Tuesday, November 09, 2010

ROGUE ANTHROS: John Hellson and Adolph Hungry Wolf

One of the useful characteristics of rogue anthropologists is their clandestine modes of operation, so this blog is violating a few unwritten rules. But that is the nature of blogs and probably the dynamic that makes some people afraid of them. They are not accountable to any funding or otherwise controlling agency like an institution or publisher. In a way, I’m joining the rogues. This will probably eliminate me from consideration by many of the small new publishers who are replacing the old tweedy Manhattan and Boston publishers. They’re gone anyway. The new publishers tend to be “nice ladies,” some of whom pulled themselves out of real trouble by struggling through school where they learned respect for authorities. Rogues put them into a state of panic.

Anyway, the two rogues I’m going to discuss are about my age and people I know. They despise each other. John Hellson is a half-dozen years older than 71 and Adolph Hungry Wolf might be a little younger. Both of them showed up on the Blackfeet Rez in Montana in the Sixties, not long after I did, and both of them were drawn to Bob Scriver, who often acted as an interlocutor between the outside world and the rez where he was born. John, Adolph, Bob, and I are all white, which makes us politically incorrect from birth because of the post-colonial rule that only the indigenous can write about the indigenous. (Bob was the only one of us born on the rez.) It was a useful rule for breaking up the colonial practice of ransacking cultures under the guise of “salvage anthropology,” the idea that the cultures were disappearing so “scientists” were justified in collecting artifacts, stories, and ceremonies in order to preserve them. The rogues were not so scientific and not affiliated with any institutions, but maybe because of that they acquired huge amounts of “stuff.”

Both married Blood Blackfeet women (“Blood” the tribal subdivision) from excellent families so they had unique access that by-passed the usual taboos as well as the suffocating forces of both the reservation itself, which constantly tries to present itself as more virtuous, more deserving, more missionary-responsive than they might actually be -- as well as more pleasing to publishers, universities and museums.

The problem was how to make a living. One way was Adolph’s method which was self-publishing. The Good Medicine books that he and his family produced are invaluable. He was especially alert to photographs, the old kind mounted on cardboard that are called “cabinet” photographs. They are meant to be held and “read” with long scrutiny. Finding some of these in a suitcase he bought at an auction, he carried them everywhere with him and whenever he found old-timers, he'd ask them to “read” and interpret for him. Then he put the information on the back. He is an educated man who values history. ALL his info is now available in four volumes he self-published, expecting shouts of joy and honor. Instead, he discovered that the world had changed radically in the last fifty years. http://goodmedicinefoundation.com/media/books1.html

The nineteenth century world of James Willard Schultz, George Bird Grinnell, and even John Ewers is no longer of much interest to young people. The gray-headed white people who used to obsess over all that horse-and-feather stuff is thinning out fast. Now the cutting edge of Blackfeet anthro research is academic indigenous people and those closely associated with them (like white profs married to Blackfeet: consider Rosalyn LaPier and Dave Beck at the U of Montana; or the people who cluster around Darrell Kipp and Jack Gladstone). With modern technology like GPS or molecular analysis, these people find ancient campsites, begin to sift through the archives of Hudson’s Bay or the Roman Catholic Church, translating the first earliest letters “home,” breaking through into a far more elegant and detailed account of early days even before the horse.

Repatriation, the law returning every artifact and skeleton to the tribe where it originated, created a huge opportunity for clandestine profit from artifacts in much the same way as Prohibition made alcohol worth criminal attention. This change did not affect Hungry Wolf so much as it did John Hellson, who had been surviving by brokering objects. The glorious beaded buckskin suits had intrinsic value of their own because they were beautiful. But there was a lot of stuff that was just floating around -- no one knew what it was or cared very much except the very old people who remembered what it meant, not least because they were keyed into a close sensory knowledge of the land and animals as it was before the fence and the plow. These two guys -- who “lived the life” -- picked up that often religious information. They were not cynical. They LOVED this culture. Adolph still lives in a log cabin with a creek for a water source. His computer is run by a solar panel. Otherwise, no electricity.

Evolution happens when one portion of the population is separated -- usually geographically -- and in that niche evolves in a different way. Then later it may reunite with the main body and make a contribution to the gene pool. The great NA political furor over who had enough proper provenance to study Indians has obliterated far more worthy issues and separated Hellson and Hungry Wolf from the mainstream. Anyway Indian tribal identity is NOT determined by genetics, but by provenance: who was your grandmother? It only goes back to first official white contact, though whites were in the West almost as soon as the continent was discovered -- think of Spaniards bringing the horse. Hellson or Hungry Wolf are almost directly European, not even in America long. John is from Cornwall, England. Adolph is from California but his folks are Austro-Hungarian.

All that is old news. The problem that is now presented is how to recognize and preserve the undisciplined work of these two rogues: Adolph orderly and in plain sight (mostly), the other dubious enough to land Hellson in prison. Out of the blue Hellson called me a day or so ago. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. He was weaving the same old sorcerer’s spell that captured Bob Scriver in the Sixties, unbroken until he stole some of Bob’s artifacts while he was supposed to be curating them. Today’s accredited and honorable researchers, in particular the indigenous ones, have nothing but scorn for the rogues. As far as they’re concerned, the work is contaminated, even toxic. And yet part of the advantage these adventurers had was that they were willing to explore the taboo, the sexual that had to be written about in Latin, the unsuspected and imperceptible to other white outsiders and some red insiders.


Cowtown Pattie said...

Mary, I have been far too long in visiting here.

The photo of the wild plums literally made my mouth water this morning. My favorite jelly - wild plum. Beautiful, aren't they?

After reading your two most recent posts, the connection of "rogue" hit me full in the face. A forehead slap moment.

Here you are, way out in the outer edges of civilization, and yet you manage to be more connected to the world than any Harvard or Stanford whiz kid.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the blog - good stuff, Mary. You really are a terrific teacher.

After I read something "over here", I have to dig a little deeper, discover a little more.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Thanks much, Pattie! Clay Shirky would be proud of you! You get the new "city" where the real coin is simply time.

Prairie Mary