Saturday, November 15, 2014


by Stephen Paul Judd

When I listened to reservation Blackfeet talk about their lives -- I’m thinking about people I talked to the Sixties, which is half-a-century ago and therefore different from now -- there are two phrases that came up again and again.  “What I had to go through” and “I couldn’t take it anymore.”  One is active, going through, and one is passive, taking it.  No one ever said, “I had to act, to do something about it.”

To survive on the prairie before Europeans came was one thing -- or maybe two things.  One was assertive, a matter of hunting or making a war raid or gathering berries and camas.  The other was passive, hunkering down.  The secret of survival was knowing which worked when.  In June is the time of gathering for Sacred Celebration.  In January is the time of letting the blizzards pass overhead.  

After the Euros really took charge, after the buffalo were gone, the balance of survival went to passivity.  Many had died.  (Smallpox was the Ebola.)  Survival in the grief and loss was about tenacity, determination, endurance.  Those who went through it survived.  Those who really couldn’t take it anymore are gone.  There were many situations that exceeded anyone’s capacity to “take it.”

In times like this last week when the temps went way below zero with not much snow cover, the People rolled up in their buffalo robes and slept as much as they could.  The old people lay alongside the children and told them the Winter Stories to keep them quiet and reassured.  One doesn’t tell the Winter stories in Summer, because then they won’t be new to the little ones just beginning to realize.  But one repeats them so that as the children grow older, they learn them well.  If the food ran out while Spring was still far away, the old people ate less and less.  Some starved.

The situation today is not so very different except that the limits are set in different places and require slightly different strategies.  The biggest difference is that things keep changing now from day to another, one decade to another, one family to another.  In the buffalo days there was a sameness to life, a predictability, so that practices and expectations could develop that worked almost all the time.  Mostly the People in a group were actual relatives and Others didn’t generally arrive in overwhelming numbers.

This horse was rescued.

Reservations have been as tangled in politics as a horse that has somehow run into coils of barbed wire.  All attempts to escape end up cutting, blood-loss, greater shock and damage.  No one has quite seen how to get past that.  Partly I’m sure the reason is that outsiders and alienated insiders have found it to their advantage to control what happens, to let the other guy’s horse die in order to improve the value of one’s own.  To let the whole range become overgrazed rather than reduce or control one’s own herd.  To let one’s horses stand in the highway rather than find the money and energy to fix the fence.  

But it’s worse than that.  There are powerful forces that want to keep rez people hungry, needy and drunk so that they are easy to manage, to divest of their resources.  Subtly, often using rez people as cat’s paws, and sometimes ready to resort to violence, they may come from either the underculture or the overculture, both of which are organized and motivated.  They come from outside and will go back to outside.  Wherever that is.  Where is that?

Now comes a new force, the children of the people who grew up with pictures of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and Jesus hanging on the wall.  To these new children, the ones with access to the outside world -- first with the giant parabolic dishes for cable TV and now with pocket smartphones for the Net -- the great symbol has been the Earth itself as expressed in music.  Sting and Willie Nelson don’t hang on the wall, they show up for the major concerts and rallies.  Along with the Pan-Indian movements like international pow-wows and United Nations attention, the worlds of “indigenous” and “autochthonous” and the revival of their languages and skills, have created a new voice for the young -- part rap, part drumsong, part jazz, part rock ‘n roll. If the Middle East and China join this movement, the shift will be major.  “Could be,” as Richard Little Dog always said when we asked him something.  Already happening on MTV’s “Rebel Music.”   Eat your heart out, TED talks.
Supaman, Fancy Rapper

Even more raucous and powerful,  A Tribe Called Red won’t admit into their concerts wannabes who show up in mascot or Halloween versions of Indian costumes.  Easy on the turquoise, boys.    These are the breakers of the glass wall.  They know it, they do it carefully (in both senses), and it works.

We had profound cold this past week -- and I know there were Blackfeet families who suffered again, although I hope not as much as the first week of December last year when families had to leave their homes because they couldn’t afford enough heat to stay.  Maybe this year the money went to pay gas bills instead of sending some gasbag to Hawaii.

 East slope wind arch

Tonight there will be wind, the much-praised legendary Chinook.  The weather man counts 13 millibars of pressure differential between the Canadian border and the Montana state capital.  The wind is already blowing in Calgary.  This is the way change starts: the differential between the ideal and the real gets too many millibars apart and then it’s irresistible.  What snow is on the ground will begin to fancy dance and it can be blinding, but this is what moves snow off the ridges so the animals can graze and into the coulees where it will stay until summer so the fishes can spawn.

Tatanka Means, son of Russell

The majority of these new Pan Indians are city people.  Relocation is what they had to go through and it wasn’t easy.  The government moved them into the cities, but then dropped them into free-fall of poverty and confusion.  But they DID go through it and now they don’t say,  “I couldn’t take it anymore.”  They say,  “We’re not taking it anymore.  We're taking back our lives.”  What surprised them was that when they began to celebrate themselves in unity, others tried to join them.  Awkwardly, raising many questions, not really understanding -- but they were there and they were moving.  

Moving is what Indians do.  They are nomads.  That is not random wandering.  It is circulating according to what season it is.  Now is the season for fancy-dance-rapping.  It keeps you warm.  It brings people together in celebration.

by Teri Greeves

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