Saturday, March 02, 2013


The most recent addition to my Blackfeet library is a double-monograph published in 1945 by the American Ethnological Society, Inc.  First monograph is “Changing Configurations in the Social Organization of a Blackfoot Tribe During the Reserve Period”  (The Blood of Alberta, Canada.) by Esther Goldfrank.  The second is “Observations on Northern Blackfoot Kinship” by L.M. Hanks, Jr. and Jane Richardson. 

Everyone’s fav “third force” psychology theorist, Abraham Maslow, he of the marvelous pyramid of “needs” with the cherry on top being “peak experience,” came out to the prairie to look around, possibly to help with this study, and soon concluded the land of wind and dust was not for him.  He withdrew.  The study made by Goldfrank and cohort was nine weeks long and included a Sun Dance, but no comment was made on whether it was a “peak experience” as many devotees in the Aquarian Age have thought.  (Pain endorphins work.)

The original plan for this set of monographs was that four small team of inquirers would do a study of each of the four main groups of the Siksika or Blackfoot Nation.  The instigator was the redoubtable Ruth Benedict but the plan was truncated by WWII.   Goldfrank consolidated what was available, mostly about the Blood.  At first everything seemed very open and agreeable in the collection process, though Goldfrank had worked with the Pueblo and had found them secretive, elusive, covertly at war.  Only back in New York City, when the Blackfoot oral material was compared to the written archives, did discrepancies turn up, often at the expense of the governmental authorities rather than the tribal people, who were being strategic in what they reported.  As would be predicted, the change in circumstances forced by the reserve had intensified an already competitive and individualistic sort of behavior.  What a male observer might not have noted was that the suppression of polygamy forced the women into harsher competitive relationships and allowed much less impact from women making common cause, possibly urging peace.

Esther Goldfrank came to the Blood Reserve in 1939, two years after Clare Sheridan was there, and after WWII had started, rather than just before.  She was from a different affinity group: the “left” German Jewish Ethical Culture socialists.  (In Canada, socialism and even communism are legitimate points of view, not demonized.)  Clare, though neither German nor Jewish but deeply Catholic, would have shared this. In Alberta the KKK had a strong foothold.  Neither Clare nor Esther would have had any sympathy.  However, Wittfogel -- Esther’s second husband -- named names for the political witchhunters in the Fifties out of disillusion with Communists.  These were tough, independent women. Esther died at age 100 in 1997.

When I come upon these seemingly dry old materials, I google everyone I see named, including the Blackfeet.  Sometimes I recognize the descendants of the named tribal people, or at least can find them in the Blackfeet census of 1907-08.  The scientists are all transient.  A few became famous.  Some have had impact on the larger world without becoming known, never famous in the way Benedict or Maslow are landmarks.  No one writes articles about Goldfrank and Wittfogel, but maybe someone should.  (They are at least in Wikipedia but we don’t know who wrote the entries or what the writer's point of view might be.)  It seems obvious that the writer, like the subjects, came from that company of highly educated German (and sometimes Marxist) refugees who brought so much high theory with them across the ocean to Manhattan.  Part of their value is that with their emphasis on subconscious forces they so challenge the other dominant American paradigm, that of English and Dutch order -- rigid givens fled by Edith Wharton and Henry James.  When we read about prairie indigenous cultures, do we take into account the culture wars among the investigators, their biases and assumptions?

Sometimes this stuff doubles back on itself in amazing ways, becoming suddenly relevant.  This quote is in the Wikipedia entry:

“Wittfogel is best known for his monumental work Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, first published in 1957. Starting from a Marxist analysis of the ideas of Max Weber on China and India’s "hydraulic-bureaucratic official-state" and building on Marx's sceptical view of the Asiatic Mode of Production, Wittfogel came up with an analysis of Oriental despotism which emphasized the role of irrigation works, the bureaucratic structures needed to maintain them and the impact that these had on society, coining the term hydraulic empire" to describe the system.”
The original premise of the American Department of Indian Affairs was that they would imitate  the Conrad brothers’ success to the south of the Blackfeet reservation (right here in Valier) by irrigation.  The scandalous Foley report is largely an account of the bungling unreality of what actually happened on the rez, expending huge amounts of money and effort to dig ditches that didn’t work, even though the headwaters of what is now the Pondera Canal Company is at Swift Dam, right on the Blackfeet Reservation.  If you think about Wittfogel’s theories, it’s pretty easy to guess that the reason for the failure is the Federal “hydraulic-bureaucratic official-state" -- political rather than a fault of either engineering or geology.
But now change focus to the present.  Forget irrigation.  Think frakking, which is another use of water but far more industrial and covert, since it happens underground.  I wrote a version of the Pluto/Demeter myth that is a “Western,” in which Pluto is coal and Demeter is wheat.  A new version of the old story might re-cast oil as the force of evil greed, but this time contamination of the underground aquifers might mean more than wheat -- indeed, it could end human habitation as we know it, instead imposing “the bureaucratic structures needed to maintain them” in a new “hydraulic empire."  
Plains Indians are genetically Asiatic in origin -- neither European nor African.  Who knows what difference that makes?  The Wiki author continues:  “To do this, the state had to organize forced labor from the population at large. This required a large and complex bureaucracy staffed by competent and literate officials. This structure was uniquely placed to also crush civil society and any other force capable of mobilizing against the state. Such a state would inevitably be despotic, powerful, stable and wealthy.”  This worked for Anaconda Copper Company, but not for the Blackfeet.
Both studies in the two monographs are about the Blood faction of the Blackfoot Nation.  The first, longer, one is an attempt to understand the internal conflicts and destructive competitions of the 20th century reserve.  The conclusion is that what had held the people together in the earlier times, even into the horse days, was the need to cooperate in order to insure a food supply by hunting buffalo, either with piskuns or with guns.  Rivalry was always there, but it was held in check.  By “1939, these ‘turbulent’ Indians were still “exceedingly jealous among themselves”; they still had “frequent quarrels” which might “end in bloodshed or death”; and they still pursued the individualistic goals that had dominated their society for more than a century and a quarter.”  This conclusion is a disappointment for those hoping proof of the natural -- i.e. “close to nature” -- power of cooperation and sharing.  The conclusion is that today only governmental police can maintain order.  The pyramid is now upside down and the peak experiences must be underground.

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