Saturday, February 21, 2015


Narcisse Blood

To people away from here and even to people who are here, there is a tendency to think about “Indians” or “aboriginals” as all one thing, one type -- maybe good and maybe bad.  There are some who define them according to white academic anthropologies and some who see them as assimilated.  Few are equipped to see a category that is at the boundary between the past and the future, not as a point of division, but as a line of meshing, interacting, extending.  Narcisse Blood was one of those people.  I am honored to have known him a little bit while he was alive and grateful that he can still be seen and heard at sources like YouTube.

Like Darrell Kipp, he was a traveler, an interlocutor, a practitioner of what the French call L'entretien infini” which goes on many ways in many places.  The key word here is “place.”  Narcisse was a man of Place in the most real and living sense.  But also note that this French phrase translates as “endless conversation” for which you need two people: these people were working in dialoging and collaborating pairs but also between populations.  

Some years ago Rosalyn LaPier and Darrell Kipp produced August seminars featuring Siksika scholars, another category many people just don’t register.  It was meant to increase understanding between whites and rez people.   One year Narcisse Blood and Ryan Heavyhead were invited to describe their summer’s work mapping the ancient trails and camping spots of the Nitsitahpi.  They did this walking, as the dog people did, using logic and empathy to figure out where a person would go, then employing GPS to mark the spots on the great dry sea of the east slope prairie, and then sending that info back to Red Crow College where computers recorded it on wide printed-out maps.

They were a little late, having had a bit of trouble at the border as usual, and made an entrance with us all sitting laughing at Darrell’s corny jokes.  Two handsome slim-hipped men, sun-dark, walking easy with their backpacks and wide-brimmed hats.  We were all smitten.  Darrell said,  “Welcome, my brothers.”  

These videos are about Narcisse and the other fatality, Michael Green, also a close collaborator.  

They (Narcisse, Ryan, Darrell) are “catch-fire” people, kindlers.  Narcisse was naturally a person of “oral culture” -- didn’t write much, but Ryan could handle the academic stuff, the pesky white man’s paper hoops.  The compromise was videography and the production of films.  Ryan called it being “artists of relationship” -- Narcisse said, “Let’s tell some stories together!”

At first glance these two guys might seem a mismatch.  Ryan is a martial arts standout who rehabilitates magpies and rescues rattlesnakes from their danger in an urban environment by taking them to the nearest rattlesnake community.  He always knows where they are.  These two guys were Power People, but it was the Power for Good.  Ryan's tribute video on YouTube, which includes memories from Ryan’s wife, a news account of the crash, and a direct address to Narcisse, might give outsiders some understanding.

My earliest trope as a traveling UU minister among congregations a hundred miles apart was that the land is a text which one “reads” by traveling across it.  This fits into the work of Narcisse and Ryan.  It also offers a way of understanding of death -- that it means “traveling on ahead” over a horizon, an edge we cannot see across.  We don’t know what’s over there.  Sand hills?  Another way of existing?  Yet we have the strong feeling that the people we love are not gone, just “away”.  

Several times I was on the highways around Regina for one reason or another.  Once in particular was in perilous weather, snow/ice/rain obscuring the windshield, the roadway slick, late at night, and my van heater couldn’t cope.  I had a little three inch porthole I could see out of and my passenger, an intrepid young woman, helped navigate.  More than that, when the three-inch hole shrank even more, I would pull over and she leapt out with a scraper to make the hole bigger.  We were on prairie, no settlement, no place to hole up and wait.  More traffic than anyone would expect, all of it moving fast.  

Later, on another perilous trip, this time passing the actual Sand Hills in thirty below weather, the van simply stopped because the air intake had frozen shut.  That time a mechanic relocated the intake over a hot part of the motor and it worked.

I don’t know the circumstances of this particular accident that ripped a great wound in the arts/indigenous/academic community of the prairie, but it was weather-related, they say, with all the implications of some superhuman force smashing into our lives.  It’s a waste of time to rail at the injustice and unreasonableness of it, but important to grieve a while.  Narcisse had already planted the seeds of replacement and transformation.

Down here in Piegan country there has been schism focused on the ceremonialist aspect of Siksika (Blackfeet/foot) life.  Some have seen that they could make money by going through the motions of Bundle Opening.  Others have lived the ceremonies through their families.  Both need to remember what Narcisse instinctively knew and Ryan has learned -- that the real source of human spirituality on the prairie is the land itself and one doesn’t make ceremonies real by attending a pricey workshop some weekend.  Rather one walks it.  Daily.

One of the signs of ancient encampments is a big patch of sarvisberries because the people would historically use that spot as a latrine and “plant” berries with their own bodily fertilizer.  It’s a bit funky to think about, but this is the way the world works:  recycling, renewing, surprising with consequences of long ago happenings.  

No need to dwell on it, but it’s good to look for parallels: old discarded practices -- perhaps unpleasant or maybe just not needed anymore -- that laid a substrate for something new and unexpected.  Before there are berries, there are flowers -- quite beautiful.  But where there are berries, there are bears.  Life is not all garlands.  Keep walking.

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