Thursday, September 01, 2011


Thinking about any kind of material culture is problematic in the best of times but now that we have invented “virtual” material culture on the computer, it’s all even more complex and oddly emotional.  Odd, because virtual things are not real -- only thought-of, conceptual, recognized in the brain but not through the physical senses.  Internally constructed.  Yet, in thinking about religious ceremonies, I’m taking as central the idea that effective ritual is the use of sensory realities to connect to larger realities that can only be “felt” in the sense of emotional or poetic “virtual” reality.
There are some huge issues along this “break line” between real and virtual and, conveniently, many can be explored in terms of Blackfeet artifacts, particularly in terms of “value.”  (Convenient because I’m in Blackfeet country.)  My experience with this subject is “hands on,” both in terms of collecting and in terms of ceremony, but I never “owned” any artifact of value except for the plain cotton Mother Hubbard and basic moccasins that Margaret Many Guns made for me as part of the ceremonial transfer of a Thunder Pipe Bundle to Bob and I.  Mostly I co-habited with the objects recorded in Bob’s book, “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains.”  The collection itself is now at least partially dispersed.
Off and on, I read culture theory, most recently James Clifford and cohort who are trying to keep some kind of order about the discipline of “anthropology” in the face of post-modern ideas and actual shifts in cultures everywhere as they modernize and reconcile with each other.  Once, anthropology was about finding people from a totally different cultural coherence -- fashioned from a self-contained ecology -- and then studying them, maybe by living with them in the field, and writing it up as “ethnography.”  
To discover that all cultures, including one’s own, are “virtual” rather than being immutable and imposed by some authority figure, was a great release for a lot of people, but frightened others with the demand for a zillion judgments and choices they didn’t feel ready to make.  Then there was a peculiarly 19th century desire to go find some other more appealing world and live in that bubble instead of one’s own.  A fantasy that human beings in their “natural” state would be innocently child-like contributed to the idea, but also the notion that a smart Yankee could build himself an empire because of modern knowledge.  ("Mistah Kurtz, you there?")
The genocide of the American Indians has left America with an unacknowleged guilt that has never been exorcized in the same way as the guilt over the genocide of Africans or Asians.  Post-modern thinkers consider “negritude” or “orientalism” but not “indigenism.”   Blood-stained weapons and scalps, popular artifacts, offer relief in a strange way.  War trophies.  As Bob used to say,  “We fought them fair-and-square and we won, so why don’t they fall down?”  But, in fact, that’s not the reality at all, which he sort of knew.  At other times he pointed out that the Blackfeet never surrendered formally.  Disease, massacre, and starvation just bludgeoned them into compliance.
The feelings of whites on reservations in the early 20th century were quite different and far more complex than the present feelings of urban whites about modern reservation Indians. (How Indians now OR then feel about whites is open to investigation.)  Most whites seem to perceive a strange blur of old movies and liberal motives alongside the lip-smacking appetite of those looking for monetary prey.  I deal with a few Europeans who maintain a fondness for American Indians and are stunned when they blunder into the third-rail force of political incorrectness about them.  They have not been trained by the outrage Indians can still muster.
Therefore, most Europeans feel little guilt about acquiring the material culture of American “aboriginals,” which they have been accumulating for centuries.  Paul Dyck, whose collection is now at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, used to say that by far the most “authentic” and early objects were stored at the Vatican, sent “home” by missionaries.  But in the US people who are accused of accumulating the material culture of Indians, especially when they are taken directly from Indian land, are put in jail and are so stricken that they commit suicide!
I wanted this post to explain the quadrant-over-quadrant schema developed by James Clifford to show how field-collected objects become “high art,” to be presented under spotlights in cases, lifted up and isolated on clear plastic plinths -- completely separated from their use, context, and meaning to the people who made them.  They are material objects that have had one virtual context peeled off of them and had another projected onto them.  I’ll come back to this in a later post.
In the meantime we have the phenomenon of material objects that have carried virtual meanings drawn from the land and lives of their creators and users, which are now in the hands of descendants whose ways of fitting into the same ecology have been much changed.  I’m talking about Sacred Bundles, which have come to symbolize the essence of religion among some prairie tribes.  The question is where the sacredness comes from: relating to the land, praying for the fortunes of the People, or personal importance and relationship to genetic ancestors?   I’m going to rule out discussions of deservingness or morality in an attempt to be reasonable about the welter of passion and transgression attached to Native American artifacts.  I will not recommend any plan of action, though I’m sure that’s what a lot of people are searching for.
Most of the Plains Indian collectibilia is from the relatively recent past and derives from two cultures struggling against each other even as they collaborate.  So glass beads and brass bells, red Stroud wool and black cotton velveteen, bright satin ribbons and lathe-turned pipestems mix with winter ermine, golden eagle tail feathers, wing bone whistles, and the ubiquitous red ochre paint.  Bone and buckskin, sinew and dewclaws, confront cowhide drums stretched on bentwood cheese frames and jingle dresses covered with snoose can lids bent into cones.  Grass dancers no longer wear grass but bright yarn and day-glo ostrich down.  These are objects of material culture caught between purism, which wants to stop time in the past, and the native inventions of a modern sensibility reaching for sensationalism.  Sorting this out will take a series.

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