Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Ryan and Adrienne Heavy Head

For anthropological thinkers the meta-concepts of group cohesion due to primal assumptions about life, esp. those prompted by the requirements of survival in a specific place, are always in tension with the divisions that sometimes help define and sometimes cut across those assumptions.  The Blackfoot Confederacy, an organic and dynamic body with very deep roots in the high prairie, is sliced across by the 49th parallel, the border between Canada and the US.  A once-unified population has been separated politically for almost two centuries.

Canadian (and British) versus American policies have been quite different in terms of lands set aside for indigenous people when their culture was still distinctively evolved.  In the States either extinction or assimilation was the point while Canada was more inclined to seek protection that might have been paternal, but also was more respectful.  The Canadian Blackfoot people have held onto their language and ceremonies longer and therefore have been a reservoir for modern American Blackfeet and also for anthropologists, particularly the kind who join the circle of believers as well as reflecting about it.  

Ryan Heavy Head is this sort of anthro, an affiliated and functioning member of the community who still keeps a foothold in academia through the University of Lethbridge and Red Crow Community College.  I spent yesterday reading his Master’s thesis, “Feeding Sublimity: Embodiment in Blackfoot Experience.”  It’s a free download.,%20ryan.pdf?sequence=1  I knew to look for it because of a presentation he and Narcisse Blood made at the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana.  Before I can cross into Canada (I am an American citizen) or to be more accurate, before I can return to the US after crossing into Canada, I must renew my passport, so I was grateful to BCC for bringing them to this side.  

Specifically, Narcisse and Ryan were talking about Abraham Maslow’s pyramid schema for understanding human priorities for survival, beginning at the bottom with the most basic needs: air, shelter, food, water, and then building layers up through safety, affiliation, and so on to the pinnacle which he generally called “self-actualization” or “peak experience.”  The idea is that Maslow got this notion while visiting the Blackfoot reserves near Calgary just before WWII.  This converts the pyramid into a tipi which works out rather well.

Ryan’s formal thesis is not directly about that.  He uses George P. Lakoff’s idea that “lives of individuals are significantly influenced by the central metaphors they use to explain complex phenomena.”  If you believe life is a battle, a journey, a search or something else, that will govern your decisions and desires.  Lakoff’s discipline label is “cognitive linguist” which puts him in loose association with those French philosophers who have dominated so much thought.  He’s important enough to have his own website:   The splash screen alone, which is the fronts of his books, is worth contemplating.  The book Ryan uses -- and that I’ve also used gratefully since seminary -- is “Metaphors We Live By.”   Johnson, Lakoff’s co-author, “maintains that image schema are regularly recurring embodied patterns of experience that are acquired during the course of early child development. Such schemata are image-like in that they are analogic neural activation patterns which preserve the topological contours of perceptual experience as a cohesive whole.”  This is highly relevant to the thinking about brain neurology that I’ve been doing.  They are Damasio’s deep patterns.

Ryan’s thesis begins with an explanation of “aistomatoo’p” (accustomed body), the self-embodiment of Blackfoot people indigenous to the high prairie east of the Rockies and derived from a plenitude of buffalo.  His double use of language throughout (supplying the Blackfoot words with his own translations) comes from speaking both as someone inside the believing and ceremonially participating circle and from outside that circle in a “meta” or analytical way.  He uses the ceremonies themselves to explain his concepts and is personal about it, doing a kind of “body check” to make it clear where he “is” as he speaks.

First, he explains the key image:  amopistaanistsi (bound-together-by-wrapping-around) which is commonly called a “medicine bundle.”  This is the kind of image that I use when I speak of “the bone chalice,” hoping to combine the idea of the skull containing a brain and the Unitarian device of a communion chalice with a flame in it.  He also uses a three-step progression of thought that I use:  personal understanding, community understanding, and what he calls “the sublime,” a literary concept that approaches “holiness” or “sacredness” but manages to dodge the Christian institutional dogmas.

The first ceremony considered is the “sweatlodge,” which has suffered from popularization among the New Age crowd to the extent of killing people who try to copy it without knowing what they are doing.  In it’s “pure” historical form it is meant to be an ordeal of cleansing specifically for men, supported by women.  Feminism has disrupted this.  Ryan begins by using the translation:  “steam-making” and investigating it in terms of being “enwrapped” by the affinity group (the women) and their protective nourishment of those in the lodge.  Being sheltered is described as being “taken into a mouth” and there are many poetic stories about such a thing that then transfers to a house or home.  Many animals on the prairie take shelter in a cave or burrow with a mouth-like entrance.

If a person has spent much time on the open prairie exposed to sun and wind -- dazzled, scorched, abraded, and even deafened -- then the shelter provided by a lodgeskin over the ribs of poles or even the protection of a robe or blanket wrapped around the head and shoulders becomes a kind of embrace.  So the next pattern of nurturing is specific to Ryan’s wife within the shelter of marriage and family, but suffering from arthritis so in need of healing.  How this comes about exposes them to self-search and change.  The idea of spiritual ceremony as dynamic and changing is quite different from the Roman Catholic emphasis on inerrancy and permanence pushed by missionaries.  Survival among nomads on the prairie is a matter of constantly adapting and seeking.

Another example is in the life of Alan Pard, a noted ceremonialist who now protects Bundles including those that were once kept by Bob Scriver, except that when they were with Bob they were inactive except for his own, now missing.  Ryan came to this world by accompanying repatriated Bundles from prestigious American museums.  This was considered dangerous, attracting evil spirits (tell me about it!), but necessary in order to avert the greater danger of having one’s essential, ontological, epistomological life-support -- one’s identity -- destroyed by absorption into the great world-eating mass of commercial popularization that slurps up everything.  Pard’s challenge was heart problems due to the usual modern middle-aged male cardiopathy.  Beyond just changing his diet and quitting smoking, his case emphasizes the great value of “backing someone up.”  His friends joined him in kicking cigarettes, sitting with him to distract him with good company.  In the old days they might have joined him on a hunt or a raid -- backing him up as one does in a fight.

Ryan writes so clearly and uses these concepts so deftly that in spite of these concepts being subtle, the power of them comes through.  All the quarrels about what’s “real” and “authentic” fall away when these ideas take hold.  The issues become more personal than political.  Ryan’s bibliography is going to keep me busy all winter as I go into my “cave” to shelter from prairie blizzards that have already begun.  The nourishment is named.  Words can be a warming shelter.

Ryan and Adrienne Heavy Head

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