Thursday, August 01, 2013


This time of year around here the more nomadic elements of the population begin to show up on doorsteps or on email in-boxes.  It’s always valuable.  I am always home.  In fact, James St. Goddard, whose family and immediate ancestors were known to and in some cases close friends of the Scrivers, stopped by with his son.  We talked about the two ways to be a leader on the rez.  (I’m excluding whites.)  One is participation in the formal government-invented corporation that is the Blackfeet Tribe and which has a split leadership:  the elected tribally-enrolled people and the US Government Indian Service bureaucrats: the agent and so on, including the FBI which has expanded from responsibility for the ten major crimes to just about anything that interests them.  

This complex of hierarchical management and regulation called a “council” also extends to the state-delegated rez schools (except for the Blackfeet Community College) and Montana Child and Family Services, plus the Indian Health Service.    The council is also the official face to the county (two of them actually, since the rez sticks over into Pondera as well as occupying most of Glacier), the state, federal agencies such as environmental regulation and the US border which is one boundary of the rez.  No one really understands these complicated relationships and duties, which means they are a rich ground for corruption, embezzlement, sweet deals, fantasy and family fiefdoms.  Much of what goes on is secret by default:  no one has the time or motivation to figure it out.

If an educated person of good will hopes to serve his people through this form of leadership, he or she can do it.  Stu Miller would be my shining example.  But there is another route and Stu would not contradict it -- he simply didn’t exploit it.  This form is rooted in the old-time ideas and structures and has the appeal of not only being close to instinctive for some people on the rez but also just going around all the red-tape kudzu of the tribe as a business corporation.  Curly Bear Wagner and Buster Yellow Kidney took this route, which requires learning a lot of tribal history, claiming ancestors, devotion to a spiritual life, and rejection of assimilation.   

Few can combine this way of life with academics (academic=assimilation), though a few can manage it through the mediation of the Blackfeet Community College or Piegan Institute.  Generally, this interfacing takes so much energy that there is not much left for political leadership.  But these are the people who attract a certain kind of outsider who combines what they feel is a deep relationship with impoverished, neglected and suffering peoples with a determination to do good.  In the best of all worlds, they would pay attention enough to do this appropriately and without personal pride.  In worst cases they become fomenters of discord or missionaries trying to impose change or devotees of deconstruction.  

Sometimes they form nonprofit cults of personality which support individuals.  This taps into one of the key problems with social change: is it for the group or for the individual?  Traditional Blackfeet weren’t tribes just because they went around in a bunch, or because on first contact the white people defined them as Blackfeet or Sioux or whatever.  They were a people interwoven through descent, through practices, and through relationship to the land.  It was an ecology that required cooperation for survival.  When horses and guns arrived, that changed: an individual could survive alone.  Then the ideology of individuality took hold.

America is a country gripped by the struggle of being an individual incompletely reconciled to group demands.  Much of our literature and history is about this.  For example, the demand of the colored man to be seen as an individual instead of a category, or the wartime need to use uniforms and obedience to create group identity.  This has become the central issue of many seemingly diverse tribal dilemmas.  It is also a key to American Indian literature.  Sid Larson is Jim Welch’s cousin; his career (after an exciting picaresque period as a lawyer and bar owner) has been academic.  I’m quoting  The Real Thing: An Essay on Authenticity by Sidner J. Larson (Wicazo Sa Review Volume 15, Number 2, Fall 2000)  He’s a professor and administrator at Iowa State University.  (Universities are where students as individuals sharpen their wits against the education establishment.)  He walks on both sides.

“. . . when dealing with bureaucracy, a certain level of hysteria often must be reached before anything can be accomplished. Similarly, the clash and conversation organized around issues of authenticity almost always provide the kinds of fireworks that at the very least make it difficult to ignore those issues.
“Such conflict has played a role in development of concepts of self, Indian and mainstream, that are suspicious of the limiting and coercive aspects of society, and that have in critical ways turned to authenticity as a desideratum in place of sincerity.”
I take this to mean that stream of thought requiring that only Indians may think about, write about, or take any deep interest in Indians.  It is a “third-rail” issue, meaning that if you are white -- even with years of attention and participation with “real” Indians -- you are not entitled to say anything about it.  “Language, for those who prize authenticity, has lost its value as a source of ethical truth or consolation and is valued instead as an agent of spiritual self-realization necessitating abandonment of social norms.”  This is where the hippies, the gays, the PTSD veterans, the oddball scholars, and the celibate old ladies make common cause with back-to-the-old-time Indians.  They think of writing as a kind of shamanism.
Sid brings in Lionel Trilling, saying ,“Trilling described a vital component of this subversion as an Angelism that insists on direct access to spirit by circumventing the conditions and circumstances of life, with the direct and certain result of devaluing man's life in society. An attendant problem is erosion of the willpower to struggle with the important grounding of societal limitations to a fantasy of unfettered will characteristic of modern culture.”   My echo is the angel/devil split in the way Indians are portrayed.  Always the best or the worst. 
In order to move toward more positive and specific answers in the American Indian context, it is also necessary that existing work be completed by a larger constructive philosophical effort that does not rely on irrationality as its foundation of authenticity. A place to begin might be to work toward temporal unification of the past, present, and future by working to resolve the American intellectual middle class's dramatic contradiction of living with the greatest possibility (call it illusion) of conscious choice, believing itself the inheritor of the great humanist and rationalist tradition, and the badness and stupidity of its actions.” 

The illusion of choice is rapidly dissolving for everyone.  The power of this paragraph is that it is not just addressing the Indian middle class, which is invisible, but also the greater category of the American middle class, which “thinks it’s so good” (to use a rez locution), but is capable of incredible blundering, mishandling, blindness, and denied malevolence in almost everything it does politically and socially.  The result is economic -- lost survival.  Blacks dominate our thinking in this country because they are so connected to the urban ghettos, looming large in the media.  Indians are invisible.  We see blacks as a group, even when they are not.  

We see Indians mostly as individuals, rather than tribes, and yet we don’t even recognize an Indian without feathers and paint.  Savages or angels are clear images.  Both have feathers.

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