Tuesday, February 05, 2013


Most people think that priests molest children because of irrepressible sexual urges, so the remedy would seem to be sexual relief by better means.  Others think that priests are only repeating the abuse they suffered as children.  And some blame the seminaries as hotbeds of passion.  They’re all right and they’re all wrong.

In my opinion the tragedy of sexually molesting children is a product of a lot of intersecting loops.  I call them “culture loops.”  If priests specifically, and priests specifically molesting Indian kids, and priests specifically molesting kids in residential schools, especially in the early days, then that’s only a microcosm of loops.  Therefore, it’s useful to think about, because it is a reflection of the larger culture but defined enough to yield some principles --probably not relief for suffering individuals though that’s the real goal.

1.  The planetary loop is that in the 19th century populations were shifting worldwide, partly due to economics, partly due to politics, and partly due to climate shift  (Do you know about the “little ice age?”  http://www.eh-resources.org/timeline/timeline_lia.html )
disease (human and domestic animals), crop failure (potato fungus), the formation of the German nation after decades of war, and so on.

2.  The national loop is that there were waves of economic immigrants from Europe on top of the forced immigration of slaves from Africa.  The east coast politics that formed the colonies and broke them off from the British empire now were turning inland across the prairie as well as ship traffic enabling the equal-and-opposite population growth on the West coast.  Between these two limits, the British entrepreneurs were pressing down from the north and Spanish empire builders were still trying to return from the south.  What this meant was not just one “frontier” but four, all contributing to tumult on the prairies with indigenous people caught in a double-pincer that caused them to harden and compress until they were finally cornered.

3.  The idea was to displace the Indians so as not to have to deal with them, but if necessary to simply kill them.  The intersection of the Rockies with the Canadian boundary formed a southeast quadrant where the Blackfeet could make a stand.  (There were other such places, but this is the one I know.)  Only plagues of smallpox, the elimination of the buffalo (causing starvation) and finally the Baker Massacre could end resistance.

4.  This population of conquered but still defiant people, some of whom decided to assimilate, were the parents and grandparents of the mission school population.  They were managed -- and to some extent taught -- by religious people, some of them priests and others brothers, nuns, or simply employees -- sent from Europe and still attached to Europe, not the United States.  Their cultural assumptions were all developed in a European context.

5.  United States sources of money and supervision were very thin, partly because of putting so much into the expansion called “manifest destiny”.  (Homesteading, railroads, timber cutting.)  However, there were political and religious “pushbacks” that had great sympathy for indigenous people, though their sources of sympathy were ideas of the “natural” and the “childlike.”  These do-gooders as individuals (Mother Drexel) or as organizations did what they could.  So did the gun-runners and bootleggers who abhor a vacuum and love fear.

6.  In the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth people didn’t much challenge power and status.  They might resent it.  Catholic culture during this time period is unknown to me.  The Blackfeet culture, under suppression from the US government as well as missionaries, splintered and has never really re-unified.  This is worth a whole book.  (See Paul Rosier. “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation.”)

Now let’s start a whole new loop and realm:

1.  The Blackfeet genetic matrix began with a Siberian base, not just Asian.  They were hardy, adventurous folk.  On the prairie they were meat-eaters, almost but not quite exclusively, since they also ate prairie vegetable foods, notably camas roots and berries.  On this diet they grew large and strong, but not particularly long-lived because their lives were so harsh.  Their metabolisms depended upon fiber, high protein including organ meats, much exercise, and occasional fasting.  They were outdoors almost constantly, soaking up sunlight and vitamin D.  Modern “poor people’s food” -- commodities and C-Store stuff with no roughage, high sugar, high fat and man-made molecules -- kills them with diabetes and heart attacks. 

2.  In the old days the People were di-morphic, women much smaller because of child-bearing and because the men got first turn at meat because they were the only means of getting more unless there were a group effort at a piskun.  Men were the “seed corn” in that way, though women bore the children.  Children knew who their mothers were, but not necessarily their fathers, since men might die early and their families be absorbed by other families.  Thus, the important male figure tended to be brothers/uncles.  As soon as the resources were equally shared between the genders, women grew tall, strong, and athletic.  

3.  Incest taboo instincts tend to develop between people who grow up together in childhood when impulses of intimacy are protective.  If the children were removed from the family to a school during their pre-adolescent bonding years, they would form this instinct, but if  later they were mixed in adolescent boarding schools -- like the boarding high schools the US Government ran -- they would bond sexually with each other across tribal lines.

4.  Old-time tribal people on the open prairie had two sources of new genetic material:  female and child captives or wanderers who proved to be contributors.  Think of the Mexican Sanderville brothers who were interpreters and political brokers for the old-timers.  Think of the Vietnam vets who took refuge.  Think of the Cree-Chippewa-Metis who were landless and assigned to the Blackfeet.  And all those BIA employees and German romantics.  Post-WW II ranchers who married land.

5.  A child on the reservation must manufacture an identity out of a swirl of forces, some of them no different than the forces shaping youngsters across the “white” prairie.  Maybe one of the strangest loops is the Black urban ghetto culture that came in on the television, along with vampires and zombies.  But also a sense that “normal” people everywhere else lived in sit-com houses and had good incomes: the suburban California loop.  This has made rez kids vulnerable to whatever looks like an escape route, whether it is college, an art career, an older person who makes promises (especially in terms of love), rodeo, a pow-wow drum group.  The conviction has been that escape is necessary for success.  Now, not so much, which diminishes vulnerability.  

6.  For a while, recorded in many books and movies, the big dilemma for a mixed-blood kid -- who was likely to be half-and-half -- was the terrible choice between one and the other.  Few thought of reconciling both in one person.  Now all that has “frakked,” releasing a potent and volatile swarm of possibilities.  The problem is to find a psychological anchor or set point around which to aggregate an identity that can carry the person through the many threats: drugs, abusers, STILL starvation, low-achievement, diabetes.   A single individual like Jack Gladstone and his music can be a signpost, a rallying flag.

7.  All these factors are echoed and magnified by emotional and mental factors: education, internet skills, musical choice, travel, athletics, and the way the larger world sees them.  The cadre of fine Native American actors are a loop presenting examples.  

Sexual abuse is only a part of rez life.  Instead of trying to root it out, it might work better to crowd it out.  What I’m saying is that sexual abuse is the consequence of a multitude of forces interacting, some of them uncontrollable and others that can be changed.  It’s not just a matter of punishing the perps and protecting the victims, but a matter of awareness, reconsideration, intervention, and taking risks -- which is to say, creating a new culture.


Anonymous said...

Item 3 may be inconsistent with the incest taboos among children raised in Israeli kibbutzim, who, being raised primarily in a group, are said to have developed strong incest taboos. Reference forgotten...

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Thanks. I edited that "not" out. It wasn't supposed to be there. The kibbutzim studies are exactly what I was thinking of. It would be interesting to read a close comparison of Israeli kibbutzim -- which don't seem to have been traumatic -- with the Native American mission schools. Certainly there are many accounts of how traumatic they and also the English boarding schools for boys were.

Prairie Mary