Wednesday, September 16, 2015


An Easterner who knew nothing about "Indians" questioned the title of one of my short stories:  “Blood Quantum,” which was meant to be a fictionalized tracing of how the US Army originally tried to impose order on a population they had just “conquered” and were therefore obliged to record and feed.  (In modern times conquerers feel no such obligation.)  The People were lined up, their names written down (though these People had several names each without counting nicknames or translations and they belonged to an oral culture unacquainted with writing which is different from being illiterate in a writing-based culture) and that original list became the provenance (the genealogy) and fate of all the following generations.  They were LEGALLY  pure Blackfeet, no matter that there were Cree, even  enemy Shoshone, maybe a few Irish and several other categories on the list.

“Tribe” was a European concept and so was Nation.  So was “legal.” The People just traveled together, partly because of being related and partly just because they liked each other.  There was no boundary, as there is for the category called “citizen.”  The reader asked “quantum what?”  He’s used to hearing about quantum physics, I think.  We can only interpret new things via things we already know -- unless one has means of inquiry that opens both cans of worms and the sky after storm.  This guy will try to fit “quantum” into “genome” but basic blood types hadn’t even been discovered when the first list was made.

The biggest problem is the courage it takes to look at something that may challenge one’s assumptions, which is the basis of one’s identity and relationships.  Trying to go farther and deeper has destroyed a whole sequence of communities who thought they had it all -- including me.  The main thing I learned is that to learn some things will mean a death of illusion.  For instance, the more I learn about my family, so sure it was fairly virtuous and educated, is that it wasn’t.  This makes me unwelcome at family events, but there are few of them now anyway -- they’re out of fashion and I have never met the people under thirty.  Even the denomination that claimed it accepted everyone turned out to be as prosperity-worshipping and proselytizing as any others.

My terms of understanding are drawn from fields so far from what most people know that to them I sound like a stuttering idiot speaking nonsense.  (Blood quantum -- WTF?)  The assumption of our times is that people exist in friendship networks which they are proud to extend and which mean good commercial skews.  Prosperity and proselytizing in their devil’s bargain.

The first of my favorite two fields is methods of indigenous thought -- both by and about and inclusive of a number of “disciplines” like paleogenetics, cell morphology, disease and language patterns, neuropsychology -- stuff we’re just defining as we come capable of perceiving them.  The two main principles are that everything is related, even interwoven; and that everything is a process -- it’s all constantly changing in some random and surprising way.  Someone recently suggested that if we knew the genomes of everything, we could make the world be the way we want it: safe, luxuriant, and easy.    They haven’t understood anything.

The other field of method and awareness I’ve internalized is that of theatre.  Not just naturalistic portrayal of humans, but also the landscape and illusion projected on the kuppelhorizont of our minds, which means all the aspects of religion from the rigid and politicized “organized” religions to the drug-propelled visionary sensorium people sometimes call “spirituality.”  On the one hand, all this stuff is just a kaleidoscope of broken glass making patterns in a handheld tube.  On the other hand, it’s the only focus and meaning we have and we must hold on despite the tumbling.

Lou Diamond Phillips in place

Indians just seem so different.  Are they better or worse than us?  Should we imitate them or run from them?  By now isn’t their blood quantum so diluted, their cultural context so broken, their competence so challenged, that we ought to just dump the concept of indigeneity -- people shaped tightly to their location -- altogether?  Movies begin to be about the entirely pristine tiny groups in the Amazon forest who have never made contact with the larger world.  How do we know ANYTHING about them?  Should we send an envoy?  Sting? (To “help” them -- i.e. control them.)  In there somewhere is the hope that they really are magic.

I’m interested in the series called “Longmire” that’s based on a wagonload of procedural mysteries by Craig Johnson.  I was startled that our librarian dislikes the video series on grounds that it portrays tribal people as corrupt and avaricious.  It took me a while to understand that the show uses the point of view of actual "indians" and from the tribal point of view right now people are obsessed with corruption among their own people.  So is the larger world, which makes the issue worthwhile.

Graham Greene in "Clearcut", an early Canadian film

Graham Greene in "Longmire", current

The fact that many roles are played by NA’s with chops means that there’s a “real-feel” that can be disconcerting.  I mean, watching Graham Greene’s career and personal life can be wrenching.  On the other hand, the idea of an old woman who is an authority and a mystic at the same time, is absolutely convincing when the battered hat and impossible shelter belong to Tantoo Cardinal.  Lou Diamond Phillips is plainly at the heart of all the plots, sometimes more than the sheriff.

I haven’t talked to any local tribespeople about these things.  The ones under thirty or even forty are nearly indistinguishable from small town whites, all wrapped up in  music and celebrities.  The ones with whom I used to discuss these ideas are dead -- not long ago.  They used to be travelers, widely-read, linked to people who knew things.  More political than anthropological.  It is lucky that I saw my solitary state coming and prepared for it.

But I’m disappointed in all cultures most of the time.  They’ve forgotten so much and refuse to learn anything at all.  The movement called “political correctness” has created much evil with their idea that people can only speak for people just like themselves.  Instead of creating an even playing field it has opened a litigious abyss.  Publishers and producers are afraid of such poison -- it costs money.

Australian and Filipino = contemporary American West

Theatre teaches me to enter other people, to feel their spines in my own back, to look out through their eyes. There is so much stored in people of the land, even now, but not for much longer.  Not because they are disappearing but because their land is disappearing, industrialized, poisoned by agriculture, and now dried and burnt by cities sucking up every resource.  The cities make the laws, the cities still want us numbered, recorded, controlled.  The cities are the Matrix.  They know nothing, John Snow.


Renee Nejo said...

My name is Renee Nejo, i'm creating a game about blood quantum, and i'd be interested in speaking with you further about this if you are interested. thank you for your writing this piece.

Renee Nejo said...
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Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Hi Renee, I looked at your blog and was impressed! Sure, blood quantum is an important topic -- not just for Native Americans -- but with major legal implications for NA's. A game sounds like a great idea. There are so many problem that could be explored much better if more options and angles could be generated and it sounds as though a game might be a good way to do that!

I'm "in the phone book" for Valier, MT.

Prairie Mary
Mary Scriver
Valier, MT