Sunday, March 30, 2014


An institution is an organization of people for management purposes and there are many patterns.  Some develop spontaneously and others are derived from pre-existing organizations or invented to meet some need.  We are currently struggling with the consequences of defining an organization as a person, particularly when it comes to rights.  It has nothing to do with reality, everything to do with advantages.

But many other problems come from the boundary of the institution: who is in and who is out.  The model for that is the wall, esp. the defensive wall around a town or a fort.  Consider the problem of the Pope, or at least the Catholic church.  There are two kinds of congregations:  those that include everyone in a given area or those who are gathered from among the people in an area because they have affinities or beliefs in common.  At one time all Catholic parishes were the first kind because everyone was Catholic -- that’s the only church there was.  

If someone was not Catholic, it was because they were foreign and therefore semi-enemies or because they were heretics who challenged the church from inside.  They were killed.  This worked until a LOT of people became “protestant” because the church was too corrupt for the people to bear.  Then they became "gathered" from several places.  

Because the church was defined in the same way as a “nation”, the two were politically conflated, so a king could choose the nation’s church and two kings could be at war because they were of opposite religious positions -- or were they of two religious positions because they were at war?  Nations are more recent than religions, so the Pope could claim higher authority granted from God.  Sometimes this was a good thing since he could sometimes broker peace.  When Henry VIII snubbed the Pope, he stepped out of the loop.  Elizabeth I was smart: she made the loop much looser.  People could stay in the country without conforming to a religion.

Today it is not kings but technology that challenges the Catholic church.  In the emphasis on keeping order, the church insisted that anyone who was a member could not have premarital sex, could not use contraception, could not abort, could not marry outside the church, could not divorce, could not commit suicide.  The invention of birth control pills, economic pressure to limit the size of families, knowledge of problems in gestation that might require termination and a host of fiddling stuff like sperm sorting, in vitro fertilization,  surrogate mothers, mitochondrial transplants, etc. etc. and molecular knowledge of the actual process has made it impossible to use the old common sense understanding of when a baby is “ensouled,” just as technology makes it very hard to make decisions about exactly when death has happened if machines are making the body breathe and the heart beat.  

The only instrument the Catholic church had for enforcing its boundary was access to Communion.  But the people were stubborn.  They just left.  Priests were merciful and slipped them communion anyway.   Confession was supposed to keep them under surveillance but they left that, too.  Enough stayed in the pews in some places to keep a congregation going.  But priests were supposed to obey even more strict rules than their people.  Yet they no longer felt the empowering call of faith nor did they obey even the most basic decencies of secular society but hid behind their privilege.  The church refused to cede any more power to the state and therefore gave up its soul, denying corruption, even in matters of wealth.

An institution is maintained in two ways:  the magnetic and rewarding core around which it is gathered and the protective or confining boundary created around it.  Science is blamed for discrediting the core; society is blamed for breaking down the boundary.

Now let’s look at Indian tribes.  At first they were organic, pulled together by a core of genealogy, successful survival on the vast prairie, ceremonial sharing, language, and their existence as the only real choice since an individual in such an ecology cannot endure.  There were no towns so the only walls were natural -- mountains and rivers.  When the Euros came, they were semi-religiously committed to their identity, representing nations that were still kingdoms, still struggling in competition, driven by the need to dominate and grow.  They imposed all that on the tribes.  “Tribe”, they thought, was a sort of mobile nation.  They set about inventing boundaries, which mostly separated the land they wanted from the land they didn’t want.  Then the Indians were pushed into the unwanted lands -- until there was some advantage in suddenly claiming it back.

Signatories of the Box Elder treaty.

In Europe the people were listed so taxes could be demanded from them.  In America the tribes were listed because their existence after the buffalo had collapsed was dependent on commodities and because there was a pretense that they had been “paid” for their land.  The early lists were genealogically based,  as they would have been in Europe.  This seemed sensible when the indigenous people were so very different.  

There were two points of view:  one was that the tribes were a different species and possibly could not have children with Euros, so that the boundary would always be there.  The other was that Indians would intermarry with Euros and in a few generations there would be no Indians.  (Dr. Thomas, principal in Heart Butte at the end of the Nineties, went around saying that if he could import a dozen beautiful blonde Swedish girls, there would be no "fullblood" Indians in the next generation.  Then he wondered why all the Indian women were angry at him.)  The truth is a wandering ambiguity that cannot find a definition.  At what point does a tribe stop being a tribe? 

Genetics are the least helpful markers of identity in persons.  Identity of a person is formed after birth.  Though physical heritage is the carrier of the person’s identity -- its presentation and capacity --  in fact the person develops through culture.  It is those who endow the child’s culture who are the true parents.  Some institutions also shape the child -- church, state, business.  Many institutions are simply economic.  But we are discovering how corruptible and violent economics can be.  Economics can be based on conditions and resources that disappear, leaving shells that can do damage.

Jesuits in Argentina.  Pope Francis at lower left.

The institutions of church and tribe would like their members to be clearly and totally committed, to be at the nucleus of the organization out of attraction and dedication.  They may ask for oaths of allegiance, ceremonies of joining, and the wearing of marking clothing, tattoos, badges, hats.  But there will always be concentric circles, so that the outermost circles wander off, and there will always be breakaway circles, either that stay within the larger institution (like Jesuits or Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s allegiance to conservative sub-groups of both Americans and Catholics) or that separate entirely.

St. Anne's Catholic Church in Heart Butte, MT.

Among the Blackfeet an economic subgroup was defined by the tribal council as Siyeh, a subsidiary with a separate board that is shielded from intervention by those whose allegiance to their own subgroup (family, we hope) is greater than it is to the tribe.  An educational subgroup was defined by the tribal council as Blackfeet Community College, which responds to the standards and guidance of national educational organizations.  A voluntary and entirely independent subgroup, Piegan Institute, was formed by Darrell Kipp, Dorothy Still Smoking, and Ed Little Plume for the purpose of preserving the Blackfeet language and scholarship about Blackfeet people.  All of these subgroups still exist and operate.  The Catholic parishes also thrive.

New resources found on Blackfeet lands (oil) mean that the half of the legal tribe that lives elsewhere has suddenly taken an interest in the land.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was supposed to have recused itself as soon as the tribes were able to manage themselves, are now forced to umpire factional war within the tribes.  No one knows what to do next.

The present Pope knows what to do.  He is gradually eliminating corruption along with secret wealth, and setting up a glowing heart of attraction while he and others try to understand how to integrate modern technologies with millennia-old cultural rules about families and reproduction, health and morality.  

The Blackfeet wait for someone to do that for them.  What is the glowing heart of being Blackfeet?  Or is it time to go back to the land as the definition, saying those who love this place are of this tribe?  Maybe like subscriptions, three levels of membership:  those who live on the rez, those who live within a hundred miles of the rez, those who are far away.  Should there be an automatic full-membership for those who are certified Blackfeet speakers regardless of genetics or location?  That was the oldest way, before first contact.

1 comment:

northern nick said...

. . . these are words I understand, helping make sense. And, all of which you write, i.e. about institutions, is human constructed, except the organic boudaries of the land, itself (naming land as the living force it is, superceding and overarching human construction -- the ultimate institution within which humans live?). Are evolution and revolution just two words that describe the ongoing dynamic of transformation as predecessor manifestations of institutions wear out? Back to "the journey" and cis-Blackfeet: "are we there yet, Pop?"