Monday, February 04, 2013


War is always sexualized, one way or another, but the Indian wars of the 19th century were intensely and explicitly focused on sex, women and children.  The accounts of what was done by uniformed cavalry and free-lance white avengers include rape, infanticide, and ingenious violence like pounding vaginas full of sand.  They sound like contemporary atrocities in Africa.  This was seen as retribution for attacks on whites which often included the capture and enslavement of children and women, so terrifying that women were given guns with instructions to kill themselves rather than to allow capture.  

The Searchers” shows the effect of belief in this heinous fate on John Wayne, who is convinced that the recapture of a young female relative will be the equivalent of rescuing her from Hell.  In reality raising consciousness took several rebellious recaptured people, desperate to return to what they now considered “their People”.  This was also the time period in which the conviction that unfamiliar humans were not just enemies, but also varmints to be eliminated the same as wolves and coyotes, was being broken up by Darwin and nascent anthropology.  A benighted general, justifying the killing of babies, famously remarked, “Nits make lice,” thus providing AIM with one of its most inflammatory quotes. 

This attitude was countered by the Catholic church which had done enough missionary work to realize that all humans had “souls” and therefore should be converted rather than slaughtered.  Of course, once they were converted, their lives were meant to be “useful” to white people, not self-determined.  I don’t know much about “Progressivism” but it seems to me subtly connected to Protestant Calvinist values, which could be twisted into forced improvement, and the displacement of government obligations (conflated with “Christian virtue”) onto denominations on grounds that they would be virtuous (as well as providing funds).  So -- in the usual effort to get rid of costly treaty requirements and to counter howls about the corrupt Indian agents -- the Blackfeet were assigned to the Methodist denomination, despite the Catholics having been on the ground and working hard for many decades.  Not only did this set up rivalries that wasted a lot of energy, it drove yet another schism into a tribe already divided in several ways, not least by the “Medicine Line” of the border with Canada which sliced off the Piegan group from the others.  Even today the shadows of sexualized violence and religious schism persist.  Celibacy is easily seen as either a sign of deviance or power, Methodists can be considered intruders (a venue for dissenters from the Catholics and for white or assimilated people), while the Pentecostals find quiet niches of their own.  

Closely interwoven with religion, sex, and babies is alcohol and drugs.  Diminished self-control, confused morality and notions of salvation by “falling in love,” are at the root of much of the rez disorder and economic failure.  I could give a lot of examples except that it would mean breaking confidence.  Keeping and trading secrets is also a way for the serpent of dysfunction to bite its own tail, keeping the pattern alive.  No one is supposedly allowed to talk about such things, partly because this was learned from early mission prudery and partly because disclosure seems to be a white interest, mixing therapy with anthropology and the keeping of secret files (FBI).  It never seems to get through to outsiders that it’s DANGEROUS for locals to tell them anything.  Then the issues are confused again because those outsiders, especially misfits, come in with romantic notions of how they can be “adopted” without realizing that might only expose them to the usual bad behavior of poverty-stricken people.  Since the Sixties and Seventies -- maybe since the beginning -- so many of the outsiders are running away from issues of their own.  Even the grownup “mission” groups who come from Iowa for the summer to upgrade buildings and teach little kids never really make contact.  They are tourists.

In my experience most religious professionals try to establish their lives on the rez as islands.  Priests are less able to do this because of confession, though I suspect the persons who most need to repent are not the ones who show up to confess.  Maybe Pentecostal-style public transformation is more useful  -- if being struck once by the Spirit were enough.  Sometimes it takes considerable repetition, but relying on supernatural intervention is a very old practice on the tribal prairies.  Signs and stories, “luck” and omens, are still powerful and don’t exactly mesh with modern-style secular law codes or justice-based court systems.

Most of the morality supplied by Euro-religionists are “rule-based,” like the Ten Commandments, partly because of the difficulty of working through principles like the New Testament “golden rule.”  Rules make enforceable bright lines, but principles must be absorbed over time and may, once again, cause individuals to be opposed to their groups.  Consider pot, gayness, gambling and so on.  All moralities are easily blurred or discarded by intoxication.  

Bob Scriver, who for a decade was both a Justice of the Peace and a City Magistrate in Browning, used to say that people will do whatever they can get away with.  Part of this is peer pressure -- the “norming” of behavior.  If it is considered normal and predictable for people to get violently drunk and for men to be sexual predators, even against children, even their own relatives, then it will be easier to believe that religious celibates are sexually abusive to children.  The stories want to say, “these authority figures are no better than myself.”  Of course, they are right, but that’s not the point.  The point is restraints that prevent behavior that harms the innocent.  The attention ought to be on what prevents that, regardless of what social category they belong to.  Some years ago a school counselor published a national survey of Indian kids about their drug, alcohol, violence, and sexual habits.  Almost immediately the parents got him fired.  They had taken personally what were national statistics.  People don’t necessarily want to know.  

When waves of gang violence shook one of the communities (may still be doing it, for all I know), everyone said, “Oh, that’s just the way it is here.”  Even the priest said there was nothing anyone could do.  Most of the solutions anyone can think of are about money and that’s certainly true: in vast lands with few officers, let alone technical support and decent jails, keeping order is expensive.  Consider the gas bill when patrolling a reservation fifty miles on a side.  Consider the difficulty of mastering the web of two-tracks that connect the homes.  Even the well-marked and plowed highways disappear in blizzards.  Radios, GPS, computer databases, and vehicle maintenance are expensive.  The tribe wants the BIA to pay, the BIA wants the tribe to pay, the FBI . . .  ‘nuff said. 

Among people who were forbidden to practice their religion or even do beadwork;  where 600 people died of starvation one winter because the government never delivered the commodities they were supposed to; where the Blackfeet suffered a grisly massacre of an innocent band by cavalry revenging the murder of Malcolm Clark on what is now the Baucus ranch; where children were kidnapped to force them into schools -- the people learned to be secret and hidden.  Pull into a yard in the Sixties and you’d be lucky to see children’s backs disappearing into the nearest coulee or aspen grove.  

This serves bad behavior.  Get lawyers involved and things become very complicated indeed, but even more about money as the main expression of justice.  Among poor people, this is a popular point of view.  Darrell Kipp used to say,  “The difference between rich people and us is that rich people have money.”  The logical next step is to try to get that money.  The Cobell settlement checks have been sent.  But they are only a settlement for government-embezzled trust funds, the People’s own money.  There’s got to be more to it than that.

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