Monday, July 07, 2014


Great Falls is a barracks town -- the headquarters for Malmstrom Air Force Base which has been a center for Minute Man missiles and F-15 fighters but is now transitioning to big C-130 transports.  This will probably change the local combat under-metaphors of conflict and domination to metaphors of conveyance and endurance.  I will be interested to see how this shows up in the local media.  I hope it changes local driving, as my quip has been that half the drivers on the industrial through-street (10th Av S)  are jet pilots and the other half think they are.

At the moment the remnants of the “extreme fighting” mentality is lingering in the ads for boxing and cage fighting.  Big tough guys love to watch other big tough guys fight, I guess, getting safe adrenaline from their empathy connection, vicarious trauma.  Little wimpy guys, kids, and gals the same, though there are female extreme fighters.  It’s a practice easier to understand among grownup soldiers, but it doesn’t stay there.  The worst case scenario happened in Cut Bank a few years ago when adult men were setting up fights between boys and betting on them.  (I’m not saying the high school coach was involved, but he was described as a “red meat” coach -- that is, pushing for achievement at any cost.)  It’s an oil town, a border town, a just-off-the-rez town.  Lots of drinking, probably meth.

Interestingly, the prime sport on the rez next door is basketball -- skill and speed, not trauma.  A different culture.  They have to be talked into football.  Track is more appealing.  Pre-contact northern plains Indians had no alcohol nor any other mind-altering substances (peyote was in the SW) and so they made an art form of controlling consciousness through internally generated stress chemicals, usually triggering them through ordeals of starvation, pain, exposure.  Since such forces were part of ordinary life as nomads in a harsh climate, ceremonies of ordeal were suited to teaching endurance and persistence crucial to survival.  Some of these practices have appealed to outsiders and been recounted and recreated by modern people.

They must be done carefully.  The old people had evolved precautions.  Sweat lodges will kill if they are covered with tight plastic tarps or if the group is too big for the people to monitor each other.  There are sweat lodges for physical purification and (contemporarily) for therapy and some that include women, but classically among the Blackfeet (I’ve been told), the integrated key part of the sweating was prayer and song. I expect drums were not at their best in that context of heat and humidity.  More likely they used rattles on rawhides or even sticks on a log to keep the heart beat rhythm going. The women would sit just outside, partly to keep the fires burning so the orderly could heat rocks, carrying them in to renew the steam, but the women also acted as monitors.

Solitary fasting in a high place for long enough to evoke hallucinations has become famous as a “vision-quest”.  The youth had a “spotter,” often a relative like an uncle, and went up into the Rockies or the Sweetgrass Hills where he built a small stone enclosure almost like a bathtub, just high enough to keep wind off and also to mark where he intended to stay.  He might plant small flags or feathers on sticks at the four corners.  These stone structures can still be found as proof of ancient ceremonial use.  The tending relative left the youth alone but because fasting and thirst are dangerous, he checked now and then.  One story is about a father, a pride-ridden man, who wanted his son to fast and thirst longer than any other.  So he didn’t check on his son soon enough and when he went up finally, the son had been replaced by a small bird.

When all the people came together for the Sun Lodge and maybe Bundle Openings or Giveaways, the serious center of the performance was an ancient virtuous woman who fasted for several days in a dark lodge as her part of the ordeal. In modern times the moral center of this ceremony has moved so it’s become a kind of pride to be chosen to fast, but the virtue part has gotten blurry.  There are rumors of cheating.  The virtue and suffering of the woman, like a medieval saint, is meant to save the group, not make her more important.


The ordeal that has caught the fancy of daring young white men has been the attachment of thongs to the breast or back by using small wooden skewers to pierce skin and muscle.  Then the thong is attached to the top of the center pole of the Sun Lodge and the applicant dances, leaning back and staring into the sun in the sky, until the skewers tear through and drop him to the ground.  The people stay back in a circle around him and what may be several thonged dancers.  There is song and the blowing of eagle bone whistles as well as the drums.

How long it takes depends upon how deeply into the flesh the skewers are set, which depends on the judgment of the managing officiant about how much the person can bear.  It’s possible for a hostile officiant to set them so deep that it will take days to tear them loose, and friends or relatives will try to shorten the torture by adding their weight.  Damage can be real and lasting.  It’s also possible to set them just under the skin, so that damage will be slight and the pain will be short.  But the admiration will be weaker.

The Vision Quest, as the solitary fasting ordeal is called, is generally a rite of passage undertaken by a young man looking for his identity.  The Sun Dance was usually a pledged sacrifice in order to save a loved one.  The last ones I knew about were to redeem the life of a mother whose health was suffering.

"Ground Grappling"

Extreme fighting in back alleys might be seen as a rite of passage if older men were not there to exploit them.  Extreme fighting ordeals can be in cold blood, dehumanizing.  Gambling means no dedication to a higher purpose, no allegiance to a cause, just violence-based greed.  (The boys suffer the violence, the men enjoy the greed.  Personally, I see football as a version of that.)  

Hollywood Berzerkers

Others truly enjoy their own ability to beat someone down, like the brothers who would wait outside bars in Cut Bank in order to find an alcoholic old ranch hand they could pound on.  Or like the young thugs who will look for gays or drunks to beat to death on lonely roads or in dark alleys.  (Women don’t count.  Too easy.  Beneath contempt. Fit only for domestic outbursts.)  When such people get into the police or the armed forces -- or more likely, private armies -- they are what the old Blackfeet considered human grizzly bears.  The Norse called them Berzerkers.

Leather S/M

These days everyone is used to the term “S/M” and throws it around as though they were veterans of the practice or aficionadoes, shallowly sophisticated.  Most of it is just more pop preening.  (Yesterday "alpha," today "co-dependent", tomorrow "narcissist", etc.)  I am interested in only one sub-category, which is the version of painful and erotic intimacy described by Geoffrey Mains.  The rest leaves me cold, but there’s something about this specific context -- often semi-military or connected to motorcycle clubs -- that is almost mythic.  I’m not going to describe the practices.  I’ve never done it nor witnessed it -- only read.  Not even photos.  I will have to think a lot longer to write anything useful about it.  But it was intimate, erotic, extreme ordeal between equals though one was designated “top.”  Did you read about the mice with fight-cells side-by-side with lust-cells, turned on and off with fiber-optics? 

Ordeals are always carnal, like crucifixion.  There are people who arrange for themselves to be crucified.  There are groups who connect each other with fishhooks set in their flesh, like Sun Lodge skewers, and then pull against each other until they tear free.  People talk about serotonin. 

In the background is always the shadow of torture, cold-blooded, political and often unjustified.  Being born in 1939 means growing up with accounts of both holocaust atrocities and Japanese/Korean mind-wracking.  Not combat.  But still physical.  Compelling mystery of suffering.

1 comment:

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Another point of view on fight clubs.