Wednesday, November 20, 2013


When Europeans finally landed on the SE coast of the North American continent and saw that there were people, but people quite different from themselves, they thought they had found a new species.  A species is a biologically defined category based on whether two kinds of animal can mate and produce children.  If they can, they are not separate species.  It took about nine months to find out that these people were NOT a new species, but human beings.  Still, the Euros hung onto the idea.  

In fact, the idea still haunts us.  People even suggest that male and female human beings are separate "species", but clearly that’s not the case since they produce children all the time.  Some people play with the idea that humans and one of the more human-seeming apes might have a child, but it can’t happen.  They ARE separate species.  They don’t even have the same number of chromosomes, so there could not be a zipper-like match-up of genes as is necessary to make a new being.

The Euros would continue to war against each other for the next few hundred years, struggling to establish nations, which to them meant control of territories defined by borders and signified with flags and kings.  They brought these ideas to the New World and imposed them on people who might push each other back and forth but never fought gunpowder-horseback-armor wars with horrific death rates.  They also brought their deadliest weapon: microbes.  This emptied the villages and sent a wave of depopulation across the land, which persuaded the Euros that there was nobody out there.  So they grabbed the land.  As an educated white woman told me not long ago, “the Indians weren’t using the land anyway.”  Meaning they hadn’t plowed it.

The whites also brought an old Egyptian concept of establishing borders to show where one person’s set of rights ended and another’s began.  This went back to the flooding of the Nile which annually erased all markers of fields but renewed the fertility necessary for the crops of the time.  Geometry was invented to re-establish boundaries.  By the time the 15th and 16th centuries came along, the Euros had forgotten that part but remembered that Kings (as in King Tut) and God (the ultimate SunKing who authorized all the other ones) had the power.  Kings meant nations.  So they looked for them in America.

Instead of kings and nations, they found chiefs and tribes.  They never got their heads around the idea that these were fluid entities that responded to circumstances, as did the survival-based occupation of territories.  In brief, the People went where they had to in order to eat and defended their movement however they had to, and they followed whomever they trusted at the time for whatever the situation was.  The people who were related, who observed the same customs, told the same stories, and MOST of all spoke the same language, formed into bands who occasionally gathered as a whole in a unified ceremonial time.  This appears to be a universal human practice.  

At the core was a small intensely related group of people and then the farther people thinned out until at the fringes were folks who might have split allegiances, or who were immigrants from somewhere else, or were captives or were just antisocial.  There was no real boundary, but only a moving migration of people in and out, closer to the center of identity or farther away.  My guess is that in their minds even their dead relations were therebutnotthere, just a little farther away on the edge as though they were hunting in the Sand Hills. 

The Sand Hills of Alberta

Most Euros couldn’t get their heads around this.  But some people had always been like this, especially once the big sailing ships were devised and the sailors realized that there were people in very pleasant places who would accept them so long as they behaved.  They left their former identities.  And then there were the gypsies.

Once the Industrial Revolution put paid to the old life everywhere and Native Americans were confined on reservations (though some always walked off), the government ended up stranded in their assumptions between Indian ways and Euro ways, so they just drew a boundary like roommates, one messy and one neat.  Secretly they figured the NA’s would eventually die out anyway, either by assimilation or attrition.  But they didn’t.

Since the relationship between government and People was forced into the equating of tribe with nation (The Blackfeet Nation) so that this relationship between them had to be by treaty until they realized their mistake and started calling the treaties “agreements”, they were vulnerable to international law.  The United States does not like international law.  Now they are trying to UNdefine tribes as nations and UNdefine the reservation as a nation with boundaries because then they can go to a lower internal level of law.  But the Blackfeet “treaty” was never even signed by the government.  To regularize the present, it is necessary to call for “do-overs” of the past, some of them legal and others practical.

Cunningly, the US killed all the buffalo and sent all the children to schools to learn to be white.  But they couldn’t kill the culture.  They made lists of the original people and called that “blood” though it was only provenance, meaning descent.  No one even knew what blood types were until 1901.  They didn't mean blood -- they meant sperm and ovum.  The genome is much more recent than blood types, and it cannot guarantee that a person belongs to one tribe or another because of that moving edge of the population.  Naturally, as soon as the provenance lists were being drawn up, all sorts of folks showed up claiming to be Blackfeet because it meant survival.

Nevertheless, there some direct descendants of people on that original list and they were likely to be more intensely and culturally Blackfeet than others.  We speak of them as “full-bloods,” meaning that all their known ancestors were named on that list.  Few are left.  Few Blackfeet speakers are left, but some of them are children, which is a new phenomenon.

Darrell Kipp at Nitzipuwahsin School with a star pupil.

Fractionation of people’s ancestry as well as their land allotments on the reservation tend to undefine them, but the real definition of the Blackfeet has got to be something in the heart.  To demonstrate it by living on the reservation, learning the language and the ceremonies, knowing one’s ancestors, and claiming this identity is basic.  Some tribes will not accept membership from people who don’t live on their reservation.  The movement to claim membership without “being here” takes people away from the land that made them who they are.  But sometimes the only way to earn a living or get higher education is to leave.

There is also another movement already underway and strong enough to be named:  reconquista after the recapture of the European Iberian peninsula.  The brown people are coming back this way -- no wonder the Euros are scared!  Their secret is the same as the Nile: fertility.  Their motive is the same as all species: survival.  The industrial revolution has led us into a desert.  Now the People have the advantage, esp. the ones who have the culture and the land in their hearts.  They are in favor of education -- on their terms -- and they are creating a new culture that combines many old ones.  The fringe is coming to the middle and the old boundaries are breached to let in the waters.

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