An old Blackfeet lady (my age), well-educated, once in religious orders, sophisticated, a mother, a person who has lived in major cities, called me late at night for a bit of reassurance. She said she thought I was the only one likely to be awake at that hour and she was right. She is feeling ill, broke, put-down and bereft. She’s right about that, too. She thought I might say something useful. I don’t think she was really right about that.
The next morning she called me early in the grip of full-blown paranoia. People had targeted her, people were trying to get into her room (they had a key), a friend had died with strange marks on her stomach. I tried to talk her out of it, but no go, so I lost patience, just told her she was paranoid. She said thanks a lot, I was the one who put her there. She might be right about that. But it’s not really paranoia if they’re really after you. And “whites” (which is a code word for powerful people who control your life) have been after Indians since Columbus landed. Mortality rates are high and the percentage of them that are unnecessary deaths is high.
1. Population growth (most people are Catholic) beyond the carrying capacity of the business structures (including the Tribal Corporation), the land itself, or federal willingness to provide goods and services. Most prominently there is never the will to fund proper law enforcement, which is partly a function of enough officers well-trained and equipped and partly a function of social expectations. (No one expects much or even expects that expectations can rise.) Indian justice presumes that for major crimes, federal officials will step in, but they have no motivation to do so. When it comes to “minor” crimes (which may have major consequences) the presumption that Indians have a separate (sovereign) culture traps them in a box. There is no Supreme Court appeal. In the end it’s a small world with political forces powerful enough to prevent justice. Murders go unsolved; suspicious deaths are not investigated; rumors about mysterious deaths constantly circulate.
The federal government, after admitting they embezzled the trust funds of NA people, refuses to give them the money. Time after time the expectation is raised, then dashed.
2. A serious split in the tribe began early when some people had the advantage of white fathers (literally) who were in business or owned land or otherwise were employed so that prosperity went disproportionally to those folks. Their early advantage expanded into a major class split within the tribe itself. Most outsiders are totally unconscious of this.
3. A genetic heritage once fitted the people to the land in ways that no longer exist in terms of diet, exercise and practices. They were meat and vegetable eaters, always on the move. There was no sugar or alcohol.
4. This makes them vulnerable to diabetes among other things. Genetic vulnerability to diabetes is exacerbated economically by the tendency to eat cheap food -- high sugar, high carb, high salt and high fat but low nutrition. Partly this comes from eating fast food and junk food, fat beef instead of lean game and buffalo; and partly from being dependent on commodities and food banks. The foods from those sources are also high carb, high sugar.
5. The boarding school approach to breaking the old culture (plus the impact of population decimation from smallpox, cholera, and massacre) broke families and their generational wisdom. At one point there were only about 500 Amskapi Pikuni -- Montana Blackfeet -- half of whom were children. Many became stranded between cultures.
6. This compares to modern AIDS devastation in Africa, though American tribal people will resent me saying so. They do not like comparison to low status groups. One of the strong suppressive forces left by missionaries is the flat denial of things like genetic vulnerability (which translates to their ears as being physically faulty though it was physically supreme under conditions two hundred years ago) or lack of parenting (which translates in their minds to being morally deficient) or any other comparison hinting that they are not “just as good” as middle-class white folks. They want to say, like those missionaries, that they are just as bourgeois and middle-class as anyone else -- ironically at a time when many folks are criticizing that paradigm as destructive, not just to the people but also to the planet, just when we are turning to the authochthonous people as examples of more “noble” ways of living. Many rez folks are now educated and employed well enough to BE middle-class and -- to them -- this is success. White visitors can’t even see middle-class Indians, though some -- despite white-type success -- have maintained or renewed their connections to old-time religious ceremonies and self-disciplines.
7. The people are in a “syndemic.” (This word comes from Merrill Singer.) An “epidemic” of major proportions is a “pandemic.” When that overlaps and converges epidemics of disease, economic need, family disfunction, drugs, trauma, it becomes a “syndemic.” When one adds extreme weather and drought, it is called an “ecosyndemic.” The good news is that if you have a name for it, you can think about it. But the feedback mechanisms are not adequate to let the tribal members and rez residents participate in the knowledge flow. It feels simply overwhelming.
8. Treaties require that the US government provide education and medical care. This meant one thing in the early days and another thing now, much as the US Constitution meant one thing when it was written and another thing now. Post-modern thought, poorly understood, has taught many kids that education is a white man’s imposition on them and that they should resist it as illegitimate. (I’m NOT kidding.) Discipline in schools, even simple classroom order, can be defined as political oppression, even with a Blackfeet superintendent, principals, teachers and school boards -- which the schools have. The response has been to lower standards to the point where rez kids can’t cope with college-level work. They have no concept of remediation to catch up, but simply conclude they are inferior and go home. But those who have family support and guidance can zoom up to the Ph.D. level and some are MD’s.
The need for conscientious support in a hospital -- accurate record-keeping, proper med dispensing, careful cleaning, preventative education -- are LIFE-SAVING but not seen that way. Insistence on high standards come across as just more oppression and withholding.
9. There is a glass wall around the reservation. The newspaper is owned and controlled off-rez, though the actual editor is a sympathetic white with anthropological training. There is no sense by the surrounding white community that rez probs are very much like their own and vice versa, so there is very little sharing or sympathy. When the state legislation required that all Montana schools teach Indian history (which happened right here!) an educated woman said to me, “I don’t see why WE should have to study THEIR history!”
10. Pop media do not “get” Indians. They INSIST that they are either doomed drunks or doomed heroes. Anything other than that is simply not defined as Indian so it becomes invisible. People tell me there are no US Indian actors but I could name twenty who are Indian -- just not seen that way. HEATHER LOCKLEAR??? My fav example.
So, in general, it is right for an old lady Indian to be paranoid. I’m paranoid myself even though I’m white. The forces ARE aligned against us. We are at least somewhat victims. But there is no intent to single us out for punishment as individuals. In fact, there is no intent at all. No one person or group to blame. It’s structural: ecopandemic. The way the cookie crumbles, the chips fall, and we daren’t even eat ‘em. It’s grandiose to think we are the target; narcissistic not to understand that others suffer. Right here.