Monday, March 10, 2014


The most difficult concept for off-rez people to understand is that the rez is not defined by its boundaries.  Boundaries, agreed-upon and recorded lines making a distinction between what’s on one side and what’s on the other, are a Euro concept that goes back to the Egyptians trying to keep track of farm land that was overlain by fertile silt from rivers every spring.  There has to be an edge to a “built” environment.  Euros privilege what is “built,” “owned,” “planted,” “used.”

A tribe is based on centers.  It develops organically from a central anchoring point and then spreads out through interaction or proliferation, which means it is rhizomatous and nomadic, concepts that paradoxically come out of Euro thinkers working against the confinement, enforcement, and destruction from the Euro ideas.  Tribal center-based organization is so natural and gradual that it is rarely defined or described.  It is a “felt” concept that feels like reality.  And it is.

So thinking about the chaos currently “felt” on the Blackfeet reservation means bringing up to consciousness things that have been taken for granted.  This chaos IMHO is a necessary turning out of pockets and emptying of closets.  It is, in Eric Berne’s terms, a game of “Uproar,” which means that when you are losing at chess and have run out of effective strategies, you just turn over the table and let the pieces scatter.  Then you have to start a new game.  Maybe with new rules.

In ancient days the most common “center” was a nuclear family which quickly extended as far as resources would allow.  Not all members of the resulting band were genetically related.  New members might come voluntarily, attracted through friendships or adventures, but others might be captured, particularly women.  This meant -- since women carry the culture and teach it to the children -- a continuing flow of new ideas.  New ideas, combined with the variety of personalities, meant that occasionally there were dissenters and iconoclasts in the band.  These could lead to breakaway groups who decided to travel a different path.  

Check out Tony Bynum's website:

To put this is more familiar terms, religious groups are held together by affinities and divided by controversies.  The stronger the affinity, the more internal friction can be tolerated and even translated into growth in numbers and sophistication.  If major controversies show up -- often over resources, though they might be disguised as ideologies -- the group will split.  Unitarian congregations in big cities -- already centered on freedom to think -- will often have satellite “fellowships” (small groups with no ministers) who differ in some opinion or style.  Once in a while there will be sweeping religious movements to re-consolidate all these groups.  Sometimes that comes from economic or political pressure from outside, and once in a long while it results from a flashing and intense new idea that pulls everyone together.  Tribes work just like that.

Orange is buffalo range, red is tribally occupied

The Amskapi Pikuni division of the Siksika nation was at one point reduced to only 500 souls, half of them children.  The loss of continuity, connection, and expertise was drastic.  The result of trauma and starvation was mixed, pitting compliance in the interest of survival against defiance for the same motive.  Some collaborated with the Euros and others opposed them to the point of death.  Another group just hunkered down to wait, knowing that all things pass.

This was only one of the sources of mixing, acquiring, and discarding that have resulted in today’s tribe.  The usual generational variation was accentuated by the practice of early whites, usually men, of marrying tribal women, sometimes as access to powerful families, sometimes for their personal comfort and convenience (frontier life means the need for a supply and repair source -- a moccasin maker, hide tanner, house owner), and occasionally out of true love.  The Culbertsons are an outstanding example.  But there are no Culbertson’s now.  The Kipps are another example and there are many Kipps now.  But that’s only to go by Euro ideas of descent which are patriarchal and ownership-based.  The older ways were much more individual, using “dreams” as the justification for nonconformity.  Each man had his own vision.  Each Kipp is unique.  And a descendant of Culbertson's wife, Natawista, showed up in a Cut Bank classroom -- he just wasn't named Culbertson.

Women could be a source of either unity or division, depending on how well they got along esp. in polygamous households.  Though men could be violent, women held the plurality and had the potential to make life miserable for a tyrant.  Their children and brothers added credibility.  A skillful woman who knew the territory and its resources from camas to paint minerals to the efficient processing of a buffalo carcass was an invaluable resource for a warrior or hunter.  This continues, except now a skillful person (unassigned as to gender) can navigate the Internet, keep household appliances operating, shop wisely, and chair a productive meeting.

The first split among the Amskapi Pikuni was between full-blood and mixed blood, with the advantages of a white father tending to pull people out onto the flats to grow grain while an old-timey father might choose a Dawes allotment in the foothills because of the hunting and water.  When everything was in trust, the fortunes of all were tied together and they still are for the lands and resources held in common.  In Canada where the tribe was treated as a cooperative, individuals are held down in some ways (no chance to use individually owned land as collateral for a loan or to cash it in at retirement) but supported in others (no need to acquire enough money to buy a ranch).  The Devil’s Bargain on the US side is that people were allotted land of quite different qualities and though the argument was that they were certainly capable of managing their own assets, the disadvantages of not having English language and not understanding the strange Euro practice of bookkeeping standing for reality meant that many people lost their land one way or another.  Fractionation is another dismaying problem.

Being located meant community formed out of neighborhoods, either the way people cluster around amenities (originally a fort) and or in what I call “long towns” along the rivers.  Now they cluster on the Internet.  The oil community -- those who manage the work -- or the livestock community form out of mutual interests. Newly built housing clusters have created neighborhoods, almost accidentally.

There is less chaos than there is subtle conflict between forces meant to provide survival.  Complicating the picture even more is the infiltration of covert outsider forces, mostly white businessmen, who use enrolled people as cat’s paws -- masks -- to access entitlements meant to level the playing field for the enrolled.  Sometimes the tribal members are well aware they are being used and other times they just see the advantages of having a patron.  No one spends much time wondering how much such white players want to prevent change because it will lose them money.  In the background always hovers the threat to close down the reservation.

In a community where there is no money at all, there are systems of violence (who are you afraid of, who is an enforcer), sex (who do you love, who shares your parenthood), and secrets.  Secrets include the illegal substance networks and a certain amount of human trafficking.  Now that we learn about it, we see that can mean trafficking in labor.  But fire-fighting has progressed from when authorities would simply seize drunks off the streets and take them onto the firelines without even notifying family.  If they survived and were paid, no one cared much.  Today fire-fighting is professional, requiring training and health-monitoring.

L to R: Lyle St. Goddard, Rod Bullshoe, Willard Pepion, Eli Stillmoking, Doug Malatare, Joanne Cadotte, Josh Salway, Sheldon Brewer, Loren Young Running Crane, Tim Sure Chief, Allen Dale Vielle - Bottom L to R: Steve Bullshoe, Earl Old Chief, Jovon Fisher, Dale Tatsey, Gordon North Piegan, Brenda McDougall, Clinton Dusty Bull

Ideas need to be thrown out to keep us from treading the same old dead-end paths. What we need is that one huge compelling and energizing goal that can pull everyone all together.  In the end it’s always survival, but along the way there are many small strategies that move towards mini-survivals.  Pick up the chess pieces carefully and take a good look at the chessboard.  It’s strategy that counts.  A lot of little strategies can add up to a big result.

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