Talking to Tom Carrels about Jay Vest made me curious, so I looked him up on Google. It was a surprise of the good kind and I downloaded four documents:
I. www.uncp.edu/home/vestj/ which is his faculty CV and bib.
II. WHO COUNTS AS INDIAN IN POST APARTHEID VIRGINIA - ...www.mitsawokett.com/
III. [PDF] THE OLDMAN RIVER AND THE SACRED: A MEDITATION UPON APUTOSI PII ... Impacted by a water storage dam during the late eighties, the Old Man. River, in present-day Alberta
IV. [PDF] THE HERO'S JOURNEY IN JAMES WELCH'S SACRED GEOGRAPHY by JHC Vest - 2005 - Using an auto-criticism reflecting the author's ... James Welch's Fools Crow has figured greatly in that odyssey
Jay came through Browning (I suppose he was actually in Missoula with side trips) at a liminal time -- meaning “on a threshold,” because that piece across the bottom of the door is called the limen. The same word, sometimes spelled “limin” means the threshold of perception, the least amount of sensation that can be detected. Psychologically and theologically, it is meant to be the point of entrance, transition, crossing, often into holiness or at least potential. It was a liminal time for the whole planet as the cultures shifted towards openness and experiment; for me because I was newly divorced; and for Jay because he was just reaching that point in a young man’s life when he’s trying to figure out his identity.
Normally there’s a lot of thrashing around, experimenting, emotion, and risking at such a time and that was certainly the case with Jay. I don’t think I ever exchanged two words with him, but there were conversations about him -- sometimes approving and other times not. He was one of the MANY who came thinking that if they could sort of meld with the Blackfeet, they would become powerful and knowing. The trouble was that they usually picked out advisors who were pretty full of it, to be frank. Tricksters. I won’t name them. Of course, I have a certain point of view which is that of a white female older woman. Sceptical. A little over-experienced. Okay, cynical. After all, I’d known some of these people since they were twelve and my husband and father-in-law were older than most of them, as old as the enrolled grandfather elders and here since 1903.
Liminal time in the theatre is when the curtain goes up. In church it is the call to worship. At a concert it is the first chord after the tuning up. At that time this country's crossing of the limin into some new way of being was almost to the point of critical mass, the tipping point. Something happened and the whole political scene backed off. I think just became terrified, maybe like now.
Jay was pursuing his degree, now in hand. Both of us have gone through many new spaces since then, stepped over many a limin. My hope is -- and I think there is some evidence -- that the world is again crossing a threshold, but the point is that in a liminal time/space anything can happen. The car is out of gear. There is space to be Dionysian, even with an Apollonian president. But immense destruction can be one result.
The paper about “The Hero’s Journey in James Welch’s “Fools Crow” is competent and engaging, useful in particular for people who don’t have much background in Blackfeet matters. I see that now Jay is claiming his own enrollment in the Mohacan Indian Nation but I don’t know much about that group.
The paper called “The Oldman River and the Sacred: A Meditation Upon Aputosi Pii’kani Tradition and Environmental Ethics” is the one that had me wielding two colors of highlighter and scribbling in the margins. There is really good stuff in this paper, mixing realistic sociology with story and theory. Of course, I like it because it’s theory I can understand.
SOCIOLOGY: “. . .the Pii’kani community was divided in response to the dam, which created a position easily exploited by the outside interests. Since Native Modernists, motivated by poverty, tend to be willing to accept change provided it brings the promise of monetary benefit, they were largely unopposed to the environmental degradation. It was, however , the Pii’kani traditionalists who had the most to lose. In the traditionalists’ identification with place, specifically the Oldman River, these Natives were impacted with a major disruption of their religious ethos and cultural identity.”
STORY: “According to Campbell, mythology concerns the mystical dimension, for without this you have ideology. Myth also concerns ‘the pedagogy of the individual, giving him a guiding track to guide him along.’”
THEORY: “Elements of this [spiritual] integration include include: first, purification of body, soul, and spirit; second, spiritual expansion in realizing a relationship to all that is; and third, identity or realization of unity in a state of oneness with the totality.” (The reference is to Joseph Epes Brown, “ The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian,” 1982 p. 113. Vest studied with Brown.)
These ideas have not been exhausted and the development of ecological and scientific awareness of a changing planet makes them sharply useful. I’m a little surprised that Jay doesn’t pick up on some of the more recent thought. Many of the people he quotes have been gone for some years, which doesn’t make them less true and useful, but the torch has not been extinguished -- just handed on. Today the challenge is the Alberta Tar Sands and international high-tension power lines. The corporations are far more dangerous and powerful than anything in the Seventies.
Jay seems not to have heard about the “RENEGOTIATION OF THE BLACKFEET REALITY” . . . strongly challenging the idea of “culture,” which is so obsessed with accuracy that it 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.” (Quote from the recent history seminar at Piegan Institute.) Nor has he heard about Jack Gladstone’s generous troubador synthesis of song, philosophy, tradition and land.
There is a website where students critique their professors and Jay took some hard comments, mostly having to do with rigidity. I realize that today’s college students tend to be a self-important and contemptuous lot, but it sounds as though now HE’s the Culture Police, quoting a stack of white men’s books and telling about things that happened to him a half-century ago. Why does this happen so often? It seems as though he ought to be here celebrating and growing with the rest of us.
Maybe we should organize a convocation of all those white and low-quantum guys who came through here in the Sixties and Seventies, looking for liminality. Some found it and were transformed. We should find out what it did for them. And see what they can do for us.