Thursday, August 11, 2011


(This is part of a series responding to the Ross-Finley article in Indian Country Today about violence to women on the reservation.)

During lunch with a friend in East Glacier, a former student came table-hopping.  In the course of conversation, he confided that he was a little worried.  In high school he had played football and been knocked unconscious several times.  Now, in middle age, he was beginning to have mysterious blackouts and brain glitches.  He was not a drunk.  I paid close attention for several reasons.
The most personal is that my brother, my father and my cousin all sustained closed-skull head blows.  Less personally, this sort of brain damage is the most typical of the present US “sand wars” (along with loss of limbs).  And most relevantly here, when a researcher studied men in prison the percentage of men who had this sort of damage was much higher than the percentage of the street population.  
What is crazy-making for those living around people who have had concussions with brain damage, is that the person can be changed so subtly that they just seem unreasonable, suddenly ornery, pitching fits for no reason.  Otherwise, functional.  The natural reaction is to shout at them, try to control them.  Particularly with damage behind the forehead, which was the last part of the brain to evolve to homo sapiens, the loss is of restraint, diplomacy, tolerance of frustration, empathy for others -- all the tools of good judgment and getting along.  My father, a travelling man, was in a head-on collision in 1948 and hit his head on the windshield.  The effect on our family was that his career stalled out, my mother went back to work, and he flew into unreasonable tantrums, spanking every kid within reaching distance.  We grew to hate him, though he usually managed to maintain a front in public.  My brother fell and hit his head on the sidewalk.  He came back to my mother’s house and there he sat for the next decade.  My cousin was in a motorcycle accident, came home, started drinking, beat his wife (which he had NEVER done) and then ditched her for a floozy.  Strangely, it never occurred to any of us to look for outside help, so I don’t know whether there would have been any.  One of their symptoms was resistance to any medical attention.  Only recently have there been means for testing and intervention.
On the reservation the number of serious vehicle accidents, from ATV’s to bulldozers, is high.  Not just caused by drunk-driving, but also old risky, poorly maintained vehicles, treacherous roads, and livestock at large.  Reservations are largely rural.  The men work with heavy equipment and large animals, in the oil fields, on ranches, on the highway.  The weather is treacherous.  A closed-skull concussion can be shrugged off by wage-earners, the same as the pro football players who are only now beginning to realize what the game has cost them.  Macho men are tough.  You can’t see the injury by looking at them.  They pass it on by injuring others.
There is another kind of brain damage, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which is developmental when the baby is still in the womb.  It varies a lot according to what was drunk, how much, what stage of fetal development and so on.  There are some who will say that it was not a problem among the Blackfeet until after WWII (again) when alcohol was allowed on the reservation because if a man was good enough to fight for his country, he was good enough to drink in his own town.  Until then they had to drive and rarely took any women along.  When bars opened in Browning, the women began to drink in large amounts.  Now the Town Pump sells fortified beer in amounts that rival the amount of gasoline sold.  The array of  FAS damages can be subtle or obviously grotesque.  The subtle ones are the hard ones to deal with and often lead to violence. 
Even in 1961 the kids were practicing erotic asphysia, though not so much for the erotic part as for the sensation of blacking out.  I’ll come back to that later, but blacking out happens because of lack of oxygen to the brain -- which always kills cells.  Today’s drugs, esp. huffing glue or solvents, kill brain cells.  Drugs deserve their own post later.
What I’m saying is that male-on-female violence in particular is tied into brain damage and that men are exposed to a lot of blows to the head.  I’ll leave the issue of race until later, but white men with brain damage or other low-grade neurological problems can be inclined to seek safety in rural communities and many whites have the idea that a reservation is a place where people will leave them alone -- they'll be "free."  The likelihood of them dying relatively young is high, but they may take the innocent with them, if only the emotional damage left by a missing father, husband, brother.  In the meantime, their behavior can be atrocious.
This is where the Ross & Murphy article comes in.  On some reservations the tribal police are not able to arrest these jokers and the county sheriff is just not present and may not be able to make arrests on the reservation.   Mr. White Outtahismind, assures himself that at least he’s not an (add expletive) Indian.  He slumps in front of the TV watching Sam Peckinpah movies, clutching his booze and yelling at everyone -- maybe throwing things.  Maybe fondling his gun.  If he leaves the rez, he can fade into the general population and disappear.
In an ideal world all jurisdictions trying to keep law and order within their boundaries would have the right to arrest, transport, arraign and try all law breakers.  On the reservation that means for EVERYONE tribal police, tribal jails, tribal court.  In the most ideal world (we can dream) violent prisoners would have their heads “candled” like chicken eggs as soon as they arrived at the jail.  Dream on.  Anyway, so the police discover they have brain damage.  Then what?
Still, thinking about what brain damage means in terms of triggering violence might be helpful.  Mike Burgwin, my boss when I was an animal control officer, said that bad behavior was on a continuum.  At one end are people who always do the right thing because they are sensible, compassionate, and aware.  At the other end are people who are just plain junkyard mean and dangerous, regardless of what punishment you impose.  In between are people who don’t know something is wrong or illegal, or who know but can’t manage to do it for some reason, or who don’t mind gambling about beating the odds that the law will catch them.  He said the job to do was to push those middle people towards the guys who do the right thing and try to contain the knotheads (not the word he used) at the other end.  Avoiding head injuries, diagnosing them, and seeking treatment for them are obvious ways of doing that.  
(More in the coming days.)

No comments: