Wednesday, September 03, 2014


“Stick game,” sometimes called “Bone Game,” is a sleight-of-hand gambling game played between two teams.  They used to kneel in front of two parallel logs with space between, but now too many people have trouble with knees so they sit in folding chairs.  It is a game much, much older than chairs.  In fact, two stones found in a extremely ancient cave on the Pacific coast of Africa seem to be markers for playing this game.  This vid will probably explain it better than words can.  The sticks are of two kinds of uses:  one is to keep the beat going on the logs and the other is to keep track of the scores.  You’ll see in this vid that hand drums sometimes beat along with the pounding sticks.  The actual skill is in the “psych-out” manipulation of two bone sections, one marked and one not.  The idea is for one side to guess where the marked bone is, while the opponent moves it around, hides it, passes it, whatever misdirection the player can come up with.

The materials that are put on the ground in the middle are the bets.  I’ve seen sacks of cash or deeds to ranches.  The video talks about games at funerals in which the family bets their best possessions.  The game teaches NOT to hang onto belongings but to keep them moving through the community.  

By contrast Bingo, beloved in many low-income places, teaches acquisition.  The prize is always money and it is always a game of chance.  The only skill is keeping track of the squares of numbers on cards.  Some people can operate a lot of cards at once.  But Stick Game is more like Poker, in that there’s a lot of skill and bluffing involved.  Stick Game is a team game, not played by an individual but, in a way, a sedentary version of Basketball.

Pick-up-sticks is a game in which a handful of slim sticks are let fall in one spot so that they make a tangle, like a beaver dam.  The skill then is to pull out individual sticks without collapsing the pile.  The person who can pull out the most sticks wins.  This is a game for writers.

Now comes the switch.  I’m using the game metaphor to talk about Native American writing.  I’m going to try to pull out notions about NA writing, one at a time.  First, a quick run-through of the history of the genre.  The earliest had to be told to literate (white) people because there was no “writing” as the Gutenberg and goose quill crowd knew it, though some quickly learned to read the Bible and Benjamin Franklin had helpers who were native Americans.  Then there were “captive stories” about children or women who became part of tribes.  They were meant to be tales of horror and fear, but often the longing for that life came through.  That early ambivalence has carried through to the present time:  those who write about terrible savagery and those who write about the rewards of tribal life.  

Everything that happens in “white” life over the years gets echoed in literature about indigenous people, including all the things that happen in “black” or even Asian life.  In fact, what is unique about autochthonous people, taken tribe by tribe, is often lost.  Indians get mushed together in a big blob, Pan-Indianism, where the competition and politics begin to dominate and distort personal experience.  People often ask me about the Blackfeet,  “What do the Indians think?”  about some issue or other.  And I have to say, “Which Indians?”  since there are as many ideas as there are Indians, plus a few more.  Anyway, there’s no use trying to tell them what the Indians think because outsiders already think they know what an Indian is and what Indians think.  Which is remarkable, since the Indians themselves are not sure what they think and, anyway, it depends on what’s happening.

Vine Deloria, Jr.

Mostly, like everyone else, Indians FEEL more than they analyze.  They get angry and violent, or at least argumentative, and there’s a lot of satisfaction in that, but by now the AIM strategies of confrontation and guerrilla stunts have mostly brought down trouble and stigma.  Vine Deloria, Jr. was protected by his church and Ward Churchill was not protected at all because of his genetics.  Publishers gave up on Indian writing: too much trouble.   But most tribal people or even individual Indians in the diaspora, are very much afraid of covert politics.  Not the whiteman politics, which are usually only about money and access to natural resources, but the hands-on local politics of jobs, grants, housing and personal safety.

Ward Churchill

Indians don’t necessarily hate everything Euro.  The Catholic church has been very successful on reservations and so have the Pentecostals because both of them understand feeling and both confront poverty, disorder, abuse, stigma -- though to go so close in confrontation is to risk being drawn into the patterns.  Both are based on the idea of reform, forgiveness, inclusion and going forward.  Pentecostals are better at developing indigenous leaders, but the Browning Methodists have just been assigned an NA pastor, albeit from the SW tribes.

The real elements of tribal life are the nature and connections of families, many of them braided together from historical elements like becoming American warriors (actually, Indians fought in every American war, including the War for Independence) the relocation of people to cities after WWII, the government boarding schools that were one source of the Pan-Indian movement and the mixing of tribes, and even something so seemingly small as IAIA -- the Institute of American Indian Art where ideas take the form of felt images instead of words.  Every inclusion, every exclusion, every mixture, gives rise to new ideas and styles.  Most white people aren’t aware.

The Institute of American Indian and The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) 

Of course, every stigmatized minority develops an underground culture, partaking of the illicit, the illegal, the down/low.  Then the pre-existing networks of global criminality surround and convert it to their own uses.  I’m talking about drugs, but also about oil.  Much of the culture gets attuned to that:  secrecy, threats, diversions like gambling, drinking.  Eric Berne game theory like “uproar,” “rape-o” and “now I’ve got you, you SOB.”  This is rich territory for writing.  I would argue that game theory ought to be taught in lit classes.

Instead, much of contemporary academic literary life is focused on the New Yorker type story about a subtle shift of feeling, often having to do with depression or social paralysis (if those are two different things).  At the same time, the misery voyeurs can always get off on revelations of suffering imposed on the innocent (if there are such persons as innocents).  They don’t realize that in a rural place -- where people are trying to escape stigma -- confession and revelation can signal vulnerability and have major consequences in the real world.  Hiding is often a matter of survival.

Anthropology has spread out into a great delta of approaches and sub-disciplines that on the one hand express a concern for propriety, “rightness” and ownership -- though the great flow of culture will not allow anything to stay the same over time whether it’s sacramental or not -- and on the other hand a particular interest in the strange and transgressive, which taken out of context is just another source of stigma.  Except that for some it becomes a refuge, a legitimation of something that in the mainstream justifies hatred.

Franz Boas, anthro elder

I used to say that my English classes had “sunburned souls” meaning that if any sensitive phrases or implications came along, they reacted as though I’d just inadvertently put my hand on a blistered back, “red skins,” that hurt so much it made them scream.  Some masked and others tried to make me hurt as badly as they did. Both succeeded. That carries over into writing and public presentation of writing.   It dangerous for me to even point it out.  My sticks have collapsed now.  But I always knew that writing and teaching were dangerous.

I will print legitimate comments but the Great Indian Flame Wars of the Internet have pretty much passed.  In Valier most people won’t even know what I’m talking about -- they barely notice that my lips move -- but I make it a policy not to drive at night.  So which hand is holding the marked bone? 


northern nick said...

. . . might it be the distinction contrasting writing with speaking: one ephemeral, the other concrete (intangible/tangible)? That with writing, you can't take it back, explain it, or deny it? It is its own piece of existence, with a genesis/source that always leads back to you, the writer. No hiding once its been released into existence.

With Hand Game, the Native American Game of Power and Chance, "ya lay yer money down," maybe your prize saddle, eligible daughter, band bundle, family honor, or any other currency, before others -- publicly -- as a profession of faith in your ability to connect with the larger forces governing that which is beyond your individual control (choosing the right bone), that mercy will shine upon you, and your world not be turned upside down. That, what little control you have can somehow intercede and speak to the superconciousness of the collective earth-mind, to caress an acknowledgement of your existence from the elemental life-force, that this time you may have your way. Seems a lot like writing to me.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

I have a hunch that oral lit was once much more like written lit, because people "wrote" on their own mind and memorized the specific words as unchangingly as possible. And now oral lit is returning because it is recordable on vids and CD's. It has rejoined song, like the troubadours.

You make an excellent analysis of "luck," which may be a lady but a lady goddess -- we know how jealous they are!

Prairie Mary