Saturday, August 31, 2013


A much better review of Sherry Smith’s “Hippies, Indians and the Fight for Red Power”  was published at  David Farber wrote it. What I mean by “better” is that it is more measured and addresses Smith as academic-to-academic, because this is an academic book based on written archives and formal interviews.  That’s not my turf.  I chose ONE tribe (Blackfeet) fifty years ago and most of what I know comes from first-hand experience.  Not bigshots, just whoever was here when I was here, including now.

Smith’s idea is to understand how Indians and their supporters came together to make social change on big occasions, one chapter for each.  They are:

Frank’s Landing on the Nisqually River  (Nisqually)

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco (pan-tribal)

The commune country of northern New Mexico (Hopi, Navajo)

The BIA building in Washington, D.C.  (pan-tribal)

Wounded Knee Village on the Pine Ridge reservation (Sioux)

Oddly, or perhaps because of the way Smith researched, the “tribe” that comes out looking good is the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee).  My own denominational affiliation during this time was Unitarian Universalist.  (Like many Blackfeet, I couldn’t make a living on the rez so I had gone back to Portland.  I found the UU church in 1975.)  The UU’s, often fellow travelers with the AFSC, pretty much stayed clear.  They had suffered major trauma over black and Vietnam issues, but also -- I found after I had entered the UU ministry -- they were mostly progressive, urban, liberal people who could NOT understand Indians except in the most literary terms.

In 1976 my Portland UU minister, Alan Deale, knowing my background, asked for advice.  Dennis Banks, Russ Redner and Kenneth Loudhawk (with others) had been arrested while driving a Winnebago loaded with unstable nitroglycerine in eastern Oregon.  They were lucky that this happened in a far different political climate.   They were released on bail.   Deale had been asked to be the person to whom they reported daily and he wanted feedback about “Indians” from me.  My sympathies were with them, though I thought driving around in a hot climate with a load of explosives was pretty ill-advised.  In fact, the sheriff of the impounding county was so nervous that he ended up taking it out into the sagebrush and exploding it.  This offered a way out of a very “hot” trial, since there was now no evidence and that particular case was dismissed.

However, Banks was still wanted in connection with the death of Annie Mae Pictou Aquash and it was unclear what Oregon would do about extradition to South Dakota.  It was certainly clear to the rest of us what South Dakota would do to Banks.  Governor Jerry Brown in California would not extradite, so Banks ran for sanctuary.  The sympathetic old lady who had put up the sizable bail lost her money, but Deale managed to get her reimbursed through connections within the UUA realm.

There were funny blunders in the practicalities.  Banks gave a very Vine DeLoria Jr. - type “sermon” one Sunday and the Loudhawk and Redner group served fry bread during the traditional coffee hour afterwards.  They understood UU’s as “granolas,” so the frybread was whole wheat.  When I teased the women -- really little more than kids -- their eyes went big for fear that they had broken some rule.  That’s the use of teasing on a rez.

But when there was an appeal for food, I loaded up a box of what I considered to be “pow-wow food” -- hamburger, eggs, oranges and Sailor Boy hardtack -- and they were at a loss.  There was too much of it for them to eat in a few days and they had no freezer, so what would they do with all that meat?  They were urban people and I was used to rural culture.  On the rez there would be no problem at all, because everyone’s relatives would be over to share in the feast.  But if you live in ghetto apartments, you don’t let people know what you have.  Anyway, you might end up living in your truck.  No fridge.  I should have loaded them up with canned food and packaged cookies.  

What impressed some UU people most was that Kenneth Loudhawk’s father showed up and he was one of those solid, grave, intelligent people that every culture depends upon.   The other point of connection was parades: every UU dearly loves a demonstration.  These things don’t generally show up in journalistic accounts or scholarly aggregations of names, dates and so on.  No one would read this book for the pure adventure of it.  It’s not “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee,” though Smith’s account of the book’s influence is pretty good IMHO.  This is like Paul Rosier’s book about the Blackfeet -- hard to read, but an indispensable reference work if you’re doing old-fashioned history: names and dates, quotes, and so on.

I was off the rez between 1973 and 1982 but being in Portland gave me the chance to attend speeches by prominent NA writers: Erdrich, DeLoria, Welch, Sarris, Alexie, et al.  Every summer I went back to Browning where things got more and more tense.  Since I wasn’t risking property or my person and since I was contemptuous of the constant FBI whispering campaign and since most of the AIM people on the rez were former students, I saw things quite differently from Bob Scriver and the other white townspeople, a dwindling group once the BIA began to use Indian preference in hiring.  The small town whites had come after WWII and were aging out, simply locking the door on their businesses.  

In the morning I’d take my mail down to the Red Crow Kitchen and sort it in a booth while I had breakfast.  At one table sat the white locals and at a booth across the room sat the AIM prominants and fellow-travelers.  I’d eavesdrop, then on the way out stop off to exchange a few words with each group.  Except for their points of view, they sounded remarkably similar.  The dominance/submission dynamics that are in every society were palpable but never flared high enough for violence at breakfast.  The kind of woman who runs a cafe on a rez does not tolerate any behavior that will interfere with business. 

Anyway, the two groups justified each other.  Each needed the other to brace against, to make their lives seem bold and romantic instead of the constant pursuit of small profits.  A couple on the white side helped to keep the lid on.  Paul Kingston came to Browning as a priest, stepped out to secular life, married a nun, Barbara, who was his equal in dedication and faith, and raised a set of exceptional kids.  They have been a stabilizing force for good by example and faithfulness to both their God and their community without being overbearing or sentimental.  For income they run a Subway franchise.

In fact, both Curley Bear Wagner and Buster Yellow Kidney, both gone on ahead now, gradually evolved from politics to a kind of shamanism, looking for the values of ancestors.  They made money from it but it’s hard to blame them for that.  Maybe it’s more problematic that they distracted interested parties from the real-world politics and institutional templates that still pin down tribal people, but are now being addressed.

Smith’s previous book was “Reimagining Indians” which reviewed individuals (mostly men) who had interfaced between whites and Indians.  I took offense at her depiction of Walter McClintock, whose “The Old North Trail” tells me more than Ewers’ official history of the tribe.  She seemed to want to take down most of the people in the book, all of which were prominent in their time.  Her “take” appeared to be heavily post-colonial and hard-line feminist, though it was all well-researched.  This new book is mellower.  

Curley Bear in a mellow mood.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was friends with both Buster and Curly Bear. There is a difference between making money in order to live. We can't escape that. You have to eat and pay rent. The buffalo are gone. They will kick you out of you don't pay rent. You have to either make money or someone else gives it to you. It might be nice to do spiritual things while someone gives you money, like the priests and monks of Catholicism or Buddhism. But if Indians do that, WHOAH! But that doesn't happen much anyways. You could work at something else that pays a living wage, but what does that anymore? The only jobs most of us unconnected regular people can get are service jobs that pay very little and you work like a dog at odd shifts and hours (it's not the actual work so much as being treated like crap by the "employer"- yelled at and made to feel like a dog). And then you are so tired and feel so bad, you can't really serve the people anyways as a spiritual person. So when I was young an idealistic, yes, I thought it was bad to make money by doing spiritual things. I made judgements. But older now, experienced, there is no easy answer. People have to eat. People have to live.