Thursday, October 24, 2013


In the 1970’s in Browning, a new high school counselor arrived.  His name was Bill Haw; he was a nonconformist, a renegade, an irritant, and a useful man whose time and place had a big impact on young Amskapi Pikuni.  Though he was trained according to the thought of Carl Rogers, he was aware of the entire “Third Force” of humanistic psych in all its guises, usually through the personalities of colorful people.  Newly divorced, I discovered this line of thought that has been a guide ever since.  Out of those forces, which were part of the Sixties and Seventies paradigm shift, came the first flickers of teaching Blackfeet language in the public schools, the Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop which Haw invented, and -- moving along the timelines -- Blackfeet Community College and Piegan Institute.  Each is distinct, some are extinct, and yet each contributes to a true transformation of the local culture and opportunity.  

Abraham Maslow is one of the favorite humanist thinkers.  He himself was influenced by people like Harry Harlow, who experimentally raised baby monkeys with two fake mothers: one of cuddly cloth and one of wire that gave milk.  A terrible choice for a baby, a SURVIVAL choice, because a baby monkey (and a baby human) will die if not supplied with both.  In a situation of shortage, we tend to give food primary attention while ignoring the cuddling, producing crippled human beings.  

Two big ideas come from Maslow.  One is that if you only have one way of approaching the world, it will be only useful in one context.  This is called “Maslow’s Hammer” -- the idea is that if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The second big idea is a pyramid: at the time pyramids were all the rage and another result was the “food pyramid” -- the most basic and important food on the bottom, rising to the cherry on top.  Maslow’s pyramid, which suggested a hierarchy of human survival needs, usually puts “peak experience” at the top: transcendence.  It is an excellent way of setting priorities in a world of “syndemic.”  (The term is explored by Merrill Singer.)  A syndemic is a situation in which a complex of forces feed into each other, becoming far more devastating than any part separately, and interlocking so that addressing one part is prevented by other parts.  Thus, diseases interact with poverty interact with poor nutrition interact with lack of education interact with stigma interact with civil disorder interact with drugs and so on.  A reservation is a syndemic.  One hardly knows where to start.  Maslow would suggest the bottom: safety, air, water, food, shelter.

Maslow is criticized for being “soft”, for not being alarmed enough about evil, and for being a captive of his culture.  (Like all the rest of us!)  Indigenous people can escape some of this by using the idea of a tipi instead of a pyramid.  As it turns out, the “dream moth” -- represented by a Celtic cross at the back of the top of a lodge painted according to a dream -- is at the top of the tipi which is a nice touch of spirituality.  The pyramid probably always has variations in terms of the specific culture.  But the different elements, beyond the level of bare survival as an animal creature, might be quite different: the best qualities for a salmon fisherman might not be the best qualities for a plains horseman or for a woodland gardener.  

Maslow came out of the Russian Jewish diaspora, as did many other “Third Force” psychologists, so he was no Victorian Viennese.  Instead of trying to force defiant, perverse and crazy people into some semblance of everyone else (the “normal”) the "eupsychologists" were inclined to take a poetic point of view, asking what world those “different” people were seeing.  That’s what makes these thinkers “humanistic.”  They claimed the right to rethink the “normal” pyramid for themselves so that their priorities were truly their own.  Many felt that if they could not think, if they had no internal intellectual life, they might die or at least fall ill.  For them, thinking was what swimming is to a shark -- the only way to get oxygen.

When I found out that Maslow had spent a bit of time on the Blackfoot Reserves near Calgary, I bought the book that came out of the formal study series:  “Monographs of the American Ethnological Society.”  In part the work was interrupted by WWII, but Esther Goldfrank carried to completion what they had gathered.  The title, if you search for it on the used book market (copyright 1945), is long:  “Changing Configuration in the Social Organization of a Blackfoot Tribe During the Reserve Period (The Blood of Alberta, Canada)”.  It's a slender book.  The material was gathered in 1939, which was long enough ago that the anthropologists still referred to the tribes as “primitive.”  This only works if you slide the term over to “primal,” meaning primary or first -- in terms of the pyramid, the basics are at the foundation where the lodgeskin meets the ground.  In his short visit, only weeks, Maslow saw a new world, as did other anthros.    This key and extremely valuable article explores what they call Breath of Life theory, which is a Maslow-inspired way of revisioning child protection, a field that has not been effective in the past, partly because of the Western Euro idea that an abused or neglected kid should be removed to a setting where they can be hammered into little Euros.   (Hammering doesn’t even work that well for kids with Euro-genes.) The alternative explained in this article will be slippery and too “New Age” for some, but it is a welcome new path to explore.  It is explicitly “ontological” (arguing from the essential nature of something at its first beginnings) and “existential” (describing the world as personally “felt” instead of what authorities say is proven reality).  These are defended by invoking the new physics, which are not anchored in Newtonian thing-acting-on-thing, but dwell on terms of interacting forces and equally valid but different theories.  Poetry.  This gets a little far from Maslow, but I don’t think he would object. ( I’m hunting down the materials in the bibliography.)

The Theory of Everything, the drive to get to the most basic underlying existence, gets big media play when it’s about a Higgs particle, a boson, but we still haven’t recognized the most basic particle of human existence, which is probably Harlow’s insight that baby monkeys need both milk and love.  Too many human babies these days don’t get enough of either to grow.  Come to that, a whole lot of human adults also come up short on nurturing and are worse for it.  They cannot attach to the world.

On the rez, in the syndemic, forces are pulling this way and that way.  Missionary-based thought, BIA efforts, activist goals, tribal big shots, earnest moms and so on have not tried to work out a unified "Theory of Everything At Least on This Rez."  They haven’t built the pyramid, just tried to control the resources for building.  Too much hammering.

Here’s a quote from the author, Cindy Blackstock, who has NW tribal genes and who is on the faculty at the University of Alberta in Edmonton:   “Although Maslow emphasized the interconnection of needs, he also believed that some human needs were more foundational than others and that both the identified needs and hierarchal importance of those needs were valid across cultures (Hoffman, 1998). As shown in Figure 1, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is typically represented in an eight-level triangle with the most fundamental physical needs depicted at the bottom and the personal fulfillment needs of self actualization and transcendence at the top (Huitt, 2004).”
The article goes on to suggest some alternative diagrams.  For instance, since indigenous thought tends to be more in circles, this one, an interpretation by Terry Cross who offers two variations to get away from hierarchies:

Euros think in squares.  Blackfoot think in circles. This diagram combines both circles and squares.  A tipi from the top is a circle -- from the side is a pyramid.

The specific form of the diagram means less than the exercise of thinking through what counts for survival, both for yourself as an individual and for your group whether it’s family, tribe, rez, state, ecosystem or galaxy.  Perhaps today we can share as priorities the need not to be shot full of holes, not to have one’s home reduced to rubble, not to be impoverished by rich men’s international monetary gambling.


Anonymous said...

Turn the triangle upside-down so it "looks up." You don't grow a tree from the bottom. Would that we could re-run History with Maslow taught without the Euro "geometric tyranny of form."

Lester Johnson said...

I understand Maslow promotes personal accountability. What was his observat ion of this among Blackfoot of the time?

Lester Johnson said...

Maslow promotes personal accountability. What did he observe of this at the time among the Blackfoot?

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Good question. The irony is that Maslow found that the high prairie was too tough for him and only stayed a few weeks.

I highly recommend the newest history of the Siksika which is called "The Amskapi Pikuni: the Blackfeet People" which began as a manuscript written by Clark Wissler, one of the early anthros to visit Browning. He used David Duvall as his main informant. You may know that Duvall committed suicide as a young man. Alice Beck Kehoe, who is often on the rez and who worked at the Museum of the Plains Indian when Tom Kehoe was the curator. They married. Tom is deceeased.

You may remember Stewart Miller, who helped Alice edit this manuscript and add to it, so it's up-to-date. Stewart is gone, too. People are slipping away from us. I hope you are writing a book.