Monday, April 28, 2014


Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall was built between England and Scotland maybe 120 years after the Beginning of the Christian Era (BCE), which is probably about two hundred years before the New Testament was written and organized.  There are two ways of looking at it:  as a fortification to keep the wild people out (a la “Game of Thrones” -- which is not an invented tale so much as adapted and embellished history) or as a boundary that declares “this is as far as we go.”  A measure to prevent overreaching, which some feel is what always destroys empire in the end.  Only decades ago a parishioner sent me a postcard from the actual wall when he was there, with this comment  above on it and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  

The Great Wall from "Game of Thrones"

The Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of the Rocky Mountains

Now I’m reading “Born Fighting” by Jim Webb and he uses the wall in a slightly different way.  The book is about the Scots-Irish, sometimes called Ulster Scots, and their belligerence, independence, and ties of loyalty among peers and through families.  Tribal, in short.  A system of governance extremely resilient, resourceful, and organized around strong leaders.  That’s what was going on north of Hadrian’s Wall and over in Ireland.  

South of the Wall was Roman and their hierarchical system of military-style organization with accountability in a pyramid of responsibility that was controlled from the top -- orderly, secure, protective enough for high culture to exist, and dependent on laws, authority, organization.  South of the wall: civilization.  North of the wall: guerrillas.  This pattern came to America.  It is even local:  I interpret the Flathead Valley as having a Roman/English/
mercantile ethic while the East Slope people are Celtic. 

Of course, America was tribal.  And they soon learned to be guerrillas.  If you look at the Blackfeet dissension, it breaks between the freeform family and friendship systems characteristic of tribes, and the Euro style that goes back to the Roman Empire.  Not that the latter is imposed by White people now, but that it has been learned and accepted by a high percentage of the enrolled people and others intermingled.  On one side leaders are personally known and trusted; on the other side, leaders are elected according to the code and regulations.  The trouble is that the tribe has grown too big for personal relationships to do the job; but not enough people have accepted codes, regulations, and all that stuff.  The system is fighting itself.

Highland Croft

Webb also picks up on another split that continues on the rez today:  that between seeing land as a shared resource where “ownership” is a matter of usage and presence, which is how the Scots crofters saw it; and land as owned from the top down in the Roman style, so that the King was the ultimate owner and could allocate and delineate areas as he chose in order to control and reward those under him.  By the time this system got to the bottom, the poorest people were possessions themselves. (Compare to Indians as wards of the government.)  Serfs were not allowed to just move away for whatever reason.  But Scots, while not nomads, were able freely to leave a place to seek a new situation, maybe in Ireland.  Their identity remained their own, their loyalty to their gentry was a matter of mutual obligation, as is often expressed on “Downton Abbey” where the moderns are the Romans and, ironically, the Earl of Grantham is the carrier of the Highlands ethic.

I have sympathy because the same split is in me, partly because of my family heritage (Scots and Irish) and partly because of my genetic makeup (I guess that’s a family heritage, too) and partly because of my life experiences.  I really am naturally meant to be north of Hadrian’s Wall, but in order to do some of the things I need to do (like the internet) I need to be on the south side.  I try to maintain a kind of outpost right on top of the wall and luckily it’s pretty big and flat up there.  But there are sea captains in my family heritage and I can "see ships" from here.  Even light beacons.  If I can find enough fuel.

from "Braveheart" the movie

I’m only eighty pages into the book and already I come to another “elephant” in my family:  the dread of poverty, the contempt for over-achieving and thus getting “better,” the ambivalence over education (identity change balanced against higher status), and the constant preparation for disaster.  Uncomfortably mixed-in is family pride that can easily become arrogance, or rejection of all help.  

In the days Webb is describing, life happened between raids from enemies.  The English kings kept thinking that if they punished what they considered to be traitors (Braveheart and Robert the Bruce) in horrible enough ways, this would be a deterrent.  But as demonstrated on “Game of Thrones,” the heroes insisted they could not be traitors since the English were not their kings, and the resistance only increased more bitterly.  Why does no one think this dynamic is in play in the Middle East?  Why doesn't Homeland Security ring a bell?

Like gated communities, the English kept thinking they could set limits, survey boundaries, build roads, and that would assure the all-important control necessary for order.  It was a goal motivated by merchants who wanted to transport for profit.  Like oil pipe-lines.  And such industrial technicalities are always vulnerable to both those who resist control and to the shrugging surface of the continents themselves.

Father DeSmet arrives at the Flathead  (CMR painting)

As I read I’m just coming to the next source of schism: religion.  On the Anglo-Scots island, the Protestant Reformation took hold.  On the English side it was to side with the Kings and Queens.  On the Scots side, after a brief flirtation with Mary’s French version of Catholic, the people went to a stony, resistant, practically bulletproof Calvinism.  Their disciplined asceticism has come down through my family (until recently) in a strange form: no smoking, no drinking, no big spending on luxuries (spectacles and fountain pens are okay), but no church.

In Ireland the Jesuits brought God and syncretism: pre-existing Celtic saints and festivals simply turned “green.”  One by one the priests endeared themselves with personal relationships and support to the needy, just as the Jesuits did among the Blackfeet, even going to far as to travel with them in war and hunting parties.  But back in Washington, DC., where the Roman notion of top-down authority and land allocation dominated, the Blackfeet reservation (now marked out on a map) was assigned to the Methodists.  In truth, in the Sixties, the Methodist church and the Presbyterian church (which folded into the Methodists during the Depression) were for the whites, the mixed bloods, and the dissenters.  The style differences have persisted in spite of pastors who were diligent in their work for all people there and a mass exodus of the white people since the Sixties, leaving their mixed-blood children.  
Lockley Bremner, Pentecostal pastor

Today both Catholics and Methodists honor Blackfeet ceremonies, but maybe not the deeper underlying “tectonic plates.”  In those spiritual realms it is probably the Pentecostals who have absorbed the old prairie tribal “felt concepts.”  But to be honest I should go visit them to see for myself.  I do slightly know some of the pastors.

When we look for the “Others” it is often true that we meet ourselves.  Maybe that’s what we were looking for anyway or maybe it makes us blind to anything different.  I do have the feeling that my blood relatives on both sides have gone “English” while being back among the Blackfeet has let me stay Celtic.  But I hope that leaves me in the “borderlands” along both sides of Hadrian’s Wall, and therefore able to see both sides.

Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland

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