Wednesday, October 23, 2013


“Circle of the Sun”  was made in 1960 by Colin Low, a Mormon who grew up in Cardston, Alberta, near the border.  Later he was a convert to Catholicism.  Plainly he is a religiously anchored man.  His point of view in this film is “salvage” mentality, meaning that he believed himself to be recording something that was disappearing, that should be saved because it was valuable and meaningful.  (He was quite right except for the part about disappearing -- it persisted but transformed.)  This short film is one of the earliest about life on the high prairie in the Blackfoot Nation, the most truthful of films and the most intimate, though what Low called “Sun Dance” was what I know as “Horn Society.”  He went on to make many anthropological films and now lives in Montreal.

I came to Browning, Montana, the next year (1961) and the movie shows the culture I stepped into.  Because I partnered with a white sculptor born in 1914 who had grown up here, and because he was so immersed in this culture himself that he began to dream, which the Browning old people interpreted as directions for becoming a Bundle Keeper, and because “the woman” is the practical protector of what goes on, I was in deep enough to be painted in one of those double lodges in the middle of the camp circle.  This film shows a Bundle Opening -- I think a Beaver Bundle because of the rattles on rawhide instead of hand drums.   Also, the film shows the last years of the previous oil drilling activity in the area which is now renewed by “frakking.”

The film uses as an anchor Pete Standing Alone, a handsome young man who spent ten years in the States to make a grubstake, then returned home to ranch and rodeo.  In the footage about the rodeo, watch for a puppy-pile of boys who seem to be petting a dog.  When they stand up, it turns out to be a colt.  These are intensely horse people.    This second film, "Round Up," is also about Pete Standing Alone, but now he’s old and selling off his horse herd.  This film was made by Narcisse Blood, a tribal member of the North Piegan.  I’ve never met Colin Low, but I’ve met Narcisse and heard him talk.  If all goes well, I’ll hear him talk again in Browning on Friday.  He’s speaking about Abraham Maslow’s brief but intense visit to the Blood Indians and some derived ideas called “Breath of Life”.  Narcisse is brilliant -- no one argues about it.  If you want to hear what he says, below are samples.  There are many more online, but my computer won’t open them so far.  If you are Blackfoot or are teaching about the Blackfoot confederacy, you will need to figure out how to watch them as they are an invaluable resource.  I’ll keep working on it myself.
Writing on stone is the equivalent of cave art, except that it’s out in the open on cliff faces and therefore vulnerable.  Some of it is “pecked” into the surface.  None of the figures are as naturalistic as the cave paintings, but they are still interesting.
Great Falls is my shopping town, eighty miles to the south of Valier.
Lewis and Clark left their mark near here, both because it was the point from which they could see the northern limit of the Louisiana Purchase and because near here they killed the only Indians who were casualties of the expedition: boys herding horses camped overnight with them.  This is a short video of Narcisse explaining his point of view.  He is a “code-switcher,” able to function in two worlds and aware of that.  What he may not be thinking about so far is how to find a universal “code” that can mediate between them.  That may not be necessary.  Humans may be able to handle several codes, switching as needed.  He finds his double understanding to be the answer for reconciling education with assimilation: two “kinds” of education, each on its own terms, depending on the setting.  In fact, the larger world already code-switches -- between humanities and “hard” science; or inside the “circle of believers” and outside the circle in the meta-thought world.

The Blackfeet in the US, the Amskapi Pikuni, have had the great advantage of staying in contact with the reservoir of the Blackfoot Confederacy across the arbitrary line of the 49th parallel.  (A near-closed border, as at present, cripples them.)  As turbulence and greed have swept the Montana side, the Alberta reserves have kept more of the old ways.  Narcisse Blood gracefully accepts the obligation to renew the old ways of the land, reconcile them with the best of Euro-thought -- like Maslow’s Third Force psychology -- and express them in a voice precise and eloquent.  He sounds quite different from the activists on the Montana side.  He is calm and centered.

Piegan Institute is a formal institution meant to preserve and promote the speaking of Blackfeet and the accumulation of scholarly materials about the Blackfeet.  To understand the meaning of this, one must consider that during and after the AIM activism, Blackfeet tribal members were sometimes prevented from using the library of the federal Museum of the Plains Indian for fear that they might tear things up.  Then everything changed and the Museum itself “cleansed” the files of all things white, taking them to the dump.  When Darrell Kipp, on behalf of the Piegan Institute, took a college class of Blackfeet to Calgary to use the library of the Glenbow Institute, such a thing as a Blackfeet class visit had never happened before and the staff was worried to the point of alarm.  So when Rosalyn LaPier organized a series of annual August day-long academic lectures and invited Narcisse Blood and his teaching companion Ryan Heavy Head, it was a new thing to do.  They were late because the US side of the border had trouble understanding why they were coming.

When they entered, dark and lithe from a summer of walking in the sun to make GPS records of the old trails and camps on the east slope (many made in the days of the dog travois), it was as though they entered from another world and, in a sense, they did.  They had been walking in the past, for the sake of the future.  They knew what a day of walking was like and they knew how to translate that into a high tech medium, partly video and partly sophisticated map-making computers, that can be put on the Internet to escape the guards at libraries and museums.

Other indigenous people have also claimed identities developed in a specific place, later swamped or displaced by other cultures from elsewhere.  Now we see that somehow we’ve got to reconcile the mosaic of many people, all searching for something on which to stake their lives.  Rather than stamping out what came before, rather than strong people strangling the weak people in order to feed off their resources, we’ve got to find high principles and daily ways of sharing. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Haven't had a chance yet to check out all your links, but I really, really enjoyed watching "Circle of the Sun". Hard to believe it was more than 50 years ago, eh?

Looking forward to checking out the rest. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.