the special gift that dogs have is the ability to “talk” to people through body language and through watching human faces. Of course, we know they also sense whether or not we have diabetes, cancer or fear, using their sense of small. (Darrell mentions people who are always getting bitten by dogs and who ask “why me?” He advises them to go smudge themselves.) So dogs were the first animals to “throw in with us” and share our fates. They understand our doings and intentions intuitively as well as by learning.

Darrell tells one of the “Why Dogs Can’t Talk” stories. (There are many dog stories.) A woman has a lover whenever her husband is gone. (Blackfeet stories, like those of many cultures, always portray the unfaithful one as the woman.) The lover is a bear. The dog is afraid to intervene, but it observes and, since in those days it could use human language, it told the man. The man killed the bear and in revenge the grieving wife stuffed a big piece of meat into the dog’s mouth. Its barking is partly an effort to dislodge that lump.


Darrell’s position is that the Blackfeet NEVER ate dogs, that they always held them in very high regard and considered them too valuable to simply kill and eat. He mentions that there are specific individual dogs with names who have been remembered in stories. He asserts that Blackfeet are anti-euthanasia and could never support the killing of surplus dogs. They are cultural icons. However, he recognizes that there are always lots of dogs around in Browning, that often they are hurt or starving, and that outsiders are often upset and offer to help the dogs if there were some way to do it.

At one time there was an organization called “Friends of Imitah and Poos,” but the sponsor, Peter Berger, moved away. (You might notice that the Blackfeet name for cats is "poos" or "puss," since both animal and name came with the Euros. The cats were invited to participate in this seminar but declined. They said, "As if we cared!") But there have always been individuals who did their best to take care of dogs.

Darrell told about a female documentary producer who was working in Browning and who became attached to a cute little pup. When it was time for her to go back to New York City, she really wanted to take the pup with her and asked Darrell what he thought, He asked around subtly, and it seemed to be okay. So she bought a shipping kennel and loaded it up for the airplane. About six months later this woman called Darrell, desperate for advice again. The cute little pup was now the size of her sofa and had just eaten the coffee table. What should she do? Darrell told her to take it to Central Park and turn it loose! “What?? Impossible!! I’d be arrested,” she protested.

“Oh, no,” reassured Darrell. “That’s a rez dog. In two weeks it will turn up back here in Browning.”

More realistically, it was decided to organize the Kaawa pomaakaa Society, a group with big hearts and small resources. One of the gathering places for the rez dogs is hanging around near Ick’s where the street people gather. (In fact, some of them suggest the dogs are reincarnations of old buddies.) So one of the first projects of this group was to make friends with these guys enough that they would allow the dogs to be spayed or neutered, then returned. They figure that nearly all the dogs are now sterile. Though they had taken along a small tranq gun in case some of the dogs were wild or hostile, Georgeanna Horn simply opened the door to her car and they all jumped in. In fact, the outsiders who come in to help in practical ways (like those who do the spay and neuter clinics) say that the street dogs in Browning are very well socialized animals that get along fine with people, so they can be adopted out even in other places. One of the strengths of this group has been establishing ties with other groups and individuals who have the same goals. These are not the big national humane societies, but more the local person-to-person animal lovers.

Darrell had the members of the group tell who they were. Erin Trombley had been a veterinary assistant at Grasswinds Veterinary Clinic and though she doesn’t work there anymore, she was so conscious of the many dogs brought in, sometimes hurt, and how they were all accepted by Dr. Ethel Connelly until a home could be found, that she has continued the work. Ellen Woods is the town librarian who volunteered to help with the spay/neuter clinics.

Debbie Nikou is a nurse at the Indian Health Service hospital and has rehabilitated and rescued animals for decades, including horses. Debbie administers a small grant account at Grasswinds. One person she was not able to help was a tourist who wanted to send a found dog home via UPS! But she has connections to Calgary and three states. She told the story of a little fluffy pup that she saw hit by a car. When she cme back and found it, the street people by Ick’s said it wasn’t really hurt, it was just “depressed.” But it was passing blood in its urine and had other bad symptoms, so Debbie took it home. Now it’s a fine boisterous Blue Heeler, exceptionally beautiful. Denise Sollars has a whole menagerie: dogs, cats, rabbits, turtles and so on. Sandra Watts, the tribal attorney, has eight dogs.

One sixth grade boy has a specialty: he takes in female dogs that are pregnant, births the pups, raises them, and then adopts them out. When he comes to the meetings, he gets very impatient with adult protocol. “Let’s get to work and get things done!” he urges.

Tomorrow I’ll post the rest of the content. The important governing concept of this whole seminar is “RENEGOTIATION OF THE BLACKFEET REALITY.” They are strongly challenging the idea of “culture,” which is so obsessed with accuracy which tries to freeze everything at one point in time when, in fact, the shared lives of people on the land is always dynamic and changes as it goes. They are also questioning the value of being old, being an “elder”, as qualification for saying what should happen. As Darrell says, “A person who is mean and selfish at the age of 20 or 40 or 60 is not very likely to be different when he or she gets to 80. So why pay attention to them just because they are old?”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, somebody who has thought the same thing that I thought! If a person is a jerk when they are young, why do we have to respect them when they are an old jerk?