Thursday, September 08, 2011


I don’t hear about many people wanting to collect “artifacts” of the 21st century Blackfeet, though some want to buy Western style paintings or objects like beaded tennis shoes or baseball caps.  I suppose an enterprising person could sell beaded iPod holders or rawhide Kindle covers.  In fact, this sort of thing is made and often kept by tribal members themselves.  At graduation mortarboards are beaded by relatives as an honoring.  New Pendleton blankets are awarded as honor gifts.  Military members are honored with eagle feathers.  The symbolic artifacts of the 21st century are by Indians for Indians.
Sometimes I wonder whether the true fixation is not on the actual objects of the 19th century so much as it is on the 19th century itself.  Plenty of people want to re-enact Civil War or Mountain Man events and lifestyles.  Now and then someone will come to the reservation expecting to step into a 19th century world.  Even the little co-ed who insisted she was only interested in joining the true lives of the People -- except that she couldn’t figure out the roads -- had in mind a 19th century fantasy of free living and possibly free loving.  Romantic in every sense.
Some of the “collectors” in the 1960’s crossed over into participation in ceremonial life: Bundle Opening ceremonies and so on.  As far as I know, Bob Scriver was the only white Bundle Keeper (not counting me, who was just a newcomer auxiliary anyway, since a Keeper is supposed to have a wife) who grew up here with the People; he was the same age as George Kicking Woman and James Welch, Sr., father of the novelist, and probably had his hands on the material culture of buffalo, small mammals and birds more than either of them.  Even I slept with foxes, bobcats and gophers.  But others learned the prayers, the songs, the protocols and Adolph Hungry Wolf goes so far as to live a 19th century life in a cabin so remote he runs his computer off a photovoltaic panel.  He and his former wife Beverly (who is genetically Blackfoot) wrote many books about how to create objects, how to regard the land, and so on.
In some ways the language is the ultimate intangible artifact.  People, both Blackfeet and not, have in the past been afraid to learn their own language because they were punished in school for speaking it.  This harsh treatment was extended to all immigrants to force them to become “American”, but Indians were not immigrants.  The English speakers were and they were simply more powerful.  Their strategy worked for decades, demonizing and stigmatizing the speaking of the original language.  
Then came a revolution in our understanding of language, so it was a high value to be multi-lingual esp. when dealing with a “dead” or diminished language so it was not a threat to the standing order.  We began to understand that a language was not “just” a language (what is the word for “dog”) but also a map of the world, a specific view of the world packed with information about it that might not be available without the language.  
The dark side of that came up when many people tried to learn Blackfeet -- those notorious romantic co-eds again -- and discovered it’s a lot more than just learning a vocabulary off some cue cards.  In fact, immersion schools for youngsters supported by their tribal families who can expose them to recordings or elders, the use of particular methods (acting out words while one speaks them with others), and the political will to stick with it -- these will work.  But it not just a matter of good will and a dictionary.
Two powerful cultures run into each other like a tide meeting a river with much mingling and opposing force.  The benefit is in rethinking practices previously taken for granted, but the dark side of that is loss.  Being acculturated enough to maneuver in the post-modern world is tough enough.  Preserving one’s identity-heritage in the midst of fighting for prosperity makes the task even harder, sometimes an exercise in split-personality, particularly when the larger culture has the media on its side, perpetuating stereotypes instead of going to the heart of the reality, which requires constantly renegotiating.  This is what Sherman Alexie calls the “Toughest Indian in the World,” the 19th century one that lives in our stubborn imaginations.  But killing that icon will be a loss to whites.
Why is it so stubborn?  I have some ideas.  One is that Indian Wars are part of a “founding” time, though the 19th century prairie clearances are the ones that have stuck, the defining “war” that helps us sort of sidle past the just-preceding and overlapping Civil War between the States.  We are stuck between seeing native Americans as ravenous savages whom we had to defeat in order to claim the continent, and seeing them as victims, but our rather guiltily cherished and ennobled “others.”  Ambivalence is always tenacious.  When we buy scalps to hang in our “man cave,” that’s one side.  When we buy a white buckskin fringed and beaded parade shirt for $200,000 and hang it in the front room, that’s another side.  A beaded key chain is another. 
Even in small white villages next to the rez, which is probably where racism burns the hottest because of competition for resources, the “broken arrow” narrative persists.  It is brotherhood in the Romeo and Juliet mode, across the unreasonable social barriers that divide us, which is a moral force against the idea that one has permission to kill anyone not like “us.”
Native American artifacts, whether objects or songs, whether explicitly secular or specifically religious, whether made, found, dug up, stolen, or bought, carry within themselves -- as surely as bread and wine -- the emotional and cultural content of major forces in our world and in our brains.  Because of that their treatment needs to be guided by careful thought and strong laws.  Otherwise the passion of them escapes into political confrontations capable of harming everyone, but most particularly our ideas of how to co-exist with each other despite our differences.H

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