Alice Beck Kehoe and I share that we each came newly minted from academia to Browning, Montana, and fell in love with the people, the place and -- each of us separately but as our generation was expected to do -- with a man. For her the man was Tom Kehoe, then the curator of the Museum of the Plains Indian, and for me, the man was Bob Scriver who -- as justice of the peace -- married Tom and Alice. That was just a few years before I arrived to teach English.
I tell you this so you will understand that the heart of both our lives began and remained here in Browning, though Alice and Tom went back to the midwest to continue academic careers in archeology and anthropology. I too eventually left, later attending the University of Chicago Divinity School and Meadville/Lombard seminary. Before that Alice and I spent one brilliant summer day helping Bob Scriver create his Badger Tipi Bundle, which the Montana Historical society may or may not have stored somewhere, depending on who you ask.
Alice’s new book, “Amskapi Pikuni,” is as brilliant as that day. In spite of realizing that we are in another of those periodic spasms of religious and political conflict, she found an unfinished Clarke Wissler manuscript among his papers with enough notes for her to flesh out the years after 1870. Continuing in a spirit of collaboration, she worked with Earl Old Person and Stu Miller plus others like Willy Uhlenbeck, Nora Lukin, and more to fill out the history.
Stu Miller was in the first seventh grade class I taught when I came in 1961. He was outstanding even then. When the Browning Mercantile burned to the ground, I heard the news on the radio in Heart Butte and drove in to stand stunned in the old Town Square, Stu, head of the Blackfeet fire department, came over in his bulky steaming fire equipment and helmet to stand beside me and say quietly, “We don’t think it was arson.” I hadn’t asked, but we were in the midst of AIM threats and it was a quick assumption for many people. Stu, even exhausted, saw unspoken questions. His spirit of quiet patience is still sometimes greatly needed. Stu’s early death was a tragedy, one often striking extraordinary Blackfeet leaders. He had done his best to bring others along with him, to study materials, tell stories, implement policies.
No less tragic, though it was self-inflicted and the man in question was radically different, was the death of David Duvall, who was Clarke Wissler’s main informant. Chief Earl Old Person seems indestructible though not immune to tragedy. Year after year he is there, maybe in a tailored suit, maybe in beaded buckskin, to offer a prayer and eloquently urge future achievement for his people and all the people. He is unfailing, indefatiguable.
Blackfeet history pulls us in because of two inescapable facts: no one REALLY knows what happened in many of these frontier cases (consider Governor Meagher’s never-solved disappearance overboard from a boat moored at Fort Benton) so there is always controversy and always political gerrymandering of motives and conditions.
And the other is what Clark Wissler addressed in this incomplete manuscript, which is his insight that ecology is the basis of all subsistence and therefore of all cultural patterns. He was talking about memes before the word had been invented. In a time of “salvage anthropology” when everyone was busy accumulating facts and saving bones without ever asking what it all meant, Wissler was able to find ways to sort into the big patterns. He was a DeleuzeGuattarian rhizomatous thinker before such a notion was ever conceived. Maybe we are ready to receive his ideas now.
This book reminds us that regardless of what Washington DC is doing, the climate itself always has the last say. Periods of great rain (“pluvial” -- what a great word!) often stimulate expansion of plants and animals, only to shrivel them back into death when drought follows. The greater comfort provided by horses and metal kettles bring with them war, disease, and dependence on outsiders for economic basics like food. There is a long stretch of Blackfeet history in the first half of the 20th century that white people resisted being taught in schools until they were required by law. It includes the systematic starvation of children -- on moral grounds. Biblically justified if you’re Old Testament. The idea was that the Indian people had to learn to work. (The Teaparty has long OT roots.) Some people refuse to admit that true poverty always trumps morality if survival is the goal, but generosity, compassion and justice ARE morality. (Jesus tried to explain it.)
Alice’s bibliographical references will look different from most Blackfeet bibliographies because she was working in both the US and Canada and because she was using primary documents, reports and letters from the actual times. There are still huge reservoirs of primary materials to be sorted and digested. Some are surprising. Those who imagine Canada was more humane will have to give that up when they see the food allotments the agent had for his charges -- less than the USSR allowed its gulag prisoners. On the other hand, when smallpox loomed on the horizon once again at the end of the 19th century, the US quickly provided vaccinations and NO ONE caught the disease.
At the beginning of this book the careful comparison of statistics -- populations of people and acreages and so on -- are interesting, but as the book goes on, and especially after Wissler’s full document yields to outlining that had to be filled in by Kehoe, the anecdotes begin to be more important. By the very end, when I know the people who are telling their stories, it is deeply memorable to me.
But one story is too recent to be in the book -- it was just told to me yesterday by a woman at the sign-talk conference. She was teaching English at Blackfeet Community College where students are often returning after raising their children, sometimes when whatever skills they’d earlier had were gone. A woman came to this English teacher to ask her to explain was a paragraph was. The teacher, startled, tried but with little success. “Oh, let it go,” said the frustrated teacher. “It’s not THAT important.”
But the Blackfeet woman was stubborn. “I really want to know what a paragraph is. I NEED to know. You keep teaching until I get it!” Wherever that attitude came from, it’s the key to the future. The Blackfeet must keep teaching us until we get it. In the meantime the earth continues to teach us all.
In this blog I wrote about the Sandervile brothers on June 24, 2005. There are other references if you use the “search strip” under the red map to the right. On Nov 18, 2009, I wrote about the Badger Tipi from Bob’s dream. Just recently, June 19, 2012, I reviewed Alice’s book about shamans. A series of posts about the Foley report begins on February 17, 2007.