Thursday, May 28, 2015


Jared Diamond

“The World Until Yesterday” by Jared Diamond is the next book after his mega-popular “Guns, Germs and Steel.”  It’s about the traditional, nearly “pre-contact” peoples he has visited.
Karen Armstrong

“The Battle for God” by Karen Armstrong is about the Axial Age, the historical period from 700 to 200 BCE when the major “world religions” formed:  Buddhism, Hinduism, Confusianism, Taoism, and those troublesome Abramic monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  These two “book-ends” in time mark a period of thousands of years that were powered by agriculture, formed villages, but preceded math, science, industrialism.  Where I live, that period didn’t end until the 19th century.  This world-period has been fascinating in many ways.  I’m going to focus on the eternal human tension between the individual and the group.

I should say groups, because it becomes clear in Diamond’s book that even with only a hundred people in a tribe, each person is a node of what might be called social connectomes spun from genetics, friendship, working partnerships, accidents of wealth, and the mysterious factor called “love.”  Even after the big institutional, hierarchical, liturgical, book-bound religions had formed, the elements that were always present will re-form sub-groups, processes that push onwards through time.  We are beginning a period of connectome transformation: an internet overlay.

Cut Bank, MT, Masonic Hall

To Bob Scriver, religion in the sense of affiliated and therefore "special" men [sic -- women were sent over to Eastern Star] was defined by the Masons.  In Browning it was a filter for respectability (on their terms) that would accept assimilated and prosperous Blackfeet.  Even the occasional Catholic.  Bob was their chaplain, partly because he could play the piano and partly because his father and brother were members.  His second marriage collapsed, he had quit teaching because it was a misery, he hadn’t re-established a steady income, and -- as the saying here goes, he was "tom-cattin' around," so they threw him out.  He suffered from this rejection, which his father and brother agreed with.  Art was considered marginally wicked, or maybe just insane.  For the rest of his life he kept his Masonry book wrapped in silk scarves in his underwear drawer, that intimate place, and never turned against the group -- only the individual leaders who had wanted to punish him.

When he was accepted into the Medicine Pipe Keepers circle, it became his new Masonic Lodge with all the intensity of his earlier belonging.  He probably knew most of the Keepers better than the white shop-owners.   Their version of Bundle Keeping was regular bridge parties, where the women presented little tableaus of dessert on their card tables and the men indulged in a bit of brandy.  Bob despised them.

Pipe Keeper next to his Bundle, 1880 or so.

Being an individual apart from the main group is always problematic.  If one can stay in the group while maintaining individuality, that’s ideal.  If the groups begin to contradict each other or if the group focuses on punishing someone (scapegoating), the consequences force either a new creation (Scriver Studio) or destruction (the recent firing of two reliable family men in Valier for something they couldn’t control).

Diamond tells about several New Guinea tribes who have an informal set of rules about who can be attacked and killed and who must be treated as equals.  Relations must be protected, no matter how distant the family connection may be.  He gives us a vignette about two small groups of men traveling who meet and discover they don’t know each other.  They sit down on the trail and begin sorting families to see if there’s a tie.  Unfortunately, none comes to mind.  Finally, rather desperately because they don’t really want to fight, they discover that there is a man in the distant village group who has the same name as a man in the local group.  He’s not really related, but the coincidence is enough to work.  The groups go on their way peacefully. 

New Guinea

I heard a similar discussion about who was affiliated enough to authorize the painting of a tipi "skin." (Bob was the Keeper and, since I was with him at the time, so was I.)  In the end the connection was someone who “owned” (tipis are transferred like a Pipe Bundle) a yellow lodge, the same color as the one Bob dreamt about.  Since yellow tipis are relatively rare, this was connected enough.   (The main permission comes as a dream, the same as a Bundle.  In fact, this tipi had an accompanying Bundle.  The whole story is in "Bronze Inside and Out."  The twist is that it was a "badger tipi" and Bob associated badgers with his "pop," the loyal Mason !)

In Valier there is always a sort of tribal tightening-up in Spring among those whose ancestors were in the village group from Belgium who immigrated to be the core for a community of irrigating grain growers.  Genetic descent is strong.  A few families control much of what happens but they can’t prevent people from voting or refuse to serve them because they aren’t Belgian enough.  

Near Valier

So in Spring the filtering criteria becomes who keeps their yards up to what are imagined to be Belgian (white) standards.  Since those who don’t have pretty yards tend to be poor, negligent, old, absentee or drunk -- the village is small enough for everyone to know who they are -- it’s easy to pass a town law that says anyone who doesn’t keep their yard up will be warned with a registered letter (like being ticketed) and then the town will contract to have the yard mowed to their standards and the owner will be billed $100 or more.)

The reality is that negotiations go on that are under the table.  Relatives, popular people, and those with major health problems are simply not sent a letter.  One of the most neglected houses is owned -- but not much occupied -- by a town employee.  Someone decided to “crack down” on him a few years ago and the consequences were explosive, pitting the town lawyer against the employee union.  

In fact, a “new broom” town council was elected at one point and only lasted a few months because they refused to negotiate.  They were “good old boys” and all the resentment against that group surfaced.  The guys were blind to the emotional connectome -- they only saw their version of “facts.”  The last straw for them was realizing that if they made any mistakes that cost the town money, they would not be insured.

Near Browning

I’m only picking on Valier because the reservation connectome is too intricate for me to grasp.  Some of it is hidden, some of it criminal, some of it relates to romantic meddlers from other places (like California, back east, and even Germany), some of it is inspired by post-colonial ideas from the academic world, and much is controlled by laws and grants that are federal.   It all morphs constantly and some of these forces contradict each other.

For a quick instance, consider the treatment of armed services veterans, who are much honored on the rez.  When Montana put up a memorial dedicated to Montana veterans, they left off all the Indians.  This meant that the Mayor of Great Falls could join the protest that got the Indian veterans added to the “wall” by means of individual tiles.  

This was such a politically rewarding thing to do that no one investigated the blood quantum or actual enrollment of the individuals and no one raised a fuss about the eagle feather awarded to the Mayor in gratitude.  (It is illegal for a white man to own an eagle feather.)  No one has kept a register of all the eagle feathers awarded for various good acts, including those who went to the veterans themselves, so we don’t know where the feathers go after the veterans receive them.

Some white people welcome an eagle feather and a new Indian name, and become quite emotional about the actual ceremony.  A few assume that now they are a member of the tribe, not realizing that the tribe is defined by law and is organized on the model of the business corporation, meant to preserve and increase the value of the tribal assets, which are massive, hard to monitor, still under the control of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Individuals are lucky if they get an accounting.  This is what Eloise Pepion addressed.

Valier is about to find out over the next few years just how much federal laws and regulations affect them as well as the tribe: the subject will be water.  At present, most of the water issues are administered by the state.  Irrigation, sanitation, original (i.e. since white contact) water allotments, regulation of well-drilling are all involved.  People are getting indignant about frakking saline and chemical water that makes land useless for crops.

taken by Tristan Scott, the Missoulian

This is a line of thought that will be hard to manage and follow, but I’ll give it a shot -- at least around the edges.  Probably I’ll tell a lot of stories about Indians and Belgians. My bias is always towards the protection of individuals and the land itself.

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