Sunday, October 27, 2013


This week I went back to Blackfeet Community College to hear Narcisse Blood and Ryan Heavy Head.  The topic was again Abraham Maslow’s visit to the Blood Reserve and how that appears to have triggered his “actualization” pyramid schema, probably as much prompted by tipi designs as anything else.  Blackfeet designs are very stylized, different heights for different depictions (hills and potholes at the bottom, four stripes near the top for the four directions, the spirit-animal on either side of the door, 7 stars on the smoke flap, the dream moth at the top of the back) that to the uninitiated may seem to be only stripes and dots.  These two Blackfoot teachers have given this talk many times and have a graceful way of trading off the speaking between them, guided by a series of old-time photos on a projection screen.  They’ve taken it to Oxford in England.

(You can find the presentation online:,-presented-narcisse-blood-and-ryan-heavy-head-university-mo   These speakers are conscientious about using the Internet to include everyone with a device that can access it.  Until recently, the infrastructure to access the materials was not necessarily present on the Blackfeet Rez.  Computers, yes; smart phones, maybe not.)

Always shadowing this sort of thing is the tension between the traditional academic approach (white European) and the traditional indigenous approach (red North American).  The problem in this setting is that for an institution like BCC to exist, providing useful credits for future academic work or for related employment, one doesn’t dare get too far off the trodden path.  Credentialing bodies are essentially conservative and often weighted against minority approaches.  But there is always ALWAYS a great need on the part of the people in the class (who are of all ages, but mostly women) to testify about the attacks, the grievances, the injustices, the weirdness of not being seen for who they are.  They are desperate (I’m not exaggerating) to hear explanatory principles, particularly coming from those like themselves.  

Actually, I was butting in, and though I was treated well, it was not for me and I should have bitten my tongue more.  Here was I, a person who has lived on the fringe for fifty years and built a pretty comprehensive library about Blackfeet, but both my genetics and politics are wrong.   Three of my former students were present, each of them vital, authoritative and great successes in their fields: Mary Margaret McKay Johnson, the newly retired Superintendent of School District #9 who miraculously was able to lead the district through building a new high school, a most risky and rewarding accomplishment; Debbie Magee Sherer, a world-class art beader and quillworker who wins major prizes and was accepted in England as equal to Narcisse and Ryan; and Gail Hoyt, a mainstay of the Methodist Church and a tackler of impossible projects in school humanities.  We were all young together. They’ve been far more successful in life than I have. 

They said nothing in class.  In spite of talk about how women “don’t get no credit,” when the organizer (female) asked for promising other authorities to address this class, none of the three was suggested.  Well, it happened to Jesus, whatever that means.  People don’t recognize their own resources, always looking for outside experts.  Though Narcisse and Ryan are not exactly outsiders. In fact, I failed to recognize Debbie until after the class, so I’m the most guilty of all.

Who are these Europeans?” Narcisse asked.  “What makes them so anxious to come to our land and take what we have?”  He might have also asked, “Why are the Americans less able to recognize and accept indigenous people than the Europeans in Europe?"   I suggested white Americans are tumbleweeds who have lost their roots, so blew across the continent until they came to something that stopped them -- like gold or oil or the Rockies.  Ryan had a better idea: reverse cargo cults.  Cargo cults formed on the South Pacific islands where the people witnessed war-time airplanes landing to unload huge piles of good stuff.   They invented ceremonies to make them come back.  But in this case, the planes landed when they saw something good to load INTO the airplanes and carry away.  

Both Red Crow Community College men talked about interviewing academics who work on Blackfoot issues and discovering that if they stuck with it long enough and questioned closely enough, the toughest guys would tear up and reveal their deep-hearted attachment ever since they, for instance, read “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.”   Narcisse asked, “What is it that makes them feel like that?  What are they searching for? Why do they think we have it?”  It’s a question at the intersection of anthropology and psychology -- maybe even geography or theology.  What is the GPS of happiness?  Of "self-actualization"?  That’s  where we ought to locate Maslow and his buddies, all those Third Force guys like Erikson, Perls, Rogers, May, and a host of others. Discipline boundaries sometimes interfere.  

Today the borders of disciplines and departments are all in question anyway.  On the humanities listservs that I monitor (environment, animals, indigenous peoples, and a little bit of literature), there is always a thread running about dumping out the old categories and reorganizing the territory.  When neurology and psychoanalysis are in fervent dialogue, why separate them?  When humans are dominating the environment, isn’t it time to seriously add the Anthropecene Era?  We just reclassified Pluto as a non-planet.  God has been replaced by a Higgs boson.

But these students do not ask such questions.  Anyway, they have enough to handle trying to figure out the traditional categories -- not all of which make that much sense.  There’s a sense of an unfair bait-and-switch game going on that might keep them struggling with classes and debts for the rest of their lives.  When do we get to the gainful employment anyway?
Ryan Heavy Head

Oh, joy!  Ryan Heavy Head has a blog.   It’s about Kainai issues but also the land that supports them and the beings that inhabit it.   (Birds, bugs, snakes!) I took along a print-out of last week’s prairiemary essays prompted by the last workshop and handed them to Narcisse.  I think he couldn’t figure out what I wanted -- did I think he was a publisher?  Was I trying to seduce him?  (Fat chance!  I’ve heard him talk about his honey!)   Or just riding his coattails?  But I feel as though blogs are replacing textbooks if you know how to bring up the stuff you need and want.  It’s a time for scouting.  Blogs can be trails and track reports -- not just personal opinions, but maps of the information out there.  

The white tumbleweeds, by leaving their places of evolution, have lost their feeling for the survival of the larger group.  They have become so committed to themselves individually -- and possibly their own immediate families -- that they will happily sacrifice and crowd out all others.  This is why they are weeds, by their own standards, which industrial farmers and teakettle politicians want to eliminate with poisons and knives.  They fear wilderness, life going along on its own terms.   Instead of learning from it, they want to wall it out and end it.  Survival of the individual without the survival of the supporting and sheltering group is impossible.  But survival of the group at the expense of the destruction of individuals is evil and, in the end, self-destructive.  The question is:  are our family and education structures creating a kind of person who will destroy us all?  Sometimes I think so.  But Narcisse and Ryan give me hope.  Also Mary Margaret, Debbie, and Gail.  

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