(This post is part of a series responding to an article about violence to Indian woman by Ross and Finley in Indian Country Today.)
By now everyone but the Flat Earth Society knows that human beings are made from molecular code stored in a set of double helixes called chromosomes. Some of the code makes the molecules that fit together to create our bodies and some of the code is the controls, the “dashboard.” By turning molecules off and on, esp. during periods of growth like gestation and childhood, that code is powerful.
It has been proposed -- and is useful to consider -- that in our behavior and ideas are codes that both create our personalities and societies and also act as the “dashboard” that shapes the process. These are called “memes” to suggest “genes.” Consider that I’m publishing this on a Sunday, which has been a “day of rest” for a very long time. Originally it was number magic, having to do with the number seven. You’d have to do some research to figure out why it is the seventh day, but it is coded in the story of creation when God set the example by resting on the seventh day.
A day of rest is a very good idea for lots of reasons. Time to recover, time to think, time to reflect on what it all means by (perhaps) going to church. The point here is that it’s good for the individual and good for the community as well as the relationship between the two.
Religion is defined many different ways, some of them useful and some of them not. Number magic arises from natural rhythms (moon cycle, female fertility cycle, ten fingers on two hands, four directions, four seasons) and is only one of the sources of what is sometimes called “mythology,” or story -- the search for order, for cause and effect, and ultimately for survival. But religion is not so much about survival of the individual -- though we’ve been playing it that way for awhile -- as it is survival for the group, the tribe, the nation, the ecology, the planet. The species.
Some people get locked into dogmas that developed in other places, other times, when survival was dependent on other strategies. Absolute obedience to the male leader, stigmatizing women and children as dependent property who have no will or value except for the Father, claiming all of creation as belonging to a Supreme Father for the use of his favored dependents, came from the strategy for a harsh environment in which groups of people compete in deadly ways. Think Afghanistan. Think ghetto. Think Mafia. Last man standing wins. Until he ages and is replaced by a new strong man. And while he’s the Big Man, he’s responsible for everyone and everything. That’s the price he pays. It’s all his doin’, his fault. He could end up on a stretcher in a cage, his two sons with him.
This strategy for survival, which is detailed in the Old Testament, was opposed by Jesus, who brought a New Order in which those who protected the family, who valued women and children, who worked together, who gloried in creation rather than trying to drive it into a corner and squeeze wealth out of it, would be those with the memes for the new survival. The struggle between the OT and the NT continues today, now identified as political parties. Many who claim Jesus actually, not so secretly, think they are Jehovah. Their idea of bureaucratic and military hierarchy was reinforced when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity and rolled it into their own colonizing across Europe.
But that’s only one part of the world, maybe pretty much the same as “Western Civilization.” The Asian world and the tribal worlds of Africa and the Americas were creating memes deeply embedded in a different code, which also nudged their genes in a different direction. Their religious bundling, their stories and ethics, were close to the land in a weaving that is older than the Old Testament or any writing at all. It still depends on stories but they are told aloud.
In the old Blackfeet world the main group was the band that developed out of families. Some families thrived. It was not that they were “fitter” in terms of a hierarchy of warriors and princesses, but that they “fitted” their lives to the land and each other. The bands with cranky, stingy, over-competitive leaders who only protected their favorites withered because as soon as people were able, they left. Depressed mothers might let their babies grow up unloved, uninstructed, unfed. Maybe the mothers died. But because it was a band, because there were aunties and grandmothers, someone generally pulled those babies into their own lodges and kept them going. If a man were killed, the other men stepped in.
Peer pressure was a major force in those days. I read about the strategy of standing outside a lodge with a dysfunctional person inside and talking about them in loud voices so they’d get the message without a confrontation. A relative might make an intervention. A wise older person of either gender might have advice. If all else failed, as in a case where a violent man beat up his wife, her family might come and beat him up. Might even take all his belongings and destroy his lodge, which was actually his wife’s anyway. If he were a man who could take a hint, he might come home to find everything piled up outside the lodge. If he were a man or a group of men who were trouble, they might come home to find that the whole band had moved without them. There’s a story about ornery disobedient children who were left behind that way. There’s also a story about a family of grizzly bears who moved in with a Blackfeet band and whose behavior was so atrocious that a couple of warriors simply killed them.
Nowadays in those situations, everyone looks away. Mind-your-own-business is a meme. But the essence of Blackfeet life was in a group, not as an individual and that might be one of the things that separates those times from the present more than anything else. It’s not that life was idyllic, romantically perfect. It was hard work. Disastrous things happened. But the point of salvation was to save the band, not one’s own soul. Behavior was tied into consequences for everyone.
Women were protected from violence and unwanted sex by staying with the group: sisters, brothers, aunts and parents. Only the ones tempted by illicit desires went off by themselves to hide what they were doing. Then they were vulnerable. Consider the “meme” of polygyny, multiple wives. An errant husband faced a committee. Of course, they had to agree and that was a problem. (One wise and experienced husband advised marrying sisters, who had already hashed out their pecking order.) But it was pretty hard for a woman to duck out on her share of the work.
Ostracism was the most severe punishment because a single person would be hard pressed to survive alone. In fact, loners generally found another band. Today’s understanding of tribes as hard-edged, document-defined groups is as unreal as today’s hard-edged survey-defined reservations. In the old days things were interwoven. We call that “nature.” We call that “ecosystem.” Some call it “spiritual.” It’s one element of religion. What worked then and there will not necessarily work now, but it’s worth thinking about. This is a period of tumultuous growth, especially on reservations.
(Still more to come.)